Sigh. It’s that time of the year again and we’re having the same old debate again whether some interlopers are trying to ruin the purity of the genre and gentrify it by writing and reading the wrong sort of books.
The current debate seems to have been sparked by an episode of the Books in the Freezer podcast about cozy horror (which I haven’t listened to yet), which received some pushback on Twitter, and in particular by a recent article on The Mary Sue by Julia Glassman on the cozy horror phenomenon and the backlash against it. Though the term “cozy horror” isn’t new. Here is an article by Jose Cruz from Nightmare Magazine, a horror mag, about cozy horror from 2021 and I’m pretty sure Cruz didn’t invent the term either. The phenomenon is much older anyway. What is now called cozy horror goes back to the ghost stories of the nineteenth century. A genre that – as Jess Nevins pointed out on Twitter – has triggered criticism and backlash for almost two hundred years now. And the reason was that ghost stories were mostly read and written by women. So yup, it’s plain old misogyny.
Okay, I’ll say it: cozy horror began w/19th century women’s ghost stories (dominant form of horror in the 19th century–women authors outnumbered men by more than 2:1), and the backlash against cozy horror now has its roots in the past misogynistic criticism against cozy horror.
— Jess Nevins (@jessnevins) June 10, 2023
ETA: Jess Nevins also has a longer Twitter thread on the subject of cozy horror here – and promptly has some members of the anti-cozy-horror brigade try to fansplain the history of horror fiction to one of the foremost genre historians. I’ve even seen someone try to fansplain Lovecraft to Bobby Derie.
However, currently, most of the backlash seems to focus on Julia Glassman’s article from The Mary Sue rather than on the podcast episode that prompted the article. This criticism is not entirely unjustified, because the article is something of a mess.
Julia Glassman begins by discussing her issues with the horror genre and her problems finding horror she actually enjoys. I certainly sympathise, because I also had problems finding horror I enjoy. Though my problem wasn’t so much that horror was too gross or too scary for me, but that I found much of particularly filmic horror rather silly, sometimes to the point of self-parody. As a result, my attempts to write horror either turned into horror parodies or “Let’s find out was the supernatural entity wants” or both. In fact, I should maybe try to rebrand the Hallowind Cove series (which started out as an attempt to write horror and became a sort of horror parody set in a quirky small town) as cozy horror, since nothing else has worked to help those stories find their market. It was only when I realised that I actually prefer older styles of horror like the sort of thing that would have been found in Weird Tales during its heyday that I figured out how to write horror.
However, horror is a wide field and eventually Julia Glassman found that she enjoys folk horror. Then she explains how she discovered cozy horror, lists some examples and then sums up the debate that broke out on Twitter, when Sadie Hartmann, author of the non-fiction book 101 Horror Books to Read Before You’re Murdered (which would make a good subject for a non-fiction spotlight), linked to the Books in the Freezer episode about cozy horror and also offered some examples. Both Twitter threads are mostly people recommending books and films or asking for recommendations, but apparently there was some blowback, which has since been deleted.
Julia Glassman then continues to wonder why on Earth some people are so offended by the mere existence of cozy horror rather than focussing on genres and subgenres they actually enjoy? It’s a legitimate question. However, plenty of people decided to take issue with the answer Glassman offers.
Julia Glassman notes that for certain horror fans the only metric that counts is how much blood and gore there is and how viscerally terrifying it is. Basically, for some people horror is an endurance contest where he or she who can tolerate the most blood, gore and jump scares wins. Of course, horror is more than just blood, guts and jump scares and both Julia Glassman and Sadie Hartmann link to this 2021 article by Brian J. Showers, which makes exactly that point.
In the paragraph above, I wrote “he or she who can tolerate the most blood, gore and jump scares wins”. However, Julia Glassman points out that the person who reduces horror mainly to the blood, gore and jump scares is more likely to be a he. I’d add that this person is also more likely to be young, because horror is a genre that appeals to the young. Not that there aren’t plenty of older horror fans, but there is a reason that so much horror features bad things happening to teenagers.
So far, Julia Glassman has made mostly reasonable points. However, then she wrote this paragraph which is what caused most of the backlash:
It’s also undeniable that this problem is gendered. Endurance is associated with masculinity, and coziness is associated with femininity. Maybe that supposed femininity is what makes cozy horror feel so threatening to people who consider themselves hardcore horror fans. The cozy horror debate is almost identical to the YA debate: instead of recognizing that genres are fluid and multifaceted, people run screaming from anything associated with teen girls.
Of course, there are plenty of female horror fans – including plenty of women who love reading the hardcore bloods and guts stuff. Indeed, I suspect that the majority of horror readers are probably women, because the majority of readers of almost every fiction genre are women. Women are also the majority of readers of horror’s somewhat more respectable sister genre, the serial killer thriller. So no, female readers don’t shy away from blood and terror. And indeed, plenty of female horror fans showed up on Twitter to point out that they enjoy horror in all its blood-splattered glory. There are also many female horror writers. So in short, claiming that the readers and writers of the darker and bloodier forms of horror are male is nonsense.
However, there is a kernel of truth in that paragraph, because there definitely is an undercurrent of misogyny in the rejection of any genre or subgenre perceived to cater to female readers. You see this in the blanket dismissal of romance, of YA (even though there is a huge variety of YA books out there these days, a lot of people still think it’s all teen romance with a thin paranormal veneer), cozy mysteries, urban fantasy, cozy fantasy (even though some of the best known cozy fantasy writers are men) and now cozy horror. And considering that what is now called cozy horror grew out of the ghost story of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the gothic romance of the 1960s and 1970s as well as paranormal romances, paranormal mysteries and paranormal chick lit, i.e. all genres associated with women, there definitely is a misogynistic element in the backlash against cozy horror, as Jess Nevins points out the tweet embedded above. The fact that several of those dismissing cozy horror are women doesn’t contradict this, because internalised misogyny is a thing.
The initial criticisms of The Mary Sue article and also the more reasoned ones came from within the horror community, but the debate quickly spilled out into the wider genre sphere. And that’s where we started getting seriously bad takes. Coincidentally, that’s also when several names familiar from previous debates popped up.
Raquel S. Benedict, whom regular readers of this blog may remember from the “Squeecore” debate of early 2022, explained why she believes cozy horror is a bad thing in this Twitter thread. In the course of that thread, Benedict also links to an episode of the Rite Gud podcast, which she hosts, where she and her guest Andrew F. Sullivan discuss the supposed gentrification of horror. The Rite Gud episode (transcript here) dates from March, i.e. it predates the current debate, so this is clearly a subject close to Benedict’s heart. Simon McNeil, another name people may remember from last year’s “Squeecore” debate, also weighed in on his blog.
As for why Benedict, McNeil and Sullivan object to the existence of cozy horror, there are several arguments, most of them familiar from previous debates. McNeil’s main point is that he believes that horror should make people uncomfortable and that cozy horror is therefore an oxymoron. He also dismisses several of the examples given in The Mary Sue article, particularly the 2014 animated series Over the Garden Wall, as “children’s media”. Now Over the Garden Wall may well be aimed at children – I haven’t seen it. Besides, as I’ve pointed out above, horror is a genre that appeals to the young. However, there is a certain sneering undertone in the way McNeil dismisses “children’s media” that you often find with a certain type critic, who tend to conflate “I don’t like this” or “I’m not the target audience for this” with “This is YA”, whereby YA is inevitably viewed as a bad thing.
Indeed, I got into an argument on Twitter with a member of the anti-cozy horror brigade (not anybody mentioned above, just some rando, likely young), who responded to a tweet of mine pointing out that while “cozy horror” may be a new label, the phenomenon itself is far from new and listing several examples with “That’s all just YA shit”. Of course, nineteenth and early twentieth century ghost stories, gothic romance and the lighter edge of urban fantasy are not YA and neither are the extremely popular paranormal cozy mysteries, but the tweet is very telling in that for some people, anything they don’t like is automatically assumed to be YA. This is not limited to the anti-cozy-horror brigade, but a far more general phenomenon. SFF with romantic elements is often hit by “That’s just YA” accusations, as if only young people want to read stories about people falling in love.
Both Benedict and McNeil also talk about the gentrification of horror, a metaphor likely inspired a handful of haunted house stories and movies they don’t like. Basically, the worry seems to be that since horror is experiencing a resurgence in popularity following the massive crash of the genre in the 1990s, more writers and bigger publishers will move into horror fiction and that horror will become sanitised and bland. Cozy horror is apparently viewed as a vanguard of this process – the first mainstream coffee shop or wine bar to open in the neighbourhood to run with the gentrification metaphor. Though personally I find the metaphor hugely problematic, because gentrification does untold harm in the real world by displacing and destroying whole neighbourhoods. People writing and publishing books some folks don’t like is in no way comparable to the real world harm done by gentrification.
Never mind that there is absolutely no real evidence that horror is becoming bland and cozy and sanitised. The examples offered are a mixed bag as well and include clueless articles about final girls on mainstream SFF websites, the recent versions of The Haunting of Hill House and Candyman, both of which were inferior to the source material (the new Candyman in particular completely missed the point of the original) and also got very mixed reviews, The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig, which I haven’t read, and two short stories by John Wiswell. However, clueless and shallow articles on genre websites are not exactly a rare phenomenon nor a new trend. Neither are bad remakes of better movies. And while John Wiswell uses horror tropes in his fiction, I wouldn’t call him a horror writer. Instead, he borrows the furniture of the horror genre, the haunted houses and the vampires and mystery portals to nowhere, to tell completely different stories.
The main issue seems to be a worry that writers some people don’t like – Benedict calls them “some of the most toxic, puritanical hacks in SFF” – are moving into horror and that they will turn the horror into “bland sludge”. As for who these toxic puritanical hacks are, they’re the writers who are currently appearing on the Hugo and Nebula ballots. I suspect I might be one of them. So in short, it’s another round of “writers we don’t like are writing books we don’t approve of and are ruining the genre in the process”.
The kernel of truth in this claim is that we have seen more fiction with horror elements appear on the Hugo and Nebula ballots in recent times, both published in explicit horror magazines like Nightmare Magazine or The Dark as well as in more general SFF magazines like Uncanny or Tor.com. However, it’s also notable that many of the authors in question – Sarah Pinsker, T. Kingfisher, John Wiswell, Catherynne M. Valente, Chuck Wendig – have been deploying horror elements in their fiction for a long time now. As for why we are seeing more fiction with horror elements on the Hugo and Nebula ballot these days, a) horror of all types is currently experiencing something of a renaissance following the collapse of the genre in the 1990s, and b) if Hugo and Nebula nominators read more horror and horror-tinged fiction, more of it will wind up on the ballots.
Also, the current generation of Hugo and Nebula voters are more open towards horror, whereas previous generations of voters had strong prejudices against both fantasy and horror. That’s why classic horror movies like the 1958 Hammer version of Dracula or 1976’s Carrie were no awarded, in spite of being very good movies. But they were horror and Hugo voters at the time did not want any horror in their science fiction. That said, the first non-SF story ever to win a Hugo Award, “That Hell-Bound Train” by Robert Bloch in 1959, was a horror story. Nonetheless, there is no great conspiracy here, just a shift in reader tastes and the boundaries between science fiction, fantasy and horror, which were always artificial anyway, gradually becoming more porous again.
As for claiming that some nebulous clique of toxic and puritanical hacks (never mind that the writers in question are all lovely people, at least those I’ve met) is moving into horror for commercial reasons, i.e. to make more money, that’s completely ridiculous. If you want to write solely for money, horror is about the worst genre you could choose, because it’s still a small niche dominated by small presses. Science fiction and fantasy are both bigger markets and for fiction, YA, crime/mystery/thriller and particularly romance are far more lucrative than any flavour of speculative fiction. And the big writing money is in non-fiction and tech writing anyway. So even if horror is more popular these days, it’s not a genre where you will make big money. And indeed, Benedict even says so herself in that Rite Gud episode.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence that “cozy horror” is in the process of overtaking the entire horror genre, because of the currently big and up-and-coming names in horror fiction – Stephen Graham Jones, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Catriona Ward, Gabino Iglesias, Josh Malerman, Chuck Wendig, Christina Henry, V. Castro, Grady Hendrix, Cynthia Pelayo, Alma Katsu, Paul Tremblay, etc… – very few are even remotely what I’d call cozy. And writers borrowing horror tropes to write different kinds of stories has little impact on the horror genre per se.
In general, the fear that horror – and science fiction and fantasy for that matter – are being ruined by big publishers shying away from more extreme material and insisting on happy endings – is just weird. For starters, there is no evidence for any of that happening. Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin, a horror novel that’s popular with the Rite Gud crowd, was published by Tor’s Nightfire imprint, i.e. the biggest publisher of science fiction, fantasy and horror in the English-speaking world.
In response to a tweet by Ellen Datlow (who really should know better) claiming that SF readers no longer want downbeat endings, Camestros Felapton pointed out that the Hugo winners for best short story (as well as the finalists) of the past six years just don’t support this claim. Also, I don’t think anybody should be judged for wanting fiction with happy endings or fiction that is comforting. A lot of people have a lot of shit doing on in their lives and if a reading a romance novel or a cozy witch mystery makes them forget their problems for a little while, then more power to them.
And even if the Big Five Publishers really did suddenly decree that all horror fiction must be cozy and have a happy ending – and there is no sign that this is happening – horror has a robust ecosystem of small presses, which kept the genre alive and afloat during the wilderness years after the 1990s collapse, so other types of horror would still find a home and an audience.
ETA: Nick Mamatas points out in this Twitter thread that complaints about cozy horror and happy endings taking over everything mostly come from outside the horror community, because actual horror writers and readers don’t have a problem with cozy horror or happy endings, even if this is not what they personally prefer to read or write. They are also more familiar with the scope of the horror genre.
So in short, the whole cozy horror debate is very much a tempest in a teacup. What makes the whole debate even more wearying is how depressingly familiar all of the arguments and many of the protagonists are. We’ve seen the same arguments trotted out during last year’s “Squeecore” debate or the Hopepunk debate of 2019 or – coming from the opposite side of the political spectrum – during the puppy wars of 2015/2016 – and approx. fifteen years ago, when YA SFF, urban fantasy and paranormal romance exploded in popularity around the same time and brought new readers and writers into the genre, who were not exactly welcomed with open arms. We’ve seen the very same arguments made by clueless German pop culture critics – who ironically hated horror with a passion – in the 1970s. And if you go back even further, you’ll find similar debates and uproars fought out in the letter pages of magazines and vintage fanzines.
In 2016, I wrote a post about the Three Fractions of Speculative Fiction, three groups of readers and fans with different preferences who have clashed repeatedly over the course of the past hundred years. In the past, most clashes have been between the traditionalist fraction and the anti-nostalgic fraction with the character-driven fraction sitting on the sidelines, but since the turn of the millennium, most conflicts seem to be either the traditionalist (e.g. the puppies and their various offshoots) or the anti-nostalgic fraction going up against the character-driven fraction. And while the traditionalist and the anti-nostalgic fraction will never agree on which books they like, they are usually eerily united in which books and stories they don’t like, namely the ones that are currently winning awards and acclaim. It’s notable that Chuck Wendig is hated by both the Far Right (for daring to put gay people in a Star Wars novel) and the Far Left (for being not radical enough).
In general, the argument boils down to a few points: “There is a new trend in SFF and I don’t like it. There are authors winning awards and I don’t understand why. This new trend is destroying the genre and these new people are all just in it for the money and the accolades, but they’re not real fans, they use the furniture of the genre without understanding it and they are violating the purity of the genre. This new stuff is not even SFFH, but it’s romance, YA or some other inferior form of literature. This means the impending death of the genre.”
In short, it’s all depressingly familiar and I probably should have just ignored this latest flare-up of this ages old argument, but the whole cozy horror debate annoyed me enough to put in my two cents.
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