October 2004

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

The Anne Rice Problem

If you've somehow missed it, Anne Rice recently lost what little grip she had on reality, entering her own response to the negative Amazon reviews of Blood Canticle with a nearly-incomprehensible screed boasting of her ability to rise above "denigrating and trivializing criticism as I realize my dreams and my goals." It would be easy to pick her rant apart (starting with the very legitimate question of whether her goals include killing trees, ignoring plot, and writing the least erotic books this side of the Yellow Pages). But easy targets, fun as they can be, are boring. What's more interesting is what caused Rice's ire in the first place -- the complaints, by folks who actually liked some of Rice's earlier books, that the Vampire Chronicles series had gone downhill.

Granted, Rice didn't exactly have much of a shark to jump (calling it a minnow would be generous), but her series of vampirerotica has, it seems, finally run out of steam, even amongst the faithful. And it's a sign of a bigger problem that horror's been dealing with for decades: few series of horror novels have legs.

It's not that there can't be decent sequel or two (Laymon's Beast House books got better with time), but few horror series manage more than three books without suffering. Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake books, once some of the most engaging new works of horror fiction, have turned into muddled messes of bad sex and worse editing in a wish-fulfillment environment resembling a "Mary Sue" fanfic. Tanya Huff's Vicky Nelson books managed five damned fine books and a "retirement" that made them pleasant memories until Huff revisited her old characters in the surprisingly underwhelming Smoke and Shadows. Fred Saberhagen's classic The Dracula Tape was a truly groundbreaking look at Dracula thirty years ago; since then, he's added eight books to that series, with none of the originality of the first couple of novels in the series (and, although it's not part of a series, it's hard to mention Saberhagen without pointing out that he wrote the novelization of the movie Bram Stoker's Dracula, which will sure see him one pit away from Frances Ford Coppola in Hell someday). And the list goes on, from Brian Lumley's progressively more ridiculous Necroscope books to the two most recent (and amazingly weak) Sonja Blue novels (although Collins, at least, seems to have recognized that her series has run the course).

But wait! Shlocky series are the rule in all genres, right? It's not like horror is filled with titles like L is for Lycanthropy or The Cat Who Was Possessed by a Demon and Ate My Child. But while mystery might be filled with series that gradually decline (Janet Evanovich comes to mind), it's practically defined by authors like Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Erle Stanley Gardner, all of whom paved the way for authors like Walter Mosley, Tony Hillerman, and Andrew Vachss. Over on the science fiction side, authors like Lois McMaster Bujold and Kage Baker have only gotten better with time, and fantasy, of course, has its roots firmly planted in Tolkein's original trilogy (currently expanded to about seventy books courtesy of son/literary whore Christopher). So if the other genres can manage A-list series, why can't horror?

First, there's the escalation factor. Necroscope is still one of the best horror novels published. Along with Dan Simmons's Carrion Comfort, it helped redefine the concept of a "vampire" as a threat to the world as a whole instead of merely a monster who could kill you. Combining Cold War spy intrigue with truly alien vampiric threats, the novel thrusts Harry Keogh, the titular Necroscope, and his compatriots into a nightmarish situation, and the true monstrosity of the vampires is incredibly well-detailed. But once you've created (and defeated) a threat to the world, what next? Lumley ramped up the vampiric threats pretty nicely over the second and third books, but he soon found himself in something of a corner, as each threat had to top the last one. Soon we had an entire world of vampires, then we had the next generation of Necroscopes, and eventually, the series simply spun out of control.

That's not all Lumley's fault. The genre itself tends to demand some sort of escalation. No one's going to complain if Evanovich's Stephanie Plum captures a bail-jumping murderer in one book, and a thief in the next. Hell, no one minded that Sherlock Holmes simply took one intriguing mystery after the other. Other genres are free to focus on character development, or an intriguing but "small" mystery. Horror, at its core, is about creating a sense of unease (whether by scaring or merely disturbing the reader). And when something has accomplished that once, it's not likely to do so again. So after the first book's mummy or werewolf, the next book needs to pull out a zombie or a ghost to avoid readers yawning and putting the book back on the shelf (Huff pulled this off nicely in the early Vicki Nelson novels).

Of course, horror is susceptible to the same pitfalls that have plagued other genres. Just as many a mystery author eventually starts phoning it in, it's hard to believe that talented writers like Saberhagen and Huff simply didn't keep writing the characters long after they'd run out of truly good ideas for them. If either of them (or Lumley) had simply stopped their series early enough, they'd be remembered as great series, not ones that had overstayed their welcome. Other writers unquestionably try hard, but seem to lose themselves too much in their worlds, never stepping back from their work long enough to see if the plot actually makes any sense. Hamilton's firmly in this camp, as her books have devolved so far that they're merely 300-page masturbation fantasies, with only enough character development and plot to move from one money shot to the next. There's no question that she spends time thinking about the book; it's just hard to imagine that she's actually spends any time on the plot.

(Needless to say, editors bear a huge amount of responsibility here, as they could easily nip this in the bud. Likewise, those of you who buy the latest Hamilton or Rice novel "because I've bought the last ten, and she might be getting good again" deserve every wasted moment spent reading those books.)

Another factor, of course, is that horror, by its nature, doesn't always allow for series. A successful science-fiction or fantasy novel, even if intended as a one-shot, often involves a lot of world-building, and turning a successful one into a series doesn't take a lot of work. Likewise, a successful mystery or crime novel usually provides a heroic character who can continue to solve crimes in future novels. But horror novels, of course, often end with most of the protagonists dead or otherwise unlikely to continue to face the supernatural. Thus, Shirley Jackson didn't exactly hurry out there to write The Haunting of Hill House 2.

Are there exceptions? A precious few come to mind. I'm probably in the minority, but I enjoyed Hannibal, the third Thomas Harris horror tome, nearly as much as Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. I've mentioned Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire series here before, as well as Kim Newman's Anno Dracula books. All remain worth reading. Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins books are also delightful, even if they're hard to come by in the US. But Rickman and Thomas Harris both are essentially merging horror with other genres, with Harris writing thrillers and Rickman mysteries. Charlaine Harris, too, entered the horror field having previously (and concurrently) been a mystery writer.

There's nothing wrong with bringing a mystery writer's sensibility to the genre, but it would be nice to see more original voices figure out a way to actually write a series of great horror novels that didn't have to borrow another genre's framework. And it'll happen. Newman's proof that it can be done, and if Huff hadn't picked up the Vicky Nelson characters again, she'd have accomplished it as well. But I'd rather see a horror writer write ten standalone books that are worthwhile than see a previously good concept get milked to death.