Monday, May 24, 2010

The Face of Horror: Then and Now

As most of you folks know, I've had two seperate careers in the horror genre. One spanned from 1986 to 1996... the second from 2006 to present. So I've seen both sides of the horror fiction coin, so to speak.

When I returned to horror writing in July of '06, I found that the face of horror had changed over a stretch of ten years. I reckon I was expecting maybe a nip and tuck job. Instead, the face of horror seemed to had undergone a complete transplant. Where the horror landscape of the 80's and 90's had been like a nostalgic stroll through my hometown, the one I set foot upon in 2006 was like landing on the alien soil of Mars or some distant planet. Everything had changed. The authors, the artists, the publishers.... EVERYTHING. Needless to say, this was a little disturbing
to one who hoped to pick up where he left off. Everywhere I turned looking for familiar faces, there lurked a stranger. Friendly strangers (for the most part), but strangers nonetheless. The internet had flourished during my long hiatus and the horror genre was firmly entrenched with its various websites and message boards. In my case, it was as though a team of scientists had unthawed a neanderthal man, gave him a suit of clothes and twenty bucks, and sent him off into the modern world, to seek fortune and fame. Yes, I was that out of touch with what horror as a genre -- books, films, etc.-- had evolved into during that long period when I had basically "shelfed" my horror writing ambitions and lived strictly in the real world.

Has it been difficult for me to adjust? Well, no, not really. First I actually had to go out and buy a computer (yes, I ashamedly admit that I was almost totally cyber ignorant when I decided to return.) But it didn't take long before I got the swing of things. Publishers came knocking on my door, making deals (thank God!), and the ball began to roll. Of course, if you know much about the small press, that ball can roll mighty slow sometimes. It took several years before my first hardcover short story collection, Midnight Grinding & Other Twilight Terrors, was published by Cemetery Dance. Around that time, things began to happened: a slick chapbook of Flesh Welder by Croatoan, followed by a nice little collection called The Sick Stuff from Thunderstorm Books. Then in '09 and the first half of '10 there were stories in various anthologies and magazines, a bunch of interviews, and even a few journeys into unknown territories; several e-books put out by David Niall Wilson's Macabre Ink and even a movie script of my novel Fear making the rounds with various production companies.

As the fourth anniversary of my return to horror looms over the horizon, I've been thinking of what divides the two "eras" of horror that I've experienced; both the differences and the changes. Here's my take on what it looks like... the horror genre of then compared to now.


I think of the horror genre of the 1980's and 1990's (at least until around 1996) as the "Golden Age" of horror literature. Stephen King was king, followed closely by Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, and Anne Rice. Past masters of horror and dark fantasy -- Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, Robert Bloch, and Richard Matheson -- were respected and held in high regard. There were numerous new horror authors on the scene, all with their own distinctive voice; Robert R. McCammon, Clive Barker, Joe R. Lansdale, Ray Garton, Poppy Z. Brite, to only name a few. Great mass market magazines of dark fiction graced the newstands; The Twilight Zone, Physical Graffiti, Night Cry. Small press horror was flourishing and dozens of limited-run magazines were the discovery zone of hungry readers and the proving ground of equally hungry new writers: The Horror Show, Deathrealm, Grue, Noctulpa, New Blood, After Hours, 2 AM, and, of course, the new kid on the block, Cemetery Dance. There was an almost festive aire about the genre. Readers basically read, rather than collected the work of their favorite horror authors. Publishing houses like Dark Harvest and Ziesing Books put out signed limiteds, but also inexpensive hardcover trade editions. Anthologies were cherished and featured the best of the big name horror writers and was the springboard for many a new author like Elizabeth Massie, Bentley Little, and yours truly. There was a tremendous amount of excitement about what was being written and published at that time. Those who read the splatter-punk of Skipp & Spector also enjoyed the quite, atmospheric horror of Charles Grant. The Horror Writers of America organization was held in high regard. Everyone who was anyone was a member and to finally make the proper sales to be able to join its ranks was a goal that was both earned and enjoyed.

Okay, now here's the...


I am a little hazy about what saved the horror genre from the Big Horror Publishing Bust of the mid-90's, but this is my personal opinion. Much of it
had to do with the stubborn persistance of Richard Chizmar's Cemetery Dance Publications by publishing great horror when the mass market paperback publishers jumped ship. Also a single author seems to have had a great deal to do with reviving interest in horror fiction. Brian Keene. His zombie novels -- The Rising, City of the Dead, Dead Sea -- as well as novels like Terminal and The Conqueror Worms, seemed to have injected a fresh vitality into a genre that had been oversaturated with mediocre to just plain bad offerings in the mid-nineties. The genre seems much darker to me now; all business with very little levity to it at all. Extreme horror has become the cornerstone of today's dark fiction. Readers seem to prefer the brutal works of Keene, Bryan Smith, and Ed Lee to more subdued fiction. Maybe it's because they actually like their horror that way... or maybe it's because that's all they've ever known. When I come across a new horror reader, more than often, they began reading horror with Keene and went forward from there. Many seem annoyingly ignorant of great authors like McCammon, Lansdale, and Chet Williamson. I don't think that's actually their fault; a reader's focus seems to be narrower than it was back when I was writing horror for the first time. Everyone seems to gravitate to their favorite type of horror fiction and remains there, like a satellite orbiting a planet. When I suggest they try some novels from the 80's and 90's, many look at me like I just flicked a booger on their shirt or something. They seem oddly resistant to reading anything BK (Before Keene). Many say they don't want to invest alot of time in reading a new author (can you hear my teeth grinding in frustration?) Also there seem to be distinct factions or camps of fans who support certain authors -- mainly on various forums and message boards -- rather than a widespread horror community like it was back in my day. Many small press publishers flourish these days, releasing more horror than the mass market does... the exception being Leisure. These books are mainly high-dollar editions targeted for the collector, rather than the reader. The HWA -- now the Horror Writers Association, encompassing the world rather than simply the USA -- seems to have lost much of its initial respect. Hardly any big name authors pay dues there anymore and its ranks are mostly made up of unknown writers who have made the pro-cent-per-word requirements and campaign for Stokers like baby kissing (and butt-kissing) politicians.

Does my opinion of the horror genre's present state ring as negative compared to my positive memories of those golden days when I evolved from a high school senior with a dream into a full-fledged horror author? Well, maybe. It is vastly different and I'm slowly adapting to it. I find that my fiction is gradually becoming darker and more brutal as this second phase of my horror writing career progresses. Am I trying to imulate authors like Keene, Smith, and Lee? No. Am I trying to compete with them. Probably. The economic state of today's publishing industry is such that customers are having to pick and choose who they can afford to buy and collect. I know my old fans, as well as many new fans, will still buy and enjoy my old-style tales of Southern-fried Horror, but there are some who will become fans because of my more extreme fiction. Stuff like The Sick Stuff and other no-holds-barred books and stories that I have on the horizon.

So, with all that said, which era do I prefer? Then or Now? Honestly, both have their positives and negatives. The 80's and 90's were great for a horror author coming into his own, but there were downsides, like snail mail, lower pay, and, of course, the Big Bust. The horror genre of today has its share of advantages and opportunites, too, as well as its disadvantages. I'm currently working toward re-establishing myself as a popular author of horror, which is no easy feat these days, take it from me. To do that, I know I must make an effort to embrace both the past and present of horror, and, hopefully, use the best of both eras to satisfy old fans, while enticing new ones.

Horror has a new face. Ol' Ron's got a new one, too... a little older and grayer in the mustache, but also a bit wiser and hankering to break out the chills and thrills for a whole new generation of horror reader. I'm sharpening my pencils and keeping my fingers crossed. Hopefully, with your help, I can pull it off...

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