The “Horror and the World Fantasy Award” panel at Worldcon 75 featured a star lineup of influential horror editors and authors, including Ellen Datlow, who later in the evening received her own Hugo Award for Best Editor – Short Form. Since most of Ellen Datlow’s editorial work has been in the horror and weird fiction field, that gives some idea of the caliber of the panel. Moderated by horror and speculative fiction author, editor and publisher Ian Whates, the panel also included critic, editor and writer John Clute, Australian horror and speculative fiction author Angela Slatter, and veteran horror editor and critic Stephen Jones. The current Wikipedia article on the World Fantasy Awards states that: “Across all categories, Ellen Datlow has both the most nominations and most wins of any nominee, with ten wins out of 42 nominations, primarily for her anthologies. She is followed by Terri Windling with 9 out of 30 and Stephen Jones with 3 out of 28, both also mainly for editing anthologies.”
Most Teleread readers will surely be aware that much recent discussion of the World Fantasy Awards revolved around the replacement of the former Award trophy, a bust of H.P. Lovecraft, with a new design, due to HPL’s notoriously racist personal opinions. Interestingly, that issue hardly emerged in the discussion. Whates introduced the brief for the panel as “why horror seems to be so popular in WFA shortlists.”
Jones pointed to the origins of the WFA Awards and their parent convention, the World Fantasy Convention, during the horror boom of the mid-1970s. The first WFC, held in Providence, RI in 1975, had as its theme “The Lovecraft Circle,” and that Lovecraftian association has persisted ever since, despite the name on the billboard. Jones attributed the perceived bias towards horror at fantasy and other conventions to the view that “the horror guys the people who go to all the fun conventions.” Datlow, conversely, reported that “from the horror people’s point of view, in the past ten years, they always feel there’s a bias towards fantasy.” Her analysis of actual awards and nominations showed no bias either way, and she saw this as “all perception,” depending on which end of the imaginative literature spectrum it’s seen from. Clute described the situation as “pretty deeply confusing altogether,” given that the WFC externally was intended as a fantasy convention, and the final result has become “terminologically inexact,” though Jones pointed out that “the community itself has changed and mutated, as has the genre.”
Jones recalled the kickoff point for “modern horror as we know it” in 1974 with the publication of Stephen King’s Carrie and James Herbert’s The Rats – preceded by a string of writers, such as L. Sprague de Camp or Ray Bradbury, who were equally at home in horror, SF, or fantasy. Clute identified a similar takeoff point for fantasy with the work of Terry Brooks, “who creates the modern genre of fantasy in a very similar fashion in the mid-1970s.” Slatter cited her core material, fairy tales, as “the original horror stories,” prior to and transcending genres.
Clute’s analysis, as represented by all the major imaginative literature awards over the past few years, was that “there is no real clarity left” on genre divisions, and the prior clarity “was from the get-go, deceptive.” Datlow cited all the leading modern writers who continue to write regardless across genres, and are followed across them by their more committed fans. Whates picked up a point raised by the panel regarding the development of these genre categories in the 1970s as “an attempt by the booksellers to get the books to the right audience, and the publishers went along with it.” Clute welcomed the passing of “this attempt at rigorous division… we’re past that stage.”
Whates highlighted a perception that the WFAs are biased against epic high fantasy and sword and sorcery. Jones linked this to the WFAs’ structural split between nominations from a popular vote and a judging panel, with the judges also able to vote for the final shortlist. “Five people a year decide what wins the WFA. The same with the British Fantasy Society” – despite the hard work put in to selection of the best judging panels, regular turnover of judges, and other efforts to ensure fairness. Jones’s prescription: “I would like to see the awards go back to first-past-the post,” with all conventioneers entitled to vote on the candidates and shortlist. There was a lot more about the intricacies of judging, and being a judge, on any number of award series, let alone the WFAs.
Whates reiterated that “we talk about mainly horror and fantasy, but I do think that the bleed across the border with SF [means] there’s some fantastic science fiction horror… We tend to put these labels on because human life likes to classify things, and quite often we can’t classify things in those black-and-white terms.” Clute characterized the categories as “all incomplete, and they’re all temporary.” Jones detailed the results of his own examination of all World Fantasy Awards as part of his preparation for the panel, parsing each Award winner in all the distinct Award categories into fantasy, horror, or science fiction. His figures demonstrated that fantasy came top in almost every Award category barring Best Anthology, where fantasy tied with horror. Horror only came first in the “Special Award—Non-professional” category, which tends to be dominated, according to Jones, by hobbyist small presses. “Fantasy, as a broad term, pretty much runs away with the Awards,” Jones concluded.
In answer to a question about proposals to split the Hugo Award for Best Novel into separate science fiction and fantasy categories, the panel concurred that, in Clute’s words, this was “a really seriously bad idea, in this year to start bifurcating and trifurcating genre definitions, when we’re finding that the best books tend to amalgamate various forms of literature.” Jones traced the origins of the World Horror Convention back to the perception that “horror has always been the ghetto of genres,” leading to a breakaway from the WFC, but conceded that the WHC has its issues. Datlow, meanwhile, cited the new Horror Writers Association platform StokerCon as the “real honest-to-god convention” of the horror genre, with “days of pitches to editors” and “more professionals in the field and publishers.”
Jones’s conclusion on the whole panel topic was: “Write what you want to write. Don’t worry about what it’s categorized under. And if you think you’re going to win the World Horror Award, and you win the Hugo instead, don’t worry about it.”