Highbrow Horror and American Literature

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Halloween is fast approaching, and with it all of our favorite standby nightmares; ghosts, werewolves, witches, vampires, and zombies lurk around the corner, waiting to thrill us with their wickedness. When I was little, I used to regard Halloween with a mixture of apprehension and excitement− apprehension for the inevitable ghost stories that would keep me up at night, and excitement for the candy I could binge eat to pass the sleepless hours. Halloween holds less anticipation for me now. This may be partially because of my increased cynicism and decreased sweet tooth, but is also due in no small part to the fact that those familiar Halloween monsters no longer belong solely to that one October night.

Of course, America has had a long love affair with monsters, and I do not mean to imply that we have only just discovered a penchant for the macabre. But our relationship with the creatures that go bump in the night seems to have developed beyond what it once was. The horror stories of the past have often been limited by their genre. Elvira’s Movie Macabre may have had its fans, but the fact cannot be avoided that it was considered gimmicky and enjoyed only a niche audience.

Blockbusters like the Twilight franchise and 2009’s horror-comedy film Zombieland have proven that monster movies can be more commercially successful than ever before. Furthermore, Twilight’s choice to portray a vampire as its dreamy love interest indicates a new attitude toward the old, recognizable ghouls. Novel-turned-Hollywood film Warm Bodies goes so far as to cast a rotting zombie as its romantic protagonist. It’s almost as if our childhood nightmares are the new “cool kids”.

Besides garnering the commercial success that goes hand in hand with their new popularity, monsters are also breaking through previously strict barriers of genre, attaining in some cases critical acclaim; television shows such as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, which can only be classified as monster stories, have received many accolades, including nominations for various Golden Globe Awards. Even more remarkable than this is the appearance of well-regarded and literarily relevant works of fiction dealing with the monstrous and fantastical.

walking dead zombie

We have been discussing this trend in my 21st Century North American Fiction class, and recently read an article by Joe Fassler published in The Atlantic, entitled “How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction”. In it, Fassler writes:

Discounting a few notable (and unclassifiable) isoladoes like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Don Delillo, our literature unfolded in diners, standard issue automobiles, and the living room […] But now, only eleven years into a new century, American literary culture has undergone a sea change. A group of high-profile literary writers have fled what we call “real-life”− and their numbers are growing. Literature shelves now commonly feature Halloween party staples: Zombies, werewolves, and vampires […]

Fassler’s chosen example of this change in American literature is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, a novel following a survivor of the zombie apocalypse as he and his fellow humans attempt to rebuild. The novel’s status as a piece of literature rather than a piece of valueless entertainment is indicative of our shift in attitude toward monsters.

Fassler seems to believe that our new fondness for “Halloween party staples” is not merely a fad, but promises to be a lasting trend in New American Fiction. Undoubtedly, their popularity has already lasted longer than expected. This leads us to wonder why monsters and their like found their way into the limelight in the first place. What is it about them that fascinates and attracts us?

Perhaps it is has something to do with Fassler’s assertion that literary writers are rejecting “real-life” in favor of the fantastic. Doing so certainly leaves them the possibility of representing the issues they deal with in a more metaphorical way. For example, in his collection entitled Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means, Murali Balaji compiled a series of essays speculating on the reason for our obsession with zombies. His introduction says of zombie apocalypses:

There are social and psychological ramifications as well, particularly as they relate to our fear of Others, insecurities over self-reflection and the deep-seated paranoia over the possibility of an apocalyptic event.

According to Balaji and many of his essayists, the zombie apocalypse becomes something of a metaphor, representing anything from the fright of the destruction of the traditional American family, to tensions felt toward and by the gay community, to fear of the usefulness of a white-collar workforce in the face of economic turmoil. Some of these connections may be a little tenuous, but the general message remains that one can use the fantastic to more creatively address otherwise difficult themes. At the end of his “How Zombies…” article, Fassler articulates a series of points, collected with the help of several fantasy writers, detailing some reasons why what he calls “genre fiction” has gained popularity in recent years. They are as follows:

  1. Our day-to-day lives becoming more science-fictional.
  2. For writers, pop-culture influences are now as important as literary influences.
  3. Literary tastes are increasingly global.
  4. Stories with mythic dimensions are timeless.
  5. Financially− and aesthetically− genre pays.

Michael Chabon, in the introduction to his essay collection, Maps and Legends, argues that the fantastic−monsters, magic and science fiction− is the direction in which American fiction must head. He proffers that this new writing, “haunts the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore. And that is where, if it wants to renew itself in the way the novel has done so often in its long history, the short story must, inevitably go”.

What do you think? What is the reason for our newfound fondness of the fantastic and morbid? Will it really last, or has the monster (and particularly the zombie) fad already played itself out? Is Chabon correct about the next phase of American Literature?

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24 Responses to Highbrow Horror and American Literature

  1. Rod Smith says:

    I’m skeptical about the notion that “highbrow” (which I’d call simply artful fiction in the realistic mode — and which wouldn’t exclude threshold works like BELOVED) has somehow “lost out” to speculative fiction, which from what I’m hearing features zombies with dizzying frequency. But I want to enter the conversation with more information, so I’d like to see a list of four or five zombie-oriented novels which readers believe are written with originality, elegance of strategy and language, compelling characters, resonant suggestiveness and which are in conversation with both the speculative literature of the past and the tradition of the novel. In other words, I’d like to see a list of the best so that I can read them and see the evidence first-hand. Too often the articles I see conflate shock TV with supernatural and zombie elements with the novels, and the water gets muddied at the mouth of the spring.

  2. I can’t speak to good zombie novels, although I’ve been very impressed by the clones, fairies, and pigoons in Ishiguro, Chabon, Atwood, and others. I can say that the undead are very much alive in contemporary poetry: zombieism is a recurring trope in the lit mags, and Pulitzer-prize-winners like Tracy K. Smith are seriously science fictional. I suspect zombies are just the latest fashion in the supernatural and novels take longer to get to press than poems do.

  3. Nick Lehotsky says:

    Zombies, comparatively speaking, are a rather young pop-culture facet: the werewolves, vampires, and Frankenstein’s monsters have gone through reels of film, dozens of novels, (not to mention some comics) and numerous television shows. Romero is arguably the single individual responsible for revolutionizing the zombie as a force of horror, and they’ve taken a little less than 50 years to catch up with those classic creepers. It’s possible that, as a fledging force with which to contend, they’re getting ready to sink their teeth into some juicier pulp.

  4. Chris Gavaler says:

    Here are the major works from two iterations of my Thrilling Tales course (title borrowed from Chabon), plus a lot more I couldn’t fit and/or weren’t American. They span a wide range of “lowbrow” genre fiction, some of which overlap: scifi, fantasy, horror, zombies, superheroes, mystery, vampires, western, romance, post-apocalypse, rapture, time travel, clones, alternate history, crime. But they’re also all (or mostly) considered literary fiction (in the sense of literature of artistic merit, though not domestic realism). Authors like Chabon, Atwood, Fowler, and Link would have additional entries, while ones like Roth, Cunningham, McCarthy, and Alexie wrote only single examples of genre-crossings. These are all from the last twelve years.

    Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
    Zone One, Colson Whitehead
    Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
    Flight, Sherman Alexie
    Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler
    The Final Solution, Michael Chabon
    Zorro, Isabel Allende
    Ana Kai Tangata, Scott Nicolay
    The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
    Fledgling, Octavia Butler
    McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Ed. Michael Chabon
    Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman
    The Road, Cormac McCarthy
    Conjunctions 39, Ed. Peter Straub
    Coraline, Neil Gaiman
    The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem
    A Number, Caryl Churchill
    The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
    Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
    Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
    Tenth of December, George Saunders
    Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Karen Russell
    Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham
    A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
    The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta
    The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan
    Sherburne, R. T. Smith

  5. I can’t really think of a zombie novel–or poem–that would sustain my interest for more than a quick skim. For me, one of the problems here is the conflation of “genre fiction” with “formula fiction.” Most novels (I might venture to say almost all) novels belong to genres. Shakespeare wrote “ghost stories.” For me, the problem with a great deal of literature about monsters and other non-human characters is that they become formulaic or silly in their attempts to prove that they’re doing something “serious” when in fact they’re just retailing the old conventions. Zombies are horrible looking and they eat human flesh. Even if a writer gives a zombie a science-fiction virus or (ick) a heart of gold, the character is still going to have all the signs of the formula: scary, grisly-looking, flesh-eating. It’s probably going to walk a bit oddly (what with those bits and pieces falling off). It’s going to be hard ever to convince me to take that seriously.

    • Kiki Martire says:

      I think Sarah makes an excellent point, especially in light of what Professor Wheeler added, which is that zombieism, as a motif, is simply hard to crack and form into commendable literary fiction because of its stigma amongst the fantastical. Perhaps it is more attainable in shorter doses (both for the reader and the writer), such as in poetry, a medium known for taking on more rogue and diverse subject matter. However, the irony strikes me that zombies receive such an outlier reputation given all of the other fantastical, ridiculous, and horrific story lines accepted as relevant within the literary community; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes to mind, as does the Lord of the Rings saga, and The Road. The argument is that there hasn’t been a well written (well written enough that is) piece of work that stands up to previous successes in fiction, but still stands by a theme considered previously to be low-brow horror such as zombieism. I wonder if there is a sort of snobbery in play here. Does a line exist between the “honorable” apocalyptic/spiritual/magical and the horror/spook/gore that writers and critics feel ought not to be crossed? This is interesting to think about considering the aforementioned linkage between homosexual persecution and zombie narratives. What lines are we afraid to cross in acclaimed fiction?

  6. Chris Gavaler says:

    Sarah, have you read Zone One? It’s definitely “literary” and definitely “zombie,” which I agree is a very hard genre-splice to pull-off, but Whitehead does it. Kelly Link includes a zombie or two in some of her equally impressive short stories. I’m less versed in zombie poetry–though I know Lesley Wheeler has a couple killer ones.

    But I agree with your point that formula fiction is not literary fiction. Any novel that is just reusing old conventions isn’t literary fiction, and that applies to narrative realism too. A work written in the realistic mode that is only rehashing realistic mode conventions scores low on any artful scale. Since, as you said, essentially all works of literature belong to some genre, the presence of any given genre trope says nothing about quality of the specific work. If a story has a sheriff, it’s probably written in the western mode, but that doesn’t mean it’s a formula western. Same goes for witches and zombies and superheroes and clones and werewolves and so on.

    The question that Emma raised (via Fassler) is whether contemporary writers are moving increasingly to the fantastic mode. Novels like Beloved (literary horror) and The Handsmaid Tale (literary speculative fiction) used to be the exception. Now they’re common. Maybe they haven’t usurped narrative realism, but they have taken a pretty big bite out of what used to be its almost exclusive domain.

    (Oh, and I left Lev Grossman’s The Magicians off that list! Another really good literary novel–if you can take witches seriously.)

    • I haven’t read Lesley’s zombie poems, but I definitely will. I have tried Zone One but frankly found it both pretentious and tedious and couldn’t finish. There is no story there, at least not one that engaged me. Morrison and Atwood are great. I contend that Beloved is the greatest American novel of the late twentieth century. I think the fact that what they did was uncommon points to their genius. Their followers, alas, often seem to me derivative.

    • And I do take witches very seriously, as historical victims of theological and political mob mentality (I almost wrote “hysteria” but that word has the same misogynistic roots that the witch-hunts themselves had) . . . and as metaphors.

  7. Chris Gavaler says:

    I have exactly the same opinion of Beloved. And I suppose most literature is going to look pretty second-rate when compared to it. And your point about metaphors seems key too, Sarah. A lot of these recent fabulists seem to be engaging with “lowbrow” tropes not just at the narrative level, but the figurative too–which, like the fantastical, is an oppositional mode to realism.

    In a pleasant coincidence, the new Writer’s Chronicle has an interview with George Saunders that speaks to some of these issues. When asked why he moved from realism to the “surreal” (not quite the right term, I think, but close enough), Saunders said it was to escape Hemmingway’s gestalt while still using his economic style: “Like playing Beethoven on a kazoo,” he said. The “kazoo” is any lowbrow trope (mostly scif for Saunders) which, like zombies, can appear “silly,” and yet can also open some unexpected doors, ones a strict narrative realist can’t access.

    • Wow, kazoos make an ugly noise.

      My problem is that, too often, the figurative is the only thing going on and that plot and characterization suffer. In realism, the characters are human. Humans are complicated, self-contradictory, and unpredictable. They change and grow in infinite ways. That’s just not true for something like zombies. Sure, they can represent American malaise or a fear of technology or a virus out of control, but they are basically one-dimensional, two-dimensional at best. They look disgusting; they eat human flesh. They walk funny. Beyond that, you’re really out of zombie territory. Vampires, likewise, are charming, often sophisticated and attractive. They drink blood. Go too far beyond that, and you don’t have a vampire anymore.

      I agree with the comment below this one that ghosts are a bit different, in that they usually become characters because they are thought to be traces of once-living human beings who often retain the personalities of who they once were. Many people in many cultures have also believed in ghosts, so their history is different. No adult in her right mind believes in actual zombies, or vampires, or werewolves, or such things.

      That said, I know many people are working very hard to prove that these novels have lasting literary merit, and I think everyone has a right to spend her reading and writing time in whatever way seems most profitable at the moment.

  8. boldricke15 says:

    Zombie and monster novels, to me, are beach reads more than anything else. I’m sure there are a few out there that are legitimately entertaining, maybe even well-written, but at the end of the day, I just can’t take them seriously. Zombies are a wholly human creation (not the creatures of old voodoo tales, but the green undead things from “The Walking Dead”), and as such, I can’t take the fear of them or speculation that they might be “real” seriously. Ghost stories can be an entirely different genre; there are many ominous, otherworldly tales that, even though I’m not superstitious, I’m not willing to completely overlook. The trouble comes when authors try to personify these creatures. A phantom in the form of a recurring nightmare, or a flash in your peripheral vision, I can believe, sure; but an actual walking, talking thing that shows up to kill you? That’s just silly. It’s good for shock value, the scary monster that jumps up at you in a movie, but that’s about it.

    • hammerm16 says:

      I could not agree more. I do have trouble overcoming the falsity of zombies and monsters. They are impossible to relate to and they seem to have become a near-parody in some novels. Books like “Twilight” have not served the mythical and monstrous community well, creating an unnatural and unbelievable love affair. Although, I must say, I am not certain if the simplistic writing or the absurdity that has deemed the preposterous monster stories as “beach reads,” but I have a hard time categorizing them as anything else.
      While I do enjoy a good monster, zombie, witch or vampire, I have a hard time aligning them with Huck Finn and the like.

  9. scottr15 says:

    I’ll certainly agree with Liza that most zombie- and monster-related fiction is best relegated to beach reading, but I think that the rising prominence of the genre says something about our society that is worth contemplating. I can’t help but see some correlation between the terrible events of the last decade and the increasing popularity of genre horror. If you look at much of the fiction from the 50s and 60s, you can see a lot of authors and filmmakers express the tensions that accompanied the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust through science fiction that could be surreal in its silliness. And I am not just referring to b-grade film schlocks– this was a recurring theme in the literature of the time as well. Just look at the works of Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Matheson. The Twilight Zone, which I would argue is as “literary” as any program that has ever graced a television, dealt quite often with these fears– whether overtly (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” “The Shelter”) or through more metaphorical narratives (“The Midnight Sun”). Given the bloodiness and tragedies that have so far characterized the new millennium, I would venture that producing and consuming horror fiction serves the same cathartic purposes that drove the science fiction boom of the mid-twentieth century.

    • rod smith says:

      Sometimes I get a good surprise from authors whom I’ve been taking lightly. In the early seventies I read a lot of Vonnegut for easy fun, but when I read SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, I felt Billy Pilgrim was bringing more humanity to the question of war than I was. So it goes. I made room on the shelf and am on my third copy these days.

      Maybe this discussion shouldn’t go much further without someone saying “Joyce C. Oates.” Borders and boundaries and genres are just lines on a map to her and not real territories, or perhaps they are territories, but the tectonic plates are shiftier than we’d wish. When she strays from the naturalistic-realistic mode, she brings her whole tool kit with her. Sometimes she doesn’t have the right size star-head screwdriver, but often she does, so if I see her name along with Zombies or Do-bees or any other sort, I’ll probably give it a go.

  10. Stephanie Rice says:

    I’d agree that many of the monster books out there are far from high art, but it’d be a mistake to dismiss the entire genre on the basis of its worst offerings. Monsters aren’t just monsters. Most of the time they act as a representation of society’s fears – sometimes justified, sometimes not. In George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the shopping mall full of zombies clearly represents consumerism. It acts as a kind of judgment or wake-up call – is that really what we’ve become, creatures mindlessly consuming and shuffling from store to store?

    Even the schlocky HBO show True Blood makes the decision to draw a connection between “outed” vampires and the gay community, and sadly, it’s certainly true that some fear gay people as if they were monsters. (In which case, comparing them to vampires is probably not a great message to send…) Even though the comparison is flawed, it’s still present, and shows the potential that monsters have in fiction. If monsters stood for nothing but themselves, stories about them could hardly be more than mere entertainment. But often they provide an insight into cultural anxieties, and a work that provides perceptive commentary on the world should not be easily dismissed.

  11. Chris Gavaler says:

    Yes, Oates and Vonnegut are perfect examples. I’d add John Cheever to the list too, “The Swimmer” especially. And Pynchon is all about genre mash-ups. This is clearly is not a new phenomenon, though it has spiked in the 21st century–perhaps, as scottr15 implies above, fueled by the post-9/11 context. And the people working very hard to prove that these novels have lasting literary merit would be the Pulitzer prize committee; they’ve crowned Chabon, McCarthy, Diaz, and Egan (Cunningham too, though his androids and aliens came right after his award). Fowler also just won the PEN/Faulkner I think. You can read any of these authors on the beach, but you can’t call them formula fiction.

  12. Anna Kathryn Barnes says:

    I am especially compelled by the question of why fantastical works are popular and, according to this blog post “timeless”. In Professor Smout’s course, Cowboys and Indians, we discussed the typical “cowboys and indians” plot line. One important part of this theme was the general idea that there are always some insiders and others are outsiders. This goes along with some of the ideas mentioned in this blog, especially the possibility that these stories have anti-gay themes and other themes alienating some groups over others. Although these popular culture references change over time, there will always be some differentiation for inside and outside groups. The blog also addresses this idea that now the monsters are becoming the “insiders” or the “cool kids” in popular series like Twilight. These relatable themes may not make the stories high achieving literature, but they certainly make them apply to a changing world and the social structures that most people can relate to.

  13. Grace Haynes says:

    I’m interested in the shift of fiction subject matter towards zombies and other fantastical creatures. Though I see werewolves and monsters as a popular subject in the 20th century, the attention of today’s society towards zombies and vampires strikes me as more of a change in taste of popular culture. Twilight, to me, is the stereotype of young adult fiction and lacks any grit or true substance. Vampires are the new suave hero, and their villainous powers are something that the reader is attracted to rather than fears. Zombies are being molded to fit the taste of popular culture as well, with writers and directors creating the beasts as likable and revered figures. I’d like to see a shift back to the terror. I don’t take the zombie or vampire fad seriously anymore, but I would love to see a the monsters take on a more substantial role in literature through fiction stories of more depth and weight.

    • R.T. Smith says:

      I’m on board with this. Creatures leaking chop suey and walking like fugitives from a beer pong marathon don’t even amuse me, but I can appreciate the occasional truly scary story, which will depend as much upon the ingenuity and wit (in the Renaissance sense) of the writing. The science that I want to see most of in horror and other sorts of speculative fiction is psychology, but maybe that’s the sour residue of my year as a chemical eng major back when the world was young.

  14. hewittc15 says:

    I think only time will reveal where the zombie novel falls on the literary spectrum. So often, it seems to me, a work that was once considered pulp or a leisure read becomes something else as time passes. Zombie novels, and generally all works of speculative fiction, provide snapshots of an America that is uncertain about the future: think global climate change, social security, and all the other very real monsters we’re soon to face. The reassurance comes from knowing what it means to be human (compassionate, moral, aware) versus what is means to be a zombie or some other spook (mindless violence, consume consume consume). Perhaps in the future, zombie novels will live in high school classrooms and college syllabi and academic bookshelves through the value of their historical resonances.
    As for the question of whether monsters and magic will occupy the next phase of American literature, I can’t say anything with certainty. I do know that literature has not completely mined the potential of the fantastic, just as it will never fully plumb the depths of the human condition. There is much to learn between the two.

  15. Elise Petracca says:

    In her novel “The Hundred Year House,” Rebecca Makkai offers an interesting and possible answer to this question. Although this question is raised in the context of ghosts, I think it applies to zombies as well. Through one of her main characters she writes, “We aren’t haunted by the dead, but by the impossible reach of history. By how unknowable these others are to us, how unfathomable we’d be to them.” Another character offers that “…what we’re afraid of isn’t death, but the past.” Zombies not only represent an unknown past, but an unknown future. Writing, in general, gives the author control of another world. Perhaps that is even more profound in the case of something as unreal as zombies, especially when using them as a metaphor for the very real monsters we stand to face, such as the ones Chelsi pointed out. Do zombies offer writers and readers alike a glimpse into the past, and can they, possibly, offer solutions to what we have yet to encounter?

  16. Rod Smith says:

    Well done, good and faithful servants. Are you ready for a little Sherlockian rumination?

  17. Claire Sbardella says:

    Zombie literature is something I have not yet explored. I have, however, read a number of books and short stories by the author Kaitlin R. Kiernan. Her stories cannot be pinned to any one genre either. She often explores the hazy border between madness and actual fantastic reality without ever fully resolving the question. Angels, changelings, demons, and other various eldritch horrors populate her stories. Kiernan’s focus is not so much on her weird reality as much the interaction of the characters within it, and the ensuing psychological weirdness which occurs when the mundane meets the fantastical.
    I believe that it is safe to say that Kiernan’s monsters closely mirror common fears, perhaps her own in particular. Kiernan is a transsexual lesbian, and many of her characters and monsters share the same traits. The ghost that Nikki sees in Murder of Angels is that of her lover whom she abandoned when she learned he wanted a sex change, although Nikki later has two girlfriends. Her confusion, guilt and isolation encapsulated within his haunting portrays very well the sort of feelings which surround this still very heated and sensitive topic. So in this way Kiernan’s monsters also help, in a more straightforward sense than zombies perhaps, to portray society’s more present fears.

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