Monday, December 11, 2006

Horror and Noir

A word of warning. This one's a little more rambling than most of my rants. Be forewarned.

Tribe, a remarkably intelligent and literate gentleman (why he publishes my crap is beyond me) has an interview with author Christa Faust. Aside from several tie-in novels, Snakes On A Plane, Final Destination III, etc, she's also an accomplished novelist in her own right, exploring pulpy noir stories with the likes of Hoodtown (warning: PDF), Money Shot and soon Choke Hold.

She's good. I think I may hate her for how good she is. Fun and pulpy and nasty and no-holds-barred, as all good noir should be.

This part of the interview struck me as very interesting, and something I wholeheartedly agree with.
But yeah, I do think horror and noir are kissing cousins. They both deal with the darker side of human nature, though horror often uses the metaphor of the supernatural while noir sticks to the horrors of the real world. Of course, there is a quiet, more traditional subgenre of horror in which brave humans always beat back the evil monster and restore normality, (the horror equivalent of “cozies”) but edgier, morally ambiguous horror leads the reader on that noirish downward spiral in which nothing is what it seems and everyone is, to quote James Ellroy, “fucked.”

I’ve always seen a clear parallel between the Splatterpunk horror writers of the 80s and early 90s and the hardboiled Black Mask writers of the 20s and early 30s. Both groups pissed off their predecessors by breaking all the rules. They both thumbed their noses at proper English and used vulgar, “common” language. Both depicted graphic, realistic violence and sex in a way that was quite shocking to readers of their respective eras. And both changed the course of history while many of their more traditional, rule-obeying contemporaries have since fallen into obscurity.
Word.

Over the last few years we've been getting a lot of cross-over with paranormal and horror. I make the distinction only because a lot of the paranormal cross-overs seem to be driven more in Romance than anywhere else. Horror Romance won't sell. Paranormal Romance, well, there's a different story. Not a lot of people are exploring horror and noir, however.

There's Charlie Huston's Already Dead and it's follow-up, No Dominion, hard-boiled vampire action.

But other than that there's not a lot out there. Cross-overs are tricky. Everyone wants to pigeonhole a book. It's how they get sold. Is it horror? Is it noir? Look at Anne Frasier. Her latest book, Pale Immortal definitely crosses over from Thriller to Horror and back again very well. I think it was marketed wrong as something between mystery and thriller and it never really truck me as either. The publisher should be bitch slapped for that. The horror is understated, but very much a part of the story. I would go so far as to say that it drives it, in fact.

Oh, and as a plug, buy the goddamn book. It's remarkably well done and one of the best horror novels I've read in years. Strong character driven plot, lots of dark secrets and moody as all get out. She's working on the sequel. Buy that one when it comes out, too.

In this post on her blog she admits that she is, in fact, a horror writer. God love ya, Anne. There aren't nearly enough GOOD horror writers out there.

This whole lack of cross-over both saddens me and makes me happy. On the one hand, there aren't a lot of those sorts of books done well that I particularly enjoy. Already Dead is hands down the winner so far. But it's noir first and horror second. I like reading horror and crime. like Reese's they're two great tastes that taste great together.

But on the other hand, I've got a vested interest in horror noir. It's what I'm writing. By the time Zombie Joe is ready to sell (yes that's really the title) I want there to be a market for it. Of course, if Ken Bruen writes a zombie story I might as well just hang it up.

So where do we draw the lines? When is it horror and when is it noir? If you throw a demon into the story is it horror? or is it just a cartoon characterization of a noir antagonist? Thoughts? Comments? Rude opinions about my personal hygiene? Sound off, people. Let me know what you think.

11 comments:

anne frasier said...

oh my god, stephen. i'm all teary here. i had to go back and reread because i thought i must have skipped a paragraph. you couldn't be talking about my book. and thanks for the bitch slap comment. :D :D

i certainly find your closing question interesting, and i'm anxious to see what people have to say.

zombie joe???

i LOVE it!!!!

can't wait!

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Zombie Fuckin' Joe. I tried sending you a message last week telling you'd I'd finally read AND THE DEVIL WILL DRAG YOU UNDER, but I don't think it got through all the e-mail static you've been suffering. Anyway, the story kicked ass. Zombie noir. I love it.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Stephen,

having problems with my ISP and my incoming messages are bouncing. Please use patricksbagley@yahoo.com to contact me instead of the gwi.net address. Anything you might have sent me after 6 pm eastern yesterday probably got bounced back to you.

Thanks.

Hulles said...

I can't wait for Zombie Joe. I picture my eighth grade english teacher, but I'll try to retain an open mind.

Maybe what we really need are just new terms that don't really mean anything at all so we can stick the unclassifiable stuff into them and let people scratch their heads over them. "Postmodern" is an example of the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Don't use "horror" as a genre to talk about your book. Most people have no idea that there ever was/is well-written horror (Robert Bloch, thank you very much). They think of the pulps and the cheesy horror films of the 50's.

Maybe "stories of the living-impaired" or something, you clever folks can come up with a catchy name and sell it to the media so there's a market for it. I just think that tying "horror" to your novel is sort of like giving it... My brain just stopped. Hopefully you know what I mean. Gzz. Crackle.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

I think that horror has gotten a bad rap. Not surprising when so often the story is just a rehash of old EC Comic books. Stories where BAD MEN get their comeuppance. They were just morality plays. Be good or the scary monster will eat you.

I think too many people have the idea that horror can't be engaging and character driven, which is funny because it HAS to be character driven. You have to care about the people to whom the horrible things are happening. Good horror means that good people are damaged, wounded, killed. It's often indiscriminate.

People like Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Poppy Z. Brite to name a few faves, took horror away from the model of evil is answered by evil that the EC comic books took and have molded it into something new and different. The bad guys, the outsiders, the sinners, those are the heroes.

I'm not a big fan of genre labels. I understand them. I get the need for them. But I don't like them. Everybody has their own expectations of what a [fill in the blank] story is supposed to be. A lot of men won't read Romance because, well, because it's romance.

Which is a pity because there are a lot of really good romance writers out there. Same with horror or crime, or science fiction. The pigeonholing of genre damages more books than it helps, I think. Particularly in horror, which has been getting hammered to the point of becoming a cross-over genre. It's paranormal romance, or horror mystery. I'd personally like to see a horror/French cooking/cozy/Highlander romance/science fiction. But that's just me.

anne frasier said...

stephen, i'm really impressed with your grasp of the publishing side of this business. and i think your post answered something that's baffled me for a long time. when i started writing thrillers i studied the market and deliberately set out to write a book that would sell well in airports and do well in book clubs like doubleday and mystery guild. and i made sure the book was solidly locked within one genre. i think it worked, because the book did well in both those markets. enter my publisher for book two -- and i was immediately asked to include elements from other genres. this completely baffled me, but i did it. and the books didn't do nearly as well. for 6 years i haven't been able to understand why my publisher wanted me to do all of this crossover stuff. well, even though i'm not writing romance my publisher is basically romance. that's what they know. they've had great success with adding other genre elements to their romances. i don't think they realized this isn't working outside romance. and it's too bad it's not working.

and i SO agree with you about good horror being character driven. it has to be. i love the internal aspect of horror in comparison to the typically external of a police procedural or mystery.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Anne, I'm just an asshat with opinions. As many of my anonymous comments can attest to.

If I really knew what I was talking about I'd know who all the players are.

If I remember correctly, Onyx is part of Penguin, right? Along with Signet and Putnam? Is there any possibility of going over to one of the other divisions as more of a straight horror writer? Or are decisions made on a higher level and then parsed out to a particular division? If you were to rebrand yourself as a horror novelist would you have to move to another publisher who specializes more in that market, like Random House/Del Rey, or is there a place in Penguin that's more amenable to horror? I know they handle horror titles, I just don't recall which division.

At least then you'd be pretty sure where your books were on the shelves.

Oh, side note, saw Pale Immortal in the new paperbacks kiosk at the Santa Monica B&N over the weekend. All facing out. Major bookseller in the west L.A. area, especially since the one on Westwood closed. Just thought you'd like to know.

I notice that Barry Eisler's latest book is with Putnam, but the paperback for the last one was with Signet and his first was with Onyx. Does Onyx just handle paperbacks?

And something I've been thinking about regarding cross-overs. Comic books, graphic novels and television have been doing it for years. And I'm not talking about Spiderman vs The Incredible Hulk.

DC's Vertigo label has been mixing it up successfully for years, ever since they moved Neil Gaiman's Sandman series over from DC. Fables, Preacher, quite a lot of others, mix up hard-boiled, western, and horror. Going back further you have Tex Arcana, an occult western in, was it the Seventies? I'm not sure if it showed up serialized in Heavy Metal, or not.

Now granted Tex Arcana was a cult comic. By no means did it make the writers rich. I doubt it's still in print. And a lot of other titles don't really make money until they're collected in a trade paperback. As a form comic books are a tough sell. Who can remember to go to the comic shop once a month and blow a wad on their favorite titles? A lot of them, so far as I've been able to tell, don't offer subscriptions.

So I wonder why there aren't more cross-over novels that mix genres besides romance? Or are there and I'm not noticing because I'm not hanging out at the sci-fi section of B&N like I used to?

Is that it? Are these cross-genre stories being ghetto-ized into Sci-Fi/Fantasy?

Not that I don't like those genres. Cut my teeth on them. But they've always gotten a bad rap, and they certainly don't sell like romance does.

I recall, though probably not correctly, that women buy more books than men. In order to sell in DaVinci numbers (and isn't that the new gold standard?) a book has to have the broad appeal to hit both markets. The sweet spot, if you will.

Horror, sci-fi, fantasy and comics typically don't do that.

Now here's a thought. Strangers In Paradise and Love And Rockets, from what I understand, managed to hit both areas, though I think they might have had a larger following with women than men. If done right can paranormal romance readers (Carpe Demon, Dead Witch Walking, Living Dead In Dallas, and on and on) cross over into more conventional horror readers?

Okay, I'm stopping now. My head hurts.

Anonymous said...

stephen,

yes, signet and onyx are both paperback Penguin imprints. i'm not sure which is supposed to be better. or get more backing. i'm guessing signet.

you asked: Is there any possibility of going over to one of the other divisions as more of a straight horror writer?

i've wondered that. TOR is Penguin. but i'm guessing switching wouldn't work because people would rather not resign a writer than do something that's going to cause conflict and problems within the house. and editors like to find their own writers. doesn't seem that many writers fair very well once they get passed to someone else.

Or are decisions made on a higher level and then parsed out to a particular division?

it usually begins and even stays within the division. they really seem to operate fairly independently. some of this i can't talk about just yet, but i'll have more answers in a few months. i hope.

i'm really surprised to hear that PI was face out on display. that's really unusual. makes me think it's a personal, in-store decision. i know it's not paid for by the publisher. that doesn't happen this late.

i think there's some crossover with some readers of paranormal romance, but not much. romance readers want a certain thing and a certain TONE. if it's not there, they aren't interested. i think romances are still romance, just with these other elements. and i have the feeling most conventional horror readers won't respond to that romance tone and feel that is almost a wink.

Anonymous said...

damn blogger.

will only let me post as anonymous.

J Findley said...

The abovementioned Tex Arcana was serialized in Heavy Metal magazine between 1981 and 1987. Parts of it were collected and released as a paperback. It was never a comic book. It had only one writer (me). Recently, it has been collected in its entirety and published under the title Tex Arcana, a Saga of the Old West.
Enjoy!

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Thank you for the correction and the information on the compiled stories, Mr. Findley. I now know what I want for Christmas.