Currently I’m enjoying the pleasure of reading The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2013 Edition from Prime Books, prior to reviewing it (of which more anon). And coincidentally, it comes concurrently with an article that delves into what’s wrong with the genre, courtesy of its eminence noir, Stephen King, who just happens to have been born on September 21st, 1947.

Stephen KingAnd King is not happy with his peers. In his interview with The Guardian, he calls: “Twilight and books like it tweenager porn. They’re really not about vampires and werewolves. They’re about how the love of a girl can turn a bad boy good.”

He continues: “I read Twilight and didn’t feel any urge to go on with her. I read The Hunger Games and didn’t feel an urge to go oon … a golden age of horror? I wouldn’t say it is. I can’t think of any books right now that would be comparable to The Exorcist.”

Other critics haven’t been kind to King, mind. In a rather throwaway feature from The Guardian that seems chiefly concerned to flay horror for its non-PC credentials, Stuart Kelly complains that King: “regularly fails to nail the dismount.” But the same critic seems completely unaware of the existence of, for instance, Thomas Ligotti, widely held to be one of the genre’s most distinguished ever social critics as well as prose stylists (both qualities quite possibly despite himself).

I think the real problem with modern horror is Stephen King. He’s the one who made the genre into bestseller material, spawning both imitators and expectations. He’s grown into a very American type of monster, just like another King – Elvis – inflated by success and money to outsize proportions, leaving his footprints everywhere, trampling all else in his path. His work rate is phenomenal, but his whole oeuvre begins to look a little … bloated? And the chippy small-town boy made good persona that he’s never outgrown looks a little grotesque on such a Goliath. It explains a lot about his broad appeal – and his limitations. What chance of the cultural sophistication or emotional maturity needed to really take horror out of the ghetto when the great golem walks its walls? It probably also explains why some writers like Stuart Kelly seem to feel entitled to criticize all of modern horror without having read any beyond King.

Nina Allan, in a response to Kelly’s post, warned that too many current me-too writers were “threatening to make horror a laughing stock.” She cited: “recurring themes, a certain repetitiveness, a certain lack of freshness in approach that made me begin to worry that maybe horror was all used up.” For me, writers like Ligotti, or Robert Aickman in the UK, let alone the many examples she cites, underline the fact that it’s very possible to write horror that works as horror while also working as literature, psychological exploration, critique of modern life (or of human life, full stop), whatever. And that does something new. You probably want to start by writing nothing like Stephen King.