By, Nicholas Kaufmann
Trying to define a genre by its tropes is often risky business. Take our hirsute friend the werewolf for example. This iconic monster, at one time an instantly recognizable marker of the horror genre, today finds itself equally at home in fantasy (J.K. Rowling, Patricia McKillip and Terry Pratchett are only some of the fantasy authors who’ve made use of werewolves) and romance (whose paranormal subgenre frequently uses lycanthropy). Throughout the past twenty years, such vast, overlapping gray areas have opened between the 3 sister genres of speculative fiction – science fiction, fantasy and horror – that those seeking to fit a selected novel snugly right into a single category must now look beyond the familiar genre iconography to something less easy to spot: tone. That is, the intent behind the usage of that iconography. For horror, that is especially as a way to. paraphrase Douglas Winter’s famous speech as toastmaster of the Bram Stoker Awards in 1998, horror can only truly be defined by the feelings a piece of literature elicits. The genre’s tropes – monsters, old dark houses, ghosts – can not play an active role in its definition because they are often just as easily found elsewhere.
While at their basest levels science fiction and fantasy can often be defined by setting – the future, non-terrestrial milieux, alternate history, magical kingdoms, etc. – horror cannot do the similar. Instead, horror must depend on tone and intent to spot itself. At the one hand, this makes the genre one of the crucial inclusive. At the other, it also makes it probably the most difficult to define. Horror’s tentacles can and do envelope everything from bloodthirsty demons to club-hopping vampires to stories with an entire loss of supernatural element, corresponding to the serial killer subgenre (a class also claimed by the mystery and thriller genres — just another indication of the way many gray areas exist when talking about genre in general, and horror in particular).
Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 novel The street presents a specific genre conundrum. This ugly, brutal and tragic tale of post-apocalyptic America, where an unnamed man and his son travel a deserted road looking for safety from both the weather and from other survivors, lots of whom have banded together to form roaming cannibalistic tribes, is said in equal measure by readers of horror, science fiction and literary fiction. But with horror readers particularly there appears to be some controversy to whether The street fits the genre bill. It’s true that father and son’s journey is punctuated by jarring moments of threat and grotesquerie – a cellar full of chained, half-dead people being kept as livestock, the corpse of a child roasting on a spit, to call two of the novel’s bravura terror scenes – but is that enough to name The street a horror novel?
Asking several leading authors within the genre, in addition to perusing related reviews and articles, results in some interesting, and differing, viewpoints.
“To me, horror is set a definite emotional response,” says Bram Stoker Award finalist Nate Kenyon (Bloodstone), echoing Winter’s definition. “Reading The street made me feel equally unsettled, disgusted, terrified and alone. It also made me think hard and long about humanity within the face of devastation and survival against insurmountable odds. I hate to pigeonhole anything into one particular genre, but when I needed to file The street at the shelves, I MIGHT put it squarely under horror.”
So would Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union). In his review of The street for The brand new York Review of Books, Chabon writes, “THE TOP of the world…has long been a temptation as appealing to writers of horror fiction as to these of science fiction. Poe sent a fiery comet to do the job in ‘The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion.’ Richard Matheson, in his novel I’M Legend, sent a bacterial plague that induces vampirism, and within the Stand Matheson’s greatest disciple, Stephen King, burnt up humanity with the superflu referred to as Captain Trips. And that i think ultimately it’s as a lyrical epic of horror that The street is healthier understood.” He goes directly to explain, “Horror fiction proceeds, in general, by extending metaphors, by figuring human fears of mortality, corruption, and the lack of self…. [THE STREET] trade[s] on these deep-seated fears, these fundamental sources of panic, and seek[s] to flay them, to put them open, to tug them into the light.”
Literary critic and Stoker-winning author Michael Marano (Dawn Song) compares The street almost to the cosmic, unknowable terror present in Lovecraft or Machen. “Yeah, The street is horror,” Marano says. “Like Blood Meridian or even No Country For Old Men, it’s McCarthy’s try to lock horns with the sublime in way that’s alleged to inspire fear. McCarthy riff…