Friday, June 3, 2011

Modern Horror in Books- One Man's Opinion

This post was originally published on the Paranormal Wire, but now I am sharing it on my own blog.   It's basically a discussion of the evolution of the horror genre in my eyes.  This is one man's opinion- I am doing zero research- and just want to express my feelings about how written horror is perceived these days.  Just a warning... I am a rambler, and not half as eloquent as I am when I write fiction.  Remember, I'm just a dentist.  I am sure I am going to step on some people's toes, and there are some who may say, quite imperiously, I may add: "How dare he!  Who is he to decide what is good and not good in horror!  He has done nothing!"  All true, but it doesn't make my opinion any less valid.  I am a fan and have been for two decades, I have read hundreds of books across all horror sub-genres, and I am going to talk, dammit!

... in the beginning, there was Stephen King.  Yeah, I know William Blattley's The Exorcist was written in '71, but he wasn't the prolific writer that King was, at least not novels.  And yes, Koontz was around in the sixties, but he didn't really break big until the eighties with Phantoms, Midnight and Watchers.  And there was Bradbury, but he was more sci-fi than horror.  And of course Poe and Lovecraft, but they wrote long before horror became commercially successful.  Anyway...

My first taste of written horror came in the late eighties and early nineties when I began reading Christopher Pike books.  At that time, it seemed that there was only him and RL Stine when it came to teenage horror/thriller, though I didn't read Stine.  Pike is considered Thriller by most people, but some of his stuff was terrifying, and I'll put one of his feet in the horror category.

When I started high school in 1991 was when I finally put down my Hardy Boys and Choose Your Own Adventure Books and the Christopher Pike books and picked up Stephen King.  I can't tell you which book I read first, but my father was a huge King fan, so I already had access to all of his books.  But it wasn't just King I read... it was Dean Koontz and John Saul and Peter Straub and Clive Barker.  I know that there are other authors, like Richard Matheson (I am Legend, Stir of Echoes, Hell House) who were around at the time, but I read mostly the authors previously listed.  They were the commercially successful authors and they were the ones I gravitated towards.  Hell, in the nineties, if you went to the horror section of Borders, there wasn't much beyond King, Koontz, Straub and Saul.  Anne Rice, true, and a handful of books by Leisure Publishing, but that was it.

And what did all of these authors have in common?  Compared to today's horror authors, they were like Shakespeare.  These authors, again, in my opinion, concentrated on three important things in a particular order:  CHARACTER, PLOT, SCARES.

I don't want to demean today's new crop of horror authors (some of them have been around for a while, though in relative obscurity), like Richard Laymon, Edward Lee, Bentley Little, and Brian Keene (to name just a few).  But after reading some of their work, it seems that the order has been changed around: SCARE/GORE, PLOT, CHARACTER.

Now, I don't want to imply that there is anything wrong with this.  There is a large population of horror readers that enjoy this and who am I to judge.  Different strokes for different folks.  I'm just not one of those people.

When I start chatting up on the Kindle Horror forums, and some of the Goodread horror forums, it seems that the genre has shifted...  to zombies, to viruses, to post-apocalyptic worlds, to gore for gore's sake.  And I feel that when someone says horror nowadays, they no longer mean what I think of horror.  In essence, the genre has been redefined in my eyes.

When I think of horror movies of this century, I think of the SAW movies.  I think of Hostile.  I think of Paranormal Activity.  I think of gratuitous blood and gore and violence and cheap scares as being the archetype.  This is what people want out of their horror movies.  But in the seventies, horror movies were much different... Jaws, The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary's Baby...  I don't think these things would be considered horror by today's movie standards.  Supernatural thriller, maybe.  But not horror.  These movies are way too subtle to be horror movies.  Way to slow.  Way to concerned with character.

Sometimes I wonder if Carrie or Salem's Lot came out today, would they be considered horror?  Or thriller?  Or suspense?  Or just shoved in the general fiction shelves.  Would The Stand be considered horror or literature?  

Sometimes I feel that shock value is used as a crutch for lack of plot and character.  Not always, but often.  There is something to be said for leaving some things to the reader's imagination.

One of my favorite King books is actually one of his newer novels, Duma Key.  It is 600 or 700 pages long.  And the main villain doesn't make an appearance until the very end.  Sure, her subtle evil influence can be felt throughout the book, and that is the joy of Stephen King: he doesn't hit you over the head.  He is able to explore character and plot without throwing the bad guy in your face the entire book.  That's a rarity in these days of electronics and instant gratification.  It seems that a lot of readers just don't want to take the time to get engaged with a book that is more subtle and takes time to build momentum.  They need to be smacked across the face right from the beginning or they're moving on to the next thing.

What is the point of this little exercise?  Yes, it is personal.  I've been debating ever since I began self-publishing my short stories how I want categorize them.  Thriller?  Suspense?  Horror?  Dark fiction?  Some people may say that is a matter of semantics, but I do not agree.  How you categorize your books affects who is going to buy them, and I am left to wonder if the people who are searching for horror are searching for the "new" horror or for the classic psychological horror.  Because if they are looking for guts and gore and zombies, then they won't be looking for me.  And that means maybe I have to consider re-defining what I write if I want the right people to find it.

Okay, I'm done.  Leave comments if you like.


  1. I soooo totally agree! I cut my teeth on King and Koontz and Saul (never was a big Straub fan). And you're right, for them character is king. And that's how all good books should be written. My favorite King is also Duma Key. I could not put that book down and the last 100 pages were phenomenal. There are still a few holdouts into what I would call real horror- Joe Hill, Nate Kenyon, Dan Simmons to name a few. But where have all the good atmospheric ghost stories gone?

    I think you made a great point here. I'm not sure what to call what I write either.


  2. I loved Duma Key. The man still has it, even if it doesn't show all the time. It's all about atmosphere and the characters. You get some a-holes out there who can't stand king because they think he is a blowhard who writes just to "hear himself speak". Reading King is like listening to someone tell a ghost story. You want them to paint a deep picture because you love listening to them. or reading them. Could you truncate some of King's books? Sure. But I guarantee you would lose a lot in the process. And the books wouldn't be as good. Because he is character driven, not plot driven. The plot for Duma Key wasn't the best, but it didn't matter because you wanted to watch the characters