The Horror, the Horror: The Inaugural James Herbert Prize

Spring is here and so are literary awards for genre fiction.  The British Science Fiction Association recently announced their awards at Eastercon, with last year’s winner Ann Leckie picking up the prize again for best novel.  The James Tiptree, Jr. award for science fiction and/or fantasy that best explores our understanding of gender was jointly awarded to Monica Byrne for The Girl in the Road, and Jo Walton for My Real Children.  New kid on the block the Kitschies, ‘the prize for progressive, intelligent, and entertaining literature with a speculative element’, awarded a Red Tentacle for best novel to Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, and a Golden Tentacle for best debut novel to Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine.  Meanwhile, the longstanding Arthur C. Clarke award recently announced its shortlist, while in America the Hugos have, depressingly, become the latest territory for that nation’s ongoing culture wars.  On a more positive note this year also saw the inaugural James Herbert prize for horror writing, something I was pleased to be involved with as a judge on a panel that also included writers Ramsey Campbell and Sarah Pinborough, film journalist Rosie Fletcher, and James Herbert’s daughter Kerry. Herbert’s success in the seventies and eighties with books like The Rats and The Fog help drag horror fiction kicking and screaming into the literary mainstream.  Pan Macmillan and the estate of James Herbert launched the award to celebrate Herbert’s work and to publicise new horror fiction.  The prize is overseen by the Serendip Foundation, who also administer the prestigious Clarke award.  My own involvement came about because I was putting together a research project on literary prizes and happened to interview the director of the award, Tom Hunter, who then asked me if I wanted to help judge the award. The deserving winner was Nick Cutter (AKA Craig Davidson) for his scouts-and-body horror novel The Troop (think of Lord of the Flies rebooted by David Cronenberg and you’ll get the idea).  The ceremony took place on 1 April at the suitably occult House of Magic in South London.  The Troop emerged from a strong shortlist that also included Mike Carey’s zombie schoolkids in The Girl with all the Gifts; Josh Malerman’s dystopian nightmare Bird Box (don’t open your eyes!); Kim Newman’s playful and subversive An English Ghost Story; Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge, which mixed YA fantasy with horror; and Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, an intriguing and ambiguous take on pagan, pastoral horror.  The selection paid tribute to the different strands of Herbert’s own horror fiction, providing a spectrum of affective chills that ran from explicit gore to suggestive dread.  If The Troop recalled Herbert’s early work, such as The Rats and The Fog, then An English Ghost Story echoed later writing such as The Magic Cottage.  This isn’t anything new of course, such a split has been deeply embedded in the history of horror fiction going back to classic Gothic tales of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Shortlist

The Shortlist

Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe’s ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ (1826) was a dialogue on precisely this distinction: ‘Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them’.  Appropriately Radcliffe’s dialogue was from beyond the grave as it was only published posthumously.  Nevertheless, it helps to keep an idea of the two poles – terror as related largely to suspense, horror to sensation – as part of a spectrum with many different shading in between.  In practice of course most of these novels contain elements of both terror and horror, the psychological and the physiological, while the Gothic’s successor in the market place is more simply labelled horror.  More importantly, more than any other genre (apart, perhaps, than pornography) is indisputably an affective genre – it functions to scare its readers.  As the shortlist indicates, it can also do much more often acting as a valve for deep-seated social anxieties.  All of the novels on the shortlist skilfully mixed terror and horror to differing degrees as well as providing commentaries on the contemporary condition. Speaking personally, it was an honour to be involved in choosing the prize.  I’m a big fan of horror, but the opportunity also chimed with the direction of my academic concerns.  My own research has taken a turn toward reception and readers; I’m especially interested in how readers view and use prizes, and in how such awards are covered in mainstream and fan media sites.  Acting as a judge gave me an unrivalled insight into how juried prizes are selected.  Unwritten and unspoken etiquette requires me to maintain a silence about the judges’ discussions.  Despite this omerta I can reveal that decisions involved a lot of alcohol. Prizes are fascinating.  Even if you tend to regard cultural awards as somewhat arbitrary they do perform a valuable purpose for readers.  Living as we do in an age of cultural over-production, prizes often provide valuable reading lists.  In the case of some awards, such as the Clarke, they play a big role in actively defining a particular genre for readers.  Prizes operate along the lines of what James F. English has termed ‘economies of prestige’ – they bestow and consecrate cultural value.  This act is of course never straightforward: hence, for example, the disputes which tail the Booker and Turner prizes every year.  But prizes do play an important function within wider networks of publishing, distribution, and consumption.  For that alone they are worthy of closer academic study, especially prizes for genre fiction which tend to be overlooked.  In the meantime, I’m off to work my way through the shortlist for the Clarkes (and to passive-aggressively berate the judges for failing to select Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming).

Tony Venezia