Today’s Art (6th October 2019)

Well, although I’ll probably spend the next couple of days making photo-based paintings, today’s digitally-edited painting is 1980s-style heavy metal themed painting 🙂

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Practice” By C. A. Brown

Three Differences Between 2010s and 1980s Horror Fiction

Well, since I’m reading a modern horror novel (“The Deep” by Nick Cutter) at the moment and have read both older 1980s horror novels and more modern ones (like Edgar Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” and Sarah Lotz’s “Day Four) recently, I thought that I’d offer a few general observations about how modern horror novels differ from 1980s horror novels.

1) Psychological horror: The popular horror fiction of the 1980s (in Britain at least), mostly consists of ultra-gory splatterpunk fiction, grisly stories about giant animals/monsters etc.. This type of horror fiction is really dramatic, wonderfully cheesy and just generally fun to read, but it often isn’t really that scary. In a lot of ways, this is actually a good thing, since it makes the reader feel more courageous/tough than they actually are.

However, with the exception of the zombie genre (which is the last remnant of classic-style splatterpunk fiction 🙂 ), modern horror fiction has moved away from stylised, fantastical ultra-gruesome tales of the macabre. Yes, modern horror novels do still have grisly moments when required, but the focus often tends to be more on psychological horror.

This is mostly because this type of horror tends to be considerably scarier due to it’s realism. After all, we all have worries, uncertainties etc..

Although this is also something of a move back to the classic traditions of horror fiction (eg: mysterious ghost stories, H.P.Lovecraft etc…), it often tends to have a more irreverent, quirky and/or “realistic” tone to it these days. This lends modern horror novels a level of chilling relatability that more stylised 1980s novels may not have.

This focus on psychological horror also extends to stories about monsters too. For example, both Edgar Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” and Nick Cutter’s “The Deep” both include some kind of mysteriously malevolent antagonist. However, more emphasis is often placed on how the presence of this affects the characters psychologically rather than just on “Boo! A scary monster!“.

Likewise, a lot of the horror in Sarah Lotz’s “Day Four” and Nick Cutter’s “The Deep” comes from the bleak and desolate nature of the settings. In both stories, the characters are cut off from the rest of the world by the sea and this is used to create a lot of realistic suspense and tension. Yes, isolated settings are a traditional feature of the horror genre (and turn up in 1980s novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and “The Skull), but the focus on how this isolation affects the characters is slightly more prominent in modern horror fiction.

So, modern horror fiction often tends to focus more on psychological horror than 1980s horror fiction does.

2) Nostalgia:
Although 1980s horror novels are wonderfully “retro” when read these days, they contain considerably less nostalgia than modern horror fiction does.

In 1980s horror fiction, the world of the novel is often just the “ordinary” world of the 1980s. Although some ’80s horror novels do contain historical flashbacks (eg: Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger” and James Herbert’s “The Jonah), the tone of these segments is often anything but nostalgic.

On the other hand, modern horror fiction tends to focus a lot more on nostalgia. For example, Robert Brockway’s “The Unnoticeables” has lots of atmospheric segments about 1970s New York. Likewise, Edgar Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” is not only set in a vaguely “Twin Peaks”-like version of the early 1990s, but it is also a bit of a homage to the 1960s TV show “Scooby Doo” too.

There are a lot of possible reasons for this. First of all, contrasting the nostalgic warmth of the past with horrific stuff is one way to unsettle readers. Secondly, the past was a less technologically sophisticated time (allowing for the use of classic pre-internet/mobile phone horror tropes).

Thirdly, readers are likely to either have their own nostalgic memories of the 20th century or be curious about this part of history. Fourthly, it’s often a bit of a homage to the historical heyday of the horror genre. Fifthly, it’s kind of fun to see writers doing new things with established horror tropes.

3) Complex protagonists: Whilst the horror fiction of the 1980s did sometimes feature morally-ambiguous, complex and/or flawed protagonists (Strieber’s “The Hunger”, Clive Barker’s “Cabal” and Nancy A. Collins’ “Sunglasses After Dark” spring to mind), they weren’t really as common as they are these days. Often, the main character would just be an ordinary person who heroically stops the world from being overtaken by evil forces (or at least tries to do this).

Following up with my earlier point about psychological horror, modern horror protagonists tend to be a lot more complex, “realistic” and flawed. For example, the main character of Cutter’s “The Deep” is haunted by a terrifying past. The main characters in Sarah Lotz’s “Day Four” are a realistically complex and/or flawed assortment of people. Likewise, the main characters in Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” are a group of misfits whose lives have been ruined by one terrifying week during their youth.

But, why? Simply put, by making the protagonist a bit more conflicted, uncertain or vulnerable, the audience is less likely to assume that they are going to win or survive. It instantly adds extra suspense to a story. Likewise, making the protagonist less “authoritative” or confident also adds an unsettling element of unreliability to the story too.

It’s kind of like the difference between, say, “Resident Evil 3” and “Silent Hill 3“. In one of these horror videogames, your character is a confident and well-armed ex-police officer. In the other, your character is a frightened teenager. One of these games is considerably scarier than the other…

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Possible Reasons Why Paperback Cover Art Was Better In The 1980s

Well, the day before I prepared this article, I happened to discover an absolutely awesome (but slightly hidden) second-hand bookshop in Petersfield. One of the things that amazed me about this shop was the sheer number of 1980s/90s horror and sci-fi books it had 🙂

And, although it might be a few days before I read and review any of these books, I noticed myself buying at least a few 1980s books purely based on the cover art. It didn’t matter if I’d already read them before or if I’d never even heard of the author, their cover art was miles better than anything produced since. Here are a couple of examples:

These are the covers for the 1984 Arrow (UK) edition of Peter Beere’s “Urban Prey” and the 1986 Star Books (UK) edition of Shaun Hutson’s “Relics”.

These are book covers! The cover for “Urban Prey” looks like an awesome mixture of an Iron Maiden album cover and something from “Blade Runner” (and it was published two years before Iron Maiden’s “Somewhere In Time” too). The cover for “Relics” looks like a really cool mixture of a horror movie poster and a heavy metal album cover. They are striking, dramatic, detailed and artistic book covers 🙂

So, why were paperback novel covers so much cooler in the 1980s? Here are a few of my speculations about the topic:

1) Mass entertainment: Although videogames, home video, television and cinema existed during the 1980s, they were either more expensive and/or more primitive. Likewise, options for portable entertainment were much more limited too. Not to mention that, although the Net Book Agreement was still a thing in the UK, books were probably cheaper to buy or borrow than videotapes were.

As such, with less competition from other mediums, paperback books were more of a popular entertainment medium than they are today. Since there were more people reading books, publishers had to make sure that their books stood out on the shelf. And, one way of doing this is with vivid, dramatic cover art that tells a story visually and/or suggests some kind of mystery.

So, because people read more books during the 1980s, there was even more of a reason for publishers to commission eye-catching cover art.

2) No internet: These days, finding out about books and authors just requires a quick internet search. And, if you’ve got one of those trendy smartphones, you can even look up reviews for an unknown book whilst you’re browsing in a bookshop. However, if you don’t have a smartphone, then you have to make judgements about an unknown book based on actually looking at it (and this can lead to finding some real gems 🙂 ).

This is probably one of the reasons why impressive cover art mattered more during the 1980s. After all, if you can’t guarantee that potential readers have heard of an author before, then you need to impress them with cover art. You need to make a cover that makes them want to read more. You need a cover that makes the book look too cool to ignore.

Likewise, the fact that the world wide web didn’t exist in the 1980s also meant that there was no online shopping. Although online shopping is really useful, most book covers are only displayed as small thumbnails on websites. This seems to have led to a design philosophy that focuses more on things like minimalism and/or having just one striking image on the cover.

On the other hand, books from the 1980s were designed to be viewed “full size” on shop shelves. As such, there was more of an incentive for publishers to use detailed artwork on their book covers. After all, the reader is going to be taking a closer look at it, so the quality and level of detail has to be higher.

3) Art materials: Whilst photography (and non-digital image editing) obviously existed during the 1980s, digital image editing tools were very much in their infancy (if they even existed). As such, if a publisher wanted a book cover that depicted a fantastical, historical, futuristic etc… scene, then it was probably much easier and cheaper to hire a painter than it was to stage a photograph.

As such, sci-fi/fantasy/horror book covers from the 1980s were usually produced by professional artists who often used the same traditional materials (eg: oil paint, watercolours, gouache etc…) that famous historical artists used. Yes, they probably also used some later technology (eg: physical airbrushes etc…) too – but novel cover art from this time is still very much “non-digital”.

This gives these old book covers a much more dramatic and timeless quality. Not only that, every artist has their own style, which also gives these covers a bit more personality and uniqueness too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Lessons Writers Can Learn From 1980s Horror Fiction

Ah, 1980s horror fiction 🙂 Although I was somewhat late to the party when I discovered books from this awesome period of literary history in second-hand bookshops and charity shops as a teenager during the early-mid ’00s, I felt like writing about them today.

This is mostly because I’m currently re-reading one of these awesome books (Clive Barker’s 1988 novel “Cabal”) at the moment, and because some of my visits to charity shops in the months before writing this article have shown me that these awesome books seem to have fallen outside the usual 1-30 year delay between new books and charity shops.

Anyway, I digress. So, what can 1980s horror novels teach us about writing?

1) Don’t be afraid to be intelligent: Although 1980s horror novels have something of a reputation for being a “trashy” genre of fiction, they are a lot more descriptive and linguistically sophisticated than you might think. Even though you’ll find that older novels in general tend to have a more extensive and formal vocabulary than popular modern novels do, this is especially true in 1980s horror fiction.

To give you an example, here’s a random description from Clive Barker’s “Cabal”: ‘The sun gleamed on the mausoleums, the sharp shadows flattering their elaboration.‘ This almost sounds like something from a revered 19th century novel, yet it is from a novel that looks like this:

This is the 1989 Fontana (UK) paperback edition of “Cabal”

So, what can this teach us? In addition to showing us how contrasting “beautiful” formal descriptions with scenes of horror can make these scenes more dramatic, it also reminds us that it’s ok to use long words and well-placed formal descriptions. Your readers are smarter than you might think. Remember, these horror novels were “trashy” popular entertainment during the 1980s.

2) Don’t self-censor: At the time of writing this article, I was still in the middle of a longer horror fiction project of mine and I was starting to worry that the scenes of horror were too gruesome. Then, I started re-reading “Cabal” and I realised that what I was writing was actually pretty tame compared to a typical 1980s horror novel. In other words, what I’d described in a couple of sentences or paragraphs, an 80s horror novel would devote at least half a page to.

So, the lesson here is don’t self-censor. Although, thanks to things like slightly less repressive film censorship, modern fiction doesn’t really have the same impetus or reason to be ultra-edgy that it did during the 1980s, it is always important to remember that fiction is one of the most free and open storytelling mediums out there.

In other words, if what you are writing is essential to your story, then keep it in and don’t self-censor. After all, you aren’t making a film or a videogame, you’re writing a story and the written word has more freedom than other storytelling mediums do.

3) Presentation matters: I’ve talked about this before, but one of the many awesome things about 1980s horror novels is the fact that they are works of art. Almost without fail, the cover art will be a wonderful piece of dramatic, high-contrast art that wouldn’t look out of place on a film poster or a heavy metal album cover. Seriously, old horror novel cover from the 1970s-90s (and maybe the early-mid 2000s) just look really cool:

And, yes, the Shaun Hutson cover is a 2000s reprint, but it looks awesome nonetheless.

Likewise, some old horror novels will do cool things like – in many of Shaun Hutson’s novels – including dramatic epigrams featuring everything from historical quotes to (if the publisher can afford it) quotes from heavy metal song lyrics. Likewise, old horror novels from the 1980s will often have really dramatic-sounding titles too, like “The Undead”, “Scorpion”, “Plasmid” etc.. too.

So, yes, although the story itself is the most important thing, presentation also matters too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Benefits Of Setting Your Story In The 1980s And/Or 1990s

Well, since I’m reading a horror/comedy novel set in the early 1990s (“Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero) and because I was also experimenting with a writing project set in the 1980s, I thought that I’d talk about a few of the benefits of setting your story in the 1980s-90s.

1) Phones and the internet: This is a fairly obvious one, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. Although basic mobile phones were starting to become more common during the mid-late 1990s, one of the defining features of these two decades is the fact that the world didn’t revolve around mobile phones, social media etc… This has all sorts of benefits when it comes to storytelling.

The fact that your characters can’t just phone anyone anywhere means that suspenseful scenes become more suspenseful. After all, if your characters are in danger, then they either have to find a phone (of the landline or payphone variety) or come up with some kind of plan. Likewise, it also makes mysteries more mysterious too, since your characters can’t just whip out a smartphone and look online for information. In other words, they actually have to do proper old-fashioned research and investigation.

Plus, although the web was a thing during the 1990s, it was a lot less common and/or developed (it was also a lot slower too, and made this noise when you connected to it). As such, there wasn’t really the kind of mainstream online/social media culture that there is these days.

I could go on for quite a while, but the lack of things like social media, smartphones etc… means that stories set in the 1980s/90s can often have a lot more suspense, personality, nuance etc… than stories set in the modern world.

2) It isn’t that difficult to write: Although you’ll probably have the annoying experience of thinking of an awesome 80s/90s pop culture reference to add to your historical story, only to look online and realise that it refers to something that existed a year or two after when the story takes place, it is easier to write historical stories set in these decades than in other decades.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, even if you don’t actually have any memories of the year that your story is set in, there’s a very good chance that you’ve encountered a lot of things from this time period without even realising it. After all, if you grew up in the 1990s or the 2000s, then films/books/TV shows/music etc… from the 1980s/90s were still fairly recent back then. So, you probably already know more about these decades than you think.

Secondly, these decades are recent enough to still be vaguely similar to our current world. So, if you write a fairly “timeless” story with a few subtle nostalgic details and a little bit of historical awareness (eg: about things like mobile phones, historical events etc..), then it will probably seem reasonably convincing. After all, most novels that are actually from the 1980s and 1990s usually keep their “80s/90s” elements relatively understated, since these things were just ordinary life back then.

Thirdly, there’s no shortage of research material out there. Nostalgia about these decades is fairly popular at the moment, so there’s loads of information about them on the internet. Likewise, things like films from these decades can usually be found fairly easily on DVD too.

3) Comments: Simply put, one of the best ways to comment about the benefits and flaws of the modern world is to tell a story set in the past. Since your readers will be reading it in the present day (and know that you were writing it in the present day), then they are going to compare the historical “world” of your story to the world around them.

And, you can use this to comment about the modern world. For example, showing some of the problems of the 1980s/90s that are less of an issue these days can be a way of making the reader feel better about the modern world. On the other hand, showing some of the awesome parts of the 1980s/90s that we’re in danger of losing these days can be a way of criticising the modern world. Likewise, showing things that haven’t changed at all can also be a way of commenting about the present day too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂