King of the Horror
IF YOU'RE looking for the world's great horror writers, there's one name that's bound to emerge time and again.
Like an axe blade through a plywood door. Or an evil clown peering out from behind a sewer grate.
Few if any writers have had the sort of impact Stephen King has had," says Australian speculative fiction author (sci-fi, horror and fantasy) Rob Hood. "He's had an amazing career and did, in fact, change everything for the horror genre."
"King, undoubtedly, has influenced more modern writers than anyone else," adds Brett McBean, author of the upcoming Hume Highway-based horror novel The Mother.
"He was essentially responsible for creating the modern horror story – one which takes place in the real world of fast food, brand names and pop culture.
"He's one of the few authors who non-horror readers read, and created some of the scariest stories ever. No novel scared me as much as The Shining did."
Robert N. Stephenson, sci-fi author, literary agent and publisher of speculative fiction through his imprint Altair Australia Books, challenges the claim of "greatest": he distinguishes King as "the most popular" horror writer. As far as Stephenson is concerned, Australia's own Victor Kelleher is more deserving of the "greatest" mantle.
"I feel Kelleher is a most underrated writer," he says. "His book, Born of the Sea, is the best horror book I have read. Curiously it is a 'young adult' book, but it's very adult in its premise. Kelleher is a consummate writer – one I admire greatly – and is a wonderful discovery for younger readers who've graduated from Harry Potter-itis."
Lyn Battersby, an editor for speculative fiction magazines Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Ticonderoga Online, suggests a particular book's resonance can cement that author as a personal favourite.
Battersby esteems King's apocalyptic epic The Stand and obsessed fan thriller Misery highly, but finally settles on British novelist Daphne du Maurier as her personal choice for "greatest horror author".
"I read du Maurier's The Birds (famously adapted for the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock) nearly 20 years ago and it frightened the heck out of me," she recalls. "I tend to be more affected by psychological horror than paranormal horror.
"At no time in this book are we given a reason as to why the birds are suddenly on the rampage. We feel the protagonists' fear as they await news and help. Neither arrives."
McBean, whose "sentimental" favourite author is the late American master of pulp horror Richard Laymon, says 19th-century author Edgar Allan Poe is also high on his list.
"Poe's a masterful writer of the macabre; his prose is poetic and personal," says McBean. "He can create a sense of foreboding like no other writer I've read. A handful of his stories are instantly recognisable to even non-horror fans: The Pit and the Pendulum, The Murders in the Rue Morgue."
Hood points out that, on the other hand, it doesn't necessarily take a great horror author to write a great horror story.
"Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, in my opinion, one of the greatest horror stories ever written, superbly executed, with a resonance of theme and plot that is unsurpassed, and a metaphorical layering that has influenced the genre ever since," he says. "But Robert Louis Stevenson can't be considered the greatest horror writer."
Honourable mentions aside (early-20th-century writer H.P. Lovecraft and Frankenstein author Mary Shelley could be easily added to the debate), the conversation ultimately – inevitably – returns to King.
"King may not be the best writer in the biz," says McBean. "His writing can be bloated. But he's first and foremost a storyteller, and for that, there's none better."
"The fact King sometimes has trouble with endings or is undisciplined with words doesn't diminish the power of individual works," agrees Hood.
Merely popular or truly great: either way, it seems that King can rightfully retain his crown – at least for now.
HORROR DOWN UNDER
THERE'S no question: Aussie horror writers do it tough. For every Wolf Creek there's a setback, like the recent takeover of Lothian Books by Hachette Livre and the subsequent curtailing of Lothian's planned Dark Suspense adult horror series.
In recent years an assemblage of authors has been working to improve publishing opportunities. This push culminated in the formation of the Australian Horror Writers Association in Melbourne last year. The group has focused its efforts on bringing legitimacy to the genre.
Association president Marty Young says that while there are numerous markets for short horror fiction – some of which even pay reasonably well – getting a novel published or making an actual living by writing horror fiction is far different.
"One of the biggest achievements has been the development of a sense of community for writers," says Young. "There is a support network made up of professional and amateur writers, agents, editors and small press publishers, all willing to offer advice."
Now, the association has launched an official membership structure: "We're committed to improving opportunities for Australian horror writers," says Young.
"The sky's the limit – it just depends how far we want to reach – and we've got mighty long arms!"
Hachette Livre will publish four Dark Suspense books: Martin Livings' Carnies and Edwina Grey's Prismatic are out now; McBean's The Mother is due out in August and Jason Nahrung's The Darkness Within early in 2007.
As Appeared in The Courier Mail, Saturday July 29, 2006.
Melbourne-based Tim Kroenert is a 25-year-old professional writer, subeditor and reviewer, based full-time at The Salvation Army's national editorial department (flagship publication Warcry, www.salvationarmy.org.au/warcry).
He also writes regular film reviews for the online magazine Eureka Street (http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/), has worked as a freelance writer and book reviewer for the Brisbane Courier Mail, as a book reviewer for AS if! (http://www.asif.dreamhosters.com/) and as a music reviewer for the independent music site Forte Online (http://www.forte-online.com/).