Today I have been thinking about genre in fiction. Not the nature of genre, its benefits and limitations as a means of categorisation, or the merits or lack thereof with regards to so-called literary fiction, but rather, what it means to me personally. Specifically with regard to the principal categories of speculative fiction (SF), namely: science fiction, fantasy, and horror; what I see as being the core elements of these labels, and what I like and dislike about them. I have also been thinking about crime fiction, but I’ll write about that another time.
There have been many arguments put forward about the nature of genre categorisations and the various ways in which they overlap and fertilise one another. There is a great deal of deliberate hybridisation and deconstruction of the boundaries of genre. It is not my wish to add further to this discussion at this point or to deny the imprecise and nebulous nature of genre tags. As I say, I’ve just been thinking about the (slightly bizarre) way the essence of these various genres translate to me. And why I might choose to explore, whether as a writer or reader, a particular area.
Now, anybody that knows me will know that horror is the genre I am drawn to explore most fully. It is my first love, in fiction terms, and I’ve read far more horror than any other genre. It is also the genre which forms the backbone of my own writing. I don’t agree with those who take the view that horror is simply a tone which can be applied to any work of fiction. That it is not a genre, but a stylistic or thematic tool defined by the intention to provoke, fear, dread or terror. I think it is those things, and that, yes, any work of fiction can have these “horror” elements, but I think to look at it solely in these terms is to disregard the fact that it has acquired the trappings of a genre, with convention, and history, and tropes that can be grouped together. And if we are to say that horror is not a genre on this basis, then we can say science fiction is not a genre, but just the application or exploration of science or scientific thinking in fiction form. And so on. So, if we accept there is something we might recognisably call the horror genre, then what is it? For some it is fiction about vampires or zombies, for others it is ghost stories and Gothic fables; some will see it as slasher fiction, with much gore and violence. I don’t know precisely what horror fiction is. I have some understanding of what it is in a historical sense; its relationship to and evolution from the Gothic tradition, and of the various arguments about its nature. But really, I only know what it is for me. Before I go further, I should say, I have a very ambivalent relationship with the term horror, because many of the things that might commonly be assumed to be at the core of horror fiction, I don’t much like or care for — juvenile tales of exploitative (often sexualised) violence, for one. And fiction defined purely by its intention to gross out the reader, for another.
Horror fiction for me is firstly and foremost the fiction of that which is hidden. Almost always with some accompanying aspect of, yes — fear, dread or terror. Certainly with unease. Disquiet. What if that which should properly stay buried finds a way to surface? What if we uncover that which is hidden, and the truth is more than we can handle? But it is this element of concealment that is more central to me than the fear element. It is really a sub-categorisation of mystery fiction in my mind. Allow me to divulge the weird (and let’s not enter into the murky world of weird fiction, and its various categorisations…) nature of my thinking.
I have been involved in various ways over the years with the study of shamanism (another term we could have a very long discussion about) and one of the things that is central to much of the material on shamanism, broadly speaking, is the idea of a tripartite cosmos; a middle world (this one, our earthly realm), an upper world (heaven or heavens, usually layered), and a lower or underworld (a chthonic realm of ancestors, the dead, etc). We could also simply say, Heaven, Earth, and Hell, or we might say, if we are that way inclined, superconscious, conscious, and subconscious and/or unconscious minds. You get the idea.
Now, because my brain is weird, it goes: aha! Horror — the fiction of the underworld. Hades’ scribblings. The stuff that looks at all those things buried away or that we would prefer were buried away. Things that we may obsess over, but that except in comfortable doses for a “thrill,” we prefer to keep at arms-length. Things that are not to be discussed in polite company. Stuff like death. And nasty secrets. And vampires that want to drink our blood (unless we think this is sexy, which — oh boy — is definitely a whole other conversation). Sex, though; that’s definitely there in various ways. There’s the whole Eros/Thanatos thing for a start. Not to mention that sex can involve, for various reasons, a lot of hiding away out of fear, and a lot of secrets we would like to see buried. And these are the things that I like about horror. This is what interests me, and what I seek out in the horror I read, and also why I am interested in writing, primarily, in a broadly horror framework. Because, basically, I find rummaging around in the dark caverns of the psyche fascinating. To my mind, no genre is better placed than horror to explore the hidden elements of society. At its best it can be deeply insightful, satisfyingly philosophical, and bloody unnerving to boot. What’s not to love? Well as I’ve already said, the element that sees the idea of horror as being all about the gore, or the adolescent shock aspects, but otherwise it’s all good (or bad. Whatever).
In the same vein, I see science fiction as being very much the fiction of this world. By which I mean the middle sphere (yeah, I know Middle-Earth comes under fantasy, smart arse), not just Earth. The entire manifest universe (or universes) is the middle world. Jupiter is part of the middle world in shamanic cosmology just as much as Earth, so is Alpha Centauri. Although the planets and stars are taken as a symbol of the upper world (we’ll get to the heavens and upper world in a minute). All that exists in the physical realm as we understand it is of the middle world in shamanic thought. And I say science fiction is the fiction of the middle world because I see it as about ideas (as is all speculative fiction) explored through the lens of scientific application, even if those ideas venture into the metaphysical. In other words, scientific methodology operates in a philosophically materialist framework; fiction that has as its basis the exploration of ideas, themes, or outcomes utilising the tools or framework of scientific methodology is materialist fiction. Ergo, its middle world fiction. And so, contrary to the ideas of many *waves at Margaret Atwood*, it’s also a kind of realist fiction in my mind.
Which means (I know, big surprise and shit) fantasy must be the fiction of the upper world(s). Mmm. The Jungian types reading this may well (quite legitimately), say, hang on there, fantasy is mythic fiction most often, and myth is the realm of the collective unconscious, archetypes and all that do-dah. I would agree. I’m nodding with you vigorously right now. But, but, BUT… the unconscious is the underworld, right? Isn’t that what you said? Indeed *strokes beard sagely* I did say that. At this point I could explore the way in which the deepest level of the underworld, and the uppermost heaven, wrap around and touch each other (in a purely platonic fashion, you understand – hand-holding at best); a kind of, the deeper inside you go, the further outside you go, thingy. But that’s just going to take us to a whole other level, let’s stick to the basics. Fantasy is in my mind primarily the fiction of myth and archetype. But myth serves principally as moral instruction. When Socrates and Plato got a little irritated with the endless repetition of the various stories about the goings-on among the Greek Gods, and announced, it’s all MYTH – god(s)dammit, they were not, as some thought, saying the Gods are not real. They were, rather like Buddha in relation to the Hindu Gods, saying their reality or non-reality is irrelevant, what is relevant is what we perceive to be true without questioning. What is the source of the stories we are told? And how does that influence our values, our behaviour, our choices, etc. It was about moral instruction, and the questioning or lack therof. It was about the quest for truth. Which is the realm of heaven, of the gods, and of myth. And because of the transcendent universal nature of truth as an absolute (as opposed to relative truth), not limited to the archetypes of Jung’s collective unconscious, but expanded into the realms of the superconscious; an exalted state, enlightenment if you will, which it could be said is the ultimate goal and purpose of (true) moral instruction. All of which again exists in shamanic terms in the upper world, that is to say it is accessed via the upper world, and in fiction terms, in my weird bonce, in the realm of fantasy.
So there you have it. A little strange, I know, but when I look at the three core genres of speculative fiction, I see horror as exploring the hidden psychological underworld, and the fear associated with that; I see sci-fi as exploring the ideas of where our thinking in scientific terms might lead us in this world and beyond, and I see fantasy as exploring the mythic moral landscape. There is in truth a lot more nuance and ifs, buts, wheretofores, whys, and maybes, than this piece would suggest, but by linking the core SF genres to my understanding of the three worlds of shamanic cosmology, I have a kind of shamanic mind map that I use to explore genre.