By Jason Nahrung
This article was originally published in the Courier Mail, Saturday March 20, 2004, and went on to win the William Atheling Jnr Award for Criticism or Review in the 2005 Ditmar Awards
VAMPIRES and werewolves battle for supremacy on the streets of a modern city. Hugh Jackman faces Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster in Van Helsing.
Even metal shock-rocker Rob Zombie has secured a theatrical release for his splatter flick The House of a Thousand Corpses.
Yes, there’s horror aplenty at the movies these days, whether the slick Gothic style of Underworld or the more basic thrill fest of the slashers like the re-released and remade classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Now two Australian anthologies, Southern Blood and the international compilation Gathering The Bones, have been nominated for international horror awards, as has Victorian K.J. Bishop’s debut novel, The Etched City.
Can this be a sign the tide may be on the turn; that bookshelves, too, will again be dripping with screams and chills and supernatural spooks?
Probably not, for it seems the horror-viewing public and the horror-reading public are, generally speaking, not related.
Bones British editor Ramsey Campbell sums up the consensus when he says: “I don’t think there’s any necessary link between the popularity of a genre in different media. They go in different cycles.”
But the anthology’s Australian editor, Jack Dann, says the fact that the anthology was noticed is a victory in itself.
“Our aim with Gathering The Bones was to have the genre seen by a larger audience thanks to it being put out by a major player (HarperCollins), to reach an international audience, and it’s starting to bear fruit now.”
Bones was released this month in paperback, but it will nestle on a lonely shelf in most bookshops, dwarfed by crime and the powerhouse fantasy sections.
Some argue, convincingly, that it has always been thus: horror is a niche market, except for that brief moment of glory in the 1980s when Stephen King’s phenomenal success energised the genre, which all too soon drowned in the resultant glut of modern penny dreadfuls.
The legacy of that tide of pulp remains. The H-word is not to be uttered, except at conventions where “Whatever happened to horror?” is a frequent topic of panel discussion. That discussion will be renewed next month at Australia’s national speculative fiction convention in Canberra.
Brisbane writer Kim Wilkins is one of the panellists. Although her books have included ritual murders, ghosts and a nasty hunter of fairies, she shuns the horror title.
“I don’t call myself a horror writer. People think that means skeletons with eyeballs, the real pulp/splatter stuff. I like to think I do something finer and more feminine,” she says.
And she does, working in a similar vein to Anne Rice’s mix of gothic atmosphere, supernatural occurrences and romanticism.
“Dark fantasy is a category they use in the US and UK — that’s how my books are published,” Wilkins says. “It hasn’t really taken off in Australia yet. Bookshops aren’t sure where to put Neil Gaiman, for instance. That title, in my opinion, is a clear sign that people are trying to get away from the `horror’ label because of the bad associations it has. Dark fantasy is a thriller with magic or other worlds.”
She says publishers are nervous about the horror tag because margins are small and the audience already soaked up by the big names such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz.
Another Canberra panellist, Sydney’s Robert Hood, who has an anthology of ghost stories (Immaterial) and the Shades series of young adult horror titles to his name, agrees.
“In Australia the publishers are not doing horror as such — and even in the States it is very low-key. The profile of big-name horror writers from overseas has fallen drastically — they seem to be marketed more as thriller writers these days, or just as `blockbusters’. And no replacements have appeared as far as I am aware — new writers, sure, but not blockbusters. Major horror magazines are virtually non-existent, here and overseas. The smaller `speculative fiction’ magazines such as Aurealis do publish horror, however.
“At the moment if you’re a horror writer in Australia, you have to deal with the small press, make difficult overseas sales, or disguise your work as a mainstream thriller/drama. Or write for young adults — where there does appear to be some movement.”
While Australian small press titles will publish a well-written horror yarn, there seems to be just one dedicated to dark, pulp stories. Run by Sydney writer James Cain, Dark Animus has a print run of 200, with four editions a year.
The first four issues have sold out, with number 6 due out next month.
Cain founded the magazine in 2002.
“As an emerging writer, I found that there were limited places where I could get published. Many small press magazines are produced in the US, especially in the horror genre, but there are very few in Australia,” he says.
Cain is not alone in his quest to foster horror writers, with a move to establish an Australian branch of the American-based Horror Writers Association moving closer to fruition.
Says founding member Marty Young: “The one thing we are trying to do is remove the stigma that goes with writing horror. We want to show that horror writers are people who take their craft seriously and professionally. People get a thrill out of being scared, not necessarily being grossed out, but frightened by things they know cannot harm them in reality.
“Horror doesn’t have to be violent or disgusting or bloody; all it needs to do is to create fright in the reader.”
Part of the problem with talking about the horror genre is defining it: Horror means different things to different people, and the mere presence of weird creatures or supernatural events doesn’t necessarily make a horror story.
The Vampire Chronicles of Anne Rice, for instance, which have spawned two movies: horror, dark fantasy or gothic fantasy? Buffy the Vampire Slayer: horror, or teenage angst in an analogous supernatural setting?
The line is blurry. Alison Croggan’s novel The Gift was nominated for both fantasy and horror novel of the year in the 2002 Aurealis awards, and Brisbane’s Chris McMahon had a short story nominated in both fantasy and horror sections.
While horror elements might be included, it is more the author’s intent that determines the marketing tag, and marketing tags will twist and turn to avoid the H word.
So Laurell K. Hamilton’s interminable series about the vampire hunter and necromancer Anita Blake can be sold as supernatural thriller or even as supernatural romance, and Perth’s Stephen Dedman can have his Shadows Bite novel, involving magicians and vampires, labelled magic noir.
There is even a niche for romance writers who specialise in supernatural goings-on — a new take on the love at first bite cliche, perhaps.
For Cain, “Horror is writing that appeals directly to the reader’s primal instincts, whether to scare, shake your sensibilities, or simply to make you feel unsettled in your world. Science fiction appeals to the intellect, fantasy to your dreams, but horror cuts to the heart.”
Paula Guran, who organises the International Horror Guild awards which have shortlisted Gathering the Bones and Southern Blood, doesn’t see the ’80s as the death of the genre but a marketing bubble. Horror has continued to be published, and by major publishers. She points to the list of nominees in this year’s IHG awards, the 10th, which includes books by Random House, HarperCollins and Tor.
“How popular is it? First you’d have to define what ‘it’ is — and nobody ever has. Some recognise only fiction with supernatural elements as horror.
“Others consider the word to connote a certain set ‘type’ of genre fiction. Most people who comment on it have a much wider vision of what horror is. But there are no statistics to match any definition.”
The diversity of the genre is illustrated by the guild’s nominations for film, in which zombie flick 28 Days and murder mystery Mystic River are included, and television, which include vampire show Angel, funeral home drama Six Feet Under and Stephen King’s supernatural drama The Dead Zone.
In the introduction to Gathering the Bones is written: “Our intention was to present the familiar and the experimental, the traditional and the avant-garde, the quiet and the vividly shocking, in a field whose boundaries are no longer rigidly defined and where literary values coexist with the leading edge of popular culture. There is no need for a narrow, constricted theme to inhibit the imagination, for dark fantasy is truly an international fiction without limits.”
Horror, it would seem, hasn’t died, but continues to thrive and evolve in the shadows while continuing its exploration of the dark areas of human experience.
Says Hood: “I think that ‘horror stories’, however we categorise them, have always been with us and as a genre won’t go away — as the film revival shows.
“Literature as a whole is suffering at the present time, so it’s no surprise that horror writing has been pushed back into the niche where it came from.
“But it’s still there and reaches out now and then to bite the hand (or neck) of the unexpecting.”
Jason Nahrung is a Brisbane-based journalist, short story writer and author of the novel, The Darkness Within (Hodder, 2007). For more information, check out Jason’s website.