How Do You Define the Horror Genre?

Mary Shelly created the modern monster character, Frankenstein.

Mary Shelly created the modern monster character, Frankenstein.

 

I’ve been “bear baiting” a bit in my last posts on horror. Yes, I have tried to be evocative, but I want to alter the tone for this blog. There are people that actually enjoy horror and probably don’t know it. Recognizing and defining horror fiction has become difficult in the new millennium, and not because it’s really hard. The true reality of horror as a genre has been eclipsed by the successful marketing of  the modern horror slasher and spatter films. Talk about horror as a genre and no one brings up Universal Studios “B” monster movies anymore. What everyone thinks of are films that are wall-to-wall blood and gore. Movies and movie franchises like the Saw films, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead, and others have done a lot to obscure modern horror stories of the 18th and 19th, and 20th centuries. Maybe that’s because we have a hard time defining what “horror” as a literary or film genre is.

How should we define the horror genre? One of my favorite working definitions of horror comes from Dr. Donna Casella, instructor\scholar of film theory, film studies, and early American Literature at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Casella states that horror is an, “An atmospheric genre — populated by creatures of dread – that plays on human and cultural fears.” Give a story a creepy atmosphere (whatever that is) to give it legs, while making sure the themes play against cultural fears and throw in creatures of dread (monsters, but monsters that can be human, or natural creatures, as well as supernatural).frankenstein-cartoon-character_zJJoosvu

The first recognized modern horror genre is known as Victorian Gothic horror. Reading those books says a lot about what got under the skin of the people of that time, especially women. During the Victorian era, significant amount of horror was written by women for women. That’s pretty progressive, considering society of that time didn’t allow women to vote, hold property, or even have checking accounts. I fell in love with Gothic horror when taking a graduate course on women authors. As tough as the stories from that era could be to read, many that were preserved had rich payoffs and were completely worth the effort.

If you accept Dr. Casella’s definition as a primary definition, and I do until someone comes up with a better one, horror as a genre can be about every day things, as well as the paranormal. Remember Stephen King’s Cujo? An adorable St. Bernard becomes one of the scariest monsters in twentieth century literature.

Horror can also contain the fantastic or mundane, but to be sure, horror isn’t always about ghosts, vampires, zombies, blood and gore, or flesh-eating monsters. Creatures of dread can be rats (Willard 1971), sharks (Jaws 1975), bears (Night of the Grizzly 1966), rabbits (Night of the Lepus 1972), relatives (Uncle Silas by Le Fanu), and even ordinary people turned murderous for one night every year (The Purge 2013).

Best selling author from the late 18th century. Her mysteries of Udolpho was ground breaking.

Best selling author from the late 18th century. Her mysteries of Udolpho was ground breaking.

One of my favorite all-time horror movies is Jack the Bear with Danny Devito. Devito’s character is a host for late night horror movies on television. There was no blood or gore, but when a neo-fascist shows up to indoctrinate a vulnerable neighborhood kid in Hitler style Aryanism, the atmosphere amps up and propels the creature of dread theme forward.  And yes, I consider neo-facists creatures of dread. Remember, horror has to play against personal or cultural fears. That doesn’t mean horror is always intended to incite fear, sometimes it’s an incredible tool for evaluating fears.

Lest you think horror can’t be humorous, you should check out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahme-Smith. I laughed a lot in spite of the “bone crunching” scenes. The novel can very tongue-in-cheek in parts, at least I thought so. See what I did there? I didn’t say whose tongue in whose cheek as this is a zombie novel, right? Let’s move on.

A very hilarious and clever book is a grammar textbook called The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Elizabeth Gordon. I have used this to successfully tutor college students in English grammar. Yes, infinitives, prepositional phrases, gerunds, passive voice, and everything else English can be truly terrifying, but Gordon successfully mimics the Gothic horror style and uses it to teach English. Pretty useful for a genre blacklisted in the minds of many .

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire:

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire:

 

Douglas Winter, horror author and critic once stated,“Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.” But if you think the only strong emotion allowed in horror is horror, terror, or dread, you’ve not read very much. Pathos is just as much a part of horror as the emotion of horror itself. Consider a truly iconic horror/monster movie of the twentieth century, King Kong (2005). Personally, I find a lot to dread in this scene as to what it says about humans.

One of the founders of the Horror Writers Association, Robert McCammon, once said, “Horror fiction upsets apple carts, burns old buildings, and stampedes the horses; it questions and yearns for answers, and it takes nothing for granted. It’s not safe….Horror fiction can be a guide through a nightmare world, entered freely and by the reader’s own will. And since horror can be many things and go in many, many, directions, that guided nightmare ride can shock, educate, illuminate, threaten, shriek, and whisper before it lets the readers loose.” (Twilight Zone Magazine, Oct 1986).

Once horror is allowed to grow beyond zombies, vampires, werewolves, and Amish vampires in space (author Kerry Nietz is my hero) in the minds of the audience. The genre of horror becomes a potent agent of confrontation and change. So let’s remember there’s more to horror as a genre than just wall-to-wall gore.

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Happy Release Day to Amish ZOMBIES from Space!

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Read it. Enjoyed it. Have the t-shirt. 🙂

In 2013, I had the chance to read my first Kerry Nietz book – Amish Vampires in Space. I wasn’t sure what to expect because, let’s face it, it’s a title that can’t be taken seriously. I was pleasantly surprised because not only was the book strangely plausible, but it was really, really good. (Read my review).

Fast forward to today, and Kerry Nietz is one of my favorite authors, and his new book, Amish Zombies from Space, has released! I couldn’t be more thrilled to host him on The Scriblerians again (first interview is here) and ask him some questions.

Everyone, say hello to Kerry!

Kerry Nietz

Author, Kerry Nietz

Q: Last time I interviewed you, I asked “I understand that AViS is the first of a series. What can you tell us about the other books and when can we expect to see them on the shelves?” To which you answered. “LOL. Now that’s news to me. Who have you been talking to?” It’s not even 2 years later, and Amish Zombies from Space is here! What led to the sequel?

LOL. That earlier interview probably had something to do with it, Lisa.

Around that time I talked with Jeff Gerke (my then-publisher) about the possibility of Amish Vampires in Space having a sequel. Given the interest in AViS, he was confident that Marcher Lord Press could publish a series of Amish-themed science fiction books. I just needed to write them.

The subsequent sale of Marcher Lord Press complicated matters a bit, though.

Q: And really, why zombies?

Jeff was convinced that the next monsters I had to explore were zombies, simply from a pop culture standpoint. Zombies were ubiquitous—both in print and film. In fact, one of the Hollywood people that contacted us had connections to the Walking Dead. So it seemed an obvious way to go.

Q: Unlike most people, I’m not a zombie fan. I don’t watch the Walking Dead or any of the zombie apocalypse movies, but I did enjoy your book. How long did it take you to come up with a plausible scientific explanation for the zombies?

Not long. A day or two, maybe. I’ve been really blessed in that the science seems to present itself right when I need it. Much of what happens in Amish Zombies, though, is an outgrowth of the first book. The characters and situations of AViS fueled the characters and situations of AZfS. Same goes for the science.

Q: Amish Vampires in Space received a lot of notoriety–from worst book cover lists to the Tonight Show. What has been the craziest thing to come out of this series so far?AViS

Last year was a fun ride. There were so many unexpected twists and turns. I never knew what I was going to wake up to.

For instance, much of the week before the Tonight Show mention I spent trying to get the print version of AViS back on sale. I had some typos I wanted fixed and the time seemed right to do that.

Unfortunately, CreateSpace takes your book out-of-print while you make corrections. The AViS print galley has a few stylistic things that makes the CreateSpace reviewers nervous, things they flag even though the book would print fine. Consequently, it was a stressful process. I finally got the book back on sale on a Tuesday morning. That night it was mentioned on the Tonight Show. Good timing, huh?

But there were lots of fun things that happened last year. I got to chat, via Twitter, with folks all around the world, in at least seven different languages. (Thank you, Google translate!)

I also exchanged tweets with a gentlemen only to learn he was in the cast of the Ghost Hunters show. I talked to a handful of people from the film industry, in fact.

(In case you wondered, Amish Vampires in Space was considered too far out for the SyFy channel. Ah well.)

So yeah, it was a crazy, crazy time. Loved it.

Q: They say no publicity is bad publicity. Have you found that to be true with AViS?

For me, I think that’s true. It probably depends on how you approach it, though—on your attitude going in.

With Amish Vampires in Space my conscience was clear. I knew what I wrote, and why I wrote it. So most of the mockery and near-slander just rolled off my back. I embraced it, in fact. Every situation, even the confrontations, became an opportunity to dialog with people, and hopefully, leave as friends. It was a great little faith exercise.

Q: AZfS picks up a few years after AViS and many of the characters are still the same. Who was your favorite character to write?

Two of my favorite characters were new ones. I don’t want to spoil too much, but one of them is a friend of doctor Darly’s. He’s a bit of a wit.

Another favorite was Jeb and Sarah’s son, Isaac. It was neat to put my mind into “boy mode” again. To try to experience the world as a child again. Science fiction should have a good dose of marvel and wonder. What better way to present that than through the eyes of a child?

(Darly’s friend ended up as my favorite character as well, although I have always had a soft spot for Jeb.)

Q: Both your books do a great job of portraying the Amish and their love for a simple life, and you use them to sprinkle theology throughout your books. People who haven’t read your books might think you have no regard for the Amish or Christianity in general. Have you had any throwback from the Amish loving community over your books?

There was some of that initially, yes. People saw the cover and the title and assumed I was bashing the Amish. I even had one author tell me I couldn’t write about the Amish because I hadn’t been Amish. <sigh>

My goal all along was to be as realistic as possible. To keep everything plausible. That required portraying the Amish as faithfully as I could. Most of the criticism went away after people started reading the book.

Q: So, what’s in store for the next book – werewolves? 😉

Not sure yet. I’ve been working on Amish-something for nearly three years now and mentally I need a little break. I might circle back to some of my earlier characters and their worlds. See what excites me.

There will need to be another Amish book at some point, though. Werewolves seem to be the most commonly requested antagonists, so I would be foolish not to consider them. I need to find a way to make the concept interesting scientifically—to not travel paths I’ve already travelled.

We’ll see. Hopefully, the answer will come right when I need it. 🙂

Kerry’s doing something different with this book. In addition to the print, and eBook versions, he is also doing a serial version (3 parts). It’s cheaper to buy the entire eBook, but Part 1 is discounted for those who might want to try before they commit.  If, like me, you enjoyed AViS, why not show Kerry some love and puchase a copy of AZfS today?

LET US HEAR FROM YOU: Where are you on the Zombie fan scale from 1 (burn them all) to 10 (eat my brains)?

AZfS shirt

The Chrysalids Catalyst

Chrysalids 2 copy 

A terrifying story of conformity and deformity in a world paralyzed by genetic mutation.”

 

This is a quote from the back of the YA novel, The Chrysalids, written by John Wyndham. The book, published in 1955, became a classic used in the school curriculum when I attended. The author takes the reader into a future post-apocalyptic world where a few pockets of human settlements battle the effects of the fall-out of the war. Because of radiation, deviations in crops, animals and people were extremely common, but were rooted out and either destroyed as offences and abominations or exiled to the treacherous ‘Fringes’, the surrounding lands where deformities were the norm.

In the middle of this strict enforcement, David and a band of other teenagers are barely able to conceal their telepathic abilities. This deviation from a cruelly rigid norm would have gone unnoticed except for a bombshell that comes in the form of a little girl – David’s kid sister, Petra, who shows a powerful telepathic gift…

 

“Who is it?” Rosalind asked, in real words, and a shaky voice. She put her hand on her forehead. “Who was able to do that?”

I told her.

“Petra?” she repeated, staring incredulously.

I carried my little sister ashore, and laid her on the grass. She was exhausted, and only semi-conscious, but there did not seem to be anything seriously wrong with her.

Rosalind came and knelt on the grass on the other side of her. We looked down at the sopping dress and the darkened, matted curls. Then we gazed across her, at one another.

“I didn’t know,” I told her. “I’d no idea she was one of us.”

Rosalind put her hands to her face, fingertips on her temples. She shook her head slightly and looked at me from disturbed eyes.

“She isn’t,” she said. “Something like us, but not one of us. None of us could command like that. She’s something much more than we are.”

 

Oooooh, now they’re in trouble!

 

The Chrysalids was the one book that was the catalyst for my thirst for fantasy and science fiction. From the moment I finished reading it, I wanted to create alien worlds where strong-characters had to fight for what was important to them. But it was more than that, I loved the underlying comments on our societies that the genre offered. Other books like The Day of the Triffids, and 1984 fed my imagination, but paled in comparison to the effects The Chrysalids had on me. Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm were a bit heavy-handed for 12-year-old me, but the stories stayed with me nonetheless.

Petra, the gifted telepathic girl in John Wyndham’s book has been the seed for many characters I’ve written about since my school years. The innocence of a gifted child mixed with the ability to destroy lives fascinated me, and I’ve seen similar characters in other stories I’m fond of. Ender’s Game, and Harry Potter to name a few.

Was there a book that truly affected you from your school years? If so, why?