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Dark Currents, page 2

So let's take a stab at exploring that very real and inescapable marketing distinction -- how it originated, what it entails, and what it portends.

First off, a quick tour of literary vs. popular forms. It's not like the divide between lit and pop hasn't been around for a while: it's the divide between the hoity-toity and the hoi polloi, between the fastidiously refined and the great unwashed. It predates the printing press, for sure. In medieval Britain, for example, there was a artistic tension between the formal court ballads that were considered to be the most worthy endeavor of a true poet, and those bawdier, rowdier songs (larger-than-life heroes, action, romance) that the people have always demanded of their storytellers. This is an early example of an audience-specific literature.

To find the place where the lit/pop distinction arose with regard to horror, we're going to need to skip past the early history of horror -- the tales 'round the campfire, the monster-hero epics, the Greek ghost stories, the Jacobean plays -- and jump forward to the Scientific Revolution. Once the unseen world was no longer classified as "natural," but rather as "supernatural," the denizens of the night became more frightening -- more at odds with (as Lovecraft so memorably puts it) "those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space."

Horror fiction as we know it today arose in the highly rational climate of the mid-18th century, when a long period of sentimental romantic works ended with Samuel Richardson's Clarissa -- the first novel about ordinary people confronting ordinary crises. Richardson's scenario of a sexually menacing male and an insipidly innocent female was not horror, but it could be played out in a horrific setting: The genius of Horace Walpole was that he transposed it into the bizarre world of The Castle of Otranto, and wove it into a plot in which the characters found themselves in not at all ordinary, but rather (in Walpole's words) "extraordinary positions." After Walpole, came the Walpole imitators. Then Anne Radcliffe introduced into the form, most effectively in The Mysteries of Udolpho, a higher level of psychological sophistication. After Radcliffe, came the Radcliffe imitators. Then Matthew G. Lewis contributed, in The Monk, a spirit of exuberant gruesomeness. The Lewis imitators followed suit.

Soon, the marketing folks walked into the scene, with their usual lack of subtlety, and a popular audience was born: the Gothic readers wanted not originality, but repetition of the formula. They clamored for flimsy pamphlets in gaudy wrappers, for dreadfuls and shockers with titles like The Bloody Hand, The Torch of Death. Popular fiction hasn't been the same since. By 1811 Percy Bysshe Shelley was nearly sighing with disgust, when he wrote to his publisher of his own Gothic effort, St. Irvyne, that it was "a thing which almost mechanically sells to circulating libraries."

Not long after this separate, and commercially successful, channel of fiction was created, the lit-crit establishment stuck its nose in the air. Other forms of writing were encouraged, and thus came the era of social realism exemplified by Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope. The Gothic form lingered on -- and indeed, has never gone away, just re-invented itself in different guises for different eras -- but the split between mainstream "literary" fiction, and popular horror fiction, was firmly established.

This time also marks the beginning of "horror don't get no respect" -- not only in the spoofs, like Jane Austen's send-up of Minerva Press in Northanger Abbey, but also in a weird silence that begins in the history books. If you look in the history of literature for a discussion of the division between mainstream and popular forms -- especially if you search for how, and when, the distinction became manifest moving into the 20th century --you find almost nothing. In critical treatments of the Victorian period and the dawn of the modern period, horror fiction, all genre fiction, is, like Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," not mentioned or discussed. It's as if it weren't there at all.

Another weird thing is the terminology itself: How did it come to pass that "mainstream" and "popular" are now antonyms? The Oxford English Dictionary entry for "mainstream" shows it first being used in reference to literature by Matthew Arnold, in 1865; but for the first 70 or so years of this century, it was mostly used to refer to mainstream jazz -- typified by Armstrong, Basie and Ellington. A particularly ironic use of the word in reference to black writers, artists and musicians is by the aforementioned Ralph Ellison, in New Black Voices (1966): "The main stream of American literature is in me, even though I am a Negro, because I possess more of Mark Twain than many white writers do." In reading through the dictionary entries for this word, one gains an opposite impression of its meaning than how we tend to use it today -- a sense that it's related to the hoi polloi -- what the people read, what the people want. The true main course of the river, as opposed to the obscurantist tangents of some modern fiction.

As it stands now, that is, unless people write new histories that treat the whole of literature more comprehensively, a future literary researcher studying the past couple hundred years will read of how the Gothic romances had their day in the sun; but once that split between literary fiction and horror fiction became established, it's as if horror drops off the map. Writers like E.T.A. Hoffmann and Edgar A. Poe are given credit for their role in the creation of the short story form, but they are treated almost as isolated blips on the horizon, not as part of an ongoing and parallel tradition.

We loyal readers know, though, that horror was with us all along, and that in the 20's Weird Tales and the other pulp magazines first gave space for the emergence of horror as a separate genre. (The phrase "genre fiction" as we currently use it first became prevalent in the era of the pulps.) Horror in book form was not common during the first 60 years or so of this century, though. The short story form, and still is, a more proven and effective medium for the tale of grue.

The period we know now, when horror is not only a separate genre, but a separate marketing category for books, was ushered in by two significant novels of the 60's: The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, and Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin. These two were marketed as mainstream, were bestsellers, and went on to become much ballyhooed movies. The effect was not immediate -- the Blatty and Levin imitators were not instantly packaged in different formats and marketed as horror -- but the commercial success of these two novels set the stage for Stephen King's emergence in the late 70's, when horror novels and story collections would begin to be marketed in separate channels. By that time, science fiction, fantasy, spy novels, mysteries, and historical romances were getting distinctive packaging as well. Finally, in the 80's, came the Horror Gold Rush Saga -- the boom that we know and love and curse so often. Not did horror writers begin to land multi-million-dollar contracts, but in the mid-80's, separate horror lines emerged within publishing companies: at the height of its own contribution to the boom, in 1987, Tor Books was putting out three new horror titles a month.

It remains to be seen, whether the boom will really bust. It remains to be seen, what will become of the horror genre, if it does. But for the purposes of our discussion, the boom is worth noting because -- like in the heyday of the Gothic potboilers -- it's a case where popular success creates separate marketing, which in turn creates a separate avenue of response on the part of the critical establishment.

The popularity of horror does not completely explain, though, the reason for its splitting into a separate genre. Another immensely popular form, what critic John Cavetti calls "the social melodrama," hasn't been isolated by packaging or marketing. The current hardcover best-seller list includes four novels of the social melodrama form, all of which are being marketed as mainstream.

I can think of at least two other factors involved in the genrification -- or, to use the more polemical term, the ghettoizing -- of horror. One is that it's easily identifiable. Old rule of thumb about discrimination: if you can see that the person is different, you can label them as inferior. The surface difference is well-known to us, especially when the book is in that black-skinned paperback: the horror book seems almost to be screaming out, "I'm just a schlocky horror novel -- don't take me seriously!" Another factor is the position horror has taken, ever since its emergence in the 18th century, of being deliberately provocative, beyond the pale, seeking to épater les bourgeois -- although (here's another irony) "bourgeois" is now one of the derogatory words used about readers of genre fiction. This nearly programmatic effort to avoid respectability -- as opposed to the "horror don't get no respect" judgment that is applied from the outside -- is itself a fascinating can of worms (best put back in the fridge for now, though). But of course none of these factors prevent mainstream writers from writing the dark stuff, or else there wouldn't be a subject for this essay.

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