Writers of detective novels and mysteries have broken from this pattern; Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, and a dozen other writers of the last 40 years have won critical accolades from mainstream reviewers. Science fiction and fantasy have also produced artists who have won critical acclaim outside their chosen genre.
Horror writers seem a breed apart. If we include in their number Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley, both of whom wrote in the 19th century — yes, yes, all you horror fans, I know I’m skipping Lovecraft, Stoker, Welles and many other fine writers — horror fiction, too, may be judged as having a special niche in terms of literary merit.
And yet there is some quality in the horror fiction of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, or a platoon of other writers that misses the mark of literary excellence. Whether it is the application of logic to plot and motivation in a story — sadly missing in many horror fictions — or a general abuse of the English language, or questions of a story’s depth and repeated readability, some crucial quality is missing that prevents most horror authors from claiming any sort of literary high ground. With the possible exception of The Stand, Stephen King, who is surely the King of Horror Writing, typically composes using comic-book prose and stereotypical characters who seem as crudely put together as grandpa’s scarecrow.
Those writers who belong to King’s court often don’t even bother to try to meet these standards. Horror fiction in general makes cardboard constructions of the human personality, produces reams of clunky writing, and displays a fetish for vulgarization. You don’t see that last word in print much more, but I find it appropriate here: by it I mean a standard so crude, so cheap, that it ranks close somewhere between pornographic fiction and the political speeches of political candidates running for office.
An example of this dual standard may be found in Scott Nicholson’s new novel, They Hunger (Pinnacle Books, ISBN 0-7860-1713-9, $6.99). In an Appalachian wilderness area, Nicholson sets at odds a variety of people: a religiously deranged abortion clinic bomber and his female companion; two FBI agents; a team of outdoors adventurers testing two experimental whitewater rafts. As the groups collide, they are also beset by weird creatures that seem a cross between giant bats and primitive humans, released from their underground haunts when the clinic bomber sets off a bomb that also kills one of the FBI agents.
Now if we approach They Hunger as a horror novel set within the modern horror genre, we may judge the book as a solid tale that will attract readers who like this sort of thing. Reviewers on Amazon gave They Hunger five stars. Even bearing in mind that the Amazon reviews are often generally bosh, the readers who wrote these personal reviews clearly enjoyed The Hunger. They particularly liked the fast pace, the variety of characters, the eerie vampires.
Readers who come at this book without a fondness for horror fiction, however, will likely judge Nicholson’s story in a different light. They may find the characters wooden stereotypes, unrefined even for an era which finds great merit and pleasure in “reality” shows. Ace Goodall, for example, is a racist, profane, misogynistic religious nut and bomber-murderer — what else is new? — who shows absolutely no sign of having ever read the New Testament. The other characters — from the self serving Farrengalli to the Indian-on-acid Raintree to the confused Clara, Ace’s girlfriend — arouse so little sympathy that, as the vampire creatures pick most of them off one at a time, we don’t even feel satisfied that they got what they deserved. We simply don’t care what happens to them.
The writing follows the style of King and other horror writers in its awkward syntax, its overboard profanity, its adolescent approach to sexuality and violence. These devices work reasonably well in action scenes, but when applied in descriptive passages regarding the feeling and thoughts of the characters themselves, they leave no room for the subtlety or play of human emotion. In the following passage, the FBI agent Castle, despite the loss of his partner and the fact that he has already encountered the vampires, has just commandeered the expedition’s boats to pursue Goodall deeper into the wilderness:
Raintree, Farrengalli, and Dove Krueger eased their raft beside the one Bowie held. Farrengalli folded his arms and leaned back as if soaking up a sun that had hidden away. “The f**k,” he said. “You’re d**king with my bonus.”
“The bonus applies to everyone,” Lane said. “We all have the same timetable.”
“If Agent Castle here wants to join us, I guarantee we’ll make Babel Tower by sundown,” Bowie said. To Castle: “Where are you headed, anyway?”
“Don’t know yet.”
“F**king fantastic,” Farrengalli said as Castle waded into the water and stepped into Bowie’s craft. Bowie looked at Dove. Her eyes were black pools, full of deep, cold water.
Yeah. We’ll make it. And I don’t love you, okay?
He didn’t need to speak. She knew him better than he himself did.
Dove apparently knows Bowie better than he knows himself. And both will know Bowie better than the reader on finishing They Hunger.