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Why bother with science fiction, fantasy, or horror?

Article first published as Why Bother with Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror? on Blogcritics.

“That stuff’s for kids.”

“Elves and trolls and aliens are silly.”

“None of it’s real, anyway.”

“It’s all escapism.”

“Those are boy books.”

Many people wouldn’t be caught dead holding onto The Hobbit, or Stranger in a Strange Land, or The Haunting of Hill House. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. Not everyone is going to enjoy SF, some people won’t get a kick out of fantasy, and others may shudder at the very thought of horror. That’s a question of taste, and really who am I to argue with individual’s tastes? But saying that a particular genre isn’t to your taste is very different from blithely discounting the entire oeuvre. The latter is like a toddler insisting that they don’t like a dish they’ve never tasted before.

Many grown-ups wave genre fiction away by saying that it’s for kids. I get it: it’s an easy argument, really. Society’s perception already pigeon-holes it, so playing to that misconception is an easy out. And history – genre’s roots in the pulps, the Victorian fairy tales for children, etc. – all lend it credence. But on closer examination, this argument falls apart on several levels:

On the one hand, it is factually inaccurate. No one can seriously argue that Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War are books for children. Thoughtful kids might get some enjoyment out of the adventure, but the themes these books wrestle with are definitely of concern to adults. This applies across the genres, where at least since the 1950’s the majority has been written with an adult audience in mind.

On the other hand, this argument forgets that kids are much more discerning readers than adults. Consider how easily kids see through weak plots, how quickly they stop caring about milquetoast characters, how they lose interest when the pace sags. When was the last time you saw a ten-year old enjoy a Saul Bellow book? If the purpose of literature is to entertain, and to broaden our understanding of the human condition, then I think we’d be hard-pressed to find books that execute better than middle-grade and YA fiction. Consider Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, or A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, or J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. They’ve sure got some fantastical elements to them (teleportation to alien planets, talking animals, and Never Never Land respectively), don’t they? But they employ fantasy as entertainment and to highlight themes that speak to our hearts. Kids books – and all genre books, whether targeted to kids or not – use fantastical elements as tools to highlight their themes. Bear in mind that kids see right through pretension, and have no patience for it.

One can argue that elves and ray-guns and monsters are silly, unrealistic, and as a result offer no value. They might be entertaining, but who cares about entertainment? All of us, I’d wager. We read books, watch TV, listen to music to be entertained. Sure, we also want to have our horizons broadened but first and foremost we want to be distracted from the concerns of daily life. One can sneer at such escapism, but escapism relaxes us and makes us more productive. How is that a bad thing?

I’ve seen folks denounce genre fiction to a room full of fans as “mindless entertainment” – strangely enough, I’ve never seen anyone say the same about watching football at a sports bar. Entertainment in and of itself has value, and genre fiction simply employs a bigger toolkit than “mainstream” fiction. Using monsters to provide a concrete visualization of humanity’s dark side is a time-honored storytelling tradition that dates back to the first fireside ghost stories. If we reject genre for employing such tools, then so too must we reject classic myths, legends, and folk tales.

Sure, it’s not real. And there are plenty of people out there who don’t like fiction. Fine: if you only like reading non-fiction, more power to you. But if we accept that fiction of any kind has inherent value, then so too must all flavors of fiction. Why would realistic fiction have value and fantastic fiction not? Do George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells have nothing to add to our understanding of humanity? All three wrote plenty of realistic fiction as well as speculative fiction. What are they remembered for?

The last argument I find most pernicious, since it continues to consistently crop up in circles where it shouldn’t. Just several days ago, Ginia Bellafante published a review of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ in the New York Times. Putting aside her comments on the actual show, she patronizingly fobbed off George R.R. Martin’s bestselling Song of Ice and Fire series (and all of fantasy) as “boy fiction”. I guess twelve year old boys have much greater buying power than I thought. After all, the latest installment (A Feast for Crows) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Such misogynistic disdain for genre fiction is equivalent to saying that only women enjoy romantic comedies. I’m a red-blooded, steak-eating, bacon-enjoying American male, and like many others I enjoy a good rom com with the best of ’em!

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror is enjoyed by people of all ages, all genders, all religions, all backgrounds. Yes, it is entertaining. But like Whitman, it contains multitudes. There’s something for everyone’s tastes on the genre shelves: Looking for Jane Austen-esque comedy of manners? Check out Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, or Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey. Looking for beautiful magical realism? Check out Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths or Italo Calvino. In the mood for fast-paced quasi-corporate thrillers? Take a look at William Gibson’s cyberpunk (Neuromancer, Idoru). Want some light-hearted parody? Pick up some Terry Pratchett (any of the Discworld novels) or Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Want blistering social satire? Pick up James Morrow’s City of Truth or Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird. Want political intrigue? Pick up George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. In the mood for some thoughtful, soul-searching philosophical musings? Read some Samuel Delany, or Ursula K. Le Guin.

The science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres do as much as the mainstream literary genre. Yes, mainstream literary is a genre. In many ways, its reliance realism as a storytelling tool is one of its defining characteristics. Mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction have the same job: to entertain and to elucidate. Rejecting the fantastical genres just because they have a greater variety of screwdrivers and hammers in their narrative toolbox is silly.

Would you do the same when hiring a plumber?

The Desperate Horror of Suburbia: Thoughts on Shirley Jackson

A couple of months ago, I wrote about different modes of horror, and while enjoying the Library of America collection Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, it got me thinking about how Jackson employed (and mastered) the art of identification in her stories.

The Library of America collection, selected by Joyce Carol Oates, contains forty-nine of Jackson’s stories. Except for the previously-unpublished works, the collection effectively spans the entire twenty-year period in which Jackson wrote before her untimely death in 1965. The stories range in length from what today would be considered flash fiction (like the two-page Colloquoy) to Jackson’s short novels (including the classic The Haunting of Hill House). The book starts with Jackson’s earliest stories that were originally collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, and when I think of Shirley Jackson, these are without a doubt my favorites.

As a genre, horror has a great many tropes: moonlit streets, foggy nights, sexy gentlemen with a dark side, the unrelenting psychopath, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. However, most of the stories that rely on these tropes tend to either utilize revulsion or dread to induce the delightful frisson of horror. For folks who look for their horror to be splatterpunk blood-fests, or for sexy vampires lurking languidly in the night, most of Shirley Jackson’s work would disappoint. The reason for that is that she utilizes every tool of the horror trade like a scalpel, and in her earliest works the tool she most relied on was identification (or realization).

Most of the stories collected in the original The Lottery and Other Stories (and which are now reprinted) have zero supernatural elements, depict no violence, and arguably lack the thriller-tension that most readers think of as horror. If it were not for the subtle manipulation of the reader’s morality, these stories would be utterly forgettable slice-of-life or Americana stories, accurate, in their representation of small-town life but insignificant as to the broader human condition. However, what makes Jackson unique in my view is the way that she can ellicit abject horror and revulsion from these utterly plebian events.

Consider Flower Garden, which on its face tracks the musings of a young Mrs. Winning, a 1940′s housewife, as she goes about her life in a small country town. She interacts with people like her neighbors, the grocer, her family. Shortly into the story, we learn that a new woman (a Mrs. MacLane) has moved into town from the city, and that she has a son of an age with Mrs. Winning’s boy. However, as the story proceeds, Jackson shows us the underside of small-town life, with its small-town prejudices. As the newcomer forms a friendship with one of the town’s few African American families, the “respectable” portion of small-town society begins to draw away. What Jackson does amazingly in this story is in the way that she portrays Mrs. Winning’s rationalization of their ostracization. Mrs. Winning isn’t guilty of any such prejudice: no, that’s only for more small-minded people. But ultimately, she adopts a similar stance to the other townsfolk and effectively isolates poor Mrs. MacLane in this new community. The story works because Jackson makes us care – deeply – about the characters, both Mrs. Winning (who we know isn’t all bad) and Mrs. MacLane (who is the victim). Jackson accomplishes this using three tools:

  • Keeping Her Point of View Character Oblivious to the Theme. This is a technique which Jackson uses frequently in the best of her stories. In Flower Garden, Mrs. Winning is completely oblivious to the prejudice that is going on around her. She notices that her relationships in town are weakened by her friendship with Mrs. MacLane, and so she begins to avoid her friend without even drawing attention to it. But when eventually she does notice it, she rationalizes it such that she never recognizes the moral choice that she has already made. Because we – the reader – are aware of this choice, our emotions are engaged and our minds focused on the theme: it’s like watching a movie where you want to shout at the heroine “Don’t go in there!” because you know something she doesn’t. Jackson elicits the same emotional response, only without the knife-wielding psychopath.
  • Employing Minutia to Ground the Reader. Jackson takes much time to show us the petty, inconsequential elements of Mrs. Winning’s daily life. Her conversation with the green grocer, the fact that she went to high school with him, her relationship with her mother-in-law: these facts have zero bearing on the primary plot. However, they lay the foundation for Jackson’s character, and for the broader community. As such, they establish the “feel” of the world Jackson paints for us. And it is a world that anyone who has lived in small-town America (even seventy years later) would instantly recognize. The reader places themselves into the nameless small-town, precisely because the prosaic details are so true-to-life and believable.
  • The Tragic Triumph of Moral Failure.When we read Flower Garden, we know what the “right” outcome should be. We know – morally, intellectually – that the community’s prejudice against Mrs. MacLane is abhorrent. However, in the end, it is their prejudices – and Mrs. MacLane’s own inverted prejudices against the small-town set – which triumph. The story ends tragically, not in the dramatic sense of everyone on stage dying, but rather in the Aristotelian sense of characters changing state from good to bad.

There is nothing to suggest that Flower Garden is a horror story: there is no violence, no fear, no physical tension of any kind. There are no ghosts or other supernatural elements. Yet it leaves the reader horrified at the underlying truth dramatized through the story’s actors. It ensures that we not only understand the author’s message but that we recognize it as an inevitable (and morally repugnant) consequence of human nature. And nowhere does Jackson come out and spell this message out for us: it is in the pauses between her characters’ thoughts, in the punctuation of her sentences, in the selection of her words. The story leaves us uneasy because it is all too easy to see ourselves in it.

Jackson applies this pattern in many of her works, and I find that it is put to best effect in her short stories. There, she evokes similar sensations of horror, disgust, revulsion, and tragic catharsis but with admirable economy. In her later novels, Jackson employed more supernatural (or ambiguously supernatural) elements, which often serve as sleight-of-hand to provide us a cozy rationalization for the real cause of our horror. Of course, even this interpretation is likely an over-simplification because even in her “supernatural” stories, Jackson leaves everything delightfully ambiguous: perhaps we need to blame our terror on ghosts and demons because the alternative – that humanity itself produces such horror – is too unsettling.

For anyone looking for an excellent author – whether a literary/mainstream author, or for one of the greatest horror writers ever to put pen to paper – I strongly recommend Shirley Jackson. Having come to her stories some sixty years after they were first published, I often wonder how my modern values affect my interpretation. I suspect, however, that the themes that Jackson addresses are universal and timeless. The foibles of humanity, the petty iniquities of small-town life, the dark secrets that lurk unspoken in our hearts: these never go away. It is easy to paint a black and white moralizing picture and say a character’s actions are morally repugnant: that does not mean those actions are unrealistic, or that they are not presented in cathartic and artistic fashion. Jackson offers no easy solutions. In fact, she doesn’t offer any solutions at all. But she raises questions that go to the heart of what we value as individuals, as a community, and as a broader society. That alone makes her worth reading. The fact that her works are fun, and unsettling, and in some cases absolutely horrifying, makes it that much better.

REVIEW: The Keep by F. Paul Wilson

The Keep by F. Paul Wilson Title: The Keep
Author: F. Paul Wilson
Pub Date: December 7th, 2010 (reprint)
August 1981 (original)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A gothic horror novel with an interesting monster, solid early tension but a disappointing climax.

In The Keep (first in his Adversary Cycle), F. Paul Wilson does an excellent job subverting staid vampire tropes and reveling in the devices of Gothic horror. Wilson’s deft command of craft as shown in his management of setting, and the gradual reveal of his monster make this book a worthwhile purchase.

Set in 1941 in a remote mountain keep high in the Romanian Alps, the book pits two inhuman monsters against each other. On the one hand, we have the Nazi army. The Nazis are realists, hard-hearted murderers marching across Europe, slaughtering innocents by the millions. On the other hand, we have a supernatural monster (possibly a vampire, possibly not) who brutally murders Nazis one-by-one in the night. With a setup like this, Wilson has an opportunity to do one of four things: he can turn the vampire into a hero (a fun role reversal for a traditional monster), he can turn one of the Nazis into a hero (a challenging prospect, considering their historical baggage), he can show both as somewhat-justified, or he can show both as monstrous. Wilson primarily chooses to take the easiest of these four paths, keeping both the Nazis and the creature who murders them monstrous.

Klaus Woermann, a disillusioned Nazi officer, is given a somewhat-punitive assignment to guard a remote Romanian castle. Throughout the book, Woermann is the only Nazi depicted in any kind of positive light. He is painted as conflicted, not enamoured of the fuhrer, and disgusted by what the Nazis are doing to the Jews. The scenes written from Woermann’s perspective are interesting in that they show a tentativeness in Wilson’s characterization that is absent when he writes from other (less morally ambiguous) characters, like Magda Cuza or the SS commander Kaempffer. It is unclear to me whether this tentativeness stems from the author’s uncertainty as to how sympathetic to make the Nazi, or whether it stems from Woermann’s own uncertainties as to his loyalty. Irrespective of the source of this tentativeness, I found it an interesting aspect of the character that lent some degree of depth to him.

When Woermann’s troops are stationed in the mysterious keep, they inadvertently set loose a monster that had been trapped there, presumably for centuries. The monster proceeds to murder Woermann’s men, one Nazi per night. As more of his troops are murdered, Woermann eventually gets assistance from the SS through Erich Kaempffer, an absolutely monstrous officer who gleefully intends to set up concentration camps in Romania. The SS officer, and all of the troops under his command, are painted as absolutely inhuman creatures. There is no moral ambiguity, no tentativeness in their characterization. They are vile, cruel, and vicious. Thankfully, they don’t quite veer into the realm of caricature, but their commander at times comes perilously close.

The scenes of terror told from the Nazis point of view are absolutely delightful: Wilson never shows us the monster directly, instead revealing the effects the monster has on the environment and the Nazis themselves. Because the Nazis are never made entirely sympathetic, our fear is kept slightly distanced. Some might view this as a weakening of the book’s horror, but I felt that it actually helped make me more aware of the monster and his actions. The result was to leave the reader uncertain what kind of monster we are dealing with, while slowly building the tension through solid pacing. The monster shares certain traits with a Dracula-esque vampire, but there are enough new and different traits to leave the Nazis (and the reader) unsure of what we are dealing with. Wilson’s restraint is used to excellent effect in these scenes, and they leave the reader hungry to learn more about the monster’s nature.

Unable to stem the loss of life, the terrified Nazis turn to Josef Cuza, an ailing Jewish expert on local folklore, and his daughter Magda. These two characters are the only purely noble characters in the book. The scenes told from their standpoint make it clear that they are sympathetic, righteous, honorable folk…nothing like either the Nazis or the monster. This portrayal of the Cuzas is perhaps one of the better pieces of characterization executed in this book. By setting the Cuzas up as purely good, fundamentally righteous, innocent, and noble, Wilson sets them up for a beautiful fall. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into the details but it is exactly the Cuzas characterization and how it subtly changes over the course of the book that lends the novel its thematic tension.

The readers learn more about the monster as the Cuzas work to unravel the mystery of what is killing the Germans. The gradual reveal of the monster continues Wilson’s tweaking of the vampire mythos. Throughout, Wilson keeps the monster almost, but not quite, a classical vampire. At one point, Josef Cuza remarks that the monster might not be a real vampire as the myths give us, but that it might be a real creature that at one point inspired those myths. That the reader can believe this theory is a testament to the fine line between classic tropes and innovation that Wilson used to depict the supernatural monster at the heart of this book.

The tension in the book is very well managed, right up to the moment of the final reveal. Throughout the first eighty percent of the novel, Wilson raises the stakes and the reader’s expectations. By the time the truth (and the monster) are fully revealed, the reader expects something powerful, dark, and gritty. Instead, the explanation introduces a cosmology that the reader had little preparation for earlier in the book. The surprising cosmology is clearly a setup for subsequent books in the Adversary Cycle, but here in that series’ first book it struck me as deus ex machina. While the surprising cosmology weakened the climax, the climax remains reasonably solid: the action is dramatic, the stakes and tension significant. But the climax falls just shy of the very high expectations created by the excellent majority of the novel.

In all, I would say that The Keep is a solid work of horror, with good characterization, excellent tone and setting management, and fine control of tension right up to the climax. Wilson’s depiction and gradual explanation of the monster is exceptionally well done, and the way he undermines certain character’s righteousness is poignant and sensitive. However, the excellent ingredients that make up the bulk of the book leave the expectations very high for the climax, which is weakened by the introduction of an unestablished cosmology. Fans of Gothic horror will find much to enjoy in this book, and I am curious how the remaining books in the Adversary Cycle develop the cosmology further. Having introduced it in the series’ first book, I suspect (and hope) that the subsequent installments will make more effective use of it.

Where are America’s science fiction, fantasy, and horror specialist retailers?

I spent last week in London on business. I love London, even in chilly, misty, drizzly January. One of the reasons why is because it is home to Forbidden Planet, the world’s largest and (to the best of my knowledge) only chain (though technically a pair of chains – see update below) retailer specializing in science fiction, fantasy, and horror products. The London megastore sits on two floors, stocked to the gills with action figures, comic books, graphic novels, trade and mass-market books, and DVDs: if it is genre, odds are you can find it there. Split between two somewhat-related separate companies (Forbidden Planet and Forbidden Planet International), the Forbidden Planet brand name offers twenty-five different locations in the United Kingdom. If the United Kingdom – home to sixty two million souls – can support twenty five chain outlets, why can’t the US – with five times the population – do the same?

UPDATE: Just a word of clarification since the above might not be clear: Forbidden Planet and Forbidden Planet International are in fact two separate companies. The former has nine stores in the UK, while the latter has thirteen branded outlets in the UK, one in Ireland, one in New York, and two other associated (though not branded) stores in the UK. While the two were related in the past (per Wikipedia), they are now operated as two completely independent companies. However, this fact does nothing to detract from the main point of this post: where are our genre chains in the United States?

Both countries have their share of general media retailers: the United States is home to Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Best Buy. The United Kingdom is home to W.H. Smith and Waterstone’s. Despite the ever-present moans of indie media outlets (whether booksellers or comic book shops), both have reasonably vibrant indie communities. I find it unlikely that the UK has a larger number of genre fans as a percentage of the population than the United States. If that were the case, then the UK would host a far greater number of genre publications (pro, small-press, and amateur) than it does.

Forbidden Planet (at least the London megastore, which admittedly may not be a representative sample) knows the genre business far better than its more general counterparts. The store is clearly divided by product type. Action figures, novelty items, and gaming are in one area. Anime, graphic novels, comic books, and regular books are in another. The book section is impressively stocked and organized along broad genre lines. Each section is consistently sub-divided, with its own “New Releases”, a “Chart” section where top-sellers are shown face-out with shelf talkers, and a general stock alphabetically arranged by author. This structure makes navigating the shelves a downright pleasure. Identifying what is new, and spotting what is performing well within a given category is very easy – whether you’re familiar with the genre or not.

This type of organizational scheme would be unimaginable at a general retailer. However, it is not a product of the stocking teams’ deep knowledge of the genre. Instead, it is the product of solid operational management. While visiting the store on a Tuesday mid-afternoon, I got to watch shelves being re-stocked. The stocking teams used netbook computers with bar code scanners to control inventory and shelf placement. This makes it possible for even new employees without genre familiarity to stock shelves properly. Forbidden Planet earns a gold star in shelf management in my book, especially when compared to recent experiences at (the admittedly beleaguered) Borders.

Several weeks ago, I was looking for a copy of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. I went online, and the Borders web site told me that it was “likely in store” at my local retailer. I drove on over, and proceeded to check the in-store computer. It told me to check in the graphic novel section, where I was patently unable to identify any organizational method. Seeking help from an employee, I was told that it was in fact in stock, and that it would be in the criticism section. Of course, it was not. I checked with a different employee, and was told it would be in with the art books. And of course, it was not. Contrast this ordeal with the simple process of stopping by Forbidden Planet, wandering through the graphic novel section, and finding it precisely in the “M” section of independent graphic novels. I would expect to find this title in both stores, but the operational management of Forbidden Planet left me a satisfied customer while Borders failed me.

The United States has its share of specialist booksellers. Whether it is Borderlands Books in San Francisco, or Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, Massachusetts, many offer a fine selection and deep understanding of genre style and history. However, as a general rule these bookstores are independent one-location operations. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. With so many genre fans in the US, perhaps we, too, could support a chain of specialist media stores like Forbidden Planet? Economies of scale would help with profitability (the interminable lament of the indie bookseller), while technology would make operations and quality-control easier across a network of locations. On an early Tuesday afternoon, the London store was reasonably full of shoppers and needed two cashiers to service the line of customers waiting to buy. Why doesn’t America have something comparable?

Words on a Fertile Shore: The Evolution of Science Fiction and Fantasy Language

While eating delicious (and incredibly over-filling) holiday meals this weekend, I found myself thinking about Google Labs’ new Ngram Viewer. In my day job I deal with statistics, semantics, ontologies, and computational linguistics all day long. Which makes the Ngram Viewer a really, really fun toy. It allows us to look at the frequency with which particular words and phrases were utilized across all books in the English language for the last 500 years.

Which is really cool.

So with such a tool at my finger tips, I thought I would have a little bit of a fun. What can the Ngram Viewer tell us about language in genre fiction? What can it tell us about the genres themselves? To attempt a semi-serious answer to this question, I got out my trusty copy of Brave New Words and flipped through it find some of the tasty neologisms that science fiction has given us over the years. And having written them down, I started banging away at the Ngram Viewer. Here’s what I found:

The Rise and Fall of Cyberpunk, The Fall and Limping Recovery of Space Opera, and the Gradual Climb of Alternate History

Science Fiction Sub-Genres, 1900 - 2008

Science Fiction Sub-Genres, 1900 - 2008

So the late ’80s and early ’90s saw cyberpunk explode, rise to meteoric heights and then begin a gradual decline that still seems ongoing. Cyberpunk hasn’t seemed to eclipse any of the other major science fiction sub-genres, although it did seem to coincide with a gradual decline in space opera and future history. It’s also neat to see a visual representation of alternate history’s slow growth over the last 40 years.

Sword and Sorcery vs. Epic Fantasy, Paranormal Romance vs. Steampunk and Urban Fantasy

Fantasy Sub-genres, 1900 - 2008

Fantasy Sub-genres, 1900 - 2008

Looking at fantasy, we can see the response to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s popularity. Looking at the 1970s and 1980s, we can see the impact of Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny. Then the 1990s show us the rise of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George R.R. Martin and the other kings of the Chihuahua-killer tomes. But what I think is most interesting is the relationship between steampunk, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance.

Steampunk has been getting a lot of buzz recently, leading some authors (most prominently Charles Stross and Cat Valente) to complain that it eclipses everything else going on. But this somewhat unscientific chart at least shows that while steampunk may generate buzz, that buzz is disproportional to the volume of published work. Of course, those complaints are recent and Google’s data only goes up to 2008. It’d be interesting to see if in 2009 and 2010 steampunk really did eclipse other sub-genres of fantasy and science fiction. Looking at the data through 2008, the trend looks pretty steady and in line with urban fantasy. The data actually suggests that paranormal romance is the sub-genre really breaking out. At least by 2008.

Some Fun Genre Tropes

And since I am – technically – on vacation this week, I want to go out vacation-ing in a few minutes, just three last fun charts. The charts above track some of the sub-genres, but what about some of the most-common science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes? Some fun:

Space Travel Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Space Travel Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Hard science fiction and space opera both have their share of tropes, including (typically) some means of traveling at or near the speed of light. Of course, technology changes all the time so how have those tropes changed over the years? For one thing, the generic (and typically ill-defined) “hyperdrive” seems to be eclipsing anything with real science behind it. The equally fuzzy “warp drive” looks to have peaked around the turn of the century, while scientific or pseudo-scientific also-rans like the ramjet and gravity drive seem to be holding steady. Probably the most noticeable (and interesting) phenomenon was the brief but intense plateau of solar sails, which came to be pretty common right around the mid-1980’s before settling back down into a slow upward trajectory in the late ’90s.

Fantasy Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Fantasy Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Out of the stereo-typical fantasy tropes, dragons seem to be holding pretty steadily, but what’s notable is the rise of “wizard” in the late 1990s. Do I detect Harry Potter‘s wand at work?

Horror Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Horror Tropes, 1900 - 2008

And here we can clearly see the impact of Anne Rice and her Lestat as the progenitors of the vampire craze. Vampires are clearly the monster of last thirty years, and by 2008, they still have nothing to fear from either werewolves or zombies.

The Grisly Anatomy of Horror: Methods in Horror Fiction

Halloween is upon us, and I can’t think of a better season to consider the anatomy of the horror genre. I’m not looking for a definition of the genre (most definitions run along the lines of “the horror genre generates a feeling of terror or horror in the audience” – DUH!). Instead, the ghouls and ghosts and ninja pirates outside my door ravenously seeking my candy inspire me to ask the following questions:

  1. What kinds of emotional response can be evoked by the horror genre?
  2. How does the horror genre evoke that emotional response?

Terror, Horror, and Identification/Realization

Of course, all writing is manipulative to a greater or lesser degree. But horror especially plays on our ethos to achieve the author’s goal: eliciting a strong emotional response. This is the case whether we’re considering:

Horror makes use of three primary modes:

Terror (Dread) The fear of predicted or anticipated events. The fear of what is to come.
Horror (Revulsion) The fear of events or facts that have already happened/been shown. Revulsion at what is perceived.
Identification (Realization) Lingering terror or horror at the conclusion of a story that relies upon internalization of the story’s themes.

Any particular work of horror can (and often does) utilize all three modes at different points in the story. I won’t bother commenting much on the first two (Terror vs. Horror) because a lot has already been said about that. If you’re looking for some of that discussion, a good starting point is the Wikipedia entry on Horror and Terror.

I would, however, like to spend a moment discussing the concept of identification. This is not horror in the “what’s that behind the door” (terror) or “my god that’s disgusting” (horror) variety. Instead, it is a thematic horror that lingers after the book has been closed. This type of horror relies on the reader’s self-identification with the story elements that had – until the climax – been the object of terror/horror. It is fundamentally the realization that “The monster is Us” and is often used in the most memorable horror stories. It is that sensation at the end of a horror story that leaves you feeling like:

  • you could see yourself as the monster, and/or
  • you would behave as the (doomed) protagonists were you in their shoes.

While the entire horror genre uses terror, horror, or both, I believe that the most-memorable horror also relies on this third mode for its resonance. Matheson’s I Am Legend would be unremarkable if not for its use of realization. Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death is powerful precisely because we identify with the doomed revelers.

So how does the horror genre evoke these three emotional modes? Just as with any genre, horror has its share of tropes. But I believe there are two tools which are universal across all of the sub-genres of horror (intrusion horror, zombie horror, vampire horror, etc.) and all of the mediums of horror (books, film, comics, etc.): uncertainty and horrific imagery.

Uncertainty: The Gasoline in the Horror Plot

Every story – regardless of genre – relies to some extent on uncertainty. We (the reader) are uncertain of what our hero is going to do next, or of how a situation will resolve itself, and so we keep turning pages. In the horror genre, our uncertainty is typically shared by the hero. The hero is uncertain of the monster: is it real? What is it? What are its weaknesses? What does it want? While on the journey with our hero, we share that uncertainty. Good horror is frequently written in either first-person narration or close-perspective third person. This is done specifically to put us in the hero’s head, to understand his perceptions of his situation. If the hero (and the reader by extension) were certain of the situation, then there would no fear, and thus no horror.

From a plotting standpoint, resolving this uncertainty gives the story its forward motion. It’s the gasoline that powers the story’s engine. Consider Stephen King’s Needful Things. In that novel, Sheriff Pangborn tries to unravel the mystery of why Castle Rock’s residents are suddenly killing each other. He is uncertain of Leland Gaunt’s intentions, and initially of his guilt. Similarly, Dan Simmons’ Drood is propelled by Dickens’ and the narrator’s desire to uncover the mystery of Edwin Drood. In James Cameron’s Alien, the uncertainty rests around if and how Ripley and the rest of the crew will escape the xenomorphs. In the 1997 film Event Horizon, the uncertainty stems from the Event Horizon‘s appearance and its strange gravity drive.

How the characters respond to these uncertainties elicits the sensation of dread (terror) or revulsion (horror). Just as your characters’ reaction to magic systems makes them believable in fantasy, so the characters’ reaction to uncertainty generates fear in the reader. This effect can be enhanced through the use of horrific imagery.

Imagery: The Keys to Horror

Effective horror imagery manipulates that part of our brain which our ancestors used to identify (and fight or flee) from threats. I believe that there are five principle types of horror imagery, each of which has different components and different effects:

Imagery Typical Effect, Method, & Examples
  • Establishes the mood of a story.
  • Puts the reader in a receptive frame of mind.
  • Builds a feeling of palpable anticipation (dread).
Manipulates our limbic system (that reptilian part of our brain that controls the fight or flight response). Dark, chilly rain forests replete with mysterious sounds still make us wary, despite the fact that most of us left the forest floor millenia ago. A fog-covered city street in the dead of night automatically puts us on our guard because our brain knows that “unnamed threats” can lurk in the mists. If your setting is built with imagery that can hide or hint at monsters, it can be used to make your audience receptive to the sensation of dread you’re seeking to instill. It can be a subtle effect, gradually building through layers of disconcerting and slightly shadowed images. Look to Poe or HP Lovecraft for great examples of how this can be done.
Pin-point Terror
  • Elicits a sense of immediate threat.
  • Places the hero and reader in a state of perceived jeopardy.
A more direct type of horrific imagery used to “jump start” the limbic system. If layering horrific imagery throughout your story produces the appropriate mood, throwing in explicit imagery of your monsters can be excellent punctuation. Be careful not to over-do it. You want to show enough of your monster to terrify your audience, but leave enough uncertainty for them to keep jumping at shadows. The classic image that comes to mind is eyes glowing in the dark. It makes us think of wolves in the night, monsters whose eyes you can see without any idea of how large or dangerous they are. This combination of immediate danger while maintaining uncertainty is a great way to up your audience’s heart rate.
  • Generates a sense of revulsion.
  • Explicitly describes what the reader would rather not see.
The explicit description of the repugnant (cannibalism, gore, viscera, etc.). Repugnant imagery is straightforward and understandable: it is the pulling back of the curtain on the uglier sides of fantasy; showing the reader things they would rather not see.
  • Generates a sense of revulsion.
  • Describes something impossible which our mind rejects as contrary to our sense of right and wrong.
“Wrong” imagery takes an image that the reader is intimately familiar with (e.g. the human body) and twists it, placing it at odds with the reader’s accepted norms. Think of the grotesque, hunched physique of Mr. Hyde in Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or horror film’s usage of twisted body shapes (head-spinning in The Exorcist or the contorted “spider-walk” in many horror movies), or the shambling, broken gait of the walking dead. These are images which when our eye sees (or imagines) them our brain instantly classifies them as wrong: incorrect and unnatural.
Cultural Legacy
  • Uses cultural tropes to evoke an emotional response.
  • Relies on cultural background (folk tales, pop culture, etc.) for the audience to “fill in the blank”.
Every culture has its ghost stories, folk tales, and frightening myths. Devils, demons, cannibals, etc. lurk somewhere in every zeitgeist. George A. Romero’s living dead are a recent addition. These images can be utilized by creators as a short-hand for all of the other imagery. The very word “zombie” conjures certain images in the reader’s mind, and creators can use that cultural legacy either to “shortcut” some narrative or to “level-set” the reader’s mind-set. Or consider Stephen King’s usage of the clown Pennywise in It. While this is a useful (and often powerful) tool, it should be used judiciously as over-reliance can leave the work feeling trite or comedic in nature.

So as you lie in wait for monsters to come trick or treating to your door, try to think a little bit about the horror genre. What makes it good? What makes it horrific? Maybe you can add a little more horror into your Halloween? And please, let me know if you can think of any other tools that creators of excellent horror utilize. I’d love to add them to my ghoulish toolkit.

With that being said, and in the spirit of Halloween, allow me to leave you with an image I have always found fun and terrifying. Happy Halloween!

Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King's It

Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King's It

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