Tag Archives: Literary fiction

Is there any such thing as Realist Horror?

The latest guest post here on damiengwalter.com comes from Niki Valentine, author of psychological horror and literary fiction under an alternative pen name. But where do we draw the line between supernatural and realist horror? Niki Valentine may be one of the few authors who really knows the answer. Check out her novels and other writing at: The Niki Valentine Amazon page

I’m always happy to feature guest posts from fellow writers and passionate readers. Find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

When I wrote my first Niki Valentine novel, I originally described it as a supernatural thriller. Sadly, this adjective has been rather hijacked in recent years by stories about sparkling vampires and friendly werewolves, so that my publisher was keen to avoid the word. Instead, we called it psychological horror and it went on to the shelf in time for Halloween. Personally, I think this label is spot on. If you look at The Turn of the Screw on Wikipedia, that’s how this classic ghost story was described. I was very inspired by the Henry James story and it was one of the reasons I wanted to write the kind of ghost story I did.

There are some issues with the ‘horror’ label. It evokes a certain set of expectations in the reader about blood and gore, about monsters and zombies. My novels, The Haunted and Possessed, don’t really work that way. There is very little blood and gore, something I don’t find especially frightening and I think can tend towards being cartoonish if overused. And, although there is a haunting and a possession, as the titles might imply, it is a very subtle affair. Like the haunting in the classic James story, there are many ways to view it. Nothing happens that is so overtly supernatural that we can be sure about. In both, we’re deep inside the head of our protagonist and never know for sure how much she’s imagining. I make no apologies for any of this; it was exactly the kind of story I wanted to write.

I saw a lot of slasher movies as a teenager in the 80s; they were in vogue. They made me feel sick from time to time but not scared. The most frightened and affected I ever felt was thanks to a Hitchcock film, screened on the BBC Tales of the Unexpected. A woman, determined to escape from prison, enlists the help of the prison undertaker. He agrees to bury her and dig her up later, telling her to climb into the coffin the next time the death bell tolls. She does so. She is buried. She waits and waits for her rescuer. Bored, she reaches for her matches and lights a flame. She sees the body beside her and it’s the man who was supposed to dig her up. The film ends with a view from above of the fresh mound of earth, her screams ringing out with no one to hear. It left me in a cold sweat and it took me weeks to get over. At a recent family barbeque my brother and I were discussing this. Neither of us had forgotten and we both agreed it was the most frightening film we’d ever seen.

The Hitchcock story left a lasting impression. It’s this kind of realist horror that I’m interested in as a writer, and a reader or viewer. In my novels, I like to allow the possibility of haunting and possession and other supernatural events but I also like to leave the reader unsure. For me, the title of the Henry James story sums up psychological horror as a genre. The screw turns until the protagonist can take so more. Depending on how you look at it, the metaphor can be about madness, or stress and pressure, or whatever other normal human experience you like, but it’s also about the way the supernatural manifests in reality. I’m not a complete sceptic and can’t decide myself if these manifestations are real but I do know they always leave us with room for doubt. So often people recounting these events say ‘I suppose I could have been imagining it.’

At a recent horror convention, I sat in on a panel about horror tropes. It was suggested during the discussion that stories like American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange were horror stories with alternative, realist tropes. I thought this was an interesting point. I write literary fiction in another name and my books have been compared to both of these novels, and more like it too. In fact, despite my earlier denial, my literary fiction is a real gore-fest at times. It was odd to realise this, and to understand that, in my own way, I’ve been writing realist horror from the very start.

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Is Science Fiction the first international language of literature?

Language may be the most obvious barrier to cultural exchange, but it is also the easiest to hurdle: a good translator can capture much if not all of the character of a great novel. The real barrier to sharing between cultures is culture itself. British literary fiction, deeply fascinated with the minutiae of class structure, isn’t of much more than passing interest to most Chinese readers. Not because Chinese culture isn’t every bit as fascinated with its own social structure, but because if you buy a rulebook you want it to be for the game you are actually playing. As far as a cultural artefact serves as a guide to a culture, it belongs uniquely to that culture.

The Marvel comics’ superhero franchise Avengers Assemble launches this weekend to audiences in dozens of cultures worldwide, and dozens more in coming weeks. At first sight this seems a triumph of international connectivity, but the sci-fi blockbuster transcends cultural boundaries by doing away with the whole problem of meaning and replacing it with CGI spectacle. The director, Joss Whedon, has pulled off an impressive feat in packing so many mythic symbols and archetypes into one movie, while completely castrating their meaning.

Read more @ Guardian books

Literary SF

A friend on Facebook has asked to make a few suggestions of Speculative Fiction that straddles both mass market and literary audiences. I thought the answer might be of more general interest, so here we go…

It’s a good question. As I suggested last week over on The Guardian, while SF is generally perceived as mass market, it’s equally possible for it to be literary. SF is like a set of tools that an author can pick up and use. They might choose to use them to please a mass audience, or to speak to a literary readership.

Why is it difficult to do both? The mass market and the literary readership demand almost polar opposites from fiction:

Mass Market – has expectations it wants fulfilled, hence likes genre. Wants to be entertained, distracted, given an escape from real life.

Literary Readership – wants its expectations to be defeated, dislikes genre. Wants to be challenged, improved, and shown the truth of real life.

Clearly, it’s difficult for one book to give both sets of readers what they want. One of the most popular examples of Literary SF at the moment is China Mieville‘s ‘Perdido Street Station‘. It’s one of the best fantasy novels of recent years. But, many readers of fantasy dislike it. Why? Because PSS is a tough read. Both on the language level, where it frequently departs the ‘transparent’ prose the mass audience enjoys. And as a narrative it is tremendously dark. The stories heroes are deeply flawed. They fail to defeat evil, but instead discover that evil is all powerful and are lucky to escape with their lives. Most works of Literary SF that succeed in appealing to both mass market and literary readers do so in similarly incomplete ways.

This is not a problem unique to SF by any means. All art has to deal with the divide between mass / elite, low / high, popular / critically acclaimed. Its rooted very deeply in how different parts of society engage with and use art and culture. ‘Low’ culture sees art as just another commodified product to be consumed. ‘High’ culture sees art, along with science, as one of humanities great tools of advancement. Its no wonder the two don’t get along! And its no wonder SF writers, readers and critics who believe in its value as part of ‘High’ culture are so determined to make the argument against its continual pigeon holing as ‘genre’ and ‘low culture’.

Its also no surprise that the artists who succeed in being both high and low, mass and elite, are the ones we acclaim as great. So the task of suggesting titles that are both Literary and SF almost becomes the same as listing the classics of SF. So, I have tried to keep to reasonably contemporary authors that both a mainstream SF reader, and a Literary Fiction reader might both read with pleasure:

Light by M John Harrison
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Natural History by Justina Robson
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Air by Geoff Ryman
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Iron Council by China Mieville

This is a necessarily incomplete and subjective list. Objections? Tell me why. Suggestions? Let us know your thinking.