Literary Notes: Horror fiction is about more than monsters

IT HAPPENS quite often. I find myself among a group of people gathered around a dinner table and at sometime during the evening the stranger in the next seat will turn and ask, "So, what do you do?"

Usually, it is best to be evasive. "Oh, this and that", I reply vaguely, and hope that the topic of conversation quickly moves on. If pressured, I may sometimes admit that I write and edit books However, that invariably results in another question: "What type of books?"

And then I have to tell them. "Horror". If all the conversation around the table doesn't actually stop, then certainly a few people glance over in a peculiar fashion, as if they have just discovered that they are sharing their space with a serial killer or child pornographer.

If the person who asked the question hasn't already turned away to engage someone else in conversation, then they may politely enquire "Oh, and what name are you published under?"

And there lies the problem with modern horror fiction. A brief glance along the shelves of most high street bookshops (if they actually still have a "horror" section) invariably gives the impression that only a handful of authors are still writing the stuff - Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, Clive Barker and James Herbert. If you're lucky, you may also find occasional titles by a few other names, but even this extended line-up doesn't accurately reflect the wealth and diversity that modern horror has to offer.

Too often horror has been blamed by a cynical media, hypocritical politicians or a misinformed public as the cause of all of society's ills. But horror fiction, like all popular fiction, is basically about ideas and emotions. Good horror fiction will always elicit some kind of response from the reader. The very best horror fiction has the power to make us question ourselves and the society in which we live.

However, so far as most publishers and booksellers are concerned, the horror market has been in terminal decline for most of the 1990s, and these days they would rather cut their own throats than promote a title under "horror" or even the more user-friendly epithet of "dark fantasy".

It's no good pointing to the success of the above names because, of course, King et al are no longer "horror writers" per se. Despite the subject matter of their books and where they are positioned on the shelves, all these writers are now published as part of the amorphous "mainstream", thus neatly distancing their work from the self-fulfilling prophecy that "horror doesn't sell".

But despite the wails of doom and gloom, the field continues to thrive and grow. You have only to look at the recent success of the Scream movies or the young adult "Goosebumps" series. And while publishers on both sides of the Atlantic persist in culling their horror lines (usually at the expense of new writers and mid-list titles), so the small, independent presses have stepped in to fill the void, and this is where some of the most interesting and cutting-edge work is now appearing.

Horror has always survived and flourished in one form or another, whether it is labelled as such or not, and for those of us who continue to work in the genre, it remains as viable and vibrant a form of literature and communication as ever.

All publishing booms are cyclical and as the new millennium approaches, it seems that horror is once again set for another renaissance. Let us hope so. Because perhaps then horror writers will be able to convince their fellow diners that although they write about monsters, most fiction is only a reflection of what is happening in the world around us. Even horror fiction.

Stephen Jones's latest anthologies, `Dark Terrors 4: the Gollancz book of horror' (Victor Gollancz, pounds 16.99) and `The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror Volume Nine' (Robinson Publishing, pounds 6.99) will both be published for Hallowe'en

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