This article is about why I’m not giving up on horror.
I suppose that’s a curious kind of intro, but it actually comes in response to a question that I’ve been asked quite a lot in recent times: “You haven’t written much horror lately – are you done with it?”
The immediate answer is: “No, not really … though I’m a bit concerned that other skilled practitioners may be.”
I love horror as a genre … and no, I’m not going to get into the sticky spider-web issue of what exactly constitutes ‘horror’. We all have our own definitions of what horror is, and either it does it for us or it doesn’t, and no amount of persuasive argument will change that. But it’s easy to get disillusioned with any genre, especially when it’s something you’ve been working in for a very long time. Despite writers liking to believe otherwise, things do become stale, the well of ideas does occasionally run dry. But there are other issues here as well, issues which appear to be far beyond any of our control.
So many authors of my acquaintance are now leery of being referred to as ‘horror writers’ for fear that it will put an anchor on their career. And who can blame them, when what you’re talking about here is a field of endeavour which seems – in literary terms at least – to be reviled by all those who are not avid fans?
Of course, understanding this reticence to proclaim yourself a horror writer does not mean that you heartily endorse it. Let’s not kid ourselves, It’s a real drag seeing quality horror products make it to the High Street bookshelves but only under the guise of ‘dark fantasy’, ‘urban gothic’, ‘paranormal romance’, or ‘supernatural thriller’. I suppose in some ways it’s a good thing they’re out there at all, and maybe the fact that it’s that much harder for these books to find publishers these days is in some ways a positive, as it means that only the real quality will see daylight, enriching the reputation of the darker field of fiction despite all efforts by the literary establishment to sideline it. But that doesn’t help those for whom horror has abjectly failed to create a career. I know so many authors who, if they had been the age they are now back in the 1970s, would probably have retired from their day-jobs and have 20 or so mass-market novels on the bookshelves.
By the way, this is not going to be a dissertation on self-pity. Honestly, this is not about me – well, not totally. I personally have managed to make something of a paying career because, as well as writing horror stories and novellas, I have several other less-well-known but more lucrative lives – as a writer of TV crime in the form of The Bill, fantasy in the form of Stronghold, which I recently penned for Abaddon books (with another one to follow soon), and now Dr Who, in which cause I’ve written audio scripts for Big Finish Leviathon and a novel, Hunter's Moon, for BBC Books. Diversification was certainly the way to go where I was concerned, but it still bothers me a great deal that horror – which once was my first love – has given me so little return after so many years.
My horror work has been published fairly widely, including in seven different collections – After Shocks, The Extremist, (Stains, Ghostrealm, Groaning Shadows, Walkers in the Dark) and One Monster Is Not Enough. I’ve won the British Fantasy Award twice (for AFTER SHOCKS and for the novella, KID), and the International Horror Guild Award (for my short story, THE OLD NORTH ROAD). I mention this not to boast, just to illustrate that I think I’ve earned the right to have a little grumble – because, though on the face of it this seems like a roll-call of honours, the reality is that it hasn’t boosted my profile beyond the relatively small enclave of horror fans (though admittedly that’s larger than we might realise, once you add the international dimension).
It seems that the opportunities to sell horror in the British mass-market are horrendously restricted. But okay, let’s not over-egg it. I was probably loading the dice to suit my argument when I described my novel STRONGHOLD as ‘fantasy’ – it concerns druidic magic and is filled with flesh-rending, skull-cracking zombies, not to mention gallons and gallons of blood. If that isn’t horror, I don’t know what is – though to be fair, it’s set on the Anglo-Welsh border in an alternative 13th century, and in that respect is a far cry from my more conventional horror material. It would also be churlish of me not to mention that after two decades in the guts of horror writing, I’ve secured several movie deals – SPIRIT TRAP (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0419160/) was released to the cinemas in 2005, though I only ‘script-doctored’ on that, but THE DEVIL’S ROCK (http://thedevilsrock.co.nz/), a much more personal project, was launched at Cannes this year and goes on general release in the UK on July 8th. So it’s not all been a story of Poverty Row, though it’s important to remember that though horror movies are in apparent greater demand than horror novels, they tend to wear the mantel of ‘pot-boiler’; a good chunk of the horror movie industry appears to aim for quantity rather than quality, though this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some very fine examples of low-budget horror movies out there, and indeed it’s to the genre’s credit that so much of it is created with a realistic and non-self-indulgent price tag.
Anyway, the upshot of all this longwinded nonsense, is that I find it easy to understand the temptation so many writers now have to turn their back on the ‘big H’, or at least try to label it as something else. But you know what … I’m not going to do that.
First of all, I don’t reckon there’s a necessity for any of us to classify ourselves as ‘horror authors’ per se. In fact, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that you’re actually not being true to your calling as an author if you place yourself in so narrow a context. Even if horror novels sat at the top of the best-seller charts every month, we wouldn’t be doing our careers any long-term favours by telling everyone that we exclusively wrote horror. However, that said, I feel I owe it to the genre that first got me interested in writing to admit that, when I write a piece of horror, it’s a piece of horror – not a dark fantasy, not a supernatural mystery, not a vampire romance (as if!), etc.
I recently re-watched Mark Gatiss’s excellent HISTORY OF HORROR on BBC4, in which, though he concentrated on cinema, Mark extolled the virtues of horror in general by focussing on some of the finest examples of horror fiction that we know. No stone was left unturned in his search for the origins of grim and gruesome entertainment, at no stage did he hold back from using the ‘H’ word, and in so many ways he reminded me just what it is about spooky stories that has always rung my bell. It’s that delightful frisson of fear I used to get as a youngster when turning the lights down as a Hammer movie titles rolled across the late-night TV screen, or the sound of rain hitting my bedroom window as I shed dull lamplight on the first page of one of those wonderful horror novels of that era – THE EXORCIST, SALEM’S LOT, THE OMEN, THE WOLFEN …
For all these reasons, and many others, I don’t think I could ever give up on horror entirely. It’s certainly in my blood – as a very young child, my dad would thrill me with bedtime stories about the Gorgon and the Minotaur, Beowulf and Grendel, and so on – so I can’t just pretend it isn’t there. While I understand the angst that so many fellow writers are going through while seriously trying to project themselves into the literary mainstream, I urge them not to undersell the horror they do occasionally write, not even by calling it something else. By all means, let’s write thrillers as well, and adventure stories and high fantasy and historical romance and so on, but if on occasion it’s horror, let’s have the strength of our convictions, and call it that.
(Of course, if our agents and publishers have different ideas, well that’s another matter entirely – the tides of marketing are always beyond our control, though I don’t think it would hurt to fight our corner occasionally).
For more of my gibberish, and a few more details about my own projects, call in any time at: http://paulfinch-writer.blogspot.com/