[GUEST POST] Daryl Gregory on Anti-Horror: A Modest Proposal for a Yet Another Subgenre (+ Giveaway!)


Daryl Gregory lives in State College, PA, where he writes programming code in the morning, fiction in the afternoon, and comics at night. His first novel, Pandemonium, won the Crawford award for best first fantasy and was a finalist for the World Fantasy award. His second novel, The Devil’s Alphabet, was named one of the best books of 2009 by Publishers Weekly. His first collection of short fiction, Unpossible and Other Stories, will be published by Fairwood Press in October, 2011. He writes the comics Dracula: The Company of Monsters (with Kurt Busiek), and Planet of the Apes for BOOM! Studios. His new novel, Raising Stony Mayhall, will be published June 28, 2011 from Del Rey Spectra.

Anti-Horror: A Modest Proposal for a Yet Another Subgenre

A couple weeks ago on the Locus podcast, Karen Burnham, Tim Akers and I were talking about mixing genres. Tim writes novels that draw from steampunk, high fantasy, noir, and even westerns. His Veridon series and The Horns of Ruin are rollicking adventures that defy easy classification. And me, I like writing weird stuff too. Karen said that she was halfway done reading my new book, Raising Stony Mayhall, and that it felt like a fantasy written as science fiction.

I was happy to hear that, because even though the book is about zombies, it was never intended as horror in the classic sense, or to fit into any particular genre. It’s a story about a dead boy (the eponymous Stony) who grows up thinking he’s the only zombie in the world, but eventually finds other living dead people like himself. (One reviewer called it a zombildungsroman, a term I am now going to use whenever possible.)


But even though he’s a zombie, Stony has a scientific world view that refuses to be put off by the impossibility of his own existence. He wants to know how he keeps moving and thinking. He’s Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, with a head filled with inert matter.

My other two books play around with this same theme. Pandemonium is about “demonic” possession that may be a neurological disorder (but turns out to be something stranger that isn’t quite magic, either). The Devil’s Alphabet is technically science fiction, with a mutagenic disease causing freaks to appear in a small Tennessee mountain town, but the tone of the book is more Southern Gothic than SF.

I told Karen and Tim that I think of all three of those books as falling within a genre called anti-horror-which I recently made up. And why not? Whenever a writer feels hemmed in by genre restrictions, it’s good defensive strategy to declare a new genre with its own rules. Mundane SF, anyone? The InfernoKrusher movement?

So let’s play the manifesto game, and outline what this new genre-AH for short-looks and acts like. The definition of AH is pretty simple. If standard horror is about encountering the strange or the repugnant and recoiling, then anti-horror is about characters learning the “awful” truth and embracing strangeness.

But let’s flesh out this definition by comparing and contrasting with the old genre that this new genre is anti. Many (but certainly not all) horror novels follow this structure:

  1. Darkness intrudes. The story may open with some comfortable status quo, but the protagonist gradually realizes that things are not as they seem. Then…
  2. The truth dawns. The protagonist finally grasps that the world is a lie. As John Clute said in Locus, horror stories are those “which force you to peel off the rind of falseness, the falseness of our understanding of things, until you get to a true understanding of the world…”
  3. Characters struggle in the face of hopelessness. The protagonist forms a plan, takes action, and suffers losses. In horror, however, the characters struggle like flies in motor oil; the thrashing only makes their situation worse, until…
  4. The world is restored. The evil is suppressed (always temporarily), and the status quo is returned.
  5. The protagonist is destroyed. The truth seeker is punished for their knowledge. They are driven insane, or are spiritually or psychologically damaged by their knowledge of the truth, or die. Horror without this cost isn’t horror, it’s adventure, or comedy.

Where anti-horror diverges from horror is in those last two steps. In AH, there is no “evil” to suppress. “Evil” is merely “difference.” And those differences don’t go away by the end of the novel, making a return to the status quo impossible. In fact, by the end of the novel, the world seems to open up to new possibilities.

In anti-horror, the truth seeker is rewarded. By understanding the truth, and accepting it, the protagonist becomes a more whole person, not a more damaged one. The arc of the story is toward empathy, not disgust.

In Gary K. Wolfe’s excellent collection, Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature, he has a chapter written with Amelia Beamer called “Peter Straub and the New Horror.” The New Horror that Wolfe describes is a lot like anti-horror (though with the obvious deficiency that the term wasn’t created by me)*. Wolfe shows how in some of Straub’s books, the plots do not close down, but “seek to find room for something like the sacred.” New Horror uses the tropes and heightened emotional states of horror, as well as a variety of post-modern techniques, to achieve a sense of transcendence. The cost paid by the protagonist leads to “some sort of accommodation, possibly even toward some version of grace.”

Anti-horror is different from New Horror, however, in one important respect: the protagonist is wrong. The world is not a horrific place that must be accommodated, or transcended. There are no monsters. The initial horror comes entirely from the character’s own biases and limited point of view. In that way anti-horror feels like science fiction, though a flavor of SF that uses the tropes of horror and often takes place in an irrational world.

But any legitimate genre requires a body of representative works. The job now is to colonize works that fall (more or less) within the definition of anti-horror, plant a flag in their meaty spines, and claim them for the cause. Books like Chris Barzak’s One for Sorrow, which is a ghost story whose protagonist grows past the horror and becomes a better person.

And that’s the contest. In the comments below, anyone who suggests a book for the anti-horror canon will have a chance to win one of three copies of Raising Stony Mayhall. I won’t judge: all entries will be picked at random on July 8th. 2011. [Be sure to fill in the email form field! – Ed.] In fact, even if you just comment at all, whether to debate the seemliness of creating Yet Another Subgenre or to sign the manifesto, you’ll be entered to win.

* I will not insert smiley faces to signal jokes. I will, however, do so through footnotes.

28 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Daryl Gregory on Anti-Horror: A Modest Proposal for a Yet Another Subgenre (+ Giveaway!)”

  1. The three books I’ve read most recently which seem to follow your rules of anti-horror are:

    The Breach (2009) by Patrick Lee
    Backbite (2011) by Adrienne Jones
    Spares (1996) by Michael Marshall Smith

    I think it’d be very hard to classify them as canonical or even horrific but the protagonists would be hard pressed to even remotely go back to the status quo once the books end.  I also recall a recent TV episode (of Fringe?) where a town full of mutants had some sort of complicated sciency device that was projecting the illusion of normalcy (at least visually) on it’s citizens when they were within the town limits.  The final decision, I believe, was to let them continue to live their somewhat illusory (albeit superficially) lives and squeeze as much positivity and life out of the situation as they could muster.

  2. Definitely 1984

    At first Winston abhors the party and the Big Brother, living a miserable life, at the end of the novel he embraces his oppression with open arms, and starts his new life of loving the system as a fully integrated and contend citizen. A perfect example, I think.

  3. I’m not sure I have any great suggestions to add to the canon of anti-horror, but I really like the idea of it and will be thinking about it more as I read.

    Perhaps Amelia Beamer’s The Loving Dead or Isaaac Marion’s Warm Bodies would fit?

  4. I really like the idea of anti-horror…and I’m in complete support of new genres of all kinds. C’mon…it’s fun to pigeonhole things.

    I don’t think I’ve read too much anti-horror yet, though; I can’t think of anything. Please recommend some!

  5. Hmm. Compared to Drood, I’d say Dan Simmons’ The Terror is much more about opening up new possibilities and moving toward empathy. You could split the book into its main part (horror) and its conclusion (anti-horror). That explains why I was uninterested in the main part but thought the conclusion was pretty darn good.

  6. I love the idea of a new subgenre, particularly since I’m drawn to write what would be AH stories, but, I have not read recently anything that would fit–so guess I’ll start with Gregory’s books, and yeah I want to read Drood too. Any other suggestions I might add to my AH reading list? d:)

  7. I think that horror already contains anti-horror pretty thoroughly. But if we’re throwing out books to fit into the new canon, I think Clive Barker’s CABAL is about as perfect an example as could be asked for.

  8. Actually, (this time really seriously) I think Kim Newman’s The Quorum would fit this description. Less obvious choices might be Sean Stewart’s Galveston (thought there’s no real horror here, but the character arc shares a similiar progression as described above) and maybe Scott Westerfeld’s Polymorph (thought here the character goes from horror to becoming the monster itself, which is not an exact fit).

  9. Michael H., Dan, and Christy — thanks for those suggestions. It sounds like I really must try Drood.

    And now that I’ve finished writing Stony, I can read Amelia Beamer’s The Loving Dead. I’d been avoiding reading any other zombie fiction, for fear of being influenced — or worse, finding out that someone else had done it better.

    Orrin, I think you’re right that AH falls under the umbrella of horror. I think it’s an interesting exercise to think of AH as a subgenre, though, because some horror novels fall within the standard structure above (and which Wolfe and Clute have described better than I), and some don’t. One of the selfish purposes of this article was to trick other people into finding me more of the types of horror books that I might like. From Matte’s description, for example, it sounds like I might like THE TERROR more than I thought I would. And CABAL sounds right up my alley.

    Scotoma, I agree that Winston is in an anti-horror novel, if only in his own mind. I haven’t read Newman’s Quorum, but I certainly think the Anno Dracula books (especially Judgement of Tears, AKA Dracula-Cha-Cha-Cha) do the kind of thing I’m interested in. My first book, Pandemonium, was greatly influenced by both Newman (for his pop cultural hijinks) and Stewart (everything else).

     

     

  10. I was only semi-seriously with 1984, since from an internal POV he has the character arc you were searching for, while from the outside it looks like the typical horror arc that ends with your point 5). There is another variation on this (internal POV follows your arc, while the reader becomes ever more horrified), a characters comes into his own, which means being a human monster through and through (John Barnes, Kaleidoscope Century).

    Something that I read a long time ago, which fits partly, is John Shirley’s A Splendid Chaos, thought the books focus is probably too strong on the surface weirdness to really capture the stuff you’re searching for.

    There’s sorta a fantasy equivalent, Louise Cooper’s Time Master trilogy, where a kid is the chosen one of the evil side (chaos), struggles against that fate, but later realizes that order/chaos aren’t the same as good/bad and accepts his fate. But I remember the writing as a bit weak.

     

    Actually, now that I really tried to dust off the spiderwebs in my mind, I remember a pretty good fit for your criteria (minus the horror factor), a media-tie in novel for Shadowrun, Chris Kubasik’s Changeling. The whole world is changed, the main character is too and hates it, tries his whole life to become human again but later accepts his changes.

  11. Doesn’t this make New Weird closely akin to anti-horror?  Something like Mieville’s Bas-Lag books: the bug-headed woman isn’t a monster, she’s <i>the protagonist’s girlfriend</i>, and they have a pretty great sex life.  The biomechanical experiments aren’t Science/Magic Gone Wrong; they’re just what happens to convict labor.  Unlike a lot of horror takes on the same thing, it would be <i>nice</i> if the Remade rose up against their oppressors.

    Jeff Vandermeer put it pretty well in <a href=”http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/06/28/the-new-weird-anthology-notes-and-introduction/”>this essay introducing his New Weird anthology</a>.

    Key passage: <blockquote>In this kind of fiction, body transformations and dislocations create a visceral, contemporary take on the kind of visionary horror best exemplified by the work of Lovecraft . . . In many of [Clive] Barker’s best tales, the starting point is the acceptance of a monster or a transformation and the story is what comes after. Transgressive horror, then, repurposed to focus on the monsters and grotesquery but not the “scare,” forms the beating heart of the New Weird.</blockquote>

    Is the key here that anti-horror has some similar instincts but doesn’t feel like bizarro-world urban fantasy?

  12. Many of Lucius Shepard’s stories tickle the boundry line between horror and anti-horror. The protagonist journeys to encounter a seemingly malevolent force. The protagonist is profoundly changed and new horizons are hinted at. But the evil sometimes remains at large, and even though the protagonist is changed, it might not be a change for the better.

    One of Shepard’s stories that is definitely in the territory of anti-horror is his novella “Jailwise.” It is centrally concerned with these issues of disgust and difference, movement towards empathy, and trancendence and grace.

  13. Daniel Water’s YA series starting with Generation Dead would fall under the anti-horror umbrella. I’ve only read the first one, but it was very good.

  14. Raising Stony Mayhall reminded me of most works by Ricahrd Matheson, but very much like I Am Legend.  I have been reading Matheson since I was a young girl and am now so happy to find Gregory.  Also, Angela Carter was very good at AH. 

  15. Brenna Yovanoff”s <B>The Replacement</B> seems to fit the style you’re looking for- slow unveiling of an Otherside that is not evil, but not safe, which is mostly a threat because the Standard World doesn’t understand its rules. The story is borderline horrific at many points and even more often unsettling, but it never quite breaks into horror.

     

    But I’m not sure I see how this is inherently different than the new Weird, or whatever we’re calling it– is it that Anti Horror must have roots in an average world as well as the fantastic, perhaps?

  16. Ok here are the two suggestions that come right to mind because the protagonists are wrong and transformed by the journey in the respective novels….

     

    1. Perdido Street Station…. everyone is searching for something in this world filled with monsters and mostly they are incorrect about what they are looking for.

    2. The Fallen Blade horrific things happen in this story perpetrated by people of all stripes, there is something weird going on but it is never really defined – all the characters are going about their lives attempting to break the chains that society places on them but what they struggle for is as amorphous as the freedom they think they want.

  17. I’d say most of Neil Gaimans work could fall here as the charecters are usually strange but accept it through self discovery but mostly Neverwhere and Sandman especially Neverwhere

  18. I would agree with a lot of Lucious Shepard’s work but the one that first pops to mind is Feed by Mira Grant and it’s sequel Deadline. Both are brilliant anti-horror books about living with vampires. Well-thought our SFictional worlds of how the zombies came to be in the first place and how the world had to evolve in order to live with them.

  19. It occurs to me that by the proposed definition, The Lord of the Rings is horror if we decide that Frodo is the protagonist, and anti-horror if we decide that Sam is (as has been argued by many others).  Both Frodo and Sam are transformed by their experiences in the world outside the Shire, a world much darker and more painful than either truly understood; but Frodo is damaged beyond mortal repair, while Sam’s experience brings him the wisdom to prosper and thrive amid his more limited fellow hobbits. 

    I’d suggest a better term for the kind of story being described is one already in use: gnostic — the primary story arc is about the liberation of the protagonist from a false or limited worldview, a process which, though entailing fear and horror at the beginning, is ultimately depicted as beneficial and empowering.

    One cautionary note I’d include, regarding a problematic tendency in gnostic thought, is that “embracing the strangeness” can be a worthwhile expansion of perception and understanding, but a lot of gnostic narratives also assume the tacit logical corollary of “rejecting/condemning the familiar” — the narrative or the protagonist, or both, treats the world/worldview left behind and those still within it with a kind of benign, dismissive condescension at best and a withering contempt at worst.  It’s not hard to see why this perspective might resonate with a good many SF/F/H genre fans, of course, but I’d suggest it’s a problematic one.

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