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June 2000
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Editorial - June 2000
by Gordon Van Gelder

Now that we're into an election year and the primaries are under way, I thought I should trot out my pet theory about genre fiction. Some of you have already heard me discuss it at conventions or read it before in the online magazine Hellnotes, but it needs a bit of exercise every couple of years or so. Like most such theories, it oversimplifies matters, but I like to think it has a modicum of truth to it:
In popular fiction and in film, the horror genre thrives when Republicans are in the White House, while mysteries thrive when Democrats are in office.
I've seen ample evidence for this theory during the past two decades---horror boomed and mysteries cowered while Ronald Reagan was President, but mysteries have prospered since President Clinton's first month in office while horror has been the toughest genre to sell.

From what I can tell, the pattern roughly applies across the years---from the concurrence of Nixon with The Exorcist, past Kennedy's fondness for Ian Fleming's spy novels, through the paranoid horrors of Eisenhower's era, and back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose own interest in mysteries sparked careers in much the same way that Bill Clinton boosted the sales of Walter Mosley's and Michael Connelly's books.

Of course there are examples to the contrary (Rosemary's Baby came out during LBJ's term, etc., etc.), but bear with me and suppose there's something to this pattern. So? What does this trend say?

Near as I can figure, mystery and horror fiction both address social and domestic ills. If society had no crime and no problems, we'd have no fiction of this sort. (Recall Plato's Republic had no artists.) But the difference is that mysteries suggest that someone is listening---that someone cares about these ills and is investigating their roots---while horror tends to serve more as a shriek of despair. When nobody is paying attention, you have to shout.

Or to put it another way, horror tends to show what's behind the fa‡ade.

Republican administrations characteristically don't address social issues as generously as Democrats do, and consequently horror fiction tends to become a more vital mode of expression during those years. In Geoff Ryman's 1992 novel Was, there's a perceptive observation (made by an actor who portrays a Freddy Krueger-like character) that the only genres that would deal with family issues were situation comedies and horror.

I've been trying for several years to discern a paradigm of this sort that applies to science fiction, but thus far any such theory has eluded me. Sf's popularity seems to be linked more strongly to the technology of the times than it is to the politics. Films like Independence Day and Star Wars would not have fared so well commercially if they'd appeared in the midst of an anti-technology movement. (David Skal suggested in his book Screams of Reason that sf is connected to faith in the American government, but I think there's more to it. Personally, I'd love to see someone analyze the 1977 appearance of Star Wars---desert planets, hot-rod spaceships, and all---in light of U.S. relations with the Middle East during the oil crisis of the time.)

Lately, I've started to believe that the sf and fantasy genres are linked in a manner similar to that of mysteries and horror. Fantasies---especially those of the epic sort that has sold so well in the last few years---tend to address matters of state and empire, matters of the land. Science fiction, meanwhile, looks abroad to foreign issues. Another observation of David Skal's (who is, incidentally, wonderful at this sort of social analysis of popular culture) is that the standard image we have of the "Roswell" alien - a slight, short humanoid with large sloping eyes - didn't really come into our culture until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Skal suggests that the alien image might be a reflection of our anxieties towards the Vietnamese, who tend to be slighter and shorter than Americans. . . .

(By the way, this observation of Skal's was removed from Screams of Reason for fear that the observation might be offensive to some. Why is it verboten nowadays to discuss matters of cultural heritage?)

I realize this introduction to my pet theory barely lets you get to know it, but I find deadlines pressing upon me, so it'll be some time before you get to see it perform any tricks. Meantime, I wouldn't advise you to cast your ballot according to this theory---after all, what we're talking about is primarily entertainment, not governmental policy. But I for one am curious to see what happens to genre fiction once the next President takes office.


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