Friday, February 23, 2007

Douglas Winter




Douglas Winter has written horror, but is better known as a critic in the horror field. Of all the critics I've read, I personally feel that Winter gets it right more often than not. I'm reading an article by him now in On Writing Horror that is quite insightful. One point he makes is this: "If your sole ambition is commercial success...you probably lack the courage to write great horror fiction." I believe this to be true. True horror fiction is unlikely to attract the kind of huge audience that The Da Vinci Code commanded.

I know that as soon as I say this someone will toss out names such as Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King. My first response is that Anne Rice doesn't write horror. The underlying power of her work lies in romance. Note, I'm not criticizing her for this, although it's not my cup of tea, but I sincerely believe that her readers are with her more for the love than the fear. Koontz can write horror with the best of them (Phantoms, Midnight), but most of his work, especially his recent work, is more clearly suspense with some horror elements.

Stepen King does write horror, and is an exception to Winter's rule. I don't know why, but I do know plenty of people who are happy to read King but eschew reading any and all other horror fiction. On the list of big selling horror writers, I'd include Peter Straub, one of our most literate practicioners, and I would claim that in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs Thomas Harris wrote horror.

But the big names pale beside the small names in horror. Dennis Etchison and Wayne Allen Sallee are two of our best modern short story writers and yet their names are known only to an inner circle who truly love horror. Joe Lansdale has far better sales for his suspense work than for his horror. Writers like Sidney Williams and Del Stone Jr., toil brutally and well in dark fields and have yet to reap a golden harvest. Charles Grant produced one of the most significant bodies of work of any writer in horror. Ask his wife, Kathryn Ptacek, a horror writer herself, sometime about their big house and fancy cars. And who among you has heard of Charlee Jacob, one of the most significant new voices in horror?

No, if you want the "world" to love your writing then horror isn't for you. But if you want to explore lonely places where only a few will venture with you, then gas up that long black 4X4 and leave home at midnight. Pick the road less travelled. Hammer the highway down. Watch for the wicked. And stop to visit.

9 comments:

Sidney said...

Thanks for the compliment.

I was thinking about the genre a little while watching the DVD of SAW III. In both film and literature horror can be merciless and some people are looking for happy endings in their reading.

Steve Malley said...

Art has to be personal for it to work. It's one of life's weird paradoxes. Doesn't matter if it's painting, writing, dance, whatever. You've got to bring the stuff most of us keep hidden and freaking put it right out there.

And the thing is, you show off your stuff that's so intimate it's scary, and others connect in a deep and powerful way.

Don't, and it's like watching someone try to dance without moving their hips.

I meet a lot of aspiring young artists and try to help whenever I can. But since Miami Ink came out, the tattooing side of my life has been full of bucketheads who think they pick up a machine and are instantly showered with tits and money. The rap music of art, I suppose...

They don't listen when I tell the truth: if you'd do it for free and despite every obstacle, you'll find a way to make a living at it. If you're in it for the bucks, you'll be out again in under two years.

Dave Hardy said...

I think almost any genre/art form, what have you has two lists: the one that the public thinks of and the one that others who work in that field think of.

Now Stephen King makes both lists, but how many people ever heard of HP Lovecraft? Can't say as I've ever come across Richard Matheson's name outside of talks with fans and writers, yet so many speak so highly of him. Maybe horror is a genre where the split is more emphasized, given popular tastes.

But I'm guessing that if you talked to Kanye West, he could name a half-dozen rappers you never heard of who would be amazing performers.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I've never tried to write horror. In fact, I'm not sure I'd know how to go about it. I'd probably lean more on the side of suspense. Interesting post. I agree, if you're writing to make money, then you work will pale in comparison to those who are passionate about their art form.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Amazing that you put me with Etchison, that guy is my mentor. If I hadn't read THE DARK COUNTRY and thought "how the heck does this guy knows the names of the snakes in my head?", I might never have written a single word. And Sid and Charlee both are fantastic in all they do, sadly, Charlee has a much harder time than I do typing, if you can believe that. Her husband Jimmy does a lot of the typing but its still her prose...

Stewart Sternberg said...

You know what I think is the most difficult thing about writing horror, and this is obviously just opinion: finding an original voice, or at least one that has integrity. I can't describe it, but I think in horror, it's hard to step into that shadow without bringing with you all the easy beats that people have become familiar with and rely upon.

Erik Donald France said...

All good points. I like the Winter take, as well. Do what you love. Damn the torpedoes, and if money comes from it anyway, goodie.

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks for posting everyone. JR, I write a lot of other stuff besides horror but I do love a good gore fest. Dave, I checked out your blog. Good Howard stuff. Wayne, your shit rocks.

Lucas Pederson said...

Horror comes naturally for me, I don't know why. Of course I'm not a good writer, I try though, so I can't convey everything that's going on in my head onto papaer or the computer screen. But I keep writing becasue it's what I love. And eventually, I think I'll get it right.
Stephen King is my favorite writer. And I think his success came with the bringing of a new style. Although I do love Lovecraft's work. Ic an't get enough of that stuff. Great post.