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Dark Currents, page 3

What distinguishes a mainstream/literary book with dark or horrific themes (what I'm calling "mainstream horror," for lack of a better term) from a book that is labeled horror? One determining variable, vis-a-vis the marketing decision, is the author's reputation -- the style and subject matter of any previous books, and their critical reception. An infamous example of what happens when a prestigious mainstream author writes a horror novel is Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho. In November of 1990, Simon & Schuster had this one all packaged and ready to go, when, amid a hue-and-cry about "corporate censorship," they withdrew the book -- which was subsequently published by Vintage Contemporaries, no doubt gaining many readers as a result of the flap. Is American Psycho any more violent than, say, your average Richard Laymon novel? No. But it's interesting as an exception that proves the rule: usually when a respected mainstream writer writes a book with lots of gore, the book moves entirely within the mainstream process of marketing and reviewing, and may or may not attract attention from the horror audience. (Examples: Patrick Suskind's Perfume, Katharine Dunn's Geek Love.)

Once the book does get out in print, a mainstream horror book is more likely to get reviewed in the major presses -- the book review segments of major newspapers, the slick weeklies, and the literary journals. For this reason, the first one is more likely to be read by important literary critics, and thus has a better chance of being elevated from merely mainstream -- which is the un-category, the not-a-genre category -- to "literary." A genre book, by contrast, is not likely to get any mainstream reviews, and thus has less chance of getting into the hallowed halls of literature than a hulking hairy monster has of making it through the eye of a needle. (Although, oddly enough, Mary Shelley's monster did eventually make it through that needle. Time is a powerful critic: an author who is at first considered too weird or too popular to make the grade, can become "literary" in retrospect.)

But is there something more than the whim of an editor going on here? Are there any substantive differences between mainstream horror and genre horror?

One way of breaking this down is to use the form vs. content distinction. Even given the wide variety of forms present in mainstream fiction -- modern, minimalist, post-modern, magical-realist -- there are some generalizations we can make about stylistic differences between these two types of horror. For starters, genre horror is a more conservative form; it has changed less than the rest of fiction, over the past couple of centuries. Part of this is due to the genre's wide and influential audience: a highly selective body of readers can act like a cartel, and demand certain familiar patterns, one of which is the realistic mode (new in the 18th century, but now considered traditional). Realism is also in the nature of the beast. It's a little counter-intuitive, at first glance, to say that horror fiction, with its fantastic and supernatural elements, must be "realistic," but a realistic backdrop against which a horror tale unfolds, is often utilized to provide emotional contrast with the encroaching darkness.

Another, related, difference is that genre horror relies on one or both of two primary devices for its effect: storytelling and mood. I think of these as the King vs. Lovecraft parameters. In a 1983 interview Stephen King stated that "my deeply held conviction is that story must be paramount, because it defines the entire work of fiction. All other considerations are secondary -- theme, mood, even characterization and language itself." H. P. Lovecraft, on the other hand, wrote in Supernatural Horror in Literature, "Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation."

Plot and mood: hence, realism. In the real world, things happen. In the real world, people have emotions. Many mainstream authors, by contrast, seem to go out of their way to avoid storytelling, in order to differentiate their work from the literature of the past. As for emotions, modernist fiction engages in what Annie Dillard (in Living by Fiction) calls a "shattering of the rondure of experience." The characters in modern novels are flatter, more abstract. The narratives in which they move about are choppier in form --shuffled, even, like a pack of cards. Sometimes the prose is deliberately made difficult to understand, in order to jolt the reader into a different perceptual frame, to force a closer study of the text. Genre horror is more straightforward in form: you can find a wide variety of narrative devices in genre horror, but you won't find are the witty, sophisticated, puzzle novels of modern fiction. Nabokov's Pale Fire. Calvino's Invisible Cities. It may be that genre horror, in its emphasis on the primacy of the reader's experience, demands a level of reader involvement that isn't possible with the distancing techniques of modern and post-modernist fiction. (I'm not, by the way, attempting to distinguish modern from post-modern. Despite the efforts of post-modernists to break down the hierarchy of high and low culture, they still resemble modernists in that they write primarily with their heads, not their hearts.)

But there are examples of horror tales that are thoroughly modern, or post-modern, in form. As a rule, these are tales written by mainstream authors, and marketed within mainstream channels. Bradford Morrow and Patrick McGrath's The New Gothic-- collecting as it does stories by such authors as Martin Amis, Robert Coover, Janice Galloway, and Jeanette Winterson -- is an admirable attempt to bring dark mainstream fiction to the attention of horror readers. Steve Rasnic Tem, in his review of The New Gothic in Necrofile, writes of how this particular stripe of mainstream horror embodies "transgressive tendencies, distortions of perception and affect, and blending of a figure with its metaphors."

Another theme of mainstream horror is an increased self-consciousness -- a result of the quest for purity of practice. Self-referentiality -- allusions to literary archetypes and other writers, and also to the author and the process of writing itself -- is a common mode in post-modernist fiction, especially. But this is also a mode that tends to diminish the emotional impact of a story -- to reduce its immediacy, to make it more cerebral and less horrifying. The aesthetics of genre horror, by contrast, hinge on what Brian Stableford calls a "fascinated elaboration of symptom," with its accompanying reluctance to demystify the sources of the goosebumps. Genre horror does a better job than most mainstream horror, of evoking and describing the emotion from which it takes its name; it does not, however, take a meta-fictional stance, and explain, or comment, on that emotion. There always exceptions, though: Fritz Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness and Stephen King's Misery are unusual examples of genre horror novels that do employ the self-reflective technique, allowing the writing process to intrude into the text itself, without diminishing the emotional impact of the tale.

One way we might summarize this difference is that mainstream writers specialize in form, whereas genre writers specialize in content.

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