Where Are We Going? Some Reflections on British Horror, Present and Future
By Nina Allan
25 January 2016
One of the events I was most looking forward to at last autumn's FantasyCon in Nottingham was a panel I was invited to sit on entitled "British Horror: Present and Future." Our brief was to explore and discuss where British horror is currently at, what the future might hold, and how and if the field is becoming more diverse. We enjoyed a spirited discussion, including some enthusiastic contributions from the audience, but with less than an hour in hand, there was never going to be enough time to cover all bases. I felt particularly disappointed that the panel became somewhat bogged down in the perennial griping about the publishing industry that tends to go on, leaving even less time for what seemed to me at the outset to be the central points of importance in the discussion: where are we going as horror readers, writers, and editors, and how and how much greater diversity—of subject matter, of stylistic approach, of influence, of gender, of sexuality, of social and ethnic background—is being encouraged within the field. I came away from Nottingham still mulling this over.
Somewhat conveniently for the purposes of this discussion, FantasyCon 2015 saw the launch of three "best of" horror anthologies: the latest (#26) in Stephen Jones's redoubtable Best New Horror series, which has now been running for more than a quarter of a century, The 2nd Spectral Book of Horror Stories under the editorship of Mark Morris, and the twenty-fifth anniversary reissue of Best New Horror #3, from 1991. Looking down the table of contents of this last, I encountered many familiar, well-loved names—some sadly no longer with us, some very much still writing and contributing to the literature. I want to stress right from the off how important the Best New Horror series has been to me, both as a reader and as a writer. When I began developing a professional interest in horror fiction towards the end of the 1990s, BNH was where I first started to acquaint myself with the field: who was writing, what they were writing, how they related to one another. I would read each volume cover to cover when it first appeared, adding to my knowledge and developing my taste with each new outing.
When I look at the table of contents for BNH #3, I see the names of writers who first drew me into the genre (McGammon, Grant, Newman, Etchison), writers who deepened my understanding of what horror writing could do and cemented my allegiance (Campbell, Royle, Lane, Ligotti, Tem, Hand), as well as one more recent discovery, Käthe Koja, whose writing is everything that modern horror should aspire to be. A wonderful compendium indeed, and if I felt a little disappointed to see that of the twenty-nine stories listed, only four were by women, I reluctantly put it down to the times. While women have always written horror, the awareness of women writing horror was not then so advanced as it has become more recently. Any anthology that styled itself "Best New Horror" in 2015 would surely provide greater parity in representation.
How surprised was I then, when I turned to the table of contents for BNH #26 and discovered that of the nineteen stories listed, a mere three were by women writers.
Three must be somebody's lucky number, and nineteen, come to that, because of the nineteen stories selected to appear in the 2nd Spectral Book of Horror Stories—and this from more than five hundred submissions received—only three of those were by women, also.
I honestly don't see how this is a situation anyone can feel happy with. I'm not even going to get started on the representation of writers from minority ethnic backgrounds in these tables of contents, because it's practically nil.
OK, those are the facts, the figures I'd brought with me for discussion on the panel. They speak for themselves, and what they say about the state of horror fiction in the UK in 2015 is that it's very white, heavily male-dominated, and furthermore, that this situation hasn't changed at all in the last quarter-century. Now we need to rewind a bit, and ask ourselves a couple of questions. Firstly, is this how things are on the ground? It's with some relief that I'm able to assert that the tables of contents above offer a very partial representation of the whole story. At this point I'd like to share a photo with you, a photo (courtesy of Priya Sharma) that was taken at this year's FantasyCon, at the launch party for Simon Strantzas's Aickman's Heirs anthology and V. H. Leslie's collection Skein and Bone.
(Anyone out there who feels like complaining that there aren't any men in this picture: sorry, guys. But there are loads of wonderfully talented men writers for you to enjoy in the Aickman's Heirs anthology itself.) Plenty of women here, then, and this gathering represents but a small fraction—newer voices, mainly—of women currently writing horror on and around the UK scene. Combine us with the increasing number of women horror writers based in Europe and the Americas, India, Australasia, South East Asia, and Africa and the picture looks healthier still.
We have to assume then that the problem is one of visibility. Why are editors continuing to select men and women in such unequal proportions, and—the most slippery and vexed question of all—how and why does this matter?
There are so many reasons it matters. A horror literature (or indeed any literature) that does not accurately represent who we are as a nation, that does not offer room for all of our stories in their increasingly diverse complexity, is soon going to be a dead horror literature, a museum piece that relies upon the writers and attitudes and approaches of the past, and talks only to itself and to its own close acolytes. Visibility is also important in encouraging new writers into the field. How would a new horror writer, tentatively thinking about starting to send out stories to magazines, react to seeing a table of contents that so summarily excluded writers from their background or gender? Would they forge on anyway, determined to break the system, or would a lifetime of being excluded already have taken its toll?
Of course, every new horror writer is going to react differently. Speaking solely for myself, I can honestly say that when I first started evaluating the field back in the 1990s, I didn't really notice the gender disparity that determined the bias of so many anthologies. I was simply determined to emulate my favourite writers, to learn to write well enough to one day find my own name up there among them. But there are other circumstances, other temperaments. I had a conversation with one writer this FantasyCon who told me that when they first started out, seeing the gender and racial makeup of certain publication venues made them wonder "if [they] could even submit works, if there was any point."
Is this the message we want to send, to anyone? Is it really?
All I know is, when I now look at tables of contents that purport to be "Best Of" anything and where the demographic is so heavily skewed in one direction, it makes me deeply uncomfortable. It makes me feel we're not telling the truth, that we're looking away.
If there is one core myth we horror writers like to tell about ourselves, it's that we do not look away. So why are we doing so now?
What makes a good editor into a great editor? A good editor must know the field, have a huge passion for sharing that knowledge, and the vision to create ideas, spaces, and anthologies in which the zeitgeist, literary achievements, and further ambitions of writers in the field can be best expressed. An editor must develop a personal taste, and should feel unconstrained in expressing that taste.
But if a general bias in one direction persists and persists and persists, then a responsible editor, I suggest, will ask themselves why this should be. The photo above is enough to show that the hoary old chestnut that women writers aren't out there, that black writers aren't out there, that Asian writers aren't out there, is tiring, repetitive, self-sustaining bollocks. So editors should ask themselves: are they looking far enough outside their usual comfort zone? Are they keeping up with who the new writers are—and are they looking for them in places other than their usual stomping grounds? Are they aware of changes in the zeitgeist, in literary trends, in sources for discussion? Are they paying enough attention to the "new" in Best New Horror? Are they stretching themselves, in other words—because surely editors as well as writers need to stretch themselves. Their art will stultify if they don't. Their anthologies will begin to appear stuffy and old hat. And eventually their market and their readership will diminish.
The argument that "we don't see race or gender or social background, we are simply looking for the best stories and our selections are made on quality alone" is especially problematic. Because how do you know you're getting the best stories when so many writers are being elided, made invisible, when the same names and groups keep coming to the fore again and again? There's a misconception in some quarters that those arguing the importance of wider representation tend towards the belief that there is some secret cabal, deliberately excluding women or minority writers from consideration. No one is arguing this. The problem does not lie with individual editors or publishers, so much as with a (mostly) unconscious systemic bias that has been skewing the numbers for hundreds of years. But it is surely part of an editor's job, at the very least to be aware of this situation, to acknowledge at least to themselves that it exists.
We all have our natural enthusiasms and private passions. Speaking for myself, a lot of the pleasure I found when first exploring the horror field lay in discovering these personal proclivities—the writers I liked best, and why that might be. But the thing about taste is that it changes. It evolves and develops over time, and the more you read and learn the more this will happen. I know for a solid fact that the stories and writers I tend to gravitate towards now are rather different from those that marked my initiation into the field, even while some of these early favourites remain—and will remain—beloved. If I were to make a list of my top ten horror stories today, such a list would, I'm pretty sure, reflect my development as a reader and as a writer between then and now. Much though some deplore the restrictions imposed by such lists and memes, I'm sure most people would agree that a personally selected top ten tells you quite a lot about an editor or a writer—not simply in terms of which stories they happen to like, but also how they see themselves in relation to the wider field.
With this in mind, I'd like us to take a look at the Top Ten Horror Stories selected by Stephen Jones for This Is Horror in 2013 and recently reprinted in a 2015 issue of the BFS Journal.
- A Warning to the Curious by M. R. James
- The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft
- Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper by Robert Bloch
- Sticks by Karl Edward Wagner
- The Chimney by Ramsey Campbell
- One for the Road by Stephen King
- The Dark Country by Dennis Etchison
- Dance of the Dead by Richard Matheson
- The Man Who Drew Cats by Michael Marshall Smith
- Homecoming/The October People/Uncle Einar by Ray Bradbury
Anyone reading these ten (or twelve) stories as a group would be bound to come away with some new ideas about what horror fiction is and what it can do, and hopefully with an interest in delving deeper into the genre. And just in case it isn't obvious, none of what I'm saying here is meant to suggest that any of the stories selected for any of the anthologies I've mentioned are not great stories by great writers. That isn't the point at all. But looking at Stephen Jones's selection above, I cannot not notice how narrow it is, how restricted, how steeped in the past, how unrepresentative of the multi-stranded, multi-tradition literature that horror is rapidly becoming.
I've no doubt that Stephen Jones would argue that his choices reflect his love of the great tradition, from Poe through James and Lovecraft and continuing into the present with King, Campbell, and Straub. This tradition is hugely important and worth defending and let me stress once again, I am not arguing against the classics. I love them dearly. My own current top ten list would certainly feature Algernon Blackwood's masterpiece The Willows, and there's a strong chance I'd end up with a Lovecraft story on there as well. Picking just ten stories to represent a lifetime's devotion to a literature is very difficult, and it could easily be argued that classics such as those Stephen Jones has chosen are likely to win out over newer, less travelled stories every time.
But to defend tradition at the expense of new voices, new approaches—the very stuff that will enable the survival of the literature we love—is a reactionary act, and it could equally be argued that the above list is safe, staid, predictable, and more than a little bit boring. It sends a signal that innovation will not be tolerated. If this were some random fan's list that wouldn't matter a jot—but this is a list selected by an editor who is widely perceived to have a defining influence on the field, who has been charged with the task of selecting Britain's best-known anthology of new horror fiction for a quarter of a century, and as such it concerns me. It concerns me because it reads exactly like the list Stephen Jones might have selected when he first began paying attention to the field forty years ago.
This grates all the more because what I most wanted to say on that FantasyCon panel is that it's not all doom and gloom for horror literature, far from it. Though it's traditionally seen as science fiction's frowsy and antiquated cousin, there is every sign that horror is developing its own brand of modernism, that the stylistic and formal possibilities of horror as a literature are thriving and multiplying. If we look at the table of contents for the US equivalent of Stephen Jones's Best New Horror #26, Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year #7, we immediately see a much broader scope in terms of representation, in terms of "types" of horror, in terms of traditions drawn upon. The whole list feels much more modern, much more forward-thinking. Need I add that of the twenty-two stories selected, a healthy nine are by women. Still more encouraging and truly a wonderful lineup of stories can be found between the covers of the Canadian publication The Year's Best Weird Fiction #2 from Undertow Publications. Like The Spectral Book of Horror Stories, The Year's Best Weird Fiction is a young series, only in its second year of publication, but in terms of their reach and ambition, these two anthologies seem light years apart. I defy anyone to look at Käthe Koja's selection for Undertow and not feel thoroughly invigorated and inspired. For this reason alone I think it's worth reprinting the entire table of contents below, so you'll get some idea of what I'm talking about:
"The Atlas of Hell" by Nathan Ballingrud (Fearful Symmetries, ed. Ellen Datlow, ChiZine Publications)
"Wendigo Nights" by Siobhan Carroll (Fearful Symmetries, ed. Ellen Datlow, ChiZine Publications)
"Headache" by Julio Cortázar. English-language translation by Michael Cisco (Tor.com, September 2014)
"Loving Armageddon" by Amanda C. Davis (Crossed Genres Magazine #19, July 2014)
"The Earth and Everything Under" by K. M. Ferebee (Shimmer Magazine #19, May 2014)
"Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story" by Karen Joy Fowler (Subterranean Press Magazine, Winter 2014)
"The Girls Who Go Below" by Cat Hellisen (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2014)
"Nine" by Kima Jones (Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, eds. Rose Fox & Daniel José Older, Crossed Genres Publications)
"Bus Fare" by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Subterranean Press Magazine, Spring 2014)
"The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy" by Rich Larson (Strange Horizons Magazine, August 2014)
"The Husband Stitch" by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta Magazine, October 2014)
"Observations about Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa" by Carmen Maria Machado (Lightspeed Magazine #47, April 2014)
"Resurrection Points" by Usman T. Malik (Strange Horizons Magazine, August 2014)
"Exit Through the Gift Shop" by Nick Mamatas (Searchers After Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic, ed. S.T. Joshi, Fedogan & Bremer)
"So Sharp That Blood Must Flow" by Sunny Moraine (Lightspeed Magazine #45, February 2014)
"The Ghoul" by Jean Muno (Weirdfictionreview.com, June 2014)
"A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide" by Sarah Pinsker (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2014)
"Migration" by Karin Tidbeck (Fearsome Magics: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy, ed. Jonathan Strahan, Solaris)
"Hidden in the Alphabet" by Charles Wilkinson (Shadows & Tall Trees 2014, ed. Michael Kelly, Undertow Publications)
"A Cup of Salt Tears" by Isabel Yap (Tor.com, August 2014)
That's twenty stories from fourteen venues. Of the twenty stories represented, thirteen are by women. There is a significantly higher presence of minority ethnic writers and writers from non-Anglophone backgrounds. There are even two works in translation. Last year's selection from Laird Barron was equally innovative and inspiring. We can only hope to see this anthology going from strength to strength, proving that the weird is so very much a twenty-first century literature, a literature that is defined by its diversity.
It's not all bad for Britain either, though, and we should take a moment to highlight some of those editors and publications that are striving to move horror forward rather than sideways. First in the queue for approbation must be Andy Cox of TTA Press. Without making any kind of a song and dance about it, Cox has been consistently showcasing new and diverse writing talent from the likes of Lavie Tidhar, Usman Malik, Laura Mauro, Damien Angelica Walters, Priya Sharma, Aliya Whiteley, Alyssa Wong, Sara Saab, Vajra Chandrasekera, Vandana Singh, Alan Wall, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Carole Johnstone, and V. H. Leslie through the pages of Britain's only bespoke paying horror magazine market Black Static, whilst continuing to support stalwarts of the British horror scene such as Christopher Fowler, Nicholas Royle, Simon Bestwick, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Andrew Hook, Paul Meloy, Sarah Pinborough, Ray Cluley, James Cooper, Alison Littlewood, and Gary McMahon, thus proving beyond doubt and absolutely that there is room for everybody. TTA Press as a publisher has moved with the times.
So too has Solaris. Through editors Jonathan Oliver and Jonathan Strahan and anthologies such as End of the Road and Dangerous Games, Solaris has made its commitment to diversity a selling point. In the independent sector, a particularly interesting case is Tartarus Press. Tartarus is perhaps best known for publishing valuable reissues of classic masters of British Weird such as Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Sarban, Saki, and Walter de la Mare. However, Tartarus has also shown a rising commitment to bringing on new talent, notably writers such as Angela Slatter, Rhys Hughes, Andrew Michael Hurley, Jason Wyckoff, Simon Strantzas, Rebecca Lloyd, and Tiptree Award–winning Nike Sulway, all of whom are currently making a significant and, we hope, lasting impact on horror literature. The most promising newcomer award should perhaps go to Unsung Stories, an imprint of Red Squirrel Publishing dedicated to producing superior paperback editions of new weird fiction as well as an ongoing series of highly commendable e-shorts. Judging by their releases to date, Unsung are fiercely committed to literary quality. Aliya Whiteley's 2014 novella The Beauty is particularly noteworthy, and I for one am hoping that Unsung's continuing support of her work will help to bring this underappreciated and excellent writer to wider recognition. Finally—and one thing we did touch upon during the panel discussion—is that we should be looking for horror literature in unexpected places, not just on the shelf marked "Horror" in our local Waterstone's, and not just through traditional horror imprints or publishers, either. These unexpected finds can sometimes end up being the most influential, becoming next decade's horror classics, and spurring other writers on to further adventures in the weird.
In other words, I see reasons to be optimistic. And therefore in closing, I would like to draw particular attention to just a few of my own recent favourites.
Nicola Barker – Darkmans. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007, Darkmans is one of the most original and significant English novels of the century to date, and a superb horror novel to boot. Fans of alchemist and necromancer John Dee need look no further.
Andrew Michael Hurley – The Loney. Surely destined to join the ranks of classic English Weird, this novel was first published in a super-limited edition by Tartarus and republished a year later by John Murray. It recently won the Costa Award in the First Novel category, and film rights have already been sold.
Catriona Ward – Rawblood. Published by mainstream literary imprint Weidenfeld & Nicholson, Rawblood is both a red-blooded gothic novel in the classic mode, and a modern critical commentary on that genre. It is utterly brilliant.
Yoko Ogawa – Revenge. A rapier-slim, diamond-bright essay in the uncanny, this story cycle from one of horror's most interesting and original writers not filed under horror.
Sarah Hall – The Beautiful Indifference. Hall's short story "She Murdered Mortal He" was first published in the Hallowe'en edition of Granta in 2013 and remains one of my favourite stories from that or indeed any year. All the stories in this collection touch on the weird or horrific in one way or another and one can only hope that Hall will one day do for horror what she did for science fiction in The Carhullan Army.
Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger. Historical novel be damned—this is horror.
Helen Oyeyemi – White Is for Witching. Anyone needing proof of how diverse approaches to storytelling and diverse mythological traditions can enrich and reinvigorate the classic English ghost story, please read this immediately. Oyeyemi's whole career to date has been tied up with the weird and strange, and this slim novel, set in and around an isolated old house on the Kent coast, is, like all her fiction, bewitching and wonderful. A desert island horror read for me.
Caitriona Lally – Eggshells. A gorgeous and highly original debut, shifting and weaving around the idea of fairy changelings. Published by independent Irish press Liberties, the story behind the writing of Eggshells is fascinating and necessary. I only hope that Lally's next novel is as marvellously weird and offbeat as this one.
Will Wiles – The Way Inn. Shortlisted for both the Kitschies Golden Tentacle and the Encore Award for Best Second Novel, The Way Inn is published by mainstream literary imprint Fourth Estate but don't let that fool you. This is a fantastic piece of horror fiction, and one of the most original and exciting novels to grace the genre for some time. Its emphasis on the postmodern environment of hotel chains, airport concourses, and convention centres is a refreshing twist away from the usual kind of gothic settings—but none the less chilling for that.