Written by Glen Hirshberg
When I first saw the question, I read it wrong.
The question came to me from writer-editors Chris Shearer and Tim Waggoner, who had invited me to contribute to a critical work they’re assembling called The Dark Now, due out from Post Mortem Books in 2015. They sent me a set of provocative queries, including this one:
“Horror seems to be gaining a certain amount of literary respectability… What do you think of that trend? Does it make horror a less rebellious genre?”
But what I read, and immediately started to answer, was a related but very different question, one I have been asked a thousand times before: by my teachers; by graduate school workshop peers; by vaguely concerned Faculty Search Committees (I mean, he seems pleasant enough, but have you read his stuff?) when I interviewed for jobs; even by readers. And that question goes something like this:
“Can horror even be literature?”
Or, “Why would a real writer ever want or need to write that?”
The implications of those questions have dogged my career ever since my waggish brother mocked up a book jacket for my first novel, The Snowman’s Children, complete with an imaginary blurb from Stephen King proclaiming (a little too accurately), “It’s like To Kill a Mockingbird meets Silence of the Lambs.”
Then I read Chris and Tim’s question again.
And once more.
And I burst out laughing.
In a way, the query itself says a lot about the health and dynamism of the field right now. If horror has reached (or returned to) its Nirvana—meaning, the moment where it has erupted so forcefully into the mainstream that its practitioners perceive a danger of becoming mainstream—then maybe we really have left the much-maligned Dark(er) Ages of slasher films and black-spined paperbacks behind us.
But with the exception of the above era, stretching, say, from the death of Shirley Jackson in 1965 to wherever you pinpoint the emergence of the New Wave Fabuwhatevers sometime in the 2000s, horror has always been literature, always been a shadowy corner of the mainstream.
Virtually every human civilization that has ever told itself stories has told itself ghost stories. In this country, one could certainly make the case that more of our literary giants have written supernatural fiction than have not (starting with Charles Brockden Brown and Washington Irving and continuing right on through Hawthorne, Chesnutt, Poe, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, William Faulkner). Meanwhile, the leading lights of horror— from M.R. James and Arthur Machen to Theodore Sturgeon, Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, Lucius Shepard (Goddamnit)—have all eventually been recognized for the dazzling, and literary, writers they are.
This détente has been the norm, not the exception, so much so that even the afore-mentioned black-spine era is now being reassessed; witness the recent and frequent welcoming of Stephen King—belatedly, and with more than occasional traces of condescension—into the pages of that august organ of the Academy, The New York Times Book Review.
The only danger to horror or literature, it seems to me, is the assumption that they are separate or opposing things. That literature can’t be rebellious. That dark fiction can’t be gorgeous and hurtful and heartfelt and life-affirming.
In January, in The New York Times, Russell Banks caused predictable feather-flapping in the spectral fiction community when he declared that he avoids reading “Anything described by the author or publisher as fantasy, which says to me, ‘Don’t worry, Reader, Death will be absent here.’” If I had a dog—or a gigantic hound—in this fight, I’d be tempted to respond that I avoid anything proclaiming itself Literature, which says to me, ‘Don’t worry, Reader, Life will be absent here.’”
But I don’t (have a dog, or avoid literature). Because the truest and only response I’ve got, to all these questions, is this: actual human experience, whatever that turns out to be, is so bound up in and suffused by our expectations for the experience beforehand and the memories and meanings we attach afterward that we are, as a species, incapable of telling the difference between reality and the way we experience reality. There is no reality without imagination, in living or in art. And there is no imagination without a reality to trigger it.
We are so much more—and less—than the stuff dreams are made on. We are dreams, walking.
From the Tor/Forge May 19th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.
More from the May 19th Tor/Forge newsletter:
- In Virtual Restaurants, What Will Cherries Taste Like? by Stephen L. Baker
- On the Road: Tor/Forge Author Events in May