At the Boundary of Normal: History and Horror – A Guest Post by Andrew Knighton

Today we have a guest blog post by Andrew Knighton, author of The Sound of Stones from Alt Hist Issue 9.

At the Boundary of Normal: History and Horror

History and horror have a lot in common. Not just through their ability to bring darkness into fiction, but through the way they make us feel. It makes them a perfect combination of genres.

The Essence of Horror

Horror stories are all about events at the edge of normal reality. A clown who tips over from unsettling into sinister. Shadows in the woods that move from more than just the wind. A stranger in the street who is stranger than we ever imagined.

As explained in an article at Filmmaker IQ, while grounded in reality and relevance, horror also requires us “to face the unknown – to understand it and make it less scary”.

The Essence of Historical Fiction

Historical fiction also lies at the boundary between the familiar and the unknown. The life we see is like ours but different. People live, love and work much like ourselves. They have families and faith, feelings and furniture, the same range of sublime and the mundane as us. They may even live in the same places we do, share our religion, nationality or politics, depending upon the book and the reader.

Yet life in historical fiction is also different. When people sit down to dinner the food is not quite like ours. The clothes are different. The houses are different. They live in our reality, but made unfamiliar by time.

With both placing us at the edge of our reality, it’s almost inevitable that history and horror can work well together.

Foreshadowing Through Difference

One of the most obvious ways in which a historical setting can support horror is through foreshadowing. The different beliefs of people in the past can be used to bring in ideas that we no longer find plausible, such as monsters in the forest or the existence of demons. Ordinary conversations can refer to elements of the supernatural, setting them up to emerge later in the story.

The different reality of the historical past can also be used to foreshadow danger. Medieval Europe was rife with inter-personal violence, in the streets as much as the battlefields. The Aztec empire was the site of brutal human sacrifices. Hunger and disease plagued humanity from the dawn of time. Such themes can be used to create a sense of dread even before the supernatural enters. In a story like Charlotte Bond’s The Poisoned Crow, the dread of violence and forced marriage sets the tone from the start.

Creeping in Through the Unfamiliar

Unfamiliarity can misdirect the reader as much as it prepares them. A malformed stranger and a beast growling in the forest may make us fear that the moment of horror has come, only for them to be unmasked as a leper and a wolf. Tension is built and relieved for a greater shock later.

All the while, the feelings provoked by history and by horror accentuate each other. By facing both at once, we get a deeper sensation of something familiar and yet unfamiliar, something not quite right. David Tallerman’s The War of the Rats deliberately toys with combining the unusual and the mundane. A rat infestation is made worse by the trenches of World War One, becoming something truly horrific. The combination of the ordinary and the awful makes the story more unsettling than if it were set in the modern world.

Horror and history play similar tricks on our minds. They play those tricks particularly well when they get together.

About the Author

Andrew is a Yorkshire based ghostwriter, responsible for writing many books in other people’s names. He’s had over fifty stories published in his own name in places such as Daily Science Fiction and Wily Writers. His historical short story Honour Among Thieves is available for free from Amazon or Smashwords. You can find stories and links to more of his books at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter where he’s @gibbondemon.

Sidewise Winners Announced

The Sidewise Awards, which honour the best in Alternate History writing, were announced on the 17th August. The winners were:

Sidewise Award for Best Long Form Alternate History

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Enemy Within

(WMG Publishing)

Sidewise Award for Best Short Form Alternate History

Ken Liu, The Long Haul: From the Annals of Transportation,

The Pacific Monthly, May 2009 (Clarkesworld Magazine, 11/14)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has previously won the Sidewise Award for her story “Recovering Apollo 8” in 2007.  She has won two Hugo Awards and a World Fantasy Award.  Rusch was one of the founders and editors of Pulphouse Publishing and spent six years as the editor of The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Ken Liu has won two Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award, and a World Fantasy Award.  This is his second nomination for the Sidewise Award.  His first novel, Grace of Kings was published in 2015 and Liu has been working to translate science fiction by Chinese authors into English, including Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem.

For more information about the Sidewise Award, please see http://www.uchronia.net/sidewise/

Historical Fiction Short Stories – the Long and the Short of it

Like fantasy, historical fiction often seems to favour the epic mode where authors (and readers) can get to grips with extensive world-building and a deep setting. That’s at least what you often hear these days on online forums and discussion groups.

But is that really the case? Of course at Alt Hist we don’t think that is true as we publish a magazine dedicated to short fiction with an historical setting. In the case of Alternative History, with its links to the Science Fiction genre, the tendency to write short stories is much more ingrained – Alternate History stories often focuses ideas and these can sit naturally with the short story length.

But I really think there is a place for the short story for historical fiction as well. Just because the tendency of historical fiction authors is to write epic tales of romance/adventure, doesn’t mean that you can’t fit historical fiction into a short story. After all in Science Fiction the author may have to create whole new worlds that they reader may never encountered before, so what would prevent the writer of historical fiction from portraying an historical setting, which might be much more familiar to the reader? I would suggest the tendency is more about tradition and commercial pressure. Short fiction today is strongest in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery because it always has been and its often a good starting point for writers in those genres. But the same tradition isn’t the same for historical fiction – as far as I know there weren’t any pulp magazines dedicated to historical fiction unless you include Westerns.

Commercially the emphasis is always on the novel length work. Short stories tend not to be a commercial format for most publishers. So if you’re a historical fiction writer and you want to make a living then its only natural to turn to the novel. Interestingly it seems that some authors once they’re established do then turn to short stories – especially for characters that run through their novels – there’s some tales that fit better into a short story rather than a novel.

So maybe it is possible to write and read historical short stories, but are there many of these rare birds about? Well yes actually. Check the reviews on the Historical Novel Society website and you will find reviews for 72 collections of historical short stories – and most of these were published in just the last few years.

If you have a favourite historical short story then please post a Comment and tell us about it.

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“Hooray for Historical Fiction” says the Huffington Post!

Dave Astor at the Huffington Post wrote a very nice piece the other day about why historical fiction is just great – mostly because of its ability to educate. He specifically cites Stephen King’s new novel 11/22/63, and also mentions other books such as Walter Scott’s.

Although it’s great to hear historical fiction praised in such a way – and one just wishes that other genres such as Science Fiction and Fantasy would get such plaudits too on a more regular basis, but I think that Dave’s reasons for liking historical fiction also raise a number of questions.

  1. What’s the chances of people actually getting misinformation from works for fiction? For instance Stephen King’s book involves an alternate history scenario where someone travels back in time to prevent JFK’s death. I think in this case most people would know the real history and it would be obvious that the author is changing things, but in cases where history is less well understood the author has a real responsibility.
  2. How comprehensively should an author actually tell the reader (perhaps in footnotes or an introduction) about how their work diverges from recorded history?
  3. Should editors and publishers be more careful in what work they accept authors, and should they actually research the historical background themselves? For Alt Hist, I usually do check facts in the stories that I publish in the magazine for instance, and this actually takes up a large part of the copy-editing process.
  4. Are historical fiction authors the new history teachers?
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Announcing the launch of Alt Hist

What is Alt Hist?

It’s a new magazine dedicated to readers and writers of historical fiction and also alternate history. We’re currently looking for contributors for our first issue, which will be published as an ebook and a print-on-demand book. To find out what we want go to our Submissions page, and if you are interested in reading the result sign-up to the RSS feed to get the latest updates about our publishing programme.

A Genre

If you read Science Fiction or Fantasy you might have heard of the term as related to Alternate History. In Alternate History the course of history is radically changed and the author imagines what might have been if…

Some examples of alternative history are Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and the prolific Harry Turtledove.

For the purposes of this magazine we are also considering works such as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series to be alternate history as well. Really anything that has a basis in history, whether or not it then crosses over into another genre such as Science Fiction, Fantasy or Horror.

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