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Dark Currents, page 4

If so, then what is the content that genre horror embraces? Some of the classic motifs, such as the familiar monsters, are found almost exclusively in genre horror, because their very presence guarantees a certain response from a publisher. It would be surprising if someone were to write a book about a werewolf, say, and sell it as a mainstream novel.

But are there are also more subtle differences in the subject matter of mainstream vs. genre horror, such as the role that the horrific events or mood play in the overall structure of the story. Genre horror puts the darkness right up front, center stage. Many critics argue that this cheapens the work -- that genre horror focuses too much on the awfulness as the end-all and be-all of the story. Mainstream fiction (this is usually a self-serving argument, of course) is said to employ the devices of that awfulness on the way to some loftier aim. An allegory, an object lesson in bitter realities, the development of a character, the unfolding of a complex spiritual theme -- anything, so long as the horror is not itself the main attraction.

When Flannery O'Connor, for example, tells us a gruesome tale (Wise Blood) about a weird itinerant Southern preacher, the violence, horror, and dark humor are taken to be means to an end. The reader is held at a certain distance, and invited to observe these goings-on and learn from them something about Christianity. O'Connor wrote about the novel, ten years after its publication, "Wise Blood was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but one with certain preoccupations." One of these preoccupations, she explains, is the integrity that her main character displays in deciding to mutilate himself, as a sign of his inability to rid himself of his faith in Christ. By contrast, when Joe R. Lansdale tells us a gruesome tale ("By Bizarre Hands") about a weird itinerant Southern preacher, the violence, horror, and dark humor are the main topic of the story. The comic elements in the tale are much more accessible, and not so mixed in their message. The reader is brought closer in, is invited into the story to laugh and be dismayed right along with the author. The story may say a thing or two about the absurdity of the Christian faith, but mostly, it's a story for entertainment.

That, at least, is how the argument goes.

This gets us to the whole issue of authorial intent. Does a writer of mainstream horror have a different goal, than the writer of genre horror? In particular, does the mainstream writer aim for something other than, or least in addition to, entertainment, whereas the genre writer puts entertainment first and foremost, with other considerations being secondary?

Once we start talking about the differences in subject matter between mainstream and genre horror, we start to wander back toward the distinction between art and craft. The primary outcome of what has come to be called the Aesthetic Revolution is that Art, with a capital A, is no longer seen as necessarily having any aim at all. No aim, no purpose, and -- here lies the weird nihilism that lurks behind that promise of purity of practice -- perhaps no meaning either. Just beauty. What happens if we look long and hard at a mainstream horror book, and discover that not only does it not set out to be entertaining, it doesn't set out to be anything at all, other than beautiful? Well, one thing that happens, for me, at least, is that the genre fence seems to grow higher, all of a sudden. And I'm not at all sure which side I want to be on. I love beauty, but I want other things from fiction, too. A joyride, perhaps. An encounter with the unknown. A chance to feel, and express, my inner rage. A journey through pain into redemption. I approach genre horror with a definite expectation of having an adventure.

Please note: these considerations are entirely different from the political ones that have to do with denigrating horror merely because it is popular, because it's not intellectual enough. The praise heaped on the category of magical realism has been especially irksome, in this regard. I may be paranoid, but sometimes I wonder if the category didn't arise simply because it was found that some writers were doing an excellent job of writing about ghosts and ghoulies and weird goings-on, so they had to be "rescued" from being thought to be fantasy or horror writers. After all, no mere genre writer could be writing anything worthwhile.

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