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Posts tagged ‘Robert Jackson Bennett’

Ephemeral Horror and the Diffusion of Genre Markers


Content, when it comes to genre taxonomy, is king: we categorize stories based on the conventions they employ and the devices that show up within their texts. Spaceships, time travel, aliens? Let’s call it science fiction. Magic and knights? Let’s go with fantasy. A five-act structure centered around mutual attraction and misunderstanding? Romance. A crime that needs to be explained? Mystery. (Yes, I know this is a gross over-simplification – but that doesn’t make it wrong.) These devices, the objects and tropes of most genres, can easily be slapped on a cover to communicate the story’s category to booksellers and readers.

But then we come to horror. Peter Straub is right (hat tip to Robert Jackson Bennett for pointing this essay out) when he says that horror is the only genre whose defining characteristic is absent from the text: horror gets categorized as horror because of the reaction it produces in the reader, not because of the devices it employs (although those devices do contribute to the reaction). The ephemeral nature of horror’s defining characteristic is both a strength and a weakness for the genre.

The Strength and Freedom of Ephemera

Creatively, Straub is exactly right when he writes:

…this absence of specificity is not at all a limitation but the reverse, a great enhancement. That no situational templates are built into horror grants it an inherent boundarilessness, a boundlessness, an inexhaustible unlimitedness. If the “horror” part is not stressed all that overtly and the author spares us zombies, vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, hideous things in bandages, etc., what results is fiction indistinguishable, except in one element alone,  from literary fiction.

Horror lacks the constraints that more solidified genre conventions impose. We can write a horror story – like Shirley Jackson’s classic “Flower Garden” – without a single element of the supernatural or the inexplicable. But even such a “mundane” story can still evoke a sense of horror similar to The Haunting of Hill House.

This freedom means that – in order to be effective – horror must sneak past the reader’s natural defenses, must directly speak to the reader’s perceptions, values, and fears. This is the kind of deep-seated, emotional and perceptual communication that the literary fiction genre has traditionally claimed for itself. But where literary fiction uses such emotional and philosophical intimacy to explore comfortably distanced morality, horror uses a highly sensitized point-of-view to get as close to the nerve as possible, to map even the most painful experiences from the inside.

When a horror story fails to achieve this effect, when it fails to develop such a reaction, it fails to be a horror story. There is a reason why vampires and werewolves and zombies now fill shelves of urban fantasy and paranormal romance: fictional devices that once terrified, now no longer do so. And herein lies the weakness of ephemeral genre definition.

Content is (un)Dead

What is the taste of blue? That is the same kind of unanswerable question as “how can you tell a horror story from its cover?”

There was a time – not all that long ago – when vampires were horrific. Their stories evoked the frisson of terror and repulsion that characterizes the horror genre, and so slapping a vampire on the cover sent a message to the reader that said “This book will horrify you.”

But over time, and in paticular over the last thirty years, we have become acclimated to vampires. They stopped horrifying us, and so have oozed into science fiction (e.g. Peter Watts’ Blindsight or Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series), romance (e.g. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stories, etc.), fantasy (Jasper Kent’s Danilov Quintet), and so on. When we see a vampire on a cover today, we are more likely to think of these genres than of horror.

This dissolution of the communicative value of fictional devices is a normal part of the creative cycle, and it affects every genre (and is particularly accelerated in YA). But because horror is defined by the reaction it produces, the genre is more exposed to this danger, and its covers (and sales) are disproportionately affected by it.

The Future of Horror?

I think the future of horror will be much like its past: subject to boom-and-bust cycles closely tied to society’s fluency with and acclimatization to the devices which evoke the reactions that define the genre.

For designers and publishers in the field, I think that the challenge is to disentagle cover design from the devices used in the content. Thrillers and (to a lesser extent, mystery) have both broadly succeeded in doing so: their covers tend towards the iconic, rather than the representational. It is worth noting that cover designs for horror perennials like Stephen King and Peter Straub seem to employ this exact strategy, and I suspect that it helps to smooth the genre’s traditional boom-and-bust cycles.

For authors in the field, I think that the trick to continued artistic success will be to focus on that reaction, on the emotional and perceptual effects which define the genre. Essentially, to stick to our knitting. Those who manage to evoke that sensation of visceral repulsion or terror will continue to sell, will continue to have readership, because the darker facets of human nature have and will always fascinate.

And with that being said, I have to wonder: how does reader reaction and the diffusion of genre markers extend or impact on other genres, like science fiction and fantasy?

The Circus as a Fantastic Device


I grew up devouring the works of Ray Bradbury, and I have no doubt that Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man all had an enormous influence on my love of fantasy. Add to that the fact that I grew up in New Jersey, where the dilapidated boardwalks of the Jersey Shore eerily embody the same carnival creepiness, and I suppose it is no wonder that I love stories that feature circuses, carnivals, freak shows or anything at all related to them. And now that I am a little older (and can look two out of three circus clowns in the eye without crying), and having just finished Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe, I find myself considering what makes the device so compelling.

The Many Faces of the Circus

I group a pretty broad assortment of devices into my “circus” or “carnival” category: on one end of the spectrum, we have the traditional traveling circus as brilliantly depicted in Genevieve Valentine’s recent Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti or Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao. The focus in these stories is performative: the players in the circus play certain roles which stand either in contrast to or in embodiment of their true natures. Where play ends and player begins is purposefully blurred, and the stories often explore this fuzzy gray area explicitly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the traveling carnival, such as those that Bradbury so adores or the one used in Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. In these stories, the roles that the performers play do matter but they are counter-balanced and contrasted against their lives outside of their performances, and further balanced by the devices employed in their show. The performances matter, but these stories feature an assumption that there is more to the players than their performances. Between these two extremes, lies the Vaudeville circuit that Robert Jackson Bennett explores in The Troupe.

The borders between these variants are fluid, and it is entirely possible that The Encyclopedia of Fantasy is right to call them interchangeable: they share many of the same structural and aesthetic features. What such enterprises represent for the reader is a portal into the world of fantasy. When we read a story that features this device, the circus marks the jumping off point between a representation of reality and the wild adventure of fiction.

As a device, the circus taps into a primal cultural touchstone (you can find my earlier thoughts on such touchstones and their relationship to reader trust here). By the time we are ten, most of us will have had the disorienting experience of going to an amusement park, visiting a fair, or seeing a circus. As a result, we will have already internalized the mental shift that the circus’ superficial fantasy demands of us. The process by which we accept the (clearly fictional) conceit of the real-life circus is close cousin to Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief when reading fiction. By tapping into this physiological and emotional memory, writers who employ the circus as a narrative device boost the signal of their fiction, and significantly accelerate the reader’s acceptance of the story. Everyone, after all, loves the circus.

The Real-world Circus as an Imperfect Portal

Despite its power as a cultural touchstone, the circus is not a perfect portal from reality to fantasy. And part of its strength as a narrative device stems from its very imperfection. When we go to the movies, we experience a complete immersion into the film’s fantasy. If we see the wires, if we see the camera, we scoff and complain about the film’s poor production quality. But at a real-life circus or carnival it is impossible to make such a complete break from reality. Even children will see the carnival worker smoking behind the tent, will catch the cracks in the face paint, or spot the smudges in the hall of mirrors.

This creates a certain level of cognitive dissonance: on the one hand, we want to immerse ourselves in the fiction of the circus, but on the other hand we are unable to divorce ourselves from its seedy reality. As a portal, the real-life circus is flawed. And the fictional portrayals of such circuses rely on that flawed nature by asking us to hold two conflicting thoughts in our head at the same time: that the circus is fake, a glamour, a sham. And that it is real, that the fantasy it asks us to concede is true. If that is not a perfect description of how fantasy – or fiction itself – works, I don’t know what is.

The Circus as a Means of Transition

Many stories that involve the circus device feature young characters signing onto the troupe or at least peaking behind its curtain. Whether it is Bradbury’s Will Halloway, Jim Nightshade, or Douglas Spaulding, Valentine’s Little George, or Bennett’s George Carole, it is children who are the natural window through which we can experience the circus. This extends the portal concept: we run away to join the circus, we transition from a “normal” existence into a fantastical one, and in many ways we grow from the innocence of childhood where we hew closely to the fantasy into the more cynical reality of adulthood where we sneer at the greasepaint.

Circus stories often use a child’s innocent perspective to deepen their basic cognitive dissonance. They use the circus, and their young protagonist’s gradual understanding of its nature as a concrete expression of the dissonance of adolescence. Whether it is Douglas Spaulding, Holden Caulfield, or Katniss Everdeen, every young adult must wrestle with the transition from childhood to adulthood: it is the literal foundation of every bildungsroman ever written.

The Circus as the Anti-Quest

There is an (over-simplistic) interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero that has given us the “hero’s journey” as an almost write-by-the-numbers recipe for fantasy. With its nature as a portal device, its coterie of unusual characters, and its predilection for young protagonists, one might think that circus stories naturally lend themselves to the heroic quest model. It is a tempting theory, but from a thematic perspective, I find that circus stories are almost the anti-thesis of the traditional quest narrative.

Consider the object of the quest: it is an object, an achievement, a moment that is distinct in both time and space. The destruction of the ring in Mount Doom. The recovery of Henwen the Oracular Pig. Such specificity is anathema to the circus: they are traveling shows, by their very nature transient. From the perspective of the performers, there is no quest: there is simply a never-ending progression of indistinct towns. From the perspective of the towns they visit: there is merely a brief sojourn in a fantastical realm. When the circus itself is given a specific goal, as it is in Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, its thematic efficacy is sorely weakened. And when, as in most narrative fiction, our characters create for themselves a tangible goal – as in Valentine’s Mechanique, Bennett’s The Troupe, Howard’s Johannes Cabal, Philip Reeve’s A Web of Air, or Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn – they will leave the confines of the circus to ultimately achieve it. To do otherwise would elide the cognitive dissonance the device relies on.

The Troupe as the Anti-Band of Heroes

The attractions of the circus – in real life as in fiction – are invariably the characters that it invites us to meet. They are always distinct, extremely varied, and most importantly led by a charismatic, engaging, and mysterious leader. In much heroic fantasy, especially in the hero’s journey school of quest fantasies, one might think that a circus offers the perfect source for our hero’s plucky band of entertaining companions. But just as the hero’s quest structure eviscerates the circus’ effectiveness as a narrative device, its performers are the antithesis to the stereotypical band of companions.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy talks about how companions in heroic fantasy tend to either appear in “dirty dozen” configurations (where external circumstances force them together) or as “seven samurai” (where their association to achieve a shared goal is voluntary). Despite their superficial resemblance to a pariah elite, the circus performers by definition do not conform to either configuration. The defining characteristic of circus performers is their independence: both from each other, and from the broader society. This independence further heightens their fantastical disassociation from reality, and gives greater scope for the exploration of character themes. They are not brought together by some external circumstance, even if it might seem that way. Even if – as in Something Wicked This Way Comes – they serve the circus under duress, it is almost always their choices that put them there. Yet despite this, their association is rarely voluntary: they do not share goals with their fellow travelers, and their friendships are tenuous at best. Three threads bind them: the circus master, the circus itself, and the fact that they are all – in some way – broken.

And this represents the greatest departure from either the Dirty Dozen or Seven Samurai trope: in most heroic fantasy, and especially in the bildungsroman, the youthful hero’s companions represent facets of the fully mature ur-hero. From the disreputable thief companion our hero might learn tactical flexibility and cunning wit, the noble knight companion might teach honor in the face of certain death, the magus might teach wisdom, etc. Each companion plays a certain role and embodies a certain facet of the mature hero’s ultimate personality. Not so in a circus story. If anything, the youthful protagonist must build their mature self in opposition to their companions.

And this is something which Bennett nails perfectly in The Troupe. Each of the members of Silenus’ vaudeville troupe is, as all fictional circus performers are, broken. Their fracture lines are intensely private, and tie directly into the themes of the book. The unity with which Bennett structures his story is very impressive, and a significant improvement over his debut Mr. Shivers. But his young hero, George Carole, must navigate the minefields of his companion’s tragic histories. In some cases, he pours salt on their wounds. In others, he is oblivious until almost too late. But he grows to define himself not as an amalgamation of his companion’s value systems, but with a worldview distinctly his own.

And it is this, the defining of oneself, and negotiating the border between fantasy and reality, that lies at the heart of every circus story. It is the primary theme of Valentine’s Mechanique, of Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, and of just about every circus story I have ever read. And I suspect that is a greater truth that lies at the heart of every fantasy. And, for that matter, at the heart of every work of fiction.

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