Recently I’ve heard, read, and participated in discussions of what to call this peculiar genre of ours, the one that many readers find so intriguing and exciting. Some aficionados refer to it simply by what many consider its primary component—horror, with (as noted on several panels I have served on) careful emphasis on the final syllable.
The name falls handily on the lips and offers an immediate guideline as to what readers might legitimately expect: blood and gore, the grisly and the gruesome, mayhem and monsters of all ilk. The name—along with the almost mandatory black cover—provides book sellers and book buyers a recognizable kind, directing both to the appropriate shelf, usually in the nether reaches of the store. On the whole, it serves as a handy moniker.
In some ways, though, horror seems a misnomer, a simplistic way to describe a complex kind of writing. If one were to state that Stephen King’s The Stand or Robert McCammon’s Stinger is horror, such a contention would be only partially true of those novels and would leave out hundreds of novels that do not resemble those two at all yet are demonstrably horrific.
Certainly alternative terms exist: dark fantasy, which I used frequently when addressing academic audiences that might have automatically bristled at the mention of horror; speculative fiction, which would undeniably include horror but which would also include much more; dark speculative fiction, which seems more to point out the difficulties in naming than resolve any of them; dark fiction, which would again include more than is conventionally intended by horror. Additional possibilities might include supernatural fiction, weird fiction, monster fiction, slasher fiction, and the cumbersome all-in-one of dark psychological suspense thriller. None of them define precisely the same approach to writing, and none of them quite work as a comprehensive identifier for this particular brand of writing. But then, apparently, neither does horror.
Using that single term as an umbrella label for such widely divergent novels as Stoker’s Dracula and Jeff Strand’s A Bad Day for Voodoo would be roughly equivalent to re-thinking The Lord of the Rings and simply calling it Frodo. Frodo is central to the key action, the destruction of the ring of power; and he does appear in a number of episodes, perhaps more than any other character. But as important as he is, his personal story cannot encompass the complexity of the whole. He does not destroy the ring, although he makes its destruction possible; he does not restore kingship to Middle Earth, although he does facilitate that restoration; he cannot fully redeem the Shire for himself after Sharkey’s depredations, although he makes possible Sam’s fulfillment as husband and father.
Similarly, to call a novel horror and expect it to provide horrors on every page would be like calling a play a tragedy and expecting the emotional intensity implicit in the term to show up in every line, every scene. Such a compression of powerful feelings would simply be too much; no audience would be able to endure it. Shakespeare was well aware of the unviability of constant, uninterrupted tragic power and consistently provided comic undercurrents to alleviate the strain...and paradoxically make the catastrophe that much more compelling, that much more cathartic. Hamlet without the grave-digger scene (as it is so frequently produced nowadays) becomes merely a litany of death without providing Hamlet the opportunity to first reconcile himself to its inevitability. Macbeth without the porter and his incessant “Knock! Knock! Knock!” devolves into a chaos of murder.
For all of these reasons—and no doubt more—a number of “horror” writers have chosen to set aside horror in favor of yet another alternative, referring to their works as cross-generic fiction.
The first time I heard the term was during a conversation with Dean Koontz some twenty years ago. He had graciously agreed to speak to one of my classes at Pepperdine, and afterward we talked at length about him, his writing career, and his books. I had brought along several for him to autograph and, when I opened Phantoms (1983) to the title page, he tapped it and told me that that one had been his “break-away book.” When I asked what he meant by that, he began discussing it, not as a horror novel but as his first conscious effort to mix and merge genres.
In a new afterword to Phantoms, he writes at length about precisely what he meant by that and how the novel affected his career: “Writing Phantoms was one of the ten biggest mistakes of my life, ranking directly above the incident with the angry porcupine and the clown, about which I intend to say nothing more.” The mistake, he continues, lies in the fact that that novel, more than any previous one, earned for him the label of “‘horror writer,’ which I never wanted, never embraced, and have ever since sought to shed.”
More to the point, he says:
I believe, however, that 95 percent of my work is anything but horror. I am a suspense writer. I am a novelist. I write love stories now and then, sometimes humorous fiction, sometimes tales of adventure, sometimes all those things between the covers of a single volume. But Phantoms fixed me with a spooky-guy label as surely as if it had been stitched to my forehead by a highly skilled and diligent member of the United Garment Workers union—making a far better wage than that poor bastard crocheting license-plate cozies.
Because his previous novel, Whispers (1981), had been marketed as horror and had been a marked success, his publishers pressured him to produce another in the same mold:
I thought I would cleverly evade their horror-or-starve ultimatum by making Phantoms something of a tour de force, rolling virtually all the monsters of the genre into one beast, and also by providing a credible, scientific explanation for the creature’s existence…. Phantoms would be a horror story, yes, but it would also be science fiction, an adventure tale, a wild mystery story, and an exploration of the nature and source of myth.
Phantoms does in fact provide a paradigm for cross-generic fiction:
· It has a monster; therefore it is horror;
· It has a developing relationship between two characters; therefore it is a romance;
· It looks directly to the past for information and themes; therefore it is historical;
· It has a lawman pursuing an evil-doer; therefore it is a police procedural;
· It has several chases, an apparent burglar, and missing jewels; therefore it is a thriller;
· It has a moment of hesitation before the monster is defeated—will it win or will it die?—and therefore the novel is suspense;
· It has a murderer and a victim; therefore it is a murder mystery;
· It has a scientist equipped with the latest cutting-edge apparatuses nudged slightly into the future; therefore it is science fiction;
· It has characters following clues to discover the underlying causes of an event; therefore it is detective fiction;
· It has a distinctive landscape, one recognizable to anyone familiar with the general area; therefore it is regional fiction;
· It deals with the disintegrating mental state of several characters; therefore it is psychological fiction;
· It persistently ties the story to contemporary life; therefore it is realistic fiction;
· It speaks of and through a sentience beyond human understanding; therefore it is a story about aliens, i.e., again science fiction;
· It points out occasions when the creature has interacted with humanity throughout history, imprinting itself on human memory as eternal and immortal and simultaneously sifting through human memory to find appropriate guises in which to appear; therefore it is mythic;
· It deals with characters that become larger than life and an enemy that potentially threatens the existence of all humanity; therefore it partakes of the epic;
· It has a dog in it (what self-respecting Dean Koontz novel doesn’t?); therefore it is dog fiction;
· It deals in philosophical abstracts; therefore it is philosophical fiction;
· It covertly affirms the existence of the Devil, and thereby of God; therefore it is theological fiction.
And on. And on.
Of course, much of what I just listed is intended to be taken at least partially as tongue-in-cheek. Each item is a single element in a long, coherent, unified novel; and none—including horror—deserves to be elevated into the sine qua non of the story. To do so would result in a much narrower book, in several cases something along the lines of a novella or a short story. No single item could control the story without much of importance being lost.
Yet to remove anything from the list would also lessen the novel. Phantoms is an enduring story—as well as a bestseller—precisely because Koontz took great care to include as many audiences as possible. Those readers approaching it looking for horror will be gruesomely pleased by graphic, nauseating, gooshy details in passages such as the following:
Blisters formed, swelled, popped; ugly sores broke open and wept a watery yellow fluid. Within only a few seconds, at least a ton of the amorphous flesh had spewed out of the whole….The great oozing mass lapped across the rubble, formed pseudopods—shapeless, flailing arms—that rose into the air but quickly fell back in foaming spasming seizures. And then, from still other holes, there came a ghastly sound: the voices of a thousand men, women, children, and animals, all crying out in pain, horror, and bleak despair.
For those less interested in the visceral, there is the intellectual excitement as the characters systematically anatomize their enemy—literally and figuratively—struggling to place it within some knowable taxonomy of creatures. For others, there is a marriage and honeymoon at the end, and the promise of a restored family unit.
In short, there is something for everything…for every reader, for every interest.
That is, I think, one of the strengths of Dean Koontz’ stories…and of King’s, and McCammons’, and great numbers of books by a great number of writers who are usually passed off as simply writing horror. By themselves, horror motifs may not be strong enough to carry the weight of a novel. Joined with elements of other kinds of fiction, horror becomes part of a deeper, richer texture that, by means of monsters-as-metaphors and horrors-as-emblems, come to reflect the parallel depth and richness of human experience.
Yet cross-generic fiction itself fails to encapsulate the essence of a kind of story telling that does have as its ultimate aim a physiological reaction, a frisson along the spine, a coldness in the blood, a hesitance to turn the lights off after reading late at night. Perhaps the term is too clinical, too objective to direct attention to one of the most passionate and in many ways the most subjective modes of storytelling. It almost demands an intellectualization that monster stories struggle to subjugate to visceral responses.
Is the term horror the best possible label. Perhaps not. Is it the most appropriate, given the alternatives? Perhaps not. But I think that until someone invents a shorter, crisper, more convenient and more appropriate label than cross-generic fiction, one that will indicate a similar interest in storytelling from numerous perspectives that still has the possibility to chill, it may have to serve by default.
[This essay was recently published in Dark Discoveries 27 (Spring 2014). Please look at the issue for more fascinating insights into horror and its practitioners.]