Alan Baxter: The H-Word


As someone who essentially secretly writes horror novels without them being called that (ahem), I’m definitely excited to see author Alan Baxter address exactly this phenomenon. 

* * *

I often used to have conversations that went something like this:

Some person: So, what do you do?

Me: I’m a writer.

That person: Oh, cool! What do you write?

Me: Horror, mostly, usually mixed up with a lot of crime and thriller stuff.

But they already narrowed their eyes at the first word. Everything I said after “horror” was a blur to them, and I just know they’re visualizing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Freddy Kruger, slicing knives and gouting blood. They’re checking the room for exits, wishing they hadn’t asked the question. They’re probably thinking, “Why the fuck couldn’t this guy have been a plumber or an accountant or something? Why do I always get the weirdos?”

And you know what? Fair enough. People like what they like and a lot of people hate slasher movies. I really dig them. The good ones are really good and the terrible ones are a shitload of fun, so they all have a valuable place in our culture. But that’s not what I write. And it never ceases to bug me that so many people hear the word “horror” and think immediately of those movies without ever considering that the genre could be far more vast, varied and amazing than they ever knew.

I’m a horror writer, but I don’t write the novel equivalents of slasher flicks. For that reason, the conversation I described above often doesn’t go that way any more because I hide the word “horror” in euphemisms, like Grandma talking about sex when the grandkids are around. More often than not now, that conversation will go something like this:

Some person: So, what do you do?

Me: I’m a writer.

That person: Oh, cool! What do you write?

Me: Supernatural thrillers mostly, often mixed up with a lot of crime and noir stuff.

Or

Me: Dark fiction, thrillers with weird supernatural and crime elements.

Or

Me: Sorta dark weird shit.

I just nudge the genre description a little to the left, saying essentially the same thing without the H-word. And it bothers me that I have to do that. It seems like such a strange dichotomy anyway. You go into any bookstore and you’ll see Stephen King shelved in the general fiction section among all the serious literary books, and he’s the biggest horror writer of all time. I sometimes say that I write “Stephen King type stuff”, just to see what the reaction will be, when my stuff isn’t actually all that much like King’s. But everyone knows who he is, right? He’s one of my favourite writers, certainly a big influence on me, but by far the biggest influence on my work is Clive Barker. My stuff is way more The Great And Secret Show or Weaveworld than it is It or Carrie, and therein lies a perfect example of the breadth of horror fiction. Then take those two authors and compare them to H P Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, and Edgar Allan Poe. Then add in Caitlin R Kiernan and Kaaron Warren, mix in a dash of Laird Barron and John Langan, a pinch of Gemma Files and Nadia Bulkin, a dose of Victor LaValle and Paul Tremblay, garnish with Cassandra Khaw and Angela Slatter. I could go on and on, but it already sounds delicious. Just that list of names above is a massive cross-section of what horror can be. And incidentally, if there are any names up there you don’t know or haven’t read, unfuck that situation forthwith, as there’s a world of delights awaiting you there. And none of them are anything like slasher flicks. Of course, there are plenty of writers making fantastic novels that are a lot like slasher flicks, and those books are great too.

Those of us into horror know the intricacies and variety to be found in the genre. The sheer scope of supernatural elements, from the most subtle to the brutally face-consuming, is vast. And beyond that, often the most visceral, disturbing, thought-provoking stuff is completely secular. One of the most affecting and distressing horror stories I’ve ever read is the section in Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, where the old man is committed to a care home against his will. His loss of agency and the indignities visited upon him are utterly the stuff of horror, and there’s nothing supernatural or fantastical anywhere near it. Another truly gut-wrenching horror is Margo Lanagan’s short story, “Singing My Sister Down.” It’s set in a fantastical world, but there’s no magic, no supernatural element, yet it is among the most beautiful horror you’ll ever read. And yes, horror can be gorgeous even as it tears your nerves out at the roots.

Often, when discussing these kinds of stories, people will still use the H-word, but they’ll qualify it. They’ll say a book is powerful quiet horror, or literary horror. These descriptors can be useful, but they’re usually there to soften the blow as people don’t want to alienate readers by calling it what it really is – a horror novel. And I think we need to work on claiming that back.

There certainly seems to be a horror renaissance happening. Get Out winning Oscars, horror novels hitting mainstream bestseller lists, TV shows like Stranger Things and The Haunting of Hill House catching widespread audiences, stuff like that. There’s been the suggestion that the trash fire in a bowl of shit that is the world right now might be at least partly responsible. When things are awful, we look to horror to show us how much worse it could be, and perhaps more importantly, to show us the monsters can be beaten. We can slay the beast, cure the infection, lance the fetid boil of hateful pus (yes, I’m most definitely talking about Donald Trump, but it all applies in the broader spectrum too.) I say we need to use the momentum that’s building right now to reclaim horror as an acceptable and respected genre to write, not one that has people looking for the nearest exit when you proudly announce, “I write horror!” And for my part, I have a new horror novel out on November 6th called Devouring Dark.

Alan Baxter is a multi-award-winning British-Australian author who writes horror, dark fantasy, and supernatural thrillers, rides a motorcycle and loves his dogs. He also teaches Kung Fu. He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, and two crazy dogs. His latest book is the horror novel, DEVOURING DARK, which explores death, guilt, and redemption, set against a backdrop of crime and corruption in modern-day London. Read extracts from Alan’s novels and novellas, and find free short stories at his website – www.warriorscribe.com – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.

Find DEVOURING DARK in paperback or ebook wherever you usually buy books, or order it at your local bookstore or library. Here are a few direct links:

Amazon     B&N     iBooks     Kobo


17 responses to “Alan Baxter: The H-Word”

  1. Yeah, try explaining you write horror _role-playing games_ … in Texas. You’d think I just mentioned I’m heavily into doorknob porn. And yet, when I say I write dark fantasy, I’m generally met by “Cool dood!” Similarly, inbred cannibals are more acceptable when I use words like ‘steampunk’ and ‘penny dreadful.’ To most, ‘horror’ remains a dirty word.

  2. Yup. The lowest common denominator of one’s profession can be difficult to explain away. I tell people I’m a fantasist, and for details, mention I tell lies for a living. Wakes them right up! Also might explain the general lack of second dates when I dated, years ago (15th anniversary was this year). Picture the worst heroic fantasy every written… That’s what people think of when I mention I write fantasy. -tc

  3. Even though I know why it happened, King’s not being shelved as genre fiction is still such a bonkers thing to me. Reading this, I wonder how different the Horror landscape would be had he not used his clout as “the only horror writer” to get the genre excised from stores for a bit.

  4. I don’t know, Alan. Sounds to me like you don’t write horror. I mean, sure, maybe in your mind the word is the right one, but if everyone gets the same different picture when you say it, maybe it IS time to use a euphemism. In fact, maybe grandma wasn’t talking about sex at all.

  5. Try writing romance. We get the knee-jerk reaction that it’s some kind of porn, plus it’s not even smart, you know, because apparently we paint by numbers.

  6. As someone who hangs around in the Chinese novel departments, I’ve always found horror fascinating (and familiar) because it is usually tied to beliefs and practices that are common in my family’s culture.

  7. By strange coincidence, I was having a similar discussion earlier today with a colleague about horror: she was wondering aloud about where the limits are on what we should restrict people from seeing, and whether we’re either going too far or not far enough on protecting kids from things that might scar them. I tried to explain how, for me, horror isn’t just slasher films and torture gorn. Nothing wrong with those, but horror-fantasy like Sandman unlocked a whole love affair with horror fiction for me when I was a teenager and made me want to be a writer. Horror inspires me – and trying to explain to my colleague how her love of serial killer thrillers and our other colleague’s love of Stranger Things kind of united us surprised and delighted me too.

  8. Fantastic post! I agree with you on using the H-word in polite company. After years of people shying away from me I’ve starting calling it “dark fiction.” I started using cyberpunk to describe my latest, Bitter Suites, but then it just gets confusing. I also try to avoid the word horror in conversation because my Midwest accent makes it sound like I’m saying “whore.” I had a guy in a smoke shop so excited when I said I was going to a convention for (he heard) whore riders. And here I thought I’d found a super enthusiastic fan of the genre. Thanks for the great post. I’m sharing it.

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