Writers try, usually in vain, to avoid being classified as a genre-specific author. It is generally understood that any author worth their salt possesses an ability to dip in and out of the various genres: To portray fear, sadness, romantic longing, absurdity, and dramatic tension, sometimes all in the same book.
Genre has been compartmentalized in different ways throughout history, with the status of each fluctuating in the public eye. We’ve come a long way from the tragicomic of the Greek Theater. Now, most people understand that a work of commercial fiction can fall into one of maybe 5 categories: Comedy, thriller, mystery, romance, and horror.
Real literary purists might scoff at such distinctions, and argue that genre is for the birds. However, I would argue that any serious literary novel, no matter how sophisticated, tonally leans heavily in one of these four directions. If you peruse your local bookstore, it won’t take long to realize which is the most oft neglected.
Horror is one of the great unturned stones in 21st century fiction, and its a serious shame. The genre has fallen out of fashion in a sense. It enjoyed its heyday in the late 1800’s with the emergence of Gothic Fiction, a time in which legendary boogeymen like Frankenstein and Dracula, were spawned. Of course most consider the Godfather of literary horror to be Edgar Allen Poe, who went on to inspire the likes of H.P Lovecraft, and contemporary author Thomas Ligotti.
There are also innumerable examples of classic novels that verged on the terrifying. The Russian Romantics and Existentialists were particularly adept at weaving the obscene and the perverse into philosophically dense work. Books like Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, The Stranger, Dr Jekyll and Mr hyde, all seamlessly integrated aspects of horror into their work.
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It begs the question, what changes have taken place in the world, and in literature, to convince generations of writers, that the lens of horror was less viable than any other? A glance at the Pulitzer Prize winner list from the past 15 years reveals a serious scarcity in novels that even approach the genre.
To my understanding, literature has always been, on a basic level, a mode through which we can express our deepest fears and desires. To answer the looming questions: What do we aspire to be? What are we afraid of? Writers are in the meaning making business, and it seems to me that most have resigned themselves to viewing reality as either comic, or dramatic, ignoring the vast middle ground in between that is the underlying terror of existence.
One such contemporary author, Thomas Ligotti, has made his living as one of the last vanguards of literary horror. He is a dedicated student of the genre, and argues for its significance in his non-fiction book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. In it, he explores the styles of Lovecraft, Poe, and Gothic Fiction, as well as outlines his case for philosophical Pessimism. The underlying message, of the book: There is a sinister undercurrent to life that cannot be ignored, and only a select few writers have confronted it. On this malignant face to existence, Ligotti says: “I tend to stipulate in my work that the world by its nature already exists in a state of doom rather than being in the process of doom.“
I am interested to see what writers attempt to tackle this domain in the future, and will certainly keep an eye out this October. What do you think about horror’s place in literature? Do you have any favorite contemporary authors who fuse literature with the tropes of the horror genre? If so, let us know in the comments!