Poe's children: the new horror : an anthology - By Peter Straub


I could say: Kelly Link created a world, and it then had been there all along. Or: John Crowley entertained the possibility of a grand possibility, and after that it had always been in place, available for use. Something similar could be said of all the superb writers in this book, which category includes every one of its contributors, from Dan Chaon to Rosalind Palermo Stevenson. Each of these writers either came through to the recognition, or were permitted by a generous environment early on to understand, that the materials of genre—specifically the paired genres of horror and the fantastic—in no way require the constrictions of formulaic treatment, and in fact naturally extend and evolve into the methods and concerns of its wider context, general literature. Yet most professional reviewers of fiction instinctively tend to protect the categories that simplify their tasks. Therefore, when faced with work that, while indisputably though perhaps even in some not-quite-definable sense connected to a genre like sf or horror, also possesses literary merit, they tend to fall back on the convenient old shell game of expressing their admiration by saying that the work in question transcends its genre.

Now, let us be clear about this. Claiming that a work transcends its genre is almost exactly like saying, as people once were wont to do, that an accomplished African-American gentleman, someone say like John Conyers or Denzel Washington, is a credit to his race—the unstated assumption of course being that the race in question needs all the help it can get. (One day I’d like to hear an after-banquet introducer describe some silver-haired New England WASP as a credit to his race.)

By my own ground rules, then, I have been called a credit to my race maybe half a dozen times, directly or indirectly, and about half of those times I was dumb enough to feel flattered. These days, publishers market a product they are happy to call “literary horror,” but when I first appeared everyone understood that horror was inherently trashy, unliterary to the core, actually rather shameful, literature’s wretched slum. Teenaged boys and other degenerates were its natural demographic. Of course Poe had somehow crept into the canon, maybe because Baudelaire’s translations had fooled the French into mistaking him for a reputable figure; hints and echoes of the supernatural filled Hawthorne’s books; Henry James had written “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Jolly Corner” and other great ghost or horror stories; and Edith Wharton had written many wonderful ghost stories. These figures, so important to me that in my 1979 novel Ghost Story I had not only named two principal characters James and Hawthorne but inserted into its first part what I called a “junked-up” version of “The Turn of the Screw,” were nonetheless safely in the past. During the late seventies, when you thought of horror, you did not think of the Master of Lamb House, Rye. What came to mind instead were paperbacks with graphics of broken dolls, severed heads, or minimalist mouths letting slip single drops of blood.

(When at a lovely, crowded party in London in 1977 I complained about the dripping severed head on the newly released paperback of my latest book, its publisher told me, “Peter, that book isn’t for people like you.” Too stunned to reply, I turned around and aimed for the bar.)

Really because of the marketing approach reflected in those gaudy paperback covers, which included packing the newly popular category with far too many titles by authors whose ambitions went no further than that market, “horror” as a category overflowed its banks during the late eighties and flooded the chain-stores’ shelves with malevolent orphans, haunted brownstones and haunted farms and haunted subway cars, ancient curses, things in bandages, evil toddlers, zombies at play, Nazi vampires—” underwater lesbian Nazi vampire turtles,” my now-deceased friend Michael Mc-Dowell joked while impaneled at a genre convention in Rhode Island. In the early nineties, in a Guest of Honor speech at a World Horror Convention in New York, I responded to the decaying world I saw around me by saying that horror was a house that horror had already moved out of.

The statement earned me some hostile glances during the evening’s celebrations, for far too many younger writers present had trusted that their extravaganzas about back-country zombies or teenaged vampires were one day going to settle them on or near the best-seller lists, in the vicinity of their favorite books by V. C. Andrews, Ann Rice, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and