Why I Don't Like Horror
The question arises from time to time, ‘Why doesn’t Clarendon House publish a horror anthology?’ It also pops up in group comment threads occasionally that I personally don’t like horror as a genre. I thought I’d try to clarify these matters here so that I don’t have to re-explain them when they come up elsewhere.
Firstly, let me correct a point: Clarendon House has published horror stories. Plenty of horror stories crop up in the dozen or so anthologies that have been produced so far, and last year I released R. A. Goli’s collection Unfettered, which contained some pretty grisly stuff. A tale that is well-written demands to be published, whatever its genre. However, it’s true that I not only lack any interest in the genre, I tend to oppose it and am inclined not to print material of that ilk.
This isn’t a lack of professionalism or an unconscious bias on my part. Quite the opposite: my disinclination to publish horror stories arises from years of intensive study into the subjects of literature, culture, history and human psychology. It’s a philosophical disposition, rather than simply a matter of taste. I am completely aware of my dislike for the genre and utterly prepared to argue down anyone who tries to convince me otherwise about it.
To completely understand this, a good starting point might be my books, How Stories Really Work and Myth & the ‘Now’, which are available for purchase internationally. In the first, I outline the four basic genres of Epic, Tragedy, Irony and Comedy and touch upon what they have to do with shifts in human culture over the last couple of thousand years; in the second, I delve deeper into what that means for us as human beings. Horror stories fit into the broad basic genre of Irony in that they are generally founded in nightmare. Common to this broader genre are themes of entropy, disaffection, disintegration, depersonalisation, doom and so on. Horror stories which are well-written can rise above these themes and be worth presenting to the world regardless, but by far the bulk of such material is gratuitous, dim, excruciating and ill-considered. Most of the horror that I have seen - and I include some of the so-called ‘greats’ in this assessment - is wanton in the extreme, and, far from being aesthetically worthy in any way, simply reflects its authors' unconscious biases. The irony of that is not lost on me, shall we say.
Many authors are victims of their own unassessed and in some cases unwitting agreement with the culture which surrounds them. The darkness of modernism and postmodernism, as these movements are called, has crept into many authors’ minds and taken control of their writing faculties to the degree that what emerges is often drivel from the worst depths of depravity, with no intrinsic worth at all. Some of it borders on occult ‘automatic writing’, words spontaneously appearing on the page without any kind of mediation from reason or judgement. This is a kind of dark wish-fulfilment, which some writers use to justify not only their own immorality or amorality, but also their lack of craft and knowledge. It’s easy to worsen the already intense fears of a frightened public by stepping up the darkness, increasing the blood content, magnifying the graphic violence. It takes far greater skill and sensitivity to recognise all these things and to do something more profound with them.
What ‘culture which surrounds them’, some will ask? I mean the culture which has grown up mainly in the Western hemisphere over the last 150 years in particular. Its early seeds go further back, but signs of its dark blossoming can be found in the works of the mid- to late-19th century which extolled a material perspective over matters long thought of as spiritual concerns: how humanity had arisen, how human society had developed, how the mind worked and so on. Long held beliefs were slowly but remorselessly undermined; the ideas of Darwin, Marx, Freud and others gained footholds in the mental real estate of the populus. Historical events of devastating magnitude soon followed: the First World War, Stalin's Russia, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and so on. But, quite apart from specific events, the culture changed: into men’s and women’s minds crept concepts like entropy, infinite space, relativity and quantum physics. Gradually the whole culture turned Ironic, and the lights went out.
This is not to say - just to counter some concerns that may have arisen at this point - that scientific theories have no merit, or that the modern world brought no parallel benefits. What I’m talking about here is the cultural perception-shift which occurred over this time. People in general went from believing in a divinely ordered universe in which they had a place and which ultimately rested in good hands and had good purposes, to one in which the entire cosmos was the result of a random explosion, God didn’t exist, and as far as ‘place’ went, matter only existed at all if you happened to be looking at it along with Schrödinger’s cat.
Because you and I live inside such a culture, its predilections tend to be invisible to us: they are part of an almost imperceptible framework of ideas and assumptions which surround us and are part of the operations of the society in which we try to function. We’ve all been educated in these things at school; we are all bombarded with them daily from many sources. I don’t blame horror writers for the position in which they find themselves - many are seeking to express an indescribable sense of despair and ennui which boils and froths inside them and from which they can only find some relief by extruding it through fiction. But please don’t expect me to publish the results.
We can adopt another approach. Firstly, we can open our eyes to the culture in which we live and begin to analyse its assumptions and maxims. Secondly, we can assume a viewpoint in relation to those factors. And thirdly, we can write fiction which attempts to tip the culture the other way, back towards the light.
That also explains some of my other preferences as a publisher. I like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and their works and other works of that ilk; I like literature from earlier, undarkened eras; I like fiction which endeavours to incorporate what Tolkien called ‘eucatastrophe’, the sudden turning towards the Good in the face of overwhelming odds. These preferences are equally grounded in philosophical verities. Lewis and Tolkien and a few others almost consciously tried to ‘swim against the tide’ of the culture around them, creating a wave of works which spoke to young and old about things far removed from the modern zeitgeist: simple lives, basic truths, honest morals, courage, providence and so forth. The popularity of their works, both fiction and non-fiction, suggests that they struck a chord in the disaffected and dejected populations they encountered.
I want to strike a similar chord, swim against the same tide, create a wave which operates counter-intuitively and counter-culturally too. Clarendon House will therefore never knowingly forward the dismal agenda of modernism and post-modernism. That doesn’t mean that it will only publish one type of fiction, or only stories with happy endings. Anyone who has read any of the Clarendon House anthologies will be able to testify that that isn’t what happens. A story can justify itself on its own artistic merits, whatever its genre or outcome. But for the vast majority of stories born directly out of this culture and unknowingly forwarding its shadowy scheme of dissipation, it means that they will have to seek their outlets elsewhere.
They will be able to do so. The modern world will welcome them with open arms and largely unseeing eyes, as their work will seem to assist in justifying the message of darkness and nightmare which Irony has at its heart. It’s a self-fulfilling tangle of introspective purposes, a self-congratulatory miasma of meaninglessness. It is what it is.
Clarendon House is part of that small voice in the wilderness which whispers of another way.