Writers, publishers and readers talk about genre a lot. It’s how bookshops decide where a book belongs. It’s used to draw up charts, award prizes and produce those “If you liked this book, you might also like…” messages on-line retailers send us.
But how do we define genres?
Pigeon Park Press asked a number of published authors to give a personal account of their chosen genre.
Who are you and why are you qualified to talk about grimdark?
I’m Anna Stephens and my debut novel, Godblind, is considered by many to be in the grimdark sub-genre of fantasy. Grimdark fantasy is often set in a dystopian world where there is a distinct lack of fun or hope. There is very often some sort of war being fought, whether by magic or by inserting metal into flesh with extreme prejudice, and the heroes – or rather, the protagonists as ‘hero’ can be a strong word for the types of people we encounter – are generally just doing their best to survive. They may have lost all faith in the cause for which they’re fighting.
Q:So, it’s just depressing and peopled with savages?
Not really. There’s no doubt that a grimdark universe will focus on some of the darker places people can go – both physically in acts of violence and mentally in their attitudes to the world in which they live. The societies and cultures are often very complex, with systems of government, trade and social systems, much like any other type of fantasy or, indeed, reality. What makes a fantasy grimdark is that these cultural benefits are often subsumed by the horrors of war or the proclivities of the main characters.
Q: Torture. You’re talking about torture. So grimdark is torture-porn for readers?
Not at all. While you’re likely to come across some scenes that make you wince, the emphasis is usually on the characters’ journeys, as it is in any novel. It’s just these characters don’t necessarily have a happy ending or anything much to look forward to. It’s an examination of humanity pushed to the brink; who we become and what we’re capable of when everything seems hopeless and bleak.
Q: So nothing good ever happens?
Oh no, lots of good things happen. In fact, a lot of grimdark is about clinging to the small moments of light and shreds of hope that leaven the darkness. The darker the night, the brighter the stars.
Q: Alright, that’s actually quite interesting. Which other authors beside you should I look out for?
George RR Martin, he of Game of Thrones fame, was one of the first authors to grimdark elements into his work (the Red Wedding, anyone?) so there’s him, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Deborah Wolf, Kameron Hurley, ML Spencer and CS Friedman, to name a few.
Who are you and what is folk horror?
My name is James Brogden, and I write folk horror – at least, that’s what it’s being called now. It’s a peculiarly British subgenre which focuses on the dark side of traditional – usually rural – culture. Think devil-worship in old, thatched cottages; murderous scarecrows; nasty things scuttling in the hedgerows; the brooding presence of pagan elder gods.
Ooh! That Lovecraft bloke!
What type of folk do you write about, then?
Not so much ‘folk’ as in people, more like ‘folklore’ – old stories, traditions, superstitions and domestic rituals passed down from generation to generation. Classic examples might be Arthur Machen’s ‘The Great God Pan’, the works of Dennis Wheatley, or David Pinner’s ‘Ritual’, filmed as ‘The Wicker Man’ (the original version, not the godawful remake). You can see its influences very strongly in ‘The League of Gentlemen’, and it’s also bound up in a certain nostalgia for 70’s film and television, a sense that ‘modern’ horror has become saturated with cheap jump-scares, torture porn, slasher remakes and endless hordes of bloody zombies. In a sense it’s generational – those of us who grew up as kids in the 70s addicted to Hammer horror are now writing the kinds of things we loved then.
Is it anything to do with folk music?
Yes and no. Folk tunes often touch on the same dark themes, and Morris dancing has some pretty weird history behind it, but if you’re asking should the story be read out loud in a nasal whine with a finger stuck in your ear, then no.
So no Ed Sheeran then?
No. No Sheeran, no Lovecraft, and no sodding zombies.
Who are you and what is comic fantasy?
I’m Heide Goody. Comic fantasy? Well that would be fantasy that is funny. Or a funny book that contains fantastical elements. It can be set in an entirely fictional universe, or it might be set in the real world with some minor magical or supernatural adjustments (e.g. dogs can talk or mermaids are real).
So, it’s books you’re talking about, not comics?
It’s anywhere you might find fiction. The word comic just means that there is comedy in there.
Huh. Well that means you could have “comic anything”, surely? What’s special about comic fantasy?
It gained huge popularity because of Terry Pratchett, whose work dominates the genre. In the Discworld series, all of the stories are set in the same world, but he took different elements of the real world (universities, journalism, the coming of the railways) and showed us what they looked like in the Discworld. Writing in a fantasy world means that parody fits very naturally; people love the opportunity to laugh at familiar things presented through a fantasy lens. Other authors to look out for are Robert Rankin, Tom Holt and Christopher Moore. Because humour is so subjective, it can be a slippery label to apply, and the boundaries blur somewhat. Douglas Adams will sometimes be included, but much of his work is SF rather than fantasy. Neil Gaiman makes many lists, but that might be because of his association with Terry Pratchett.
Who are you and what is Steampunk?
I’m Jon Hartless and Steampunk is (usually) reimagining the nineteenth century with anachronistic technology.
You stick some cogs on it and call it Steampunk?
Not at all; for me, trying to be aware of how one change in the timeline could alter history is the key to presenting a believable world, after which I map that starting point onto the themes and issues I want to explore. However, given the sheer variety of people in Steampunk – musicians, writers, cosplayers, crafters, clothes designers etc – it is problematical (to say the least) to claim there is only one way or one approach which is valid.
It sounds like a very broad genre?
It is, and hence you find quite a lot of variation within. Steampunk can feature a world where airships dominate the skies or it could show humanity spreading across the entire solar system in steam-powered rockets.
It sounds as though Steampunk is a little too broad?
Not really; the genre thrives on diversity. It can be horror, fantasy, comedy, romance, erotica, and that is just in the literary side of it.
Ah, but isn’t Steampunk just “fascism for nice people”, in which the true nature of the 19th century – slavery, oppression, exploitation – is simply glossed over and sanitised?
It has come under fire for ignoring reality, but that is a criticism you can aim at almost any genre – and like just about every other genre out there, you can find many different approaches going on; light and frothy, thrilling and adventurous, dark and bleak etc. Besides, Steampunk is alternate reality, so criticising it for not being real is somewhat paradoxical. Reality is merely the starting point; it’s what you actually do with Steampunk that is important.
Who are the big names in Steampunk?
Alan Moore’s earlier League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a good start, though the most common names are probably Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest, with a dash of Robert Rankin for humour.
Who are you and what is historical fantasy?
I’m Tiffani Angus, and historical fantasy is what it says on the box: fantasy set in a historical time and place. But pinning down a clear definition of the type that I work in can be difficult because of the many subgenres placed beneath the generic historical fantasy umbrella and fantasy’s use of secondary worlds that are eerily familiar.
So, it’s like Lord of the Rings?
No, not exactly. Even though LotR is in some ways based on historic times/places, with familiar elements, it’s set in an imaginary, or secondary, world. LotR and its most recent literary descendant Game of Thrones are High Fantasy; other subgenres of historical fantasy include Steampunk, Classical Fantasy, based on Greek and Roman mythology, and Celtic fantasy (such as stories about King Arthur). The historical fantasy I’m interested in closely overlaps with historical fiction that is based in our real world. It’s populated with real historical persons and can feature real historical events.
Oh, it’s alternative history?
Eh, yes but no. A lot of alternative history is based on the premise that thing X did or didn’t happen (such as the Allies winning WWII) and explores how the subsequent timeline would have changed. But then there are some novels, such as Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, that are set in a specific time period and feature real people but with such strong fantasy elements that the history becomes alternative. In some cases, the fantastic element is time travel, which further complicates defining the subgenre. My historical fantasy isn’t so much interested in changing “big” history as in tweaking little bits of it, but the timeline remains.
Who writes this stuff?
A few authors who write a lot in this subgenre include Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu) Tim Powers (On Stranger Tides), and Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series). Other authors who’ve written in this subgenre include Christopher Priest (The Prestige), Connie Willis (Doomsday Book), Catherynne Valente (Deathless), and Elizabeth Hand (Mortal Love)
Who are you and what is Urban Fantasy?
I’m Theresa Derwin and Urban Fantasy is a sub genre of fantasy. It’s often associated with Charles De Lint as one of the earlier players, is a genre also centred in ‘place’. Set predominantly in an urban environment (cities such as London, New York, Chicago for the Chicagoland Vampires series by Chloe Neill or Shreveport for the Sookie Stackhouse series aka True Blood) this genre mingles a contemporary world with elements of fantasy.
Ah, so it’s Harry Potter?
No, it’s broader and often darker than that. For instance, in Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series, Verity Price is an internationally ranked ballroom dancer who happens to have another – discreet job. Kicking arse with elegant spins and protecting the cryptids (or supernatural creatures) of Manhattan. These can range from the Aeslin mice who live in her closet and worship her family as deities, ogres, dragons, fae, werewolves or Sasquatch- and that’s just for starters.
So, it’s just modern stories with monsters in?
Well, the different directions it can take however is the ‘in or out’ game; supernaturals are either known to the world and are coming out, such as in the Charlaine Harris worlds, or they are a deeply hidden secret with only a select population ‘in the know’. Best examples of this are the SPI Files books by Lisa Shearin, or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Place is central to the tone of urban fantasy; as is adventure, quite often romance, and strong female leads.
No room for Harry Potter?
Despite preconceptions there’s plenty of room for the boys. Harry Dresden – the wizard in Butcher’s books, is kind of like an adult Harry Potter with attitude. Urban Fantasy male authors suffer the same prejudices experienced by female horror writers; their existence is either disregarded or not known of.
Who are you and what is literary fiction?
William Thirsk-Gaskill. Literary fiction is any fiction which is not genre, and not written entirely to make money.
So is The War of the Worlds not literary fiction, because it’s genre?
It is more complicated than that. If you believe TWOTW is actually about Martians, then it is science fiction, and hence not literary fiction. If you think, as I do, that it is an allegory for what was about to happen in World War One, and that the Martians are a metaphor for human agents from other countries, then it is, arguably, literary fiction. In this case, it is also one of the most prescient books of the modern era.
That’s vague. It sounds as if anything you think is good could be literary fiction. Say what it is, rather than what it is not.
I won’t bother to repeat the basic, Aristotelian rules of narrative. I would say that literary fiction examines characters in more minute detail than any other genre. I accept unreservedly that other genres draw out character, but if your narrative has first to construct, say, a penal colony on one of the moons of Saturn, then it will be more about the setting, and the technology which supports it, rather than the characters.
But a harsh environment like a moon of Saturn will test the characters to their limit.
Yes. But a suburban sitting room can also test characters to their limit. And if I am going to create a suburban situation which tests characters to their limit, that will test me as a writer.
The best contemporary literary fiction also uses as few words as possible – no whole paragraphs of description of what somebody is wearing, unless such description is vital to the narrative, as it is in American Psycho. It tells the reader what is happening, what the protagonist sees, hears, says, and does, but it delegates the task of working out why all this is happening to the reader. In that sense, literary fiction owes part of its living to increased access to education.
Who would you say are the main exponents of the genre?
I can only give a highly selective answer. Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Muriel Spark, and Toni Morrison. I could give you at least five others sets of five. Arguably the greatest influence on my own work is Dorothy L. Sayers, a crime writer, but my point is that her novels are not just about solving crime: they have character development and social commentary and can be appreciated for those things alone, if the reader prefers.
But most of those are dead, and Toni Morrison is getting on a bit. What about some contemporary names?
I have a collection of short fiction coming out later this year, from Stairwell Books. It is called Something I Need To Tell You. I’ll give you the name of a website that sells books from a collection of independent publishers, and you can look at them for yourself. www.inpressbooks.co.uk
Historical Horror Fiction
Who are you and what exactly is historical horror fiction?
Hi, my name is Dean M Drinkel; I’m a UK / France based award winning writer and director. Horror is where it all began for me but over the last couple of years ‘history’ has played a bigger part in my creative life (which is good as I double majored in American History / History at University – I wrote my thesis about the Salem Witches. I was convinced they were witches, the people who marked my work, weren’t.)
Can you tell us some more then about the historical aspect of your work?
Sure, about three or so years ago I was invited to contribute a story to an anthology (FEAR THE REAPER – Crystal Lake) and I wanted to write a story about a character I had used in a couple of tales set in Paris, in modern times; however, I thought it would be fun to write something about the past so set it in 19th Century, Vienna. I soon got the bug and I compiled / edited an anthology for Lycopolis Press about the Titanic and then for Alchemy Press in memoriam to World War One. In 2016 I moved to Cannes, France to co-write a historical feature film script (with the French writer, Romain Collier) about the son of Napoleon entitled “The Tragedy Of The Duke Of Reichstadt” which then won two screenplay awards at the Monaco International Film Festival and which should see production (as a tv series rather than a film) later this year. During that time I also wrote a (recent) historical based novella which formed part of the Exaggerated Press’ anthology DARKER BATTLEFIELDS.
Is there a market for this sort of thing?
In terms of our script yes – you want to see the cast we have attached, it is mind-blowing that everyone we approached said yes and there are some big European names there. History in literature always seem to sell, I mean look there is Ken Follett, Hilary Mantel, Amor Towles, Umberto Eco, Philippa Gregory and William Shakespeare to name but six. In terms of historical / horror you definitely see that a lot in the cinema and in terms of literature writers who have worked ‘history’ into their work can include Kim Newman, Lucius Shepard, Philip K. Dick, F.G. Cottam, Guy N. Smith and of course Christopher Fowler with his Bryant & May series of books.
Are you going to continue to write in the historical horror genre?
Yes, I am right now working on a new novella for our follow up to DARKER BATTLEFIELDS – we have all been tasked with writing WW1 stories which should see publication during the fall of 2018. From a script point of view, with the 200 years anniversary of Napoleon’s death coming up that seems too good an opportunity to miss, my co-writer and I were looking at a very unique and ‘modern’ way of telling Bonaparte’s story…so watch this space!
Anna Stephens is the author of the grimdark debut fantasy novel Godblind, first in the Godblind trilogy published by Harper Voyager in the UK and Commonwealth. It has also been published in North America and France, with forthcoming publications in Germany, Poland, Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Book 2 is out Summer 2018. An Open University Literature graduate and a second dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, Anna loves all things speculative, heavy metal music and the screams of her enemies.
James Brogden is a part-time Australian who grew up in Tasmania and now lives with his wife and two daughters in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where he teaches English. His horror and fantasy stories have appeared in various periodicals and anthologies ranging from The Big Issue to the British Fantasy Society Award-winning Alchemy Press. He is the author of the novels Hekla’s Children, The Narrows, Tourmaline, The Realt and the short story collection Evocations. His new novel The Hollow Tree will be published by Titan in March 2018. Blogging occurs infrequently at jamesbrogden.blogspot.co.uk, and tweeting at @skippybe.
Heide Goody said her co-writer, Iain, could write this bio bit. She didn’t say it had to be true. Heide was born in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire in 1953 but not fully assembled until 2012 as part of the London Olympic Games closing ceremony. She is only four inches tall and worked as freelance security for woodland creatures. She became a writer after being hospitalised by some very vicious shrews. Iain and Heide have been writing together for 6 years. Iain writes the nouns. Heide puts the verbs in. Her favourite verbs appear in this book.
Jon Hartless was born in the 1970s and has spent much of his life in the Midlands and Worcestershire. His latest novel, Full Throttle, a steampunk motor racing adventure examining the gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, appeared with Accent Press in August 2017.
Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader of MA Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. A graduate of Clarion, she has published short fiction in a variety of genres (historical fantasy, fantasy, SF, horror, and erotica). Her current research includes gardens in fantasy fiction and women in apocalyptic fiction. Find her at tiffani-angus.com and @tiffaniangus
HWA member Theresa Derwin writes SF, Urban Fantasy & Horror and has over thirty anthology acceptances. One coming soon is ‘Below the Stairs’ with Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker. She writes book reviews at her site www.terror-tree.co.uk. She’s had three collections published: ‘Monsters Anonymous’ (currently reworking), ‘Season’s Creepings’ and ‘Wolf at The Door’. She edited Weird Ales 2016, creating vol 2 and 3 in 2017. Forthcoming books are ‘Once Upon a Feather’ then ‘God’s Vengeance’ from Crystal Lake Publishing. In 2018 she commences a study of #WomeninHorror. Twitter @BarbarellaFem
William Thirsk Gaskill was born in Leeds in 1967. He studied chemistry at the University of Liverpool, where he contributed to a fanzine called Dregs. He began writing seriously in 2010, after completing a diploma with the Open University. William appears regularly on the West Yorkshire spoken word circuit. William and his wife, Valerie Anderson, appeared together in the 2017 Wakefield Litfest, under the title Welcome To The Mad. His debut short fiction collection, Something I Need To Tell You, from Stairwell Books, comes out in 2018.
Ambitious, Dean M Drinkel is a published author, editor, award winning script-writer and film director. He has over thirty credits to his name in the field of genre writing (including short stories, collections, novellas, anthologies); has written and directed fifteen theatrical plays in London and South East of England. In 2016 Dean moved to Cannes, France to write a script with Romain Collier which was to become entitled “The Tragedy Of The Duke of Reichstadt”. This won two screenplay awards (Best Historical Drama / Best Independent Spirit) at the Monaco International Film Festival. In 2017 Dean directed the short film “15” for Midas Light Films and in April 2018 will direct (also for MLF) “Echoes of Mine” based on his own script. Dean will be following this with “The Lake” – an historical short film about the Empress Eugenie and a young piano-tuner to be shot in Chislehurst, Kent at their former home – Camden Place. Dean has won five awards (thus far) for his script-writing and was runner-up for the 2001 Sir Peter Ustinov Screenwriting Award (International Emmys) – for his script “Ghosts”.