Genre Labels

Oh what a tangled marketing web there is to navigate. I have spent a crazy amount of time sitting at my computer, staring at Duotrope and trying to figure out whether my story fits the marketing labels a publication has expressed interest in. Some of my stories are clearly one genre or another, even if there is some commingling in there. Others fall in that dubious gray area of “slipstream,” leaving me to figure out if it’s “too horror” for a primarily sci-fi market or vice versa.

Now, granted, much of this is purely speculative at the moment because I only have one story that’s “market ready,” but it’s still something I think about, especially once I have completed the first draft of the story.

One of the things that really brought genre labels to my attention was a book I read not too long ago. I wrote up a book tease in my “What I’m Reading” page, but I am going to ramble a bit more on the subject because it bugs me. The book was Poe’s Children and it professed itself an anthology of “new horror.” I suppose the first thing that stumped me was the phrase “new horror.” I understand what horror is, and I’ve been a fan for a long time. I even understand what the labels are and why they were created. They certainly make my life easier when browsing the bookstores, or for describing what I want to read and even what I enjoy writing. However, what I don’t understand is the way labels have become so very important.

To me, labels are important to convey an expectation. I expect my horror stories to scare me. I want them to hook into my spine and pull me along for pages and pages, a willing victim in a thrilling ride that will leave me in some way changed when the story is done. I want to walk across a parking lot alone in the dark only to have my heart race and pace quicken when I think I hear the scuffling step of a zombie somewhere behind me. I want to wince when I think of Tim Curry in his clown get up. I want to read a Poe or Lovecraft story and gasp for breath at the end because I hadn’t realized I was holding it. So many of the stories in the anthology made me scratch my head, then feast hungrily upon those that I knew fit the genre.

The book itself was a good collection of stories, though one that I’d advise borrowing from the library instead of investing in because I think the label was just that…a label. What the hell is “new horror” anyway? I read the introduction and I understand what Straub was trying to achieve, but I think he jumped the shark. I picked up the book to “study” short horror fiction. I picked up the book on the strength of the editor, and the strength of contributors like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Even the title grabbed me and whispered dark promises in my ear. “Poe’s Children.” What else did I expect but the breathless anticipation of watching the Red Death make its way through the party, or the cawing of the raven or even the beating of the heart beneath the floor boards. Instead, there were so many stories in that book that had me questioning what made them “horror” and trying to figure out why they had been included to begin with that I lost the feel of the story. Maybe I’m just being a book snob, or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. I do know that when the marketing tool intrudes on the product it’s trying to sell, it has gone too far.

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