Free Speech and the “Death” of Genre Fiction (Part 2)

garth

A couple weeks ago, I acknowledged some of the debate that had been going on in the horror, bizarro, and weird fiction community about allegations of social justice-imposed censorship (my findings: it largely doesn’t exist) and the notion that transgressive genre fiction is either dead or dying (my findings: read on and find out, I’m not going to spoil it for you so soon!). Since I already tackled the whole “boo hoo, SJW’s don’t like me” bullshit last time, now I think we’re about due to take down that “R.I.P. genre fiction” crap too. And considering it’s the start of a brand new year, I can think of no better time to look back at all that 2016 gave us, and to look ahead at all that 2017 promises.

Full disclosure: I originally planned to write this follow-up within a week after the first post. I don’t know what madness compelled me to try that right before the holidays. Suffice to say, between making plans, seeing old friends, avoiding Trump-supporting family members, buying gifts, wrapping gifts, giving gifts, and, best of all, getting gifts, while simultaneously trying to finish drafts of a couple short stories I needed to have finished before the end of the year, it’s hardly surprising that I’m only now getting the chance. Sorry for the wait.

“He said, as if anyone actually cared.”

Moving on!

Anyway, we currently live in an era where such writers as Laird Barron, Paul Tremblay, John Langan, Joe Pulver, Simon Strantzas, Nick Mamatas, Grady Hendrix, Matthew Bartlett, C.V. Hunt, Tiffany Scandal, Garrett Cook, and M.P. Johnson have all more or less blossomed into their prime at roughly the same time. And that’s to say nothing of publishing houses like Deadite Press, ChiZine Publications, Eraserhead Press, Raw Dog Screaming Press, Necro Publications, Lazy Fascist Press, Bizarro Pulp Press, DynaTox Ministries, Muzzleland Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Sinister Grin Press, and Hippocampus Press, all of whom are pumping out a constant and consistent conga-line of books that are alternately breathtaking, brutal, beautiful, and bizarre.

On top of all that, we also live in an era where self-publishing and self-promotion are easier and more accessible than ever before. Thus, there are virtually no limits for anyone to be able to read or write something that exactly matches their tastes, no matter how out-of-left-field those tastes may be.

Things aren’t on the wane. If anything, we’re in a goddamn golden age!

I know, I know. For some, it’s not enough that contemporary genre fiction is incredibly dark, thoughtful, and well-crafted. Some of us need our horror to be hardcore, dirty, and gruesome, full of excessive violence, graphic sex, and creative uses of bodily fluids. Well, if that’s you, fret not; we got you covered. The last year or so has seen such releases as The Train Derails in Boston by Jessica McHugh, Reincarnage by Jason Taverner and Ryan Harding, A God of Hungry Walls by Garrett Cook, The Complex by Brian Keene, Season of the Witch by Charlee Jacob, Ritualistic Human Sacrifice by C.V. Hunt, The Con Season by Adam Cesare, and Mayan Blue by the self-proclaimed “sisters of slaughter” Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason.

And these are just the standouts!

Likewise, Splatterpunk Zine, Comet Press, and the aforementioned Necro Publications have all put out anthologies specifically focused on envelope-pushing extreme horror: Comet makes no bones about where their bread is buttered with such releases as Stiff Things: The Splatterporn Anthology and the debut of their annual Year’s Best Hardcore Horror series. The rich mythos of Gerard Houarner’s landmark 1996 erotic-horror collection Painfreak was revisited in Necro Publications’ exhaustive Into Painfreak anthology, edited by Houarner himself, which saw everyone from Wrath James White to Monica O’Rourke to Jordan Krall to Edward Lee, the reigning king of literary gore, delving into the most wretched red depths of flesh and blood. And, hell, no one spelled it out more clearly than Splatterpunk, who released the perfectly titled Splatterpunk’s Not Dead, featuring stellar stories by the likes of Shane McKenzie, Paul Essig, and Jeff Strand.

Maybe you’re more a fan of bizarro fiction, though. Maybe you’re more interested in the so-called literary equivalent of the cult section of your local video store. Is that what you want? Truly outlandish stories that combine the absurdity and reality-warping rules of Saturday Morning cartoons and unrepentant strangeness of Salvador Dali with the scatological, satirical, intentionally offensive humor of John Waters and Lloyd Kaufman and the out-of-control violence of splatterpunk?

Well, guess what; this last year was a damn good year for bizarro too. We got Puppetskin by Danger Slater, Shit Luck by Tiffany Scandal, Bacon Fried Bastard by David W. Barbee, Governor of the Homeless by G. Arthur Brown, Berzerkoids by M.P. Johnson, and Very True Stories Starring Jeff O’Brien by, uh, Jeff O’Brien. Genre workhorses like Carlton Mellick III and D. Harlan Wilson continued to release new works even after nearly two decades of exemplifying the best the movement has to offer, still at the top of their games. And Eraserhead Press’ New Bizarro Author Series turned another year older, still furthering its altruistic goal of seeking out and exposing the world to fresh, young authors who will go on to be the Mellicks and Wilsons of tomorrow.

Tell me, do you know what the most important thing that all these horror and bizarro books I just mentioned have in common is? Sure, they’re all as gleefully confrontational as they are controversial, chock full of murder, dismemberment, self-mutilation, rape, necrophilia, beastiality, cannibalism, abortion, puke, piss, cum, and gore. But, even better, so so many of them are also witty and intelligent and richly thematic on a level that those looking at genre fiction from outside it would likely never imagine, a level that probably too few readers within the genre fully appreciate.

The truth is, today’s hardcore horror and bizarro are as twisted and gratuitous as they’ve ever been. But they’re also a whole lot smarter than they’ve been in years. The widespread and progressive aspect of that intellectual element is a hundred times more meaningful than all the chainsaw gutsfucks in the history of literature; the brains actually enhance the blood and guts. The substance is just as shocking as the superficial. That’s punk as fuck!

I ask you, how much more “alive” could these genres be?

Saying that hardcore horror is dying is like saying that horror in general is dying, and saying that horror is dying is like saying that fear is dying. Fear is a fundamental part of the human experience, one that, no matter how civilized and sophisticated we become, we will always have a need to indulge and thereby purge. And hardcore horror? Well, that’s nothing more than a logical extension of general horror, one that delights especially in the related realms of shock, decadence, and revulsion. All equally fundamental parts of the human experience. Suffice to say, if horror isn’t dying, then hardcore horror isn’t either. As long as there are people who like being scared, there will be people who like being grossed out and disturbed.

Bizarro, meanwhile, is a relatively new genre. So maybe it is just a fad, a flash in the pan doomed to be snuffed out as its 15 minutes of fame comes to an end. Me? I reject that notion, and I do it by rejecting that bizarro is new at all. As a named, codified thing separate from other strains of surrealistic and experimental literature, yes, it’s still just a baby. But bizarro did not just emerge out of a vacuum. It has a long line of precursors that fulfilled our ancestors’ own inherent appetite for the strange and unusual. I’m talking not just about the classical outrageous fiction of William S. Burroughs and Franz Kafka, but also the do-it-yourself middle-finger of punk rock and no-wave, the ero-guro madness of artists Toshio Saeki and Junji Ito, the “you won’t believe your eyes” showmanship and deformity of P.T. Barnum’s circus sideshows, and the brain-melting comic-book psychedelia of Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis.

In my view, while these things may not all be classifiable as pure bizarro, they are absolutely a part of the long-standing tradition that we are now only just beginning to give the name “bizarro.” Therefore, bizarro has always been here. And if it’s always been here, well, I have a hard time imagining it going anywhere.

Still, what about the argument being made that, since so few authors are able to make a steady living creating this kind of stuff, then that alone is proof of genre fiction’s decline? Well the truth is, that has nothing to do with genres, nor quality, nor content. It’s no secret that traditional publishing across the board has struggled to evolve in a way that is sustainable in the 21st century. Without getting too deep into things, I can’t ignore that a perfect storm of rising production costs, falling digital sales prices, oversaturated markets, audience distractions, online piracy, and the popularity of ebooks has shaken the publishing world to its core. There’s a riotous mix of good and bad going on here, and sometimes the two are hard to distinguish from one another. Hell, sometimes they’re actually both simultaneously.

Outside of the “big five” mainstream publishing juggernauts, outside your New York Times Bestseller shoe-ins, your Stephen Kings and your J.K. Rowlings, the reality is that authors who are able to make a comfortable living off of writing and only writing are few and far between, and those that do exist can never rest on their laurels. It’s all about the hustle, y’know? But this goes for every genre, not just the niche worlds of horror and bizarro, or even fantasy and sci-fi for that matter.

Do me a favor. Next time you pick up a book by an author you admire, one who is maybe frequently critically lauded, one who you probably think “Yeah, he or she definitely has it made,” let me suggest you turn to the bio at the back of the book. Notice how many author bios make mention of the writers being teachers or editors themselves? The reason for that isn’t just because they’re so passionate about the English language (or another subject, perhaps) that they take on side-careers out of the goodness of their hearts. No. Passion is part of it, but a bigger part of it is that they need to make money. The vast majority of fiction authors have day jobs. Fact.

What’s more, this isn’t even anything new. As much as the publishing world has taken hits from the mutating landscape of modern media, in all the centuries of its history, writing fiction has only intermittently been a widely profitable profession. Simply put, if you’re looking for a steady job, you’re sniffing up the wrong tree. Only the most cynical among us get into writing with the intention of defining their success or failure solely by their profitability. That’s certainly not why I’m here. After all, I’m broke as fuck.

Then again, I’m pretty much nobody, so take that with a grain of salt.

Joking aside, art is not an ATM. It’s a vehicle for self-expression. The fact that so many of us have conned our way into getting people to pay us for it whatsoever is a goddamn gift. So, okay, if you’re still pining for the lightning-in-a-bottle days of the ’80s paperback horror boom, maybe then you have a small point when you say that genre fiction isn’the doing so hot, but only in that specific context. And if you’re doing that, then, damn, you are seriously out of touch with reality and just plain deluding yourself. Worse yet, you’re valuing the wrong things. The truth is that there is more high-quality weird fiction, horror fiction, and bizarro fiction out on the market right now than there has been at any other single period in my entire lifetime. If anything, there’s too much awesome stuff out there!

Sometimes I look at my ever-lengthening to-read and to-buy lists and feel anxiety grip me, worrying how in the hell I’m going to find the time to buy and read all this stuff and still have any kind of life of my own. As far as problems go, though, as a lover of genre fiction, it’s a very good dilemma to have. And that’s the only perspective we should be coming to the table here with: that of lovers, readers, fans.

Anyone who says that horror sucks these days, that the current sociopolitical zeitgeist has had a chilling effect on genre fiction, or that dark, extreme, or transgressive literature is on the wane in any meaningful way whatsoever is clearly not paying attention. With how robust and diverse the current offerings on the market are these days, the only motivations I can imagine a fellow writer having to grumble come from a place of selfishness, a fear of getting overshadowed or lost in the shuffle. Because it’s easier to be a big fish when the waters run shallow, right? When they’re deeper, when there’s a lot more room for other fish, that’s better for everyone. Except for the little minnows who don’t get to act like sharks anymore.

In the end, if you’re looking at a horror or bizarro bookseller’s catalog right now, at the dawn of 2017, and you don’t find anything that you think qualifies as legitimately great and/or boundary-pushing, then, simply put, you need to get your eyes checked.

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