Monday, November 03, 2008

Noir at the Bar V: Beyond Genre Borders

Genres can be useful things. What else would authors subvert, transcend or have fun with? But genre labels can also scare readers off, even those of us who spring to the defense of genre fiction – as long as it's in our genre.

Jonathan Maberry has won awards for horror writing (though he said at last night's fifth Noir at the Bar reading that books with the horror label sell poorly in the United States – "We call them `supernatural thrillers.'"). Whatever the label, no crime-fiction reader ought to be scared off. For one thing, Maberry says he's loved crime writing from a young age, and he hangs out with crime writers in Philadelphia's Liars Club. For another, his new novel, Patient Zero, is not horror, but a bio-terrorism thriller. For a third, based on the selections Maberry read last night, the book will contain much to delight crime readers.

Maberry's protagonist, Joe Ledger, a former soldier and a Baltimore police officer, can crack as wise as the best fictional PIs, even when enlisted by a secretive government agency to help battle a grave security threat. Indeed, Maberry said after the reading that John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee was one of his models, both as a wisecracker and as a protagonist with intellectual interests.

Maberry says the novel will also invoke terrorism and feature international and corporate villains in addition to its threat to all life. Much of this is new territory for a hero who talks like a Travis McGee or a Philip Marlowe or an Elvis Cole. And I'm going to explore that territory because the genre-mixing sounds like fun.

Maberry says: "I wrote the book that I would like to read," a deceptively simple thought and a liberating sentiment. Think of the book as a mat laid at the doorstep of thrillerdom with the friendly words: "Welcome, crime readers."

Patient Zero will be published by St. Martin's Press in March.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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21 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

When properly executed, horror can stretch much further than the worn, old "supernatural thriller," meshing with any number of genres. It doesn't have to thrill, but it does have to scare. With that in mind, it could marry with crime fiction quite nicely. House in the suburbs, white picket fence, two-and-half kids, the whole bit ...

November 03, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My comment about 'supernatural thrillers' was in response to a question about genres in publishing.

In the current market books labeled as 'horror' don't sell well, and most publishers have shied away from that label. Authors like Stephen King, Peter Straub, etc have long since labeled themselves as writers of 'thrillers', 'suspense', etc.

The labeling doesn't change the book itself. A good hororr story can be marketed under any of a dozen labels. The issue at hand is marketing, not content.

My three Pine Deep novels (Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man's Song, and Bad Moon Rising -all from Pinnacle Books) are definitely 'horror', but because of the demands of the market they were pitched and sold as supernatural thrillers. Same books, different labels.

For writers horror, as a storytelling element, is a wonderfully elastic concept. A police procedural can build on elements of horror, for example; and Silence of the Lambs did that and went on to win a Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association. That same book can be fairly labeled a mystery, a crime novel, a thriller and a horror novel.

In terms of definiting the word 'thriller' -that's a form of writing where the internal tension is built largely around the race to prevent something from happening. It isn't 'thrill' as in rollercoaster ride; and a s result folks often misunderstand the name when it's applied to books.

So, in that regard, my Pine Deep novels and my forthcoming book Patient Zero, are indeed thrillers. But they are also crime stories and horror books.

Genre lines are made to be crossed, and I have a hell of a lot of fun crossing them.

-Jonathan Maberry
Author of PATIENT ZERO
www.jonathanmaberry.com

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I wish we could have made it last night. Steve Mosby and Tom Piccirilli come to mind as two who've either danced on the edge or fully written in the horror vein, who also write crime fiction, and the more I read, the more I see how the lines blur, and I don't think horror often gets the respect it deserves.

November 03, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Well,since we're talking of mystery/thriller/horror blend, it springs to mind that this...week I haven't yet recommended
Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand

Bye
Marco

November 03, 2008  
Anonymous Jonathan Maberry said...

Tom Piccirilli also won the Thriller Award for paperback original.

John Connolly's another author who blurs the genre lines between crime and horror.

And...fit this one in your head: Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones won a Stoker Award for Best First Novel a few years ago. If that isn't genre-bending I don't know what is!

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I remember a blurb on the back of several John D. MacDonald books saying they left the reader with a sense of horror. I'd submit that Junior Allen of "The Deep Blue Goodbye" is horrific.

A lot of what gets called horror seems to be a compilation of gore; that's sensationalist, but it's not necessarily horror.

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The comments are a lot to fit in my head, and I'll let my replies dribble back out of my head slowly.

John, I knew you were referring to horror fiction's problems as a commercial proposition rather than to its vitality as a genre. I have amended the post to reflect this.

My understanding of "thrillers" is the same as yours: They are built around a race to keep something, often cataclysmic, from happening. I am occasionally puzzled by the term's use to mean, well, almost anything.

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren Eaton said...
When properly executed, horror can stretch much further than the worn, old "supernatural thriller," meshing with any number of genres. It doesn't have to thrill, but it does have to scare. With that in mind, it could marry with crime fiction quite nicely.


It's certainly quite easy for this heretofore non-horror reader to imagine ways in which horror can marry nicely with crime fiction. Thanks to some of these comments, I can see how authors have imagined the same thing.

Certainly a number of crime authors I've read integrate the supernatural into their stories: Colin Cotterill, Garbhan Downey, Stuart Neville.

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sandra, I get the idea, without having much evidence for it, that horror is regarded with a raised eyebrow in polite circles.

John suggested last night that horror had got a bad name fromm the proliferation of slasher films. I look forward to sharing your experience of seeing the lines blur as I read more.

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, Sandra, John:

Thanks, too, for the names. I knew John Connolly blurred lines, or at least wrote crime and supernatural stories, and I sometimes think everyone has read Alice Sebold except me. The other authors are either new to me, or I knew nothing about them beyond their names until now. So thanks again.

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister said...
I remember a blurb on the back of several John D. MacDonald books saying they left the reader with a sense of horror. I'd submit that Junior Allen of "The Deep Blue Goodbye" is horrific.

A lot of what gets called horror seems to be a compilation of gore; that's sensationalist, but it's not necessarily horror.


Jonathan Maberry did cite Travis McGee as a favorite among PI protagonists. I wonder if he also picked up in the element you cited.

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I get the idea, without having much evidence for it, that horror is regarded with a raised eyebrow in polite circles.

The first short I published was horror, although of a kind that wasn't all guts and grue. My wife begged me not to show it to friends and family.

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hey, what are pen names for?

I wonder if horror was any more respectable before the advent of slasher and shocker films than it is now. Maberry mentioned that books labelled "horror" don't sell well in the U.S. I did not ask him how long this had been the case.

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"books labelled "horror" don't sell well in the U.S."

Couldn't prove it by the linear length of shelves devoted to it at my local used bookstore, you betcha.

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones won a Stoker Award for Best First Novel a few years ago. If that isn't genre-bending I don't know what is!

Oh, wow. If I recall correctly, Alice wasn't too happy to be embraced by the crime genre with TLB. I wonder how she felt about that?

Peter, is you haven't read Mosby's THE 50/50 KILLER, I think you should. I haven't read Tom Piccirilli's full-fledged horror offerings, but I'm dying to read A Choir of Ill Children just because of the title. I mean, is that not a brilliant title?

I think most people assume by horror you mean the slasher flicks, Friday the 13th and such stuff. They think it's about cheap thrills. Some I know assert that the things that drive real fear in the heart of a person are what makes something horror, and in that respect, under that definition, a lot of crime fiction crosses the line.

My own opinion falls somewhere between the two, but I'd rather not pin it down too tightly, because I'd like to think that genres can evolve over time. I certainly think crime fiction covers a wider range of styles and subject matter today than it did 50 years ago.

November 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, maybe's it's signifcant that horror proliferates at a used bookshop, where the proprietor may shelve books according to his or her own judgment rather than according to what a head office dictates. But feel free to take the question up with J. Maberry. I hopes he replies to your comment.

November 04, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sandra: Someone with a wicked sense of humor from one of the crime-fiction organizations or conventions ought to get back at Alice Seybold and John Banville by honoring them for their contributions to the genre.

I have not read The 50/50 Killer, but thanks for yet another recommendations. I agree that A Choir of Ill Children is a splendid, unsettling title. One hopes the book that can live up to it.

I think Jonathan Maberry would endorse your point about horror and the reason for its low reputation. Crime fiction has certainly covers a wider range of writing than it once did. There's no reason horror should not do the same.

This horror discussion has had me thinking along lines similar to yours, that crime fiction that explores the question of how much a person can take, of what is is the worst thing that can happen to a person, probably has affinities with horror.

November 04, 2008  
Blogger Logan Lamech said...

Personally I think the horror genre plays out better in literature than it does in film.

Logan Lamech
www.eloquentbooks.com/LingeringPoets.html

November 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You may be right, if previous comments are any indication. People I know and respect are lining up to assure me that horror fiction is more varied and vital than cinematic slash-'em-ups. What are your favorite contemporary horror novels ot stories?

November 05, 2008  
Anonymous Jonathan Maberry said...

Linkmeister... when you countered my comment about horror not selling well in the US with an observation that there is a long shelf of titles in your local store, you may have missed my point. Or I may have been unclear.

Horror --labeled under that name by publihsers (not bookstores) does not sell well. Stephen King, Peter Straub, etc are not given a label of horror. That word does not appear on the spines of their books. They do not call themselves 'horror' writers.

Barnes and Noble, the big dog in the retail bookselling world, does not have horror shelves. Grnated, Borders does as so many independents, but to the publishing world the books of King, Straub, etc. don't belong on those shelves. They belong under 'fiction and literature', thriller, etc.

Do I agree with that? From a reader's standpoint, absolutely not. I love good horror. From a writer's standpoint, I absolutely agree because it's a business decision and both publishing and retail bookselling are businesses.

The issue becomes cloudy when the love of books is overlapped in a discussion of this kind with the 'selling' of books. To readers a genre like horror is an entirely different animal than it is to the business world.

An aspiring writer trying to make his/her first sale would be ill advised to pitch a novel as horror to an agent or editor. That same book (with not one word changed) would stand a better chance pitched as mainstream fiction, dark fantasy, paranormal romance or thriller. It's a business decision.

And, Peter...regarding the question of how horror did as a genre prior to the slasher films... it was alive and healthy in the 60s and early 70s, with books like Rosemary's Baby, The Other, Burnt Offerings, The Exorcist, etc. But even then many of the biggest selling horror books were being marketed as mainstream fiction simply because the browsing buyers might not think to look in the Horror section for a great book. Prejudice against the genre existed even then.

November 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for that brief history lesson. Linkmeister will have to speak for himself, of course, but I suspect that he, like most readers including myself, may have confused horror with "horror" -- the genre itself with the marleting of it. You may recall that I had you saying that horror was dead, when you meant that the label "horror" was commercial death or something close to it.

November 13, 2008  

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