OH, AS I WAS YOUNG AND UNEASY under the apple-boughs, horror did seem to me a ravishingly simple affair. Most fiction alluded to death in a respectful way, and in a few superior novels you were walked past the (closed) coffin, but horror opened the lid and climbed right in there with the main attraction. It was intimate with the rudest and most brutal of available facts, the ones humanity conventionally ignores, denies, pretends do not exist, or uses to titillate itself. What protected horror from charges of titillation was its positively gleeful willingness to engage with material a lot of people considered verboten on grounds of both good taste and mental well being. Screw that, horror said, the concept of “good taste” is inherently repressive, and actual, adult mental well being really depends upon a full awareness that death hovers around us everywhere, that the world is radically unstable, that in an eye-blink we can pass from a state of health and strength into injury, outright mutilation, and a hospital bed. All ice is thin ice, horror said, and we, your genial community of horror writers, have been called as if by vocation to go around nailing up warning signs.
The warning signs worked best if they were entertaining, and exercising a moral function is different from delivering sermons. Part of the ravishing simplicity mentioned above involved the necessity for creating fictional worlds with, ideally, the solidity and immediate familiarity of Middlemarch (the village), with maybe some of the sinister coloration of Dickens’s slums like Tom-all-alone’s mixed in here and there. Into this solid and three-dimensional world, a fictional locale to gratify the most demanding of late nineteenth century readers, the hardworking horror writer inserted men, women, and children, plus their animal companions, of the same solid three-dimensionality. Up to this point we might as well have been writing a John O’Hara or John Updike novel, and we had to do it convincingly, or everything would spectacularly go to hell in the next stage, when things began spectacularly to go to hell. For if she had not already been persuaded that the world of the book was worth caring about, once the Ancient Curses, Things in Bandages, Bloodsucking Fiends, or Demonic Entities came into play our dearly beloved reader, she for whom all our labors had been endured, she whom we most earnestly desired to scare out of her wits, was going to drop-kick the thing across the room.
As my list of potential horror-maguffins indicates, these novels gained much of their power, when they had any, by seizing upon some nightmarish, almost certainly clichéd image of the sort usually invoked for its metaphoric juiciness and bluntly, insistently demanding that it be taken as literal fact. (Those guys eyeing that little boy in the wheelchair aren’t unfeeling narcissists, they’re vampires!) Because I was and am embarrassingly literal-minded, this part of the process came very easily to me.
Being literal-minded undoubtedly contributed to the eventual change in my thinking. (If you can, please forgive the “And then I wrote…” quality of what is coming up.) Feeling bored and constrained by my subject matter, I decided to write novels without any supernatural literality at all, which to some readers would appear to be thrillers or mysteries but would really be neither – they’d just be novels that used those basic materials while letting me get a lot of stuff off my chest. In fact, these books turned out to be a big, big series of sandboxes, and there I played away in happy concentration from, roughly, 1985 to 1993. Eight years, three novels and one collection of shorter fiction: each time out of the box, I was amazed, chagrined, and a little irritated when nearly all the reviewers, and this takes in the charitable and the mean-spirited, the brilliant and the dunderheaded, college professors and feral children writing for fanzines, began their treatments of each new book with a variation on the sentence, “Horror author P. S. is coming around again, his cap in his hand and a damp, eager look in his eye, trying to sell us a new boatload of horrors.”
Later on, I began to see the upside to this situation, which was that all these people had somehow come together and agreed that horror was nothing like what it was commonly supposed to be, that it existed completely independent of subject matter. I liked that, it seemed incredibly liberating and inclusive. Around this time, I was named Guest of Honor at an HWA Stoker banquet, and in my dozy after-dinner wanderings I paused long enough between jokes to utter the heartfelt sentiment that “Horror is a house horror has already moved out of.” When the banquet ended and I finally made it to the bar, two or three youthfully middle-aged horror writers of the type that think membership in HWA will further their “careers” glared at me with wounded, louring eyes.
It’s odd that HWA, of which I am still a member, should have stayed more or less exactly where it was ten or twelve years ago when so many of the best horror writers, like many of the best fantasy and science-fiction writers, have gleefully gone on to demonstrate the porosity of genre boundaries or to write as though these genres were defined and redefined every time they published a new book. That’s the way it should be. I’m thinking of Graham Joyce, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand, Tim Powers, Thomas Tessier, some others… writers who know it’s all about a point of view, nothing more, nothing to do with the specific gestures.