A time-honored adage amongst writers of the macabre declares, “True horror is timeless.”
Things and ideas that scared us centuries ago still retain the same deep-seated dread our ancestors faced: anything threatening us that is beyond our understanding or our control. Whether this be a repulsive creature or a psychological fear of abandonment, loss, or death, certain fears are hard-wired into our collective psyche. For the most part these don’t change, nor do the means to incite those fears. What does change are the nuances of those fears and the tools to either reconcile or manipulate that which terrifies us.
Those nuances and tools are what interest me. Horror writers are faced with a litany of new technologies, social upheavals, changing belief systems, and scientific advancements to influence our writing. What will be considered cutting-edge tomorrow? What will be topical? Relevant? In vogue?
The publishing industry is changing, as are literary demands and reader tastes. And, like any creative enterprise, it’s easy to become stale or associated with antiquated ideas or clichés. I thought I’d explore some predictions about what I think horror authors will (and in some cases should) be writing about over the next decade. These conjectures are not directed at publishing or marketing strategies, but rather artistic subject matter. What will be the big genre-shifts, the future winners in pop culture, and what will be the moldy-oldie tropes that are buried and forgotten?
Like the weather, there’s no certainty in these forecasts, but if conditions continue, here’s what we might expect of where horror fiction is heading:
The Future of Horror Is in Pushing Boundaries
What’s been done already has been done well and done often. While audiences don’t mind encountering the same storyline executed in a fresh perspective or with a new “twist,” the writers most likely to find success will not be those content with cookie-cutter fiction, but those who strive to find new ways to scare their readers. This does not imply a rush toward gore and “torture-porn” (which I believe is experiencing a backlash that will likely continue), but rather challenging our beliefs, testing presupposed limits, and experimenting with original subjects.
The term “pushing boundaries” doesn’t have to offend people, but it means taking risks. Consider Gregor Samsa’s beetle transformation in The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka) and Winston Smith’s slow-build realizations in 1984 (George Orwell). Pushing boundaries also doesn’t have to be as abstruse as House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Authors like Tim Powers and Jack Vance have successfully bent genres and included unexpected elements in their storylines, mixing with abandon equal parts adventure, history, social theory, and the supernatural. When something is unexpected—and it works—that fosters the fun, the excitement, in writing and in reading.
Horror in Technology
Although using technology as a cautionary tale or as a mechanism for nefarious purposes is nothing new in writing, what keeps it prevalent and exciting are the modern advances that permeate our lives. Internet, cars that drive themselves, three-dimensional printers: What once was science fiction is now fundamental and ordinary. The machines of today and tomorrow provide unlimited new fodder in terms of consequence, advantage, or misuse.
Further, technology poses questions that writers are forced to address. Who now can suspend their disbelief when a character gets “lost” on a back road shortcut and there’s no explanation as to why they can’t call for help on their smartphone? Trying to research a riddle? It’s not like the pre-nineties, meeting characters in a wonderful atmospheric library scene; people today use Google from their home. The world is plugged into GPS, tracking, and remote presence. Looking for the next avant-garde horror idea? Start exploring the latest social media and virtual relationship web sites. The creeps will never end . . .
Technology also allows new usage as a medium for writing. Creepypasta posted a great story in mid-March about using Google Maps as an entirely new channel for a horror story (You can read it here.)
Environmental horror applies to any story in which an element of nature takes on a speculative aspect with potentially deadly consequences to humans, such as over-population, climate change, diminishment of resources, science gone awry, etc. Often the catalyst for tales of Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian Horror, this sub-genre promotes the greater good of environmental awareness and often serves as a platform for real warnings about misusing Earth’s resources.
Whether you agree or disagree with the debate over environmental concerns, these issues make headline news and incite conversation which, in turn, spurs creative ideas. Examples of environmental horror (AKA eco-horror) include: Hothouse by Brian W. Aldiss (1962); Garbage Man by Joseph D’Lacey (2009); and The Ruins by Scott Smith (2006). Be on the lookout for many more.
Elevation of Lovecraftian Horror and Influence
Creator of the Cthulhu mythos, author H. P. Lovecraft bred this sub-genre that chronicles “cosmic horror of the unknown.” Recurrent themes are guided by the belief that human minds cannot possibly comprehend the perilous mysteries of the universe which is, at its core, alien and malevolent. Frequent elements include protagonists who use science and logic to attempt to unravel these mysteries but then most often lose their sanity as the mysteries of the cosmos are too much for the human mind to comprehend.
Lovecraftian Horror has steadily been growing in popular culture over recent decades, particularly since the 1980s, and shows no sign of slowing. References to Cthulhu and “the Deep Ones” are found in movies, comics, video games, music, clothing, and more. Writers continue to turn out new fiction incorporating characters and ideas of this shared universe, and some of today’s most famous horror authors cite Lovecraft as a major inspiration, including Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, and Brian Lumley.
The transition from conversation of Lovecraft to the sub-genre of “weird fiction” is a natural progression, as the two styles have overlap. The difference is that Lovecraftian fiction tends to be pessimistic, dependent on atmosphere, and stresses fear that is in the absence of normality. “Weird Fiction” tends to cross several sub-genres and may blend psychology, the supernatural, and pure whimsy, though it often still presents a dark outlook.
A subset of Weird Fiction includes “Bizarro Fiction,” which is a growing cult classification encompassing elements of satire, absurdism, the grotesque, and pop-surrealism in order to create subversive works that are as strange and entertaining as possible.
The draw of weird and bizarro fiction is that it’s fresh. In an industry bloated with regurgitated ideas, these stories are stimulating and original, while at the same time still seeming very personal. Often experimental, the downside is that weird fiction can come across as artsy or bombastic at times; some of it’s brilliant, some of it’s dreadful. But what is evident is that this sub-genre is gaining traction within mass markets, particularly ebooks, and reinforces my belief that the future of horror is in “pushing boundaries.”
Some better known proponents of Weird Fiction include Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Laird Barron, China Miéville, and Simon Strantzas. A great source for your introduction to “The Weird” is here.
Familiar Monsters and Tropes
Another writing adage says, “Everything old is eventually new again.” When looking forward to writing trends, it’s also necessary to look back at history, as well as to understand “timing.” We see familiar monster tropes on a regular basis, and their rise and fall in popularity is sometimes cyclical.
For example, vampires may be considered “out” in terms of popularity, while zombies are “in.” Nancy Kilpatrick wrote a smart essay a few months back for “The H Word” explaining this in depth: nightmare-magazine.com/nonfiction/the-h-word-and-then-the-zombie-killed-the-vampire.
A backlash over vampires seems to have begun after the Twilight series (books and movies) with the exception of adoration still found in fan fiction and Young Adult. Prior to vampires, the hottest staple in horror writing was serial killer fiction in the 1980s, such as the Hannibal Lecter books by Thomas Harris (1981 and onwards) and The Pet by Charles L. Grant (1986), culminating with American Psycho (1991). Prior to serial killer fiction was religious horror, particularly demonic possession, exorcism, etc., such as Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967); The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971); and The Omen by David Seltzer (1976). Prior to that was Mad Scientists (science gone awry); Killer Animals; Mummies; and leading further back to the rich gothic and ghost tales of the Victorian era.
Of course, all these tropes are still used today, but we see certain trends in what is most popular in mainstream media. Personally, I think zombies are soon to fall out of favor. There’s only so much saturation in pop culture we can stand before tiring of its cause célèbre. New “popular” monsters will take their place in the future and witches/witchcraft may be a forerunner. Although witches have had small hits in fame throughout the nineties, I believe there’s a larger future for them, particularly coming off the success of television shows such as American Horror Story: Coven and Witches of East End. I also predict a continuing rise in Paranormal Horror (i.e. not paranormal romance, though that too remains huge), which is the crisis involving intangible monsters (be it ghosts or psychological fears) or any psychic phenomena such as faith healing or telepathy.
Oddly, cannibalism is another horror subject I’ve been coming across more frequently lately, though I lack the imagination to envision a meteoric rise in this taboo. Lastly, I believe there will be a move toward horror in historic fiction, with an emphasis on atmosphere and events during the first half of the twentieth century. There’s a common wonder and nostalgia associated with the lives of our parents and grandparents and also a sense of natural horror at events they had to endure like the Depression, World Wars, and communistic Cold War fears of nuclear attack.
Although this next trend isn’t specific to horror, I thought it important to note. Over the past few decades, the average length of horror books for adult readers has been about 80,000 to 100,000 words. Set by market conditions and consumer expectations, the list price is affected by printing costs (paper, ink, etc.) and other considerations such as shelf space and even reader genre-preferences. With the popularization of ebooks (roughly twenty-five percent of publisher sales, per the Association of American Publishers), printing costs and shelf space considerations are no longer an issue. The e-medium influences the reader’s expectation; reading digitally tends to be done in shorter time spans, and ebooks offer convenience, cost savings, and free up physical space.
A recent trend is the reduction in average length of novels to correlate with digital preferences. What this suggests is that if the word count declines, plots may become more succinct, action sped up, and an overall lessening of exposition and development. A 50,000 ebook may price the same as a hundred thousand word ebook; there’s no cost incentive to include more material.
However, that very cost incentive is now found instead in the resurgence of serialized books or episodic novels. Breaking up that same hundred thousand word novel into four novellas at 25,000 words each enables publishers to charge readers a bit more over the course of release. Also, reader interest shows an uptick in a series and heightened loyalty is captured. Genre stories will be affected with greater stress on developing setting as part of “worldbuilding.” Although generally used in terms of science fiction or fantasy genres, worldbuilding in horror is simply developing the “rules” of a fictional universe, even if it’s as mundane as inventing a hardware store in Chicago where one doesn’t currently exist. Worldbuilding in an episodic series develops consistency between books and brings the reader back to a place they’ve been familiarized with.
Diversity in Voice
Lastly, and most importantly, I foresee a rise in diversification amongst horror writers with increasing output/popularity for underrepresented authors in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation. With plentiful exceptions, horror writers do tend to be middle-aged Caucasian men. Today’s market begs for equal representation, and that’s a good thing. Authors tend to write about experiences unique to their own heritage, so if the scribblers who reach publication are all of the same ilk, that can lead to a very homogenized—and stale—reading experience. Greater diversity in authors’ backgrounds leads to greater diversity in subject matter, character motivations, setting and context, hopes, fears, and conflicts.
And when I say that the future of horror is the pushing of boundaries, that truly begins here, even if those boundaries should have been pushed a long time ago. Audiences today want fresh perspectives and an evident response is to promote fresh voices.
Spread the word!