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.

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