[coffee cup]

Dark Currents in the Main Stream

by Fiona Webster

I went to an art exhibit of coffee cups, not long ago. A coffee cup, container of a special taste and stimulus, is such a ubiquitous presence in one's life. Wouldn't it be a pleasure, I thought, to drink every day from a thing of unusual beauty, as well as familiar function?

But the cups in the exhibit weren't functional at all. They were exuberant sprays of glass and ceramic; they were finely detailed sculptures of women, toys, and animals; they were many and varied and elegant, but not a one of them looked like an object with which you could have a utilitarian relationship. It was as though the dark drink inside the container -- and the container for the dark drink -- served only as excuses for the artists to go off on all sorts of abstract tangents.

So I got to thinking about this distinction we have in our culture between art and craftsmanship -- between the object to be contemplated with awe in the sanctified timelessness of the museum cabinet, and the object whose beauty is tied closely to its usefulness, to its context within the rest of human life. The form of a crafted object is governed neither by economy of design (that's what technology gives us: mass-produced disposable coffee cups), nor by a self-sufficient reality in which Idea is paramount (that's modern art), but rather by pleasure. The pleasure of a coffee cup inheres in both its appearance (surfaces, colors, shapes) and its purpose. The difference between the art-exhibit coffee cups I saw, and the one that's sitting on my desk right now, is that the ones in the exhibit would have looked silly, even dirty, with coffee in them, whereas the one on my desk is incomplete without the coffee. It's the difference between form and function, between isolated beauty and contextual meaning, and (if I may stumble toward an expression of this difference with regard to horror fiction) reading in order to admire an art, and reading in order to experience a story or a mood.

I'm setting out this distinction, as a kind of trial balloon, because I've changed my mind about mainstream vs. genre fiction, in the course of preparing to write this essay. My change of mind consists not so much in the gaining of a new position, as in a loss of certainty. When I started out, I had a strong opinion. I felt that in an ideal world there should be no border zone, no delimiter between popular and serious fiction -- that the separation between well-written horror and horrific literature (to use the word "literature" with its snobbish connotation) was moot. I felt that if we must create categories, that instead of the usual two -- what we might call "genre horror" and "mainstream horror" -- that there were three: 1) horror that is so poorly written as to be not worth reading; 2) mainstream fiction that does not have dark or horrific themes; and 3) well-written horror fiction. "Never mind what the lit-critters think," I used to say, "I choose Door Number Three, which contains both genre and mainstream books." So fully inclined was I, in fact, to relate to horror as an idiom that runs, like an oil deposit, right underneath and on both sides of the genre fence, that I took perverse pleasure in disconcerting my more "literary" friends by announcing, for example, "I've discovered a new horror writer. (pause) His name is Cormac McCarthy."

In other words, I viewed fiction in pretty much the same terms put forward so eloquently by Dennis Etchison in his introduction to The Cutting Edge. The good stuff, he says, is neither the "fast-food [genre] fiction for a drive-thru society," nor the "fiction bound by the homeostatic limitations of mainstream literature." Nor is it the "stainless-steel rock" of hardcore science fiction, or the "moss-covered hard place" of heroic fantasy, but something other, something (this was 1986) undergoing a "renaissance." Something in a "safe harbor" in between those two. Well-written horror.

Etchison writes, "The blood is on the rock. It is my blood." I sympathize with him. I feel he has good reason to be angry. I, too, have long been frustrated with these artificial dividing lines, especially the one that created the concept for an essay on "Dark Currents in the Main Stream." A poetic image perhaps, but what we're talking about here is the ugly god-beast Money. We're talking about that most annoying of activities that befuddles us horror people: Marketing. Books with dark themes that get marketed as something other than horror fiction, get a free ticket to higher worth in the eyes of the literary community.

The marketing distinction has an impact on both critical and financial success. Imagine Writer A, of a dark or horrific book that happens to be marketed as mainstream. This person walks past the jet-black glossies and silly-scary graphics of the horror section, and thinks, "Whew! There but for the grace of my publisher, go I." Writer B, of a similar book that happens to be marketed as horror, walks up to the same section, and thinks, "I may not get noticed by the lit snobs, but I will make more money here, because this is where my readers will look for me."

But do horror readers really know where to look? If you're a dedicated fan of the genre, you may make a beeline, in your local bookstore, for the horror section. If you've been in the horror-reading line for long enough, though, you may have grown exasperated with what your bookstore has to offer, and have hied yourself away to a specialty store or a mail-order dealer. Either way, you're probably baffled by the huge morass of books marketed as mainstream, and daunted by the thought of browsing a terrain that large. You probably wonder if you're missing out on something.

Yes, I've had a strong opinion about this marketing thing, this artificial-distinction thing. Sometimes I visualize a pitched battle between the Literary Snobs and the Horror Fans. I try to figure out what armament the Horror Fans have on their side. One of the best ways, it seems, to defend (and oh, don't we get asked to defend it) an abiding interest in horror and dark fantasy, is not only to point out those tales within the horror genre that are good enough to pass muster ("Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House!" is a frequent rallying cry for the forces), but also to claim for our own all authors who write about darkness, no matter how their books are packaged (Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, and so on). (See the sidebar on "Snob Appeal.")

The Lit Snobs, of course, try to trump us, with one of the more galling effects of the distinction between genre and mainstream fiction -- the one that attaches an automatic difference in value to mainstream fiction. Ursula Le Guin describes this problem, with respect to science fiction, in her 1989 introduction to The Language of the Night:

I used to be told by people who knew nothing about science fiction that I didn't write science fiction, because what I wrote had literary merit; nowadays I am told by people in science fiction that I have repudiated science fiction -- partly because I don't (I never did) write only science fiction, but also, apparently, because what I write has, or strives for, literary merit. This is tiresome. I am afraid that such accusations of apostasy...reveal a failure of self-respect -- an assumption that science fiction has only commercial value and is artistically a dead end. I disagree passionately.

A failure of self-respect. This happens in horror as well. There are horror tales that aspire to, and achieve, superior literary quality...and then get re-classified as mainstream literature. I find this a pernicious and highly politicized aspect of genre labeling. If the mandarins of the lit world reach out and grab all the high-quality genre fiction off the genre shelves, as it were, and whoosh! move it over to the mainstream shelves, then they're creating the very problem (e.g., "horror fiction is bad") they complain about.

Case in point: a laudatory review in The New York Times of Patrick McGrath's Dr. Haggard's Disease starts off, "Why would a serious writer like Patrick McGrath want to play by the rules of an outdated genre and borrow the trappings of the Gothic novel?" Uh huh. Why would a serious musician like John Williams write music for popular movies? For that matter, why would a smart person choose to be a black woman?

"Excuuuuse me," is my response to the The New York Times, "but nearly everything Patrick McGrath has written so far falls into what you call an 'outdated genre,' so it's not at all an issue of a 'serious' (what a self-serving word, that) writer writing horror, it's an issue of a horror writer writing with competence, thank you."

That's what it gets down to: horror don't get no respect. Even though the horror genre has its fair share of good writing -- the poetic sensibility of a Michael Cadnum, the mood-evoking wizardry of a Thomas Ligotti -- people persist in calling it junk, trash, pulp, you name it.

But wanting horror to be recognized as a legitimate artistic medium is a different goal from wanting to knock down all the fences. I started off with the useless (Oscar Wilde: "All art is useless") and beautiful coffee cups, because I'm having second thoughts about the dividing line. I'm not so sure anymore, that there are not meaningful differences between well-written horror, and well-written mainstream literature that works in the horror idiom. If horror is a craft with a function, rather than an art with simply beauty to recommend it, perhaps there is indeed something different that horror does for the reader.

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