Oct 31 2008 3:27pm

Halloween Special: Why I hate horror.

This is going to be a much shorter article than the one on why I hate fantasy.

I hate horror because it either bores me or terrifies me, and not in a good way.

Let’s deal with “terrifies” first. I am so easily frightened by things that are actually scary that Stephen King’s “how to write” book (On Writing) gave me literal honest-to-goodness nightmares. It’s a pretty good “how to write” book, with interesting stuff about his process and career and honest stuff about his addiction problems. I recommend it. However, in the course of the book and for good reasons, he summarizes his novel Misery. It’s well named. It’s been making me miserable every time I think about it ever since. I had trouble going to sleep and had nightmares—and this not from the book itself, but from the author’s synopsis of the book.

I am, however, prepared to put up with this distress on occasion as if the story is worth it, if this is one element in it. In horror, it so seldom is.

The tropes of horror do nothing for me at all. The undead do not strike me as mysterious and sexy, but as a cliche that has been way overdone. Rivers of blood leave me yawning. Skeletons and mummies just strike me as stupid. They’re boring. They’re cliched. Eldritch horrors were original when Lovecraft did them, now they’re dull. Oh, graveyards. Look, monsters in modern settings. It’s all about as interesting as bell ringing.

So, as you can imagine, I don’t read much horror.

The last couple of times I tried, it’s been things by authors who work in other genres. I was fine with George R.R. Martin’s Skin Trade, even though it’s about werewolves and was published in a book with a black cover. I can’t say I was actually fine with Susan Palwick’s collection The Fate of Mice, but I think it’s terrific writing and I’m not sorry I read them. (Gestella did bother me a lot. But you should read it anyway.)

Pretty much all of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s work edges into being frightning, but it isn’t genre horror with blood everywhere. Alien Influences is a good but scary SF novel. Traitors is a good but scary fantasy novel. I figured I could therefore cope with a novel of hers published as horror. But in fact, no. It piled on the gore to a degree I just couldn’t deal with, and before the characters had been sufficiently established that I cared about them. Because it’s horror, and what horror readers want is blood, right away, rivers of it, and scary stuff too, immediately, even before you care about the characters.

People kept saying I was being unfair to horror and there was all this great stuff out there—which is what I fully expect everyone is about to say in comments. I asked my horror-reading husband to recommend me something. I asked for something well-written, not too scary, and not using the cliches of the genre. What he gave me was S.P. Somtow’s Riverrun, and this is why I know I hate horror and I am never going to try it again, no matter what.

Somtow is a writer whose non-horror work I like a lot. The Shattered Horse is a very good post-fall-of-Troy historical fantasy. Jasmine Nights seems at first like a semi-autobiographical novel about an odd geeky boy growing up in Bangkok, but it flowers into a fantasy. It would be terrific anyway, and Bangkok is more alien than most alien worlds in SF, but as it is it’s a masterpiece.

I was ready to give Riverrun the benefit of every possible doubt. And indeed, it’s brilliantly written. Nevertheless it managed to hit both of my “why I hate horror” buttons at once. It distressed me and it’s using boring cliched tropes. Spoilers coming up! The distressing bit probably wouldn’t bother most people as much as it bothered me. There’s a boy with a brother who goes missing in a mysterious way and everyone starts acting as if he never had a brother at all. My sister died when we were about the same age as the kids in the story, so this was just out and out personally triggery. It was all well done. I was coping. Then the brother, now grown up, went into a fantasy world. I perked up a little. In the fantasy world, in the first two minutes, he’s on a raft, being poled by a skeleton down a river of blood. And this is non-cliched horror? OK...

We can’t all like everything. Think of the terrible shortage of shoggoths.

Sammy Jay
1. Malebolge
The only book that ever gave me nightmares- that I can remember, at least- was Orwell's 1984 on firs reading. Granted, I was near-delirious with fever when nearing completion, which didn't help matters, but there you go.

I'm not so big on horror. Read lots of R.L Stine when I was that age, though.
Jim Kiley
2. Jim Kiley
Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box makes you give a damn about the characters and also scares the hell out of you. I can't recommend it highly enough.
rick gregory
3. rickg
100% agree Jo. Can't stand horror in books or movies. It mystifies me how we can see new movies almost every weekend that are basically the same thing. People get trapped in place, hunted by scary things. They die. Graphically. /yawn....

And what IS it with zombies? I do NOT get why they're so attractive as a type of evil... they've been done so much that it's a red flag of unoriginality. And the explicit violence seems... overdone. We know it's not real, so it's not actually horrible.... but it worries me a bit that so many people seem to get off on graphic violence and, in the case of movies like the Saw series, torture.
Sammy Jay
4. Malebolge
@ 3: I think the whole torture thing is just the latest trope in an aspect of the entertainment industry that typically mimics the Last Big Thing- with the success of Saw and Hostel, others followed suit. Before that, it was pale, dark-haired child ghosts; before that it was teens being stalked and murdered for some unknown transgression. I trust that werewolves are next.
Beth Friedman
5. carbonel
How did you feel about Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard? That one's about as horrific as I ever care to get, but I love the grand unified field theory of the Romantic poets that he creates.
Jim Kiley
6. OtterB
I don't read horror either. My violence tolerance is low, in books or movies, and my despair tolerance is even lower. The few times I make exceptions, I regret it. I did read my way through Lovecraft in college, and didn't find it bad, in the "makes me want a brain scrub afterward" definition of bad. But after one Stephen King some years ago I concluded that he did a great job of creating vivid experiences for the reader, but I really didn't want those particular experiences. I haven't read any fiction of his since, though I did enjoy On Writing.

And I'm pleased, sort of, to find that someone else was as disturbed by Gestella as I was. I thoroughly enjoyed Palwick's The Necessary Beggar, so bought The Fate of Mice. Read "Gestella" first, I think because a reviewer had praised it highly. And never read any of the other stories in the book, and haven't been able to bring myself to try Shelter yet.
Jim Kiley
7. IozzSothoth
How about visionary horror, say (for example) Ramsey Campbell's 'Midnight Sun'? This latter is especially low on gore, mostly to make the point that you don't really need it to do horror. On the other hand, what happens to the characters is also rather emotionally gruelling.

Going a fair way back there's M. R. James, who's occasionally grisly but not explicitly so for the most part, and whose ghosts are (or were for the time) fairly original.

That said, I'll second the comments on the over-reliance on explicit gore and violence in horror films -- it's often the opposite of terrifying. Rather dull, and sometimes morally questionable.
Jim Kiley
8. burger_eater
Horror tropes are indeed dull. Horror characters, though, can be wonderful.

If a vampire (to use a trope I personally don't like much) is just a vampire=no interest. If it's a fully-realized and original character, that's to the good. Same with dragons and starship pilots.

Now gore, on the other hand....
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Burger Eater: In theory, I agree. It would be possible to have an interesting vampire character. Indeed, John M. Ford has done it. So has Steven Brust. But for most people, just the fact of the character being a vampire seems to be enough to make them inherently thrilling.

Otter B: Shelter is just amazing, one of the best books I read last year. I'm surprised it wasn't on all the awards lists. Do read it.

Carbonel: I vaguely remember not liking it, but only vaguely.
zaphod beetlebrox
10. platypus rising
Seems to me that part of the problem may be the identification of horror with a set of tropes that,while representative of the "main stream" of the genre,do not really exhaust its possibilities -the same thing that happens with the reductio ad Tolkienum of fantasy.

I don't like much "mainstream" horror,but among my absolute favorites are works like:
Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and We have always lived in the Castle;
Jean Ray's Malpertuis;
E.T.A. Hoffmann Der Sandmann .
And then,Henry James' ghost stories :The Turn of the Screw,The Jolly Corner,The Friends of the friends ;
Arthur Machen's The Three Impostors;
Robert Chambers The King in Yellow ;
Gustav Meyrink Der Golem;
Richard Matheson I am Legend,Stir of Echoes
Jim Kiley
11. Nick Mamatas
Because it’s horror, and what horror readers want is blood, right away, rivers of it, and scary stuff too, immediately, even before you care about the characters.

Ah, now I know! I also look forward to future posts in which I am told what I like in a meal, and in a sexual partner.
William S. Higgins
13. higgins
Oh, graveyards. Look, monsters in modern settings. It’s all about as interesting as bell ringing.

I like bell ringing.

When I have seen handbell-ringing teams on TV, they always wear white gloves. I'm not sure why. Perhaps this allows them to get a firm grip on the handles of their bells, or something.

At my church, there is also a group of handbell ringers. Their music is lovely.

However, they all wear black gloves.

Invariably, whenever I see them perform, the thought leaps unbidden to my mind that they are Bell-Ringing Stranglers. I can't help it.
Mike Kozlowski
14. mkozlows
Back when I was in high school, I figured to myself that if a lot of people liked something, there must be SOMETHING there that was appealing, and it would be better to try to find it than to just be dismissive of it.

This led to me reading a ton of Forgotten Realms and DragonLance novels (which I'd earlier, correctly, written off as badly-written trash), and I understand what it is that people like about them, because I like the same thing, even if I prefer it in more interesting forms.

But I also read a ton of Stephen King, and I never was able to figure out the appeal there. They're well-written books, clearly, but doing something I just could not even make myself care about when I was trying to make myself care about it. (The exception is The Stand, which is really just mystic-tinged post-apocalypse, and does what good post-apocalypse does; that I get.)

These days, I just recognize that I'm not going to like a bunch of stuff that's objectively great, which is a weird thing to think, but clearly true.
Torie Atkinson
15. Torie
Horror was my gateway drug to genre. It was horror that led me to science fiction and fantasy. It seems bizarre now, since I never ever read it anymore and generally agree with your sentiments on how cliche it is, but as a pre-teen and a teenager I read every single Dean Koontz novel I could get my hands on. I loved John Saul especially, whose medical-experiment-gone-wrong plots completely and utterly appealed to me (and don't forget the fabulously angsty teenagers!). I liked Robin Cook, too, though that's a different breed of horror.

I wonder how I'd feel if I revisited those books. Probably unimpressed. But I still have a soft spot in my heart for Watchers.
Jim Kiley
16. cbyler
@9: C.S. Friedman's The Madness Season has an interesting vampire character, too, IMO. His vampirism doesn't define the plot, but it is important; for one thing, it makes him long-lived enough to remember when Earth was a free planet.

But overall, I wouldn't say the book is a horror book; it just happens to have a vampire in it.
Sandi Kallas
17. Sandikal
So many interesting comments.

I agree with Jim Kiley in #2 about "Heart-Shaped Box". It's phenomenal. It reminds me of the old-fashioned kind of horror that Platypus Rising talks about in #10. (I loved "The Lottery" and "The Haunting of Hill House".)
Ben HM3
18. BenHM3
Ok, I'm not a horror fan (offended the rest of the theater by laughing at the decapitation scene in "The Omen.") but two have scared me to my core:

Steven King's "The Raft." Short, to the point, and unbelievably scary, esp. when I've seen "that raft" on lakes 'round here for decades.

Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream." I have a copy of that collection in an OLD paper back, I'm saving it for my friend John who thinks it might be his favorite of all time. I, however, will not even look at the cover out of fear of remembering the story.
Wesley Osam
19. Wesley
People kept saying I was being unfair to horror and there was all this great stuff out there—which is what I fully expect everyone is about to say in comments.

People keep saying this because it's true. I wouldn't advise you to find this out for yourself... if you don't like horror, the research would bring you no pleasure. But horror isn't about the standard tropes of Dracula, Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's monster any more than fantasy is about elves. People don't read horror for "rivers of blood" any more than they read science fiction for engineering problems. (I've read plenty of horror--admittedly mostly non-gory horror, as I hate gore--and have never run across a river of blood. I'm not familiar with Riverrun, but to me a guy "on a raft, being poled by a skeleton down a river of blood" sounds like parody.)

If someone asked me for "something well-written, not too scary, and not using the cliches of the genre..."

Actually, I'd have no idea what to tell them. I know plenty of horror stories that are well written, and rise above cliche, but it's hard to predict what someone else will find "too scary." Everybody has different triggers.

(If someone just asked for something well written and not cliched, I'd start with M. R. James. My taste in horror is a bit old-fashioned; my favorite recent horror collection is Sarah Monette's The Bone Key, which is very much in the Jamesian tradition. One of the creepiest stories in the collection is available on her website.)

rickg, #3: It mystifies me how we can see new movies almost every weekend that are basically the same thing. People get trapped in place, hunted by scary things. They die.

"Trapped in place, hunted by scary things. They die," does not describe the entirety, and maybe not even the majority, of the horror genre on film. But, yeah, a lot of them look the same. Most sports movies are also "basically the same thing;" so are most romantic comedies, and most heist movies. Name any genre; ninety percent of the movies that make it up will be basically the same thing, and will be even less distinguishable to those who aren't interested. (I can't tell the difference between most westerns.)
Wesley Osam
20. Wesley
(Incidentally, I'm only recommending that Sarah Monette story to people who really do like horror. I mean, I read a lot of ghost stories, and it creeped me out.)
Jim Kiley
21. IozzSothoth
Arthur Machen's 'The White People' is also worth a shot if you like James, as well as 'The Hill of Dreams' -- though the latter isn't really horror. But it is good.
Rebecca Walberg
22. RebeccaW
I agree about I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream as fantastic for someone interested in what (one type of) excellent horror is like. It's as much SF as it is horror (oh how I hate taxonomy) and so particularly relevant to SF fans. I suspect, though, that it wouldn't change Jo Walton's mind about whether it's a good use of time to read. I thought it was wonderfully written, and was horrified and terrified by it, which is true of a fair bit of Ellison, and Philip K. Dick, for that matter. My guess is this is sort of what she was describing about her reaction to Misery, which is terrifying for reasons having nothing to do with undead, blood, gore, or torture (there is an element of physical violence, but the really horrifying thing is the examination of total dependence upon someone malevolent and unstable and controlling.)
Blue Tyson
23. BlueTyson

Hard not to like cool dog books Torie, as far as Koontz goes.

Waiting for bluejo's 'Why I hate mysteries' chapter of this series.

Cathy Mullican
24. nolly
I read very little horror. I did listen to Tananarive Due's The Good House a while back, and found it quite creepy and not overly cliched, but I have no idea if it would work for you, so this is not really a recommendation, per se, just throwing out a name for general comments, I think.

I also read a fair bit of horror (mostly short stories) as a teenager, as it fell in the category of "anything I can get my hands on"; the authors I liked enough then to recall now were Steve Rasnic Tem, Ramsey Campbell, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. I don't think you'd like the Yarbro; it's all vampire-y, and while the way she treats hers was novel to me at the time, I don't know that I'd find it so now. I don't remember anything specific about the stories from the other two, only that I liked them.
zaphod beetlebrox
25. platypus rising
Two other classic horror novels by authors not generally associated with horror:
Michael Moorcock's The Black Corridor
Fritz Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness
Jim Kiley
26. anef
I'm generally in agreement with you about the horror genre at the moment. I hope this won't stop you reading the excellent Bareback by Kit Whitfield. It is a werewolf book, but it's not what I'd call horror. It uses the werewolf thing to talk about power and corruption, and I think it's very worthwhile. If you haven't read it, please at least glance at the Amazon reviews before deciding not to read it.
David Dyer-Bennet
27. dd-b
Interestingly, I don't mind about lots of blood and violence, but it doesn't sound like I like horror any more than you do. I think really it comes down to something very simple: I don't like being scared. If you don't get off on being scared, horror seems to me to have little to offer.

I can't calibrate because we haven't read many of the same horror-ish books; but I got definite horror vibes off of several of the old "John Taine" books. Particularly White Lily and Seeds of Life. While still liking them enough to reread now and then. At this distance I think it's maybe that the characters aren't in hopeless positions, and doing sensible stuff helps.
Jim Kiley
28. Schizohedron
I had an experience that delineated for me what I would define as horror.

Years ago, my friends and I went on a haunted hayride through the vast back-fields of a garden center and working farm. There were seven folks in our party, plus a few more people we didn't know to make for a full load in the truck.

The ride took us through a number of stock exhibits — the crazy butcher with jointed human parts hanging in the shop, the widow sitting next to her dessicated husband, the condemned guy in the electric chair — but these were more comic-horror than anything that struck deep.

Between two set pieces, however, our truck slowed to a halt. We were all looking toward the glow of the next exhibit. At that moment, someone ran up to the side of the truck, grabbed one of our party, dragged her off the truck, and ran back into the treeline with her screaming in his arms.

This completely surprised all of us, but not as much as what one of the folks whom we didn't know said:

"He was supposed to take me. I was the plant."

I was not the only one who felt a wash of adrenaline go through the veins at her statement. For some reason, that scared the living shit out of all of us.

Zombies, werewolves, spouting gore, even vampires don't unsettle me as much as a normal situation — even a normal horror hayride — gone awry. Take away my sense of cause and effect, rational thought, or the predictable, and then you've got me scared. That's what good horror writing or film would do for me.
Theodric the Obscure
29. TXHermes
I can't find the "Why I hate Fantasy" article. Anybody know where it is?
Clark Myers
30. ClarkEMyers
I'm inclined to agree as to my tastes. I am seldom moved by or attracted to horror as known by the genre imprint.

There is enough overlap between sufficiently advanced technology and magic that the genre I mean when I say SF can embrace both readily. I can imagine A.J. Budrys' Rogue Moon with the serial numbers filed off and sold to Weird Tales as Indiana Jones and the Temple on the Moon - perhaps ectoplasm rather than transporter technolgy? - I can even see the serial numbers restored so to speak and traced backward. A.J. has a short with dogs too - enough to give me waking nightmares.

Then too the Turner Diaries made me carry an extra extra magazine for a while aftr I read it - a rational response to that horror I think.

I enjoy Glen Cook's tales of the Black Company and his detective in a fantasy world sticks close enough to hard boiled rules (Marlowe, Continental Op, Pronzini's Nameless et. al) or rails to amuse me though in the funny once category.

A classic puzzler in an SF setting works for me when the rules are followed - Lord Darcy, Gil the ARM; if not a classic puzzler then what? - and the horror leaks out of a horror story when the Krebs cycle is ignored.
Nial DeMena
31. Giant
Jo, read King's The Shining before you give up on the genre. And whatever you do, don't watch the Kubrick movie first; it will give you nightmares and you'll hate me because of it.

The book, not the movie, leaves out most of these so-called horror tropes you hate and goes straight for the meat and bones of it, like a dry rot from the head down. King's best novel, ever. Period. Its completely character driven and the complex tri-partite psychology of mother-father-son is unfolded slowly and expertly in a quasi-supernatural setting.
Sam Kelly
32. Eithin
I'm not a horror reader either, but I'd commend Richard Kadrey's Butcher Bird to you if you haven't read it already. (Link - available for free download.)
Clifton Royston
33. CliftonR
Last night watched Dark Water (the original Japanese version.) Unmistakably horror, with one moment that's as scary as anything I've ever seen. (Not quite as scary as the first time I saw it, on the big screen, but still good.)

This movie has no werewolves, vampires, zombies, or serial killers and not a single drop of blood, but (to me) it's much scarier than most movies filled with them. It's also (non-spoiler!) a truly touching musing on a mother's love for her child and a child's love and need for her mother.

Still not recommended to Jo; did you all miss the part where she said she doesn't like being terrified?

(I sure wouldn't recommend the book The Shining to anyone who didn't like being terrified. I had to sleep with the light on after reading it and couldn't leave the shower curtain closed for quite some time.)
Theresa DeLucci
34. theresa_delucci
Spoken like someone who never read Peter Straub's Ghost Story. The opening chapter is so dark and terrifying and mysterious. Then the tension, the overbearing sense of malevolence just rises from there. You meet the main characters, who are four elderly men who like to meet every two weeks for a round of... ghost stories. Straub makes you give a damn about this men already struggling to face their old age who are challenged by something evil even older than themselves. The structure of the novel is brilliant, a novel within a novel with shorter stories sprinkled throughout and the moment you finish the last line, you want to go back and re-read the novel again. It just gets under your skin. The perfect book for a snowbound night, even moreso than The Shining (I always hated Wendy Torrance, in the book and the movie. Ugh.

For more visceral horror, I always recommend Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. This book really got to me. Taking place mostly in Calcutta, a writer tries to uncover the strange reappearance of a poet everyone thought had died. Indian death cults and yes, zombies, are involved. But you feel such an overwhelming sense of pure dread and despair for the protagonist, his wife, and child as well as the crushing humidity and reek of corruption of all kinds in the city, your stomach will be in a knot. (Personally, I like to be safely scared by a good book sometimes.)
Jim Kiley
35. cdalek
I tend to scare easily. I'm not a big fan of horror, esp. splatterpunk or movies with a lot of gore. However, ghost stories in general are something I enjoy quite a bit.

I'm a big fan of Sheridan LeFanu. I think "The White People" by Arthur Machen is a fantastic story. In fact, I would recommend virtually every story in Great Ghost Stories of the World (also published as The Haunted Omnibus), which is where I first read the Machen story.
eric orchard
36. orchard
I tend to be on the same page as @cdalek. I'm a massive fan of M.R. James. But I wonder if Victorian ghost stories really count as horror?
37. rogerothornhill
On the one hand, this reminds me of the almost identical conversation I've had with at least a half-dozen different friends over the years, which always begins by the friend saying that s/he doesn't like country and western music. After I start listing specific artists, the friend says in many individual cases, "Oh, well, that's not country and western." I think in the genres we love, we have a higher mediocrity threshhold; in others, we place the bar a lot higher and rate the pieces we do like as being atypical of the genre.

On the other hand, some of these comments also make me wonder if there's not some inverse relation here between horror and science fiction. I'm thinking of several of the people I know who are deep (literary) horror fans and how their eyes glaze over when I name favorite scifi authors. I wonder why . . .
Vicki Rosenzweig
38. vicki
It's startling how many people are reading "I don't like horror because it has this effect on me" as "please recommend well-written books that will have this effect on me." (That's different from "this is marketed as horror, but I think you'll like it anyway" or "here's a good book with a vampire in it, which isn't just 'oh, wow, he's a vampire' but has actual characterization and plot," which other people have been posting.)

Is it that strange an idea that Jo's husband, who does like and read horror, would have a better chance of guessing what from the genre, if anything, she would like than would most if not all of the commenters here?

Not everyone likes the kinds of things you like, or the kinds of things I like. That's one of the cool things about there being lots of different people: we are different.
Jim Kiley
39. Nick Mamatas
It's startling how many people are reading "I don't like horror because it has this effect on me" as "please recommend well-written books that will have this effect on me."

Perhaps they also read the bit where Walton says, "I am, however, prepared to put up with this distress on occasion as if the story is worth it, if this is one element in it" and a recommending stories that they think are indeed "worth it."

Also, I'd bet that most of the commenters understand that their comments, like the blog post itself, are going to be read by the public and that members of the public may wish to have some work recommended to them, or to read a discussion of recommended work?

It would be rather peculiar for a blog sponsored by a company that still occasionally publishes horror to not feature such a discussion.
Jim Kiley
40. IozzSothoth
# 36: "But I wonder if Victorian ghost stories really count as horror?"

Ghost stories aren't all horror, but ghost stories (even Victorian ones -- though James I think is a little after Victoria) can count as horror if that's the affect they're trying to achieve . So James is probably a horror author because he wanted to scare his audience. Conventionally, he's been considered part of the canon since Lovecraft's 'Supernatural Horror in Literature' and Ramsey Campbell, for example, occasionally writes stories that are Jamesian to the core, but no-one denies that they're horror stories.

Strictly, anything that's intended to scare you is probably a horror story, no matter what tropes it's using.
- -
41. heresiarch
rogerothornhill @ 37: "I think in the genres we love, we have a higher mediocrity threshhold; in others, we place the bar a lot higher and rate the pieces we do like as being atypical of the genre."

I also find this to be true, especially of musical genre. I have a pretty high tolerance for inferior punk, f'rex, but no tolerance at all for mediocre hip-hop.

We like the genres we like because they have tropes we enjoy. If you just love the archtype of the hero(ine) discovering and growing into his/her new-found mystical powers, you will probably like even some fairly cookie-cutter fantasies. If you don't, then you're going to be much more picky--the story will have to do something more than just scratch that familiar itch. It seems that horror is set of tropes that are particularly strong.
Niall Harrison
42. niall
On the main post: yeah, I don't get much genre horror, either; or rather, the things I find scary or horrifying do not seem to be the things that genre horror writers are interested in writing about.

However, I will second anef @ 26's recommendation of Bareback by Kit Whitfield (retitled Benighted in the US), partly because I hadn't really thought of it as a horror novel at all, despite the werewolves. The setting is an alternate present in which 99% of the population are lycanthropes and 1% are not, and I originally read it as a submission for the Arthur C Clarke Award, so I mentally filed it under magical alternate history a la Strange & Norrell, The Light Ages, or Temeraire. Very much looking forward to her second novel, In Great Waters, next March.
James Nicoll
43. JamesDavisNicoll
rogerothornhill, may I quote (properly attributed)part of your comment in #37 on my LJ or on rec.arts.sf.written?
James Nicoll
44. JamesDavisNicoll
37: For me, it's the opposite, with an uncanny valley effect as the subject matter of a given book approaches the subgenres I care most about. I can be pretty tolerant of illogical developments in urban fantasy/paranormal romance . The subgenre I enjoy the most is hard SF and in particular HSF set in our solar system but I tend to be far more critical of stupid avoidable errors there than those in lesser subgenres.

1: I was pretty happy to find a series where the protagonist becomes a supernatural creature without also dumping every shred of post-Enlightenment political belief.

2: Contrived schemes to acquire water would be near the top of my list. Ben Bova's Titan, for example, has a contrived plot pitting conservationists against exploitationists over the use of Saturn's rings as a source of water. There are two related problems with this idea:

A: It is intuitively obvious that any material in Saturn's rings must be within the Roche limit for Saturn and that in turn implies - because of Saturn's mass and the material's proximity to Saturn - that retrieving material from the rings will be somewhat pricy in terms of delta vee.

B: Once you get out past the frost line in the Solar System, water ice is an increasingly major component of moons and other small bodies. This is intuitively obvious because as we all know water is made up of the most common element in the universe combined with the third most common element in the universe and the rate at which water ice sublimates in vacuum drops as the temperature drops.

If you don't want to use the rings, which you wouldn't anyway because of A, use one of the other bodies orbiting Saturn (at least 60 of which are known).

3: And don't get me started on people who think Jupiter is a good place to get hydrogen or who think this can be done simply by sticking a long straw into Jupiter so that its internal pressure will blow H2 into space.
Rachel Broome
45. monsterswalk
I read Alien Influences when I was maybe 13 - and I was seriously disturbed by it for years and years.
Read it again a few years ago (early 20's) and while it was still a little creepy, it wasn't anything to give me bad dreams.
I guess when I was 13 that whole adult abandonment/betrayal thing went a whole lot deeper
Dave Robinson
46. DaveRobinson
I like some King a lot, am not so fond of others of his works and think Misery is the most frightening thing he's ever written.

As to the whole 'vampire as sex object' meme, I really really don't get that at all. I get the 'werewolf as sex object' meme because they work as symbols of unbridled animal passion, but not vampires.

I second "Madness Season" though I always considered the protagonist more werewolf than vampire at base.

I think that for some people horror, like genre fiction in general, is 'comfort food' and so they like their tropes out in the open because it makes them feel at ease.
Jim Kiley
47. Jack Kincaid
Though it may not behoove me in some circles to say so, being a horror author, I agree with most of this article. In fact, I wish there were a hundred more like it, as the genre continues to be stifled from its potential by those who cling to such tropes, cliches (not all cliches are bad, but the trick comes in knowing which ones to keep because they work or are accurate), and, of course, the tons of blood and gore, which have served to stigmatize the genre and define it as something undesirable. The mass-market industry--at least those in it bold enough to overtly release horror novels--continues the same failed traditions and policies instituted to capitalize on the hunger for horror in the 80s. Oversaturated markets is a cop-out, an excuse, for the market crash. As prescribed by human nature, opportunity encourages greater ambition than it can support. In business, a market is always saturated, and a shrinking market oversaturated. The latter I believe best describes the environment and I'm going to stop myself before this turns into an essay. This is a subject I feel very strongly about.

'Horror' should speak of range, from one end of the spectrum to the other into the blackest of places in reflection of life. It should not speak of focus, any more than the 'science' in 'science fiction' should speak of focus.

Here, in horror, there exists a freedom to touch the extremes, but not a license to dwell on them, especially to a desensitizing degree. It is about wonder and the terror of knowing that anything can happen, including doom being the ultimate victor. It is not about glorifying atrocity and sickness, but gaining perspective on it. It is about humanizing, not dehumanizing. It is about balance of all things, a thorough emotional exploration. Without that, it is inhuman and nothing that sensible people would desire intimacy with.

Without contrast, it is the same note struck again and again until the mind dampens the sound into triviality. It is the lives of the characters, all of whom have sorrows and burdens and dreams and faults, and the journey through their distinct perspectives that make it worthwhile. The soul of horror lies in tragedy and one cannot move the heart in any direction if the fiction has no capacity to reach it in the first place. It draws its greatest strength from heart, which is something that cannot be imitated without it becoming an absurd parody, and accessible characters with whom the reader can relate and get to know as they would real people.

Blood and gore should be a situational byproduct. They are not a vital ingredient, as nearly a decade of more-terror-and-gore suggestions in rejection letters would suggest. I disagree with them and will no longer bend to something I don't believe in. Most of the time, I want to tone down. They want to tone up. I can't subcribe to that and I am entitled to my opinion, even if it precludes me from publication. Arguably: especially if it does so. That aside, I say this primarily as a reader, among those that the industry scared away to the point where I have no trust in names I do not know.

I know this genre has great potential, amazing potential, but it will not achieve it until it rethinks its approach.

On about every level.

I look forward to the day that it does.

As I will have many great books to read.

That will be a wonderful thing.
Laura Grover
48. LauraG
Excellent article! I'm sorry to be coming to it so late.

@ Jo - if you can still be persuaded to give so-called "horror" a try, I would recommend two short stories: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Night Fears by L.P. Hartley. You won't find psycho killers, blood, gore or "rivers of blood" in either one, but they both scared me in the way that I associate with a "good" horror story. Oh, and definitely read "The Face in the Frost" by John Bellairs. It's the only book I've ever read that was funny and scary at the same time (and no blood rivers either).

@ #18 BenHM3: Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream" still terrifies me to this day. I wouldn't even keep the book in the house. I'm glad I'm not the only one.

@ #31 Giant: King's best novel, ever. Period. Agreed. It's the only one I own and have ever re-read. I'm probably one of the few people who thinks the Jack Nicholson movie is terrible because of the deviation from the book. Actually, I think I've tried two or three of King's other books and I found they didn't suit me. I'm strictly a Shining fan.

I still scan the horror section of the used book stores, after I've finished with the science fiction and fantasy areas, because horror can mean different things to different people. I let myself skip over John Saul, V.C. Andrews, Dean Koontz and other standard horror writers and look for the odd names, maybe first books by people whose writing falls through the genre cracks and ends up filed under horror.
Adam Callaway
49. Weirdside
Science fiction is such a good vehicle for horror that I always wonder why it is not used more. In movies, such as the Alien quadrilogy, attempt and fail to incorporate it successfully, but novels and shorts hardly even try. Thrillers are often mixed with science fiction, but honest-to-goodness horror is rare. Think about how isolated someone is on a space station or in a starship. Right there you could go straight up Lovecraftian and make a killer story. Or if one of the crew flips, you really can't run very far before hitting a bulkhead. Or think of all the insanely cool alien monsters that you could come up with.
I want a horror book dressed up like science fiction. I am Legend by Mattheson could nearly be considered this. That is by far-and-away the greatest horror story ever written. It's so fantastic that I may go reread it right now...

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