August 2003

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

"The Horrifying Bones"?

When the most recent Bram Stoker Awards were announced, the first thing I did was cheer for Neil Gaiman's Coraline. Although Neil's story was clearly the most deserving horror Work for Young Readers, I'd been disappointed by the Stoker awards before, so it was nice to see the horror writers validate one of their best and brightest.

And then I looked at the rest of the awards, and saw that, although Tom Piccirilli had deservedly beaten some big names for the Best Novel, right below him was the award that just floored me: Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones won Best First Novel.

Sebold's novel is as much a horror novel as Stephen King's Christine was a book about cars. Sure, there's a ghost in it. But horror is an emotion, not a simple condition (this is part of what distinguishes it from sci-fi and fantasy, and something I addressed in my first column). Defining it isn't easy, but it doesn't take much to figure out that The Lovely Bones isn't horrific. And the members of Horror Writers Association (who give out the Stoker awards) damned well know it.

So, why did Sebold get the award (and why was she--along with the much superior, but still inappropriate, Chuck Palahniuk--also nominated for Best Novel)? Because the HWA has lost sight of the original intent of the Stoker awards. It's not irreversible, but the HWA needs to seriously reconsider their purpose.

A little history here: The Stoker Awards, unlike the Hugo or Edgars, are relatively recent, having first been awarded in 1987. They were created by members of the then-fledgling HWA as a means to recognize the achievements of their peers and to promote and publicize the HWA itself. Some folks, including HWA founder Dean Koontz--and whatever you think of Koontz as a writer, don't lose sight of the fact that he has done more to promote and mentor young horror authors than anyone else alive--were reluctant to institute the awards, as they feared that it would create too much of a sense of competitiveness in a group that was supposed to promote cooperation.

Still, the folks in favor of the awards won out, and for a while, the Stoker awards were a great barometer of the best works in the field. Early winners and nominees for the Best First Novel award included folks like Nancy Collins, J. Michael Straczynski, and Nina Kiriki Hoffman, all of whom have gone on to much greater things. And the main awards honored folks like Joe Lansdale, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, and others. The Stoker winners weren't always without controversy, but there was never much doubt that they were all works of horror.

So, why should one award and one nomination upset me so much?

The Lovely Bones, for those of you living under a rock for the last year, was the It novel last year. It topped the bestseller lists, everyone was talking about it, and Alice Sebold was suddenly the hottest author this side of J.D. Salinger. The novel itself is actually pretty readable (if overrated), and tells the story of how a girl's rape and murder affect her family. What makes it stand out is that the story is told by the ghost of the little girl. Aside from that presence of the supernatural, nothing about the book is horrific (if anything, it's closest to inspirational fiction).

As I said before, this isn't anything that the members of the HWA (those that have read Sebold's novel, at least) aren't aware of. Giving it their Best First Novel strikes me as nothing more than a cynical attempt to "claim" Sebold as a horror writer and try to leech some of her success. They can now rely on web searches for Sebold to turn up the HWA, and (hope that) folks who enjoyed The Lovely Bones (will) try out some other Stoker-Award winning stuff.

It's a foolish plan. Folks who love Sebold still aren't going to want to pick up the latest Bentley Little novel, no matter what. And in the meantime, legitimate horror authors who could have benefited from this award are left out in the cold. No one gains anything from this move, and the HWA loses credibility among their core audience.

There's nothing wrong with recognizing a crossover success (Joyce Carol Oates has won at least one Stoker award, and Sherman Alexie was nominated for "Distances"). But doing so with a cynical eye simply cheapens the other awards given to deserving writers. The awards still have meaning - it takes more than one slip-up to undermine their worth - but the HWA needs to get its act together now. Either the members need to simply vote with a less cynical attitude, or the awards need to be juried. Either way, I hope that next year's Best First Novel award is actually presented to a writer of horror.