All the literati are scratching their heads at the multitudes of supernatural creatures that have invaded the literary world of late. Last week it was The Atlantic, which took a good hard look at some folks who crossed a culture divide and wrote literary fantastical fiction, spurred into action by the new Colson Whitehead novel Zone One, which is about zombies. Recently author Lev Grossman was asked why Fantasy novels are so popular, and his response was basically, “why is realism so popular?” Fantasy literature has been a part of our heritage forever, and there’s nothing saying that fantasy literature is somehow less deserving of literary merit. Would anyone deny that The Lord of the Rings is a classic? (And have I mentioned how much I love Lev Grossman’s work?) This week it’s Warren Adler in the Huffington Post lamenting people’s choice to go down the road of “childhood literature,” instead the more edifying works of cultured people. Adler’s big question is “why are we seeing all of these monster stories, and what does this mean for our culture?” He asks at the end why are people gobbling this stuff up?
I’ll tell you Mr. Adler. Let’s take a little walk to a magical place called the 80’s.
I grew up in the 1980’s, and I was very deeply entrenched in pop movie culture. My family let me watch absolutely everything that came through our cable television and they took me to movies all the time, sometimes just buying me a ticket and dropping me off at some R rated thing that they didn’t want to see. Now, don’t go judging my parents. I was a creepy kid, and it was a lot of fun for me. Just like it was fun for Warren Adler to go see his serial pictures at the theater. During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s there was a huge surge in popularity in horror films, most all of them slasher movies. First it was 1978 with Halloween that gave us Michael Myers, then 1980 with Friday the 13th that brought out Jason Voorhees, then 1984 with Nightmare on Elm Street that gave us Freddy Kruger. These characters became the staple of an entire generation of sequel films that raked in millions (probably billions combined) in the box office. This was the brain candy of my generation, the monsters in our closet as well as in our dreams. We lived to be scared.
When we weren’t at the movies we were reading horror novels and comic books. I had to read Charles Dickens in middle school, but when I wasn’t reading Great Expectations for school I was reading The Shining by Stephen King, Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, and The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker. These works sat side by side for me growing up, and I saw little distinction. Macbeth is just as dripping with blood and gore and witchcraft as any of the things cooked up by the horror novelists of the 80’s. Though to be perfectly honest Dickens bored the life out of me. I tried A Tale of Two Cities twice, and couldn’t bear it.
But let’s talk about comic books for a minute here. Because this is where things get really interesting. In the early 1980’s DC Comics had a story line running called Swamp Thing. You may have seen the film with Adrienne Barbeau. Wait, no, you probably haven’t. Anyway, in 1982 a British writer named Alan Moore took over the series and he did something incredible with it. He brought comic books into the realm of high literature. Now, DC did something incredibly radical as a result of this shift. They decided for that series that they were going to abandon the Comics Code Authority, which had basically meant that these works were morally safe for young readers, and instead write a story for adults. The Swamp Thing was a ridiculous creature from a laboratory experiment in the early days of the series. In the hands of Alan Moore this creature became a physical embodiment of nature, in the company of the mythical Green Man and Robin Goodfellow. He was one of an unbroken lineage of mythological characters that resonated throughout time. This nothing, throw-away horror comic became a literary masterpiece. He went on to write some of the most transformative and imaginative pieces of literature in the world of comics including The Watchmen, a scathing psychological profile of superheroes as a people and a genre, and V for Vendetta, an homage to British Anarchism and scathing critique of the burgeoning police state. With work like this coming down the line in the land of comics its no wonder that people who succeeded Moore at the DC Comics Vertigo line, like Neil Gaiman, continued to make the connection between the world of canonical western literature and the world of comics.
In the 1980’s comics grew up. They found a vein in the rich literary tradition of the past and aspired to new heights. I believe what we’re seeing now with this resurgence of horror novels and mythical creatures is a turning point for them as well. There will always be the popular fiction churning out book after book, with whatever sells. Then there will be those moments where someone pulls from the bag of monsters, and mixes it with master strokes of literature to create something more. That’s why we’re seeing people like Justin Cronin and Colson Whitehead writing monster stories. Whitehead’s influences are a lot like mine. The fodder for new stories comes from the works of the past, and the things we read and watch as young people shape our interests as adults. For people who grew up immersed in monsters, and loving it, it’s no wonder that we see more of them today. Does that mean literary fiction is in a crisis? I don’t think so. The next book after I read the first printed edition of Amanda Hocking’s novel Switched is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I think the Trojan War is always a good start for a literary classic. Then again, I’ve got a penchant for the classics. Not everyone does. And that’s okay.