When Genres Collide (or Merge, or Melt, or Whatever)

Here come some idle, and quite possibly delusional, musings prompted by a comment from The Exalted Beings of New York (aka the fine folk at Orbit’s US HQ).

Said comment arose in the context of casual discussion about The Edinburgh Dead, my new novel.  It’s historical dark fantasy with a liberal seasoning of crime fiction, horror, urban fantasy, science fiction, gothic thriller etc. etc., and that was kind of the gist of the comment: you’ve got a lot of genres in there, haven’t you, Ruckley?  Care to explain yourself in public?

Why, yes I do.  The Edinburgh Dead is certainly a blend, a bit like that Fusion cuisine that seems to get those with a finer palate than mine so excited.  One alert reviewer has described part of it as being like ‘John Buchan writing from a story idea by Sam Raimi’.  Nothing I’d want to quibble with there.

The whole notion of genres and sub-genres is founded on identifying those characteristics that separate one type of book for another, and I’ve got nothing in particular against that – who doesn’t like to indulge in a bit of hair-splitting when they’ve got time on their hands? – but just now I’m more interested in what they share.  How many of these supposedly distinct genres are pretty much the same under the skin?  I’m no more than 50% raving lunatic – in my own estimation, anyway – so I’m not about to suggest that all genre fictions are skeletally the same, but I’m sufficiently far above 0% to suggest that quite a few of them are … at least as a thought experiment.

Time for an impertinent and wildly generalising example: I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Lee Child’s enormously popular Jack Reacher thrillers (and many similar modern thrillers) are Conan stories.   I can’t really see many substantial structural or thematic or tonal differences between the two.  It’s just that Reacher’s foes have guns, cars and corruption on their side, while Conan’s have swords, horses and magic.  Other than that, they’re like heroic fantasy twins separated at birth and taken to slightly different places to grow up.

The Edinburgh Dead shares several structural characteristics with both of them: a rather solitary, somewhat rootless protagonist with both a propensity and a talent for violence, facing off against larger forces, with the aid of a small group of allies.  The clothes in which the stories are dressed might be radically different, but the underlying form’s pretty similar.  Not by accident, since when I started out writing the thing I quite fancied the idea of plugging some of those familiar heroic fantasy tropes into 19th century historical fiction.  (It only occured to me a bit further down the line that I was, by implication, writing a thriller of sorts too).

As I worked my way through the novel, two more genres started to make their presence known: crime and horror.  They were always meant to be there, but they became more and more enthusiastic participants.  I reckon there’s a certain type of crime fiction that is conceptually very, very close to horror; so much so that I think they’re entirely natural bedfellows.

Both are often about what you might call disruptive intrusion.  In one case it’s the intrusion of crime or sudden violence into the day-to-day world and the lives of its inhabitants; in the other, it’s the intrusion of the malign supernatural.

In both cases, the plot is generally driven by the need to understand and resolve (by – broadly speaking – arrest or exorcism, depending on the genre) that disruptive intrusion, and the reader tends to make the journey of discovery and understanding towards that goal in close lock-step with the main viewpoint character(s).  Often, in both genres, the ultimate cause of all the problems will be found in the past, before the action of the novel even began.  (Some kind of misfortune or abuse creating a monstrous killer in the case of crime, some idiot building a house on a dodgy garveyard in the case of horror.  For example).

Traditionally, the endings of crime and horror novels would tend to have a different tone – crime being a relatively upbeat resolution, through the successful solving of the case and the restoration of some sort of peacable status quo; horror often more downbeat, with any victory being temporary and often at high cost – but a lot of crime fiction nowadays has adopted a more horrific view of the world.

It’s amazing how many contemporary crime series have a decidedly dark world view, with the resolution of any single case presented as a marginal victory in the long, quite possibly losing, struggle against the forces of human evil, and almost invariably achieved only at the cost of damage to the lead detective’s health, mental state, career or family.  That sounds a lot like horror to me.  In fact, I wonder if crime fiction didn’t – coincidentally – start to get horribly dark and disturbing right around the time actual horror novels started to disappear from the bookstore shelves.  (And now that there’s some horror creeping back into the bookstores, a lot of it doesn’t seem nearly as horrific as some of the crime fiction I’ve read recently, but I digress …).

So, we’ve got heroic fantasy = contemporary thriller, crime = horror.  What else can we squash together?  Actually, the next one’s a bit easy and obvious: traditional secondary world fantasy = historical fiction.

Both rely upon the transportation of the reader to a world that is more or less unfamiliar and more or less invented (more invented in the case of fantasy, less – but not necessarily a lot less – in the case of historical fiction).  Both, at their best, feature an unusually and distinctively intimate co-dependence of plot, setting and character, where each of those components relies upon the others in some way for its unique properties; plots play out in ways that are driven by the specific physical, cultural or historical context in which they are located, and characters behave in ways that may not conform to modern norms, but make perfect sense in that same context.

Fantasy readers willingly suspend their disbelief, if the author makes the right creative moves.  Historical fiction readers don’t think they have to, because what they’re reading is founded in truth.  But what they’re reading isn’t really so very dissimilar from a lot of fantasy in its form and appeal.  The Edinburgh Dead is historical fiction of a sort, but it’s also an invitation to explore an unfamiliar world (one I have imagined, albeit on the basis of quite a bit of research) that is both like and unlike the one we live in today: Edinburgh in 1828.

I could ramble on, but if I do I’ll end up trotting out my pet theory that celebrity autobiography and old-school quest fantasy have some similarities in their … wait: that right there will be the moment any meagre shreds of credibility I have go up in a puff of stupid-smoke.

Let’s just say there’s a whole lot of genres that really are close kindred and beloved brethren to one another, and they’ll fit into the same novel together just fine.  I sure hope so, anyway … (cough) (cough) Hey … where’s all that stupid-smoke coming from?