Thursday, November 3, 2011

Robert Dunbar, Author of Willy, Guest Blogs On Writing and the Horror Genre

This book is so stupid I can’t even understand it.”

That’s still my all-time favorite “reader” comment – Zen-like in its purity.

Any writer is apt to have a somewhat weird relationship with both the critics and the public. No matter how often (or loudly) we insist that we write for ourselves alone, we’re all of us constantly compelled to find out whether the world has confirmed our talents or not. You know it’s true. The moment we’re alone, we’re forever googling our latest title, and we can pretty much always be spotted flipping through magazines at newsstands. I’ve never known a writer who didn’t succumb … never known a writer who couldn’t be plunged into the blackest despair by a bad review or who wouldn’t feel elated over a good one. It never fails. Reviews are the mirrors in which we constantly check ourselves, however surreptitiously, and the Internet only ramps these inclinations up a notch. Years ago, a writer only heard from the public if someone at a cocktail party happened to recognize you from a television interview or a magazine profile. Now everyone – and I mean everyone – has a platform from which to declaim their opinions.

Sometimes this can be a bit daunting. But the occasional deliciously idiotic attack notwithstanding, I’ve been lucky, and even the negative remarks offer validation of a sort.

Actually, I enjoy the attacks. No, really. They’re so … intense. People have posted warnings that no one should buy my books because I’m “abnormal.” Got to love that. Others have publicly insisted that all my good reviews are evidence of a “conspiracy.” Hang on. It gets worse. And wackier. For weeks, one gentleman at a popular message board kept calling me “retarded,” really working himself up into a state. I’ve never been quite sure what the poor soul meant by this, but the level of discourse spoke volumes.

See what I mean? Validation.

I can’t help but believe that – at least to a certain extent – we are defined by the caliber of the people who hate us. What’s the Churchill quote? Something to the effect, that having enemies only proves that you stand for something. Trust me: there’s never been any shortage of people within the genre who were outraged by my work. Or sometimes just by my existence. Forget the writing. Apparently, even my opinions are radical. When I launched Uninvited Books and announced a goal of “celebrating literary distinction in dark fiction,” you would have thought I’d spit on the flag. Talk about hate mail. Yet all of our releases have garnered the most amazing feedback.

You can peruse some of this at

The reviews for WILLY have been especially stirring, which I wasn’t expecting at all. It’s such an intensely idiosyncratic book. So personal. So complex.

But sometimes these things happen in the strangest way.

I believe I’d pretty much lost faith in WILLY by the time the book came out. There’s a lesson here, I know, about trusting in one’s process, but I’m still struggling to absorb it. (The damndest thing about personal growth is that you never get to stop.) I certainly wasn’t expecting much in the way of support from within the genre and figured horror critics, if they bothered to acknowledge the book at all, would simply blast it for being too subtle. (After all, my primary champions have always been drawn from the ranks of what we used to call the “little and literary” journals.) But the way it worked out, I’ve wound up feeling both chastened and inspired. 

The Press about WILLY:

Still …

You wouldn’t think this needed to be such an issue. Is it so shocking a concept that horror should also be literature? Shouldn’t all works of fiction aspire to reach the highest levels?

Obviously, Henry James thought so. So did Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. For that matter, so did William Faulkner. Scores of authors come to mind, names to conjure with. Extraordinary talents have flourished in the darkness, artists of the caliber and diversity of Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury, Algernon Blackwood and D. H. Lawrence. Consider the works of Franz Kafka or Gustav Meyrink. What are they if not brilliant horror?

So why does the stigma of the L word still exist?

Why has horror devolved into the only genre where the word “literary” is routinely applied in a pejorative sense? I believe this has to do with a reactionary faction who feel empowered to dictate what the genre must be, who would rather see it dead than progressive. They’re the literary equivalent of the Tea Party members of Congress. And can you guess what sort of fiction such people enjoy? Let me give you a hint. It ain’t sophisticated. We’re pretty much talking ZOMBIE SHARK here. And so much of the genre has fallen into the habit of catering exclusively to their tastes. We could argue endlessly about when this happened or why, but what we can’t do is pretend it’s not the case. This mandated mediocrity – what I think of as “the rule of dumb” – has largely driven serious literary practitioners into the arms of noir and suspense and mystery and has had much the same effect on intelligent readers.

Be brave. A few intrepid souls still labor in the horror mines. Peter Straub and Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron and Greg Gifune: such extraordinary talents are like beacons in the darkness. There are so many others. And lately the critics – weary of dross – have begun to appreciate gold again. Gradually, the readers are beginning to find their way back.
As I said, I’ve been lucky, and my luck seems to be holding. With WILLY continuing to attract attention, the new edition of MARTYRS & MONSTERS is already creating an impact of its own. Any writer who claims not to love this sort of thing is lying. In a world where artists perpetually struggle against terrible odds, just knowing that people out there appreciate your work can be all that keeps a writer going. So what if it’s a little weird?

All the best relationships always are …

Robert Dunbar is the author of the novels THE PINES, THE SHORE and WILLY and of the collection MARTYRS & MONSTERS. Find out more about his work at


Shah Wharton said...

What a great post? And I absolutely must look into his books. I hate the superiority of the 'literary' folks - I also have little taste for it. I like the story to move forward and the characters to develop - I'm not into reading the words as art, but as story, insight, action, thrills, emotion. I realise not everyone would agree, but I think my taste is as valuable as those who appreciate the 'Literary' style. It's down to taste not intellect. And although he talks of combining horror with literary, which I'd normally thing I would dislike, I imagine the atmosphere and thrills in horror might actually add meat to the 'art'. I could be terribly wrong mind you. :D X

PS: The linky is now working - my bad this time. :)

Nora B. Peevy said...

I think as more of the judgemental dinosaurs die off, The Canon will slowly change to include more horror and fantasy authors. Colleges have been teaching courses in both for some time now and including reading selections from both in mainstream classes. Our time is coming!

James Everington said...

Great post Robert. I remember derailing an entire university seminar by arguing with someone that Kafka had as much influence on the 'horror' genre as any other. So I can't agree enough with a lot of your points.

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