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The Future of Horror and the next 'Steven' King
By Scott Nicholson

Several years ago, on one of the horror genre message boards, a new writer thundered in like a rhinoceros in an ossuary and proclaimed himself “the future of horror.”

He was met with incredulity, then amusement, but the tone quickly changed when Mr. Future refused to back down. He was finally driven away by other posters on the board when taunts turned hostile. Chickens in a roost will sometimes peck the head of a newly introduced chicken until it learns its place in the pecking order. If the chicken is arrogant or just plain too dumb to learn a lesson, it might literally be hen-pecked to death. In this case, the new writer left the board not with a sense of introspection and humility, but with resentment because his genius had not been immediately worshiped.

I don’t believe this writer has ever published anything of note. He certainly hasn’t become the future of horror, because, as far as I can see, the future hasn’t arrived yet. It’s telling that I can’t even remember his name. For those who believe that getting people to talk about you is the key to publicity, here’s evidence to the contrary.

In stolen moments at work when I browse the Internet, I’ve stumbled across writers who call themselves “the next Steven King.” And, yes, more than once I’ve seen King’s first name misspelled, which is all the proof I need that the aspiring writer in question has not seen the name enough to memorize it. It’s hard enough to be taken seriously when you’re working hard, submitting stories, and slowly building a reputation. There are those who just want to be a “personality” and not a writer, and they dress to some bizarre funereal ideal and wander the halls at conventions. One or two idiots muddy the waters for everyone, because the genre pool is small and shallow. Outsiders might only glance at the pool once in a while. Just as people really do judge a book by its cover, they might judge the entire horror genre by their first encounter with one of its practitioners.

Stephen King, an extraordinary average guy, is linked with scary stuff in the public’s mind. Most horror writers love being compared to King, and invariably a great number of them are, particularly at the beginning of their careers. The sane ones know the praise is merely the kind words of friends and well-meaning reviewers. Others perhaps take the praise to heart and begin to believe their own press releases and message-board proclamations. They suffer visions of King-like popularity and pout when they don’t show up on the bestseller lists.

Sorry, it doesn’t happen that way. Once in a while some New York publishing house announces a new book by an author deemed to be an heir to the King’s throne. Several of these have come and gone between King’s well-publicized but never-serious retirements. King is committed to writing like Michael Jordan is committed to basketball, though hopefully King won’t be reduced to hawking underwear on television. Stephen King will never be replaced simply because he is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon born of talent, will, and circumstance. There is no formula for genius and no guarantee that genius always gets its due.

The future of horror has little to do with the next Stephen King, anyway. King’s books will stay in print at least through the rest of our lifetimes, so we don’t need an imitator. I could make an argument that King has already been replaced by Dan Brown, a modern phenomenon himself whose rise was due as much to a cunning marketing campaign as to storytelling ability. I could also make an argument that the future of horror will not even be found in literature but in video games and movies. King’s initial splash came at a time when mass market paperbacks were exploding as an entertainment choice and King’s books could be found in every grocery store, drug mart, and airport sundry shop in the country. Take away the Internet and it is now harder than ever to find King’s books, even while his influence on popular culture expands daily.

Though a number of new horror writers are emerging (you’ll recognize them by the cover blurbs comparing them to King), they’re not the sole hope of the genre. Particularly since some of the best voices in modern horror are female—Mehitobel Wilson, Charlee Jacob, and the late d.g.k. goldberg, among others. And, besides Shakespeare, Shirley Jackson is probably the greatest horror writer ever. Being compared to King is still a treat but it doesn’t mean readers will care.

I own a decade-old anthology billed as a collection of the “new voices” of horror. There are only a few whose names I recognize and none are being published on any sort of steady professional basis. In fact, I saw one recently billed as—you guessed it—a “hot new writer.” So we can’t count on the rookies to carry the entire load, though certainly a few of the new wave will build admirable careers. They won’t be alone. Prominent mainstream writers such as Chuck Palahniuk, Sharyn McCrumb, Stewart O’Nan, and Greg Iles are not afraid to dip their quills into the supernatural. Old masters like Peter Straub, Bentley Little, and Douglas Clegg seem to reach ever-greater heights, so the death knell for horror is a long way from sounding.

The future of horror, as I see it, is in the writers who continue to push the boundaries. Not just the tedious boundaries of some abstract “extreme” where the writer vomits up viscera and body parts; that has never been what ordinary readers wanted, though they will accept and embrace it if it’s an essential part of a well-told tale. Not the boundaries of hype, where it seems some new and demeaning form of promotion springs forth daily. Not the boundaries of replication, where publishers demand the Next Big Thing that’s exactly like the successful old big thing only different and bigger.

The boundaries I’m talking about are those of the self. The writers who can look inside themselves and tell the truth will succeed. That’s often where the deepest horror is, and the source for engaging stories. We all want to know what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, and what we stand to lose. As readers, we want to learn about the dark and light in our own hearts. Those writers who tell the personal truth will tell their readers the truth about themselves. King excels at it, as do the best writers of every genre.

As they say, “The king is dead—long live the king.”

The same can be said of horror's future.

--copyright 2005 by Scott Nicholson. Originally appeared in Cemetery Dance Weekly, a free newsletter delivered via email. Contact author for reprint permission.

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