Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Horror, the easy genre 1/2

It's Wednesday again... 

People often use the term speculative fiction, or the acronym SF, about the genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror, but horror is the odd man out. It doesn't fit. It has relatively little in common with fantasy and science fiction, whether from the perspective of the writer (or worldbuilder or GM) or the reader (or player or other consumer), whereas fantasy and science fiction have a lot in common with each other.

In the spring of 2010, I and some of my classmates examined the handling of fantasy, science fiction and horror, at a small number of public libraries in the Greater Copenhagen Area. The original idea, proposed by team member Nikitta was to examine only the handling of science fiction, but our teacher, Rune, suggested that we broaden the scope to also examine fantasy and horror. That made quite a lot of sense to me, and presumably also to Nikitta and to the other two members of our team. Lacking a well established Danish language term for the entirety of those three genres, we started using SFH.

Several libraries had areas or shelf-spaces that combined those three genres. Sometimes enclosures or zones, aiming at a theme, trying to catch a certain demographic. For those who have the opportunity, I think it was Glostrup Central Library that did the best job, in the averaged collective opinion of my team. Frederiksberg Central Libary also had some good librarians (one of whom was named Frederik, which really amused one team member), and is a place I might well want to visit some day.

Still, horror sticks out to my mind as different from the other two. Very different.

The reason is perhaps obvious to veteran readers of this blog. Horror is typically very very low in delta-w. The world is our world with only a tiny addition, such as one vampire, or one werewolf. If it gets slightly advanced, then this one monstrous addition, which was at one point the only one in the entire world of ours (planet Earth, 2011 or 1985, or 1890, or whatever), will have somehow passed on its condition to a very small number of others, thus having created at the most a few dozen servant-vampires or slave-weres.

It's very, very light-weight. Delta-w is low, and the protagonist is entirely a citizen of our real and normal world, thus he is infinitely hobbit-like in his ignorance of the delta-w, so that conveniently he needs to have every single fucking thing about the strangeness explained to him, or possibly he can discover and deduce some or even all of those things in simple and effortless narrative.

I am, to an extreme degree, underwhelmed. I am not impressed. The extrapolative burden lifted by the author is so light as to be barely measurable. There is no world building, because no world can with reasonableness be said to have been built.

This is in stark contrast to most science fiction and most fantasy, although in those genres, especially in more primitive works, exceptions do exist, often in the form of a protagonist from the present day who become a hibernaut and wakes up in a far future, so that the author has a convenient hobbit, saving him the effort of performing the mental work of moving information from inside the protagonist's head and to inside the reader's head.

So, this is why horror is of no interest to me. It doesn't do any of the things that I find admirable or difficult.

... Usually, that is. The genre of horror can be twisted so as to significantly up the degree of intellectual challenge for both author and reader.

For instance, the story can be told from the perspective of the vampire. Even if delta-w is still low, the author now has to cope with the perspective of a vampirized protagonist. Upping the ante some more, the story can begin in medias res with a protagonist who has been a vampire for many hundreds of years and whose thought processes will thus inevitably have diverged almost entirely from those of a biological human.

A work of horror can also take place in a world that has a much greater value for delta-w than is traditional. Don't just have one vampire count and whatever few dozen servants he has spawned. Have entire clans of them. However cliche that sounds (and it is a cliche), it serves the extremely valuable purpose of increasing the value for delta-w. Increase it drastically.

And why have just one novum? Why have only vampires? Why not add sorcerers and weres as well, and not just werewolves but a more varied selection of cursed and/or infected shapeshifters? And/or different kinds of vampires?

As this process is taken further and further, the work starts to resemble fantasy more and horror less. Or if done differently, it starts to become more science fiction-like and less horror-like.

I'm sure there are other challenges to writing horror, ones that fall below my radar, because they are angles to writing, or kinds of effort, that I simply do not ascribe value to. Horror is about evoking an emotion in the reader, so one might presume that it requires some kind of manipulative ability on behalf of the author. Likewise I cannot exclude the possibility that readers of horror perform some kind of mental work that is in some way a least somewhat challenging, and which serves the possibly useful purpose of dividing the entirety of the population into those who can perform that kind of mental work and those who can't.

But still. The two genres of fantasy and science fiction are both characterized by taking place in a world, i.e. worldbuilding must have taken place (even if some authors - usually fantasy authors of the lower-browed kind - do not build their own world, but instead hijack common tropes), whereas horror almost by definition takes place in our world.

A world versus our world. So, I'm not a great fan of the term SFH, and when I talk about SF, speculative fiction, I mean fantasy and science fiction only.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

No comments:

Post a Comment