The Worldcon 75 panel “History and Evolution of Horror” featured a lineup of writers celebrated for their work in horror – and in many other genres besides. This breadth and inclusiveness became one of the main themes of the discussion, although editor and critic Stephen Jones differentiated himself from Elizabeth Hand, Michael Marshall Smith, and J.R. Johansson, by emphasizing that “I actually live and breathe horror.” Publisher, writer, and editor Jo Fletcher said that, as a publisher, “I do as much horror as the market permits me to do – which varies from time to time.”
The discussion of the evolution of horror revolved around the question of whether the genre is a constant or evolves. Marshall Smith discovered horror through Stephen King – “as a gateway drug, he’s extremely powerful” – as did Johansson. Hand grew up reading ghost stories. In Jones’s view, meanwhile, many of the significant writers in the evolution of horror “don’t hold up so well any more… I can’t go back and read Dracula and Frankestein” whereas “I can go back and read Jane Austen, and it’s as fresh now as when I first read it forty years ago.” Although M.R. James, and some of the work of Arthur Machen and Sheridan Le Fanu, does possess that same enduring quality, according to Jones, “horror tends to be of its time, and it’s only the exception not the rule which continues through and is reissued and reprinted.”
As for horror as a defined genre, in Jones’s evaluation, “it’s probably time to get rid of all those labels,” but according to Marshall Smith, “publishers are still looking for these narrow bounds,” while Fletcher insisted that “you can’t have bookshops full of shelves with no labels whatsoever.” Jones recalled “when the horror section disappeared from pretty much every major bookstore” in the mid-1990s, which “almost destroyed the genre for ten years,” underlining Marshall Smith’s belief that when writers decide “at whatever potential commercial cost, to write what I want to write,” these are often “the ones whose voices have lasted.” Hand confirmed that “there’s something to be said for being diverse,” since, “as we did see with the horror boom and bust in the 1980s, if you’re only writing that, and that goes away, and that platform disappears, you’re out of luck.” Johansson noted that Young Adult is another genre which has “inspired a lot of genre-blending,” since the platform has opened itself to many different sub-genres.
The recent evolution of horror stems, in Marshall Smith’s formulation, from the starting point that “horror is the oldest genre there is – it predates absolutely everything else… that core experience that human beings have of death and loss.” However, Stephen King’s successors went for surface writing, “very flimsy literature,” reproducing the forms and tropes without the depth. Hand “never found his work to be frightening,” although she saw them “cued into a more experiential horror and unease.” Nordic or British horror, in her perspective, “comes much more from landscape, and a sense of the ancient and folklore, and things seeping up from the very deep past. In the US, indigenous peoples of the US have that experience and attachment to the landscape, but the people who colonized that country, we do not. So we’ve had to create that folklore.”
Jones insisted that: “we can’t underestimate what happened in 1974… everything from the 1930s onwards right the way through to the mid-Seventies was basically pulp heritage. Then suddenly when King came on board with Carrie and James Herbert came on board with Rats, everything changed, and it basically created what we consider the horror genre today.” This was, he maintains, an evolutionary moment for horror, but by the 1980s it burned out, because “too many people weren’t writing from the heart” and “publishers were the people who fed that fire… They saturated the market, and it collapsed under the weight of it, which actually wasn’t a bad thing,” because it culled the market. “Only the goods ones, whose hearts and minds were in it, hung in there, ignored the market, and kept doing what they’d always done. Horror has to evolve as a story-telling process the whole time.”
The type of horror appearing in Jones’s anthologies now, he noted, “is light years away from what I was publishing in 1989.” Horror, in his view, is not only the oldest of all literary genres, it’s also “the most encompassing. You can write a horror Western, a horror SF story, a horror romance, a horror crime story. It works in every other genre in fiction, and that is not true of the other genres.” The corollary, however, is that “reading in other genres is very important” with Faulkner, Marlowe, Austen, and the newspapers required reading to keep the genre fresh.
Marshall Smith concurred that “if you’re trying to do something real you have to pick up on the zeitgeist and be aware of what’s going on… what’ll be very interesting over the next five years is to see how people respond to the rolling dumpster fire and shitshow that is on right now.” Hand’s expectation is of a wave of eco-fiction reflecting that “the world we knew, or thought we knew, is turning against us,” drawing on the European connection with the landscape. This will likely follow a trajectory outlined by Johansson, where audiences in crisis periods first of all turn to escapist fiction, then dive back into harder material that actually tells them what is going on.
The combining, unifying theme of horror across all its sub-genres and crossover genre mixes, according to the panel, is fear. As Jones said, “everybody’s afraid of a different thing… it’s the fear of the unknown, and whatever that unknown thing is… it’s our distrust of everything” which makes the genre all-encompassing. Marshall Smith whittled it down even further to “just fear… it is something that is deep, dark and kernel-like inside us… almost like this elemental spirit, that wears different clothes in different eras.” This makes horror almost an ur-genre, or pan-genre, which in Hand’s view, also gives it a cathartic value.
Fletcher wound up the panel by noting that “one of the big problems publishers have is that readers aren’t buying horror in such quantities” and urging the audience to “go out and buy a horror book by an author that you have never read before.”