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Horror Cuisine and Criticism

By Paula Guran

Originally published as part of a "Waves of Fear" column in Cemetery Dance #51 (Spring 2005)
Written: Sept 29, 2004

I'm not sure who first compared horror to food. I'm not even sure the comparison was originally about horror. Proper attribution aside, it goes something like this:

Horror accommodates your appetite. Sometimes you want fast food -- lacking in nutrition, overly caloric, but quick, enjoyable, and reliably forgettable. Sometimes you want haute cuisine and fine wine. Then there's good old home-style comfort food; spicy exotic fare; beer and pretzels; meals that may be a little hard to digest at first, but that eventually prove to be unforgettable --
you get the idea.

(Come to think of it, sex would be a better analogy, but we don't want to upset [editor] Robert [Morrish] and [editor/publisher] Rich [Chizmar]. We'll stick to food.)

The point is, of course, that there's a rich variety of dark literature available. One person may be an aficionado of one dish and not another, one's tastes may change, one may indulge in one menu one day and another the next, et cetera -- no matter the flavor of the fare there are fine examples to nosh on.

At one point in history a great many books that were called horror were being published. The variety was there -- from champagne to swill but most of them were of the cheeseburger variety. Some of them were really tasty, but most of them weren't so good. Eat a few really bad cheeseburgers and you'll start avoiding them altogether. When cheeseburgers stop selling, the chefs cut the menus. Lobster, pizza, fois gras, peanut butter sandwiches -- it all goes away with the cheeseburgers.

Nowadays, the horror menu is pretty full. Sometimes you need a road map to find the best new restaurant, sometimes our favorite food might be in short supply, but we usually have plenty to choose from. The problem is that everyone wants to be considered four-star fare. No one wants to be told their filet of fear is burnt or their terrine de terreur is inedible, or even that their scary stew needs a little more spice. This is understandable. Chefs (writers) put many hours and much effort into creating their cuisine -- or at least considerable sweat flipping it on the grill -- and they want everyone to chow down and ask for seconds.

Hot Horror served up But that's not a reasonable way to do business. You customers (readers) who pay for and consume the food (writing) deserve to have some sort of idea of what you are investing your time and money in. You are not always going to be satisfied. There's always going to be some room for debate or just plain old disagreement because tastes do vary, but that's no reason to abandon justifiable warnings. Reviews should be a consumers' guide to horror, not merely praise of everything dished out. Yet that's pretty much what most people who cook up horror seem to want. It's understandable: no one wants to be told their creation is less than scrumptious; it tastes fine to them--or maybe they know the dish is not perfectly appetizing, but they don't want some stranger telling them that. But food is also merchandise. Beyond being a commodity and, therefore, judgeable, most writers think their victuals should be in contests. They enter their canned goods and pies in a competition and their pals all tell them the foodstuffs are fab. If the contest is won by a popular vote, then their chow may still win; but if the winner is determined by some other means, chances are the inferior fare won't stand a chance.


Let's drop the analogy before we all get the munchies and eat our magazines [or, in this case, lick our monitors].

The point is that there is very little serious reviewing these days in horror. There's also next to no real criticism (as in "considered judgment of or discussion about the qualities of something, especially a creative work") or criticism (as in "opinions that point out one or more faults of a work") outside of some academic critique.

Part of the problem is probably historical and possibly integral. Horror, as a genre, doesn't have the same sort of long-established fan base that its sister science fiction has. There's a tradition of debate, discussion, and criticism in SF that has never existed and never will exist for horror. What did exist for horror along these lines never really thrived. This may be because few people really want to read ABOUT horror. Stefan Dziemianowicz, who has done some serious horror criticism, once pointed out to me that readers tend to read horror for pleasure or entertainment while science fiction is all about, well, speculating. It's still entertaining, but in a more thoughtful way. Horror is, as we know because Doug Winter told us, an emotion. We feel it. We don't think about it.

Alan Beatts of Borderlands Books theorizes that the science fiction readers tend to self-identify as "science fiction readers" whereas horror readers do not tend to identify with their reading and are more often casual readers. An sf reader will frequently read only sf; the horror reader reads much more widely. Nor do horror readers seem to feel any particular bond with other people based on what they read. Thus it seems horror readers are no more of a cohesive identifiable group than fiction readers in general, whereas sf readers can be seen as a definite group unified by their interest in all things science fictional, not only by their reading. (I'm abbreviating the theory, but this is my column, not Alan's.)

That concept, too, supports the idea that folks really don't care to cerebrate about horror so much as read it. There's a good possibility that there are just enough people interested to really support serious criticism of modern horror.

There's another semi-historical aspect, too, that applies more to reviewing than criticism. By the time I started hanging out with horror about ten years ago, there seemed to be a lot of people who reviewed horror in its small press who wrote negatively without providing back-up reasoning or example. Some were ignorant or at least did not know how to express themselves well. Some thought that part of their job was to find something wrong with anything they read. Some just liked being snarky because they thought that made them appear to be clever. Some may have taken potshots for personal reasons. I'm not sure exactly why, but it seems like there was, shall we say, a bit of a nasty atmosphere. There was some reason, in other words, for a writer to feel defensive about a "bad review" because sometimes the review or the reviewer was NOT fair.

I think that's mostly disappeared now. Unfortunately one reason it has disappeared is that there are fewer venues that review horror. [Yes, I know, there are online venues. That's another story.] Perhaps just as unfortunate, though, is that the "support the genre" clarion was used to drown the negativity out. I played that tune myself for a while -- until I realized that no one should support anything not worth supporting; that "support the genre" could mean, all too often, "support anything connected with the genre whether it is good or bad or otherwise."

Still, bad reasons or not, that sort of reviewing, for the most part, has disappeared. What is left, however, is more pleasant but not any more acceptable. The trend now seems to be to never meet a book you don't like, to over-praise, and to be blind to even obvious flaws. I suspect some of this may be because so many people who review are trying to advance their "careers" as fiction writers. The technical term here is "suck up" as in, "If I suck up to other writers then I will have a larger pool of people who might suck up to me and my work. If I suck up to established writers they might recognize me and the connection might help me out." The technique has been known to work, so I guess you can't expect people not to try it.

Another aspect, one I think I fell into at first, is the "fanboy" (or "fangirl") mode. This is, at least, sincere. The reviewer genuinely loves horror literature as a whole and is simply too willing to be forgiving. Time and experience usually take care of fanboyism for most folks, but not all. Plus, there are always new fanboys rising. When I started reviewing for the original DarkEcho (a weekly email newsletter for horror writers and others I did for over six years) and elsewhere I had a policy of "positive reviews." I reviewed only what I found worthwhile. After all, there is only so much space and time. Why waste it on the less-than-praiseworthy? So, I ignored the less-than-good and, naturally, because there simply wasn't enough time to read EVERYTHING, some good stuff got ignored as well. This worked out in a practical manner, too. Writers and publishers couldn't be sure if they were ignored due to quality or my inundation in quantity. I think it was a social nicety we were all aware of and appreciated. (There's another few categories, too: good stuff that I read, would have liked to review, but did not have the time to write a review and/or a place to publish it; good stuff that had received enough notice elsewhere that my meager words would not have mattered; good stuff I discovered too late to do anything about; and good stuff I never saw, for example.)

Eventually -- maybe this happens to anyone who is putting forth opinion on a regular basis, I don't know -- this stopped working so well. There were people who decided it was my "duty" to do this or that with DarkEcho. Despite the fact no one paid for a subscription, that I did not get paid, and that, in fact, it cost me money to provide DE, these folks got some misguided notion that I HAD to do what they thought I should do "for the good of the genre."

There were also people who got insulted because I politely ignored them. Why they were ignored really didn't matter. They, too, felt I was somehow cosmically required to do their bidding and weren't, I guess, interested in mutual social niceness.


I still mostly do the positive thing, though. Occasionally I give a mixed review. Last year I did a single "Why did this book waste wood pulp?" review. In reviews for publications for which I review anonymously, I make the call as I see fit (within the publication's editorial context) as long as I do so in a professional manner by supporting my opinion within the bounds of word limit. This goes for enthusiastic endorsement as well as less-thn-enthusiastic comment.

Why am I occupying my column space with all of this instead of just reviewing some books? I am beginning to believe all of this happy smiling horror reviewing is beginning to do some damage. It's not serving you, the reader, well because all you see are reviews telling you practically every book published is worth your time and money.

It's skewing the curve, so to speak, because if every book being reviewed is getting an "A," then it doesn't take much logic to figure out a large percentage of the As aren't really As. This devalues the "grade" for the top books as well as allowing the bottom of the heap an underserved passing grade.

Plus, in a choir of "all is great" voices, the single voice of "it is not all great" sticks out unfairly. The truth may be the choir is singing in unison, but is on the wrong note while the solo voice is the only one singing the right note. The truth may be otherwise, but who can judge?

Most of all, it is a disservice to the writers.

Out of about three dozen book reviews in a recent Cemetery Dance, 28 were of small press books and five were mass-market paperbacks. (And yes, of them all, only one was negative and one was a bit mixed. Maybe every one of them was good, but I somehow doubt it.) Most of those books may be reviewed in other venues on the happy smiling horror review circuit, but few will be reviewed outside it. (Generally, small press and mass-market paperbacks simply are not reviewed as often as books from major publishers. Hardcovers and trade softcovers are reviewed in preference to mass market. Generally, horror is not a high review priority.)

Of those books, a sizeable number will have received very little, if any, editing. Newer writers of horror are often published over and over by specialty presses that provide no editing at all. There are a few specialty presses that edit, but many don't -- especially the ones publishing new writers. These writers are published with no criticism, no analysis, no chance for a more experienced, more professional view to be expressed; no assistance in bettering their work or polishing their talent.

Let me give you an example of a newer writer whose work is currently being highly praised. Given her/his work from a small press to read, I went into it rooting for the writer. I'd heard good things and new talent is always welcomed. Halfway through the material I had a fairly good impression, but then the story started to fall apart. I had questions -- a lot of questions -- the type of questions any editor would ask the writer. Some of the points probably could have been justified and others improved or smoothed out. There were several questions that, I suspect, the author might have been grateful to have been asked by an editor.

I could not review the work and offer only praise, yet I felt that if I offered a review with constructive criticism I would be the only reviewer who did not glorify the work. I also felt the writer probably didn't want anything other than a "good review" -- s/he is a child of the times. Anything less than happy-smiley, given the current atmosphere in the world o' horror, might be misinterpreted. Gosh, I might even be pilloried for not "supporting the genre!" So I declined to review. What's so terrible about that? I have this nagging feeling that this writer is never going to have anyone honestly critique her/him. Despite having stellar "blurbs" and growing list of published works, I'm fairly sure this writer hasn't had much real feedback. S/he does have potential, but is not yet ready for prime time. (Is this just me? No, my impression has since been reinforced by others who have read the young writer.)

Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe receiving nothing but accolades won't stand in the writer's way. Maybe the writer will go on and enjoy a professional writing career. Maybe all those old saws about how you learn from your mistakes, about needing outside opinion to really progress in your craft are no longer true.

But, all in all, I think writers are suffering from this miasma of bliss and readers deserve better service than is being so cheerfully given.


Addendum (April 2005): The writer I used as an example? S/he was, indeed, over-praised and lauded and continues to be over-praised and lauded. Maybe s/he will meet with continued success and move on to a bigger audience. Maybe that audience won't agree with me. Or maybe not.


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Copyright © 1998 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.