Gotham Gothic 

Fear and Loathing at the World Horror Convention

Sitting in the bar of Manhattan’s Park Central Hotel, mere steps away from the site of the old hotel barbershop where mobster Albert Anastasia was slaughtered in 1957, I discuss the current state of horror fiction with two veteran book editors and one local literary agent. It’s the first day of the 15th Annual World Horror Convention, and the halls of this Seventh Avenue tourist trap are crammed with professional writers, editors, artists, Hollywood scenarists, indie publishers, agents... and of course fans — those avid and critical readers of genre fiction who often graduate fandom to select one of the aforementioned careers.

Outsiders who sneer at all stripes of American genre fandom (some say pioneered in the 1920s by prototypical horror/fantasy fanboy H.P Lovecraft) don’t realize that this programmatic ascension from fan to "pro" is what it’s always been about — a means of evolving communal definitions of quality and then revitalizing the talent pool by tapping into an informed critical readership.

In the past 15 years, horror (particularly of the gothic supernatural variety) has been gaining in popularity, so much so that you can’t swing a dead cat in Hollywood without hitting a pitch meeting about vampires, witches, ghosts, demons, and other things that go bump and squish in the night. It helps that hybrid mixtures of horror with romance/true crime/SF/westerns/teen adventure and mystery, have generated a "slipstream horror" revolution of astonishing vigor and mass appeal, which threatens to gobble up all competing genres then disgorge them covered in a gloppy veneer of ironic Buffy blood and X-Files spookiness.

My tablemates watch all this happen with cautious optimism. David G. Hartwell, with over 30 years in the biz, edits SF, fantasy, and horror at TOR Books; John Silbersack is a former book editor turned book agent; and James Minz is an editor for the booming Del Rey imprint at Random House. Between them they know — and are known by — almost everyone at this event because the interpersonal dimension of genre publishing remains richer and far more seductive than its financial remuneration. Horror and fantasy publishing is one of those rarified, "genteel" pursuits which writers and editors pursue out of a passionate inner compulsion, producing the kind of intimacy and camaraderie that only shared intellectual obsessions can generate. Why else would Hartwell have sunk his time and money into critical pro-zines and private hardcover publishing ventures in pro-bono support of his favorite authors? Why else would Minz own a full set of Canadian ReBoot episodes? Why else would Silbersack stay in the field as an agent after being brutally downsized from a senior editing gig? Why would wealthy writers like Clive Barker and Stephen King still contribute work to new anthologies that pay little or nothing? To paraphrase Che: the core motivation of the true genre-fan is love.

After a few Meet-the-Writer cocktail sips, raucous writer roundtables, and publisher-sponsored parties, you not only know the industry’s key movers and shakers, but most of their spouses, children, sexual habits, general health index and household earnings. You learn that both Linda Addison and P.D. Casek dumped husbands who interfered with their writing; and that fellow guests of honor F. Paul Wilson and Jack Ketchum first befriended each other at NECon, a yearly summer camp for horror writers. And you care. Multimedia genre tyro Harlan Ellison peppers his panel talks with harrowing anecdotes about ex-wives, writer’s funerals, and rancorous lawsuits; Cecilia Tan admits launching her popular Circlet Press imprint as the logical extension of her own enthusiasm for fantasy spliced with leathersex. This irrepressible lack of self-censorship in horror and fantasy writers encourages similar candor from readers and critics, whether they like the more extreme ends of the spectrum or not.

For example, the current vogue in fan-fic for explicit monster-porn prompts raised eyebrows from Minz and Hartwell who claim such enthusiasms are out of step with commercial publishing trends. "But what about Laurell K. Hamilton?" I pipe up. "She’s making a fortune for Jove writing slipstream monster-porn that reads like Buffy-and-Angel-host-a-BDSM jamboree."

"Maybe so," says Minz, furrowing his brow, "but it’s still not Cthulu Sex!" Hartwell — who edited The Dark Descent, a massive critical anthology of all extant flavors of horror in 1987 — almost concurs, but after having included in his personal horror pantheon everyone from Henry James and Faulkner to Clive Barker and D.H. Lawrence, he refuses to predict whither this bloody trail of horrific imagination with lead. After all, The Dark Descent was published back when horror fans still felt no need to separate their field’s yearly achievements from the pre-existing World Fantasy Convention. Nowadays the horror children seem to need lebensraum.

Consider Texan Joe R. Landsdale. Landsdale has won numerous awards for his mystery, crime and horror novels, has also been considered a "mainstream" historical fiction writer and yet isn’t too highbrow to script teleplays for TV’s animated Batman series or write for popular D.C. comic titles like Jonah Hex. His is the kind of authorial flexibility that justifies horror as its own category and keeps horror writing and writers interesting.

Such boundary-defying writers never hesitate to use horror to explore (and explode!) the vagaries of human nature. They each see horror as a logical and natural reaction to the paradoxes of quotidian human life, and write scary stories as catharsis for the ambient fear and dread that plagues the self-aware human condition.

Fear of bodily functions, fear of love, fear of mortality, fear of authority are the universal themes writ large in horror fic. During a panel about the booming market in horror fiction for the teen market, editors and writers of the Goosebumps, Roswell High, and Buffy series novels worried about how to keep the interest of increasingly cynical and sophisticated teens.

"I’m not comfortable writing explicit sex scenes in books aimed at younger teens," confesses Chris Golden. "Or certain kinds of violence. When I wrote for the Buffy line I did a few books not meant to be shelved with the teen books... [I] have a 9-year-old son learning sophisticated vocabulary and ideas by reading the Artemis Fowl titles. But I don’t want 10 to 12 year olds reading the graphic murders in the Spike and Drucilla novels."

Laura Ann Gilman, an editor-turned-writer keeps her teen writing edgy, but with the authentic humor and pain of youthful inexperience: "Sexually active characters don’t need explicit portrayals. You try to avoid [things that trigger] prurient adult interest. My Staying Dead series has a huge teen readership. And they want intricate plots and characterizations."

So how far is "too far" with a genre already as extreme as horror must naturally be? It’s the one question never answered with any unanimity during this 15th WHC, and certainly not by my friends at the bar. But as horror fandom chooses yet another state and city for next year’s communal conclave (just as likely to be a conservative red state as an anarchic blue one) all that’s certain is they’ll continue to add to an ever-shifting index of whatever still shocks or terrifies the hoi polloi

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