Tuesday, July 10, 2012

On Transcending the Genre; Lots of "Real Life Stuff In Horror"

Yes, I know.  This has been blogged about by other writers much better than I. And no, I probably don't have anything new to add. Like everything else here, today's blog was generated from stuff in my life, and the connections I made between that and writing.

Also, I'm framing this thought not only as a developing writer, but mostly as a reader. Though it's what I'm reaching for in my own pitiful scribblings, it's what REALLY drives me as a reader.  These are the kinds of stories I love. That's probably the only authority I have, here.  Not in all the awesome writing I've done to back this up, but all the novels and writers I love.

Seems like, to me - in my reading experience - there are a couple of ways to transcend the genre. First of all: What does that even mean? That gets tossed around SO much in reviews (that, and calling a writer's prose lyrical. Not sure if reviewers know what THAT means, either), and I wonder if we really take the time to think about what that means. Let's do a quick breakdown: 

transcend: To pass beyond the limits of; To be greater than, as in intensity or power; surpass; exist above and independent of 

So, for a work to transcend its genre, something in it must pass beyond the limits of that genre.  Be greater than it. Exist above and independently of it.   What does that mean, for horror?  That something in it - either style, substance, plot,  characterization - lifts that work above the horror genre, offering itself to wider appeal.

Now, to clarify: there's nothing wrong with something that works solidly within its genre. No shame there. A recent example would be The Wicked, by James Newman It's a straight-up, evil demon threatening small town, with plenty of gory, fast action.  But it's very well done.

But, transcending the genre. How?  Again, this is based on what I've read, certainly not what I've accomplished:

1. style:  that's probably the easiest way to transcend genre, but still work within the genre.  The names I immediately think of are: Charles L. Grant, Norman Prentiss, T. M. Wright, Ramsey Campbell, Rob Dunbar, Ray Bradbury, T. L. Hines, Rio Youers, Ron Malfi....the list could go on.  And I could wax poetic about this forever, but I won't.  Basically, in these writers' works, you find stylistic elements in prose and structure (lyricism, word choice, sentence structure, balance, flow, taut atmosphere, vivid - but not purple - description, nonlinear storytelling) that elevate something that could be beer or liquor or champagne into fine, aged wine.  Now, plenty of these writers have penned straight out horror stories.  But their craft transcends the norm of the genre, and may potentially attract readers based on the value of their words, alone. 

And again, keep in mind: these are all my opinions.  Worth about as much as that truck of salt, over there. Maybe not even that.

2. characterization: a great character - often series characters - transcend genre boundaries.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, F. Paul Wilson stumbled onto something brilliant with Repairman Jack.  As the series draws to a close and the end of its Cosmic War, as it gets darker: definitely shades of horror.  But Jack faces so many different types of situations, HE transcends horror.  The Tomb, Haunted Air, maybe even Gateways and Infernal could be considered horror.  But Jack's a man of many a talents, so he transcends genre.

And - hate 'em or love 'em - Stephen King and especially Dean Koontz regularly transcend their genre. Why do you think SO many people say: "I don't really read horror, but I read Steve King and Dean Koontz"? Because there's something in the characters that LOTS of people connect with.  Call it selling out, fine. But isn't that transcending the genre?  

In his best novels, Steve King paints intimate, deep portraits.  Even if it's just the mailman who's gonna get killed on the next page. Again, say BOO! to all the haters, but I adore The Stand. It's what made me love Steve King. The characters in that behemoth of a novel are so painfully real, so vibrant.

And, Dean - well, his greatest strength is what he gets slammed for so much. (Again, my opinion only, but another good-natured BOO! to all the haters). Why is Dean Koontz SO massively popular? You could say: "Oh, cause he's a sellout and writes wimpy happy-slappy, goody-two-shoes fiction that always ends well for all the idiot masses."


Maybe his ideals and values - and his belief of what a character or HERO SHOULD BE is a lot more widespread and popular - than his critics want to think.  I remember very clearly, at Borderlands Press Writers Bootcamp a few years ago, F. Paul Wilson adamantly arguing for SOME sort of positive closure in the end, because most people, in his opinion, still root for the "good guy" and want the good guys - and gals - to win.

Are Dean Koontz's characters very idealistic - very good, and very bad? Yes.  Are his child characters very, very good? Almost too good? Yes. But it would appear that most of us still want that.  So he's transcended genre, also, so much so he "stopped" being a "horror" writer a long time ago. 

3. substance/plot to genre ratio: what the heck does that mean?  Basically, what's most important in this story?  The genre elements, or the plot's substance?  The plot's "LIFE STUFF" (the core of this blog, finally).  A really good example (not out yet; yes, be jealous of the reviewer who gets advance copies) is Ron Malfi's upcoming The Narrows. It's as much about a small, dying town - and the people living in it - as it is about the monster threatening it.  

Robert Dunbar's best two works, The Pines and The Shore, deal with the mythological "Jersey Devil."  So, yeah - plenty of horror and gruesome, nasty killing.  But not only is the prose vivid, descriptive, and sophisticated, demanding something from the reader...the stories are about people. Lost, lonely people.  Folks looking - maybe even in vain - for something better.

An EXCELLENT example is Ramsey Campbell's Obsession, recently re-printed by Samhain Horror.  Yes, it is horror - definitely some supernatural elements there.  But they're so understated, so subtle, the characters rule the day, here. It's more about them and their lives than anything else.

What I love about Robert McCammon's novels - the ones I've read so far - are the journeys he takes us on, as readers.  Yes, he writers horror - but, like life, his novels are journeys.  They're about people. Life. What happens to them, how they change. There's texture there, if that means anything.

Which leads me to the point of this post, far too late. Robert McCammon's Boy's Life, The Five and Mystery Walk are probably the epitomes of what I'd like to write, someday.  They have elements of fantasy and darkness and horror and magic and the supernatural.  But they have so much LIFE STUFF.   They have texture.  They are about real people living, loving, crying, grieving, losing, winning, hating, dying. 

And, in the end - even with cool projects like my Billy the Kid VS. Grendel thing - that's what I'd love to write about.  So I've made it a mission to really balance out my reading with lots of "life stuff".  Ray Bradbury does that, easily. So many of his stories are just about life.  But I also picked up a collection of James T. Farrell short stories the other day. I read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson few weeks back, as well as some E. L. Konnisburg.

Because I think this is the way forward, for me. To continue to read the horror and dark fantasy and pulp fiction, but also balance it out with good "life fiction", too.  Because I want to write within the horror genre.  I love the weird and fantastic, and horror is such a flexible genre.  But I want to write about real life, too.  Why?

Because that's the sort of stuff I love to read.  Horror/speculative fiction, with heavy doses of real life. At the end of the day, those are the kind of novels I close with a hushed, quiet: "Wow. I wish I could do that..."