Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

The H Word: The Other Scarlet Letter

Welcome to the first installment of “The H Word,” our monthly dissection of the horror genre. In the future, I, along with various guest columnists, will take the beast apart, piece by twitching piece, in an effort to see what makes it tick . . . to see what works and what doesn’t. We’ll cover popular tropes and popular sub-genres, and we’ll even shine a light on specific, important works.

For now, appropriately enough, we’re going to talk about the H word itself.

In her 1997 OMNI Online piece, “The Meaning of the ‘H’ Word,” acclaimed editor Paula Guran wrote:

The word horror (in a literary sense) has had so many meanings and connotations over the years it’s easy to get confused. Recently, the “H” word has been downright abused, twisted into a salable product, then abandoned as not commercial. It’s become as much an epitaph as a description.

The entire piece is available online, and it remains worth your time, fifteen years later. In it, Guran endeavors to determine the meaning of the H word, and focuses on horror as emotion—an emotion found not only in King and Lovecraft, but in Kafka and Melville and, well, everywhere. A noble conceit, and one to which we will return in subsequent chapters of “The H Word.”

For now, however, our concern is the H word as it pertains to fiction—not as an abstract concept, but as a brand. As a signifier.

As a stigma.

When I tell folks that I write/publish/read horror, the typical response I receive is a pulling away of sorts, a distancing, and a variation on the following, uttered with either unease or condescension—or both—and a dismissive shake of the head: “Oh . . . I don’t read horror. I don’t like all that gory slasher stuff.”

A few years ago, as a Barnes and Noble bookseller, I made the mistake of calling F. Paul Wilson a horror writer. The customer to whom I was speaking was a huge fan of Mr. Wilson’s work, and was very pleased to learn of the lovely deluxe Adversary Cycle set from Borderlands Press, but as soon as I said the words “horror” and “writer” back to back, he told me I was wrong and made a break.

Even better: not long thereafter, I actually had to make the case to another customer that Stephen King was a horror writer. She scrunched her face and looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Is he?” She didn’t think he was.

Why? Because she read Stephen King and she liked Stephen King, and she didn’t read or like horror.

No matter your association with the genre, you’ve probably experienced this as well. It’s annoying, but it’s not without cause. There’s a culprit, you know:

Horror movies.

We love them, but they’ve tainted this genre. They’ve made the H word a dirty word, and let’s face it: we don’t have the numbers to effectively make our case.

A digression:

Cinema dominates the public’s perception of horror, and, sadly, this perception was shaped in the eighties. As Stephen King burned up the New York Times Bestseller list and earned the dubious “King of Horror” label (the nice lady at B&N must’ve missed that), more folks came to know his name through a series of mostly awful movies than through his writing, and franchises like Friday The 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street pulled more people into movie theaters and video stores than any King novel attracted readers to Waldenbooks.

Thus, Annie Wilkes is burly Kathy Bates breaking Paul Sheldon’s leg, not King’s obese mountain of a woman sawing it off and chopping off his fingers. And Jack Torrance is maniacal Jack Nicholson splintering a door with an axe, not the Constant Writer’s tragic schoolteacher chasing poor Danny with a roque mallet.

A further digression, with zombies:

And yesterday is today: fans of The Walking Dead comic book series grumble with every deviation the AMC series makes from the source material (and lemme tell ya, they screwed the pooch to death on the whole final business between Shane and Rick and Carl, the cowards—grumble, grumble). But Robert Kirkman’s take on Romero moves approximately thirty thousand copies a month. To be sure, it’s Image’s highest selling title, and the first trade paperback collection (compiling the first six issues of the series, which recently got its one hundred issue chip) has moved a few hundred thousand units.

Impressive, yeah—but the AMC series pulls in close to ten million viewers. That’s ten million. Versus thirty thousand. Versus two hundred thousand or three hundred thousand or whatever. The point: the books don’t matter. And people don’t read.

But the folks who do read don’t read horror, even if they do read horror, because horror is that Hostel and Saw business that comes on cable late at night, and that shit is disgusting. And when a good horror movie comes along—one that isn’t about big-breasted girls running from masked killers, with which most people seem to think all horror movies are concerned—rest assured that the semantic hoops will once again roll out and you’ll get to see fans of and everyone involved with movies like The Exorcist and The Silence of the Lambs tell you that their movies aren’t horror. Why? Because these are good movies. These are great movies. And horror—it is implied/assumed/inferred—is trash.

Thus the stigma. Thus the H word.

Back to point:

I’m all for shit-canning our tribal attachment to the H word—to the very notion of genre, which is nothing more than a series of limits and strictures that result in homogenization—but dammit, we need labels, don’t we? And I’ve spoken to enough ardent horror fans to know that they’ll give up the H word when it’s pried from their cold, dead (or undead) fingers.

To be fair, the blame for horror fiction’s bad reputation should not be heaped entirely on the public’s perception of horror films. Any thinking reader purchasing books in the late eighties remembers their grocery-store paperback spin-rack groaning under the weight of black-spined, red-lettered paperbacks sporting trashy, skull-coated covers. Obvious post-King hackwork with titles like The Something or The Other.

The literary horror genre as it existed in the late eighties is dead (and good riddance), and you’re not going to find any new books with “horror” on their spines, because there was Tor’s Horror imprint and Pinnacle’s Horror imprint and Leisure’s Horror imprint (there’s a horror story right there), and many other publishers catering to the horror niche. But no more. The much-debated (among horror circles, anyway) Horror Section has gone the way of Borders, and is now being partitioned into office space.

And so, Horror is dead. This does not stop New York from publishing stunningly horrific novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Donald Pollock’s The Devil All the Time, to name but two. Folks will tell you that those books aren’t horror, but don’t listen to them: you know better. If you’re a horror writer, take Jonathan Maberry’s advice and change “horror” to “supernatural thriller” (or just “thriller,” if your book has no things that go bump) in your cover letter. Ditto if you’re a reader and you’re trying to get your aunt or your significant other to read Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door or Gary A. Braunbeck’s In Silent Graves. They won’t know what hit ‘em.

Be subversive: drop the H bomb.

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We at Nightmare Magazine like discussions. Please use the comments feature to give us your thoughts on whether the H brand is an albatross or worth holding on to.

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R.J. Sevin

R.J. Sevin (photo by Donovan Fannon)R.J. Sevin is the co-editor of the Stoker-nominated anthology Corpse Blossoms and he currently edits Print Is Dead, the zombie-themed imprint from Creeping Hemlock Press. His nonfiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Dark Discoveries, Fear Zone, Famous Monsters of Filmland Online, and Tor.com.