One of the things I love about getting old anthologies and collections is reading over the introductions and prefaces. Not just for Year’s Best anthologies, but for ones that are like a survey and overview of specific subgenres, too (Space Opera Renaissance, Modern Classics of Fantasy, The Big Book series, The Weird, etc, etc). These prefaces are interesting little nuggets, where we not only get a snapshot of the genre at that moment in time, but also an attempt at a narrative history of the genre up until that point. One of the ones I’m reading now that I’m finding interesting is the preface to The Modern Classics of Fantasy, and it reminded me that up until the 70’s, Horror was a part of Fantasy. It wasn’t it’s own specific market.

Not exactly, anyway. And in the 70’s, it was mostly seen as a branch of the gothic. I remember Peter Straub talking to his agent, and his agent suggesting he try his hand at “this gothic stuff that’s popular now”, and him writing and publishing Julia, and then A Ghost Story. I just find this interesting. I remember one of the biggest complaints about Lovecraft’s face on the bust for the World Fantasy Award was that he was horror, not fantasy.

And even until the 90’s, Dezois says, it was still considered a branch of fantasy. Even though it had it’s own marketing category, etc. I remember this, Stephen King, Clive Barker, all the big names were doing horror as the fantastic. Manhunter, then a movie version of Red Dragon, was considered thriller and detective movie, not horror. Because it didn’t contain the fantastic. Even the book was a thriller, not a horror novel.

And yet, in film this was not the case. I think that’s because horror was usually a low budget fair, and so a lot of horror had to avoid anything fantastic just for budgetary constraints. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example. A lot of slashers, as another example. Even though, for a bit, the slashers would slide into the supernatural, at their core, they were just very violent mystery movies.

I think the biggest change though, the one that effected the publishing industry as much as the film industry, was Silence of the Lambs. It was a police procedural, but it was shot like a horror movie (and an amazing one at that). It felt like a gothic, it seemed to have a supernatural bent to it, even though nothing supernatural happened. There was something implied here, it felt like a Hammer film, liked like a Corman Poe production, and yet…

It was something else. I think this sent shockwaves through the community, and from that point on a lot of horror embraced realism and serial killers. Yes, you could argue that Hitchcock was a horror director and paved the way. But at the same time, his movies were considered tight thrillers, and not exactly horror. And yet, in the 90’s, horror changed shape. I can see this argument, and it makes sense. Is this historical revisionism? I don’t know. Maybe thrillers were always considered part of horror.

Maybe the bust of horror fiction as a genre had something to do with it, too. And the supernatural horror moved way to Urban Fantasy? I don’t know. Anne Rice and other vampire horror was doing big in the 90’s, and that was also very supernatural as well. And yet…

There was something of a sea change. And I can’t quite put my finger on it. I remember as a kid growing up during the 70’s/80’s horror boom, and coming to non-supernatural horror and being let down. I wanted that creepy stuff! Now, as an adult, I’m much more lax in my definitions. I’m pretty much a big tent horror person. But I will admit, I still prefer the fantasy tinged horror. I just like it. I do enjoy ones where the supernatural is slippery and sideways, yes.

But there is something to that horror as fantastic…I don’t know. When the two mix together, I get a thrill.

Anyway, am I getting off topic here? I don’t know. On the other edge of horror, we have horror fans who go the exact opposite route. For them, anything supernatural “isn’t scary” because it’s not real. They can’t suspend their disbelief enough to see the creepiness of terror. They need human horrors, and visceral gory terrors. I do think horror films have played a definite hand in this sort of thing. I’m not judging anyone elses tastes, mind you. I just find it interesting.

How genres morph and change. It seems to me that subgenres these days are marketing towards the reader’s moods, for better or ill. Someone stops in the bookstore (or goes on amazon or weightless books) and thinks, ah. I’m in the mood for wonder. Or I’m in the mood for something that makes me feel romantic joy. Or I’m in the mood to be terrified, etc. It’s interesting to me, since a great book exists in multiple registers, and it’s not just on prevailing mood all the time.

Really great epic fantasy is horror, when you think about it. A lot of really good science fiction is horror as well. GRRM made a career out of combining horror and scifi, as well as horror and fantasy. The entire grimdark industry, resting on his works of epic fantasy, is literally horror and fantasy put together. It starts with a zombie attack, and even though some say “well, that’s a prologue”…

It’s a horror prologue, not an epic fantasy one. An epic fantasy one is usually “one thousand years ago, such and such a thing”. A horror prologue? It’s a group of strangers we don’t know, getting horribly murdered by the big bad that’s going to come later. It’s a classic way of setting the tone and the stakes without putting our (soon to be) main characters in danger (yet).

Though, I guess now that horror is a big business once again, grim dark seems to have slid into the background. And now epic fantasy is basically puzzlebox magic (eg: hard scifi disguised as fantasy) that fans of Brandon Sanderson seem to enjoy. While the grim dark fans got sick of waiting for Winds of Winter and have turned their heads back to the horror bookstacks.

I find all of this really interesting, the way the genres seem to mutate and change as a response to reader whims. Categories based on “what am I in the mood for now?” and the current cultural zeitgeist.

Does any of this matter? In a way, yes. Some of us wish we could be Gaiman and become a genre of our own. That’s not normal, though. If we want to stay published and keep on publishing, we have to keep abreast of the market. Though writing to a market is a dangerous thing in itself…

Publishing is so slow. By time it comes out…the market may have changed already.

Though I will same I’m super happy that the horror section has returned to most bookstores. Let’s see where it goes from here, and what the future holds.

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