Storyville: Eight New, Mashed Up Sub-Genres

So, what are some new kinds of stories you can write—strange hybrids that might stand out from the pack when sending your work out? Let’s take a look.

1) Alternate Reality Speculative Fiction

Now, I’m not talking about alternate-reality as far as history. I don’t mean Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. What I’m talking about is a story presented as one reality and then shifting to another. I did this recently with one of my stories, “Hiraeth,” in the anthology, Behold! Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders. I’m also thinking of the way that Brian Evenson shifts the “truth” in his story, “Windeye.” Or maybe “The Bubblegum Man” by Eric Reitan at Gamut. This is not a hard left turn at the end, or a twist, per se, more like something happening to shift the narrative—time, magic, perception, etc. It’s not easy to pull off, but I’m seeing it done a lot lately, and it can be a powerful smack in the face. Think layers, think unreliable narrator, think delusional POV.

2) Weird Westerns

It didn’t just start with Westworld, but that’s a great example—the original film, as well as the new series. You can also find it in the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. The way I see it is a mix of rural and western settings paired with something else—maybe it’s the supernatural, maybe it’s technology, maybe it’s something in the aftermath of a post-apocalyptic event. I think what’s interesting here is the use of more primitive means of survival (wells for water, lack of electricity, simple weapons) with something else that is quite the opposite (advanced weaponry, complicated systems, and strange hybrids). You can add humor such as in Wild, Wild West, but the stories that I find most fascinating tend to lean into the darkness and tap into unique mythologies.

Find a new way to take your story in an entirely different direction. Not just original choices, not just weird choices, but choices that make sense as you weave a new narrative...

3) Subtle Variations

Something else I’m seeing a lot that I find really interesting is taking the expectations of the genre and making it normal, literary, and subtle. I see it in horror stories that are very quiet, almost entirely without violence, based on psychological trauma, or perception. I see it in fantasy and science fiction that just barely qualifies for these genres—soft science, and barely present fantastic elements. Not magical realism, really, just avoiding obvious, melodramatic, ham-fisted variations. I think of Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It. I think of Brian Evenson’s The Warren. I think of Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Between the Pilings.” Even Sara Gran’s Come Closer. I think the tendency here is to just head in the opposite direction of every instinct—science fiction that’s light on the science; horror that’s lacking violence entirely; crime that exists in paranoia and less in the criminal acts.

4) Emotion as Character

This is something I’m seeing a lot in speculative fiction. I don’t know if it’s developed enough to be a full sub-genre yet, but the idea is showing an emotion in a tangible way, such as grief that manifests in the form of some creature (like in Micaela Morrissette’s “The Familiars"). Or maybe it’s in the way that emotion or trauma might be represented by either actual cloned or separated parts of one’s identity (as I saw in a story one of my students is working on) — an entire cleaving of mind, body, and soul. Think of the end of the film Enemy. It plays on the idea of some entity, some creature existing on the surface of the story, but as we dig deeper, an entirely different narrative working under that all, a different way of interpreting what’s on the page.

5) Genre Without the Genre

What I’m talking about here is something like a crime story without the crime, a thriller that is certainly thrilling, but subverting the tropes and expectations. How far do we have to get away from noir before it loses its form, and is hardly recognizable? What about Blade Runner? If there is a set formula or expectation, I’m not just talking about being original, I’m talking about pushing the structure so that every choice you make is atypical, and in the end, the form disappears. Can you have a crime or noir story without a cop, detective, private eye, or gunslinger? How far away from that expectation can you get and still retain the atmosphere, mood, tone, and thrill of the genre? Look at Memento. It’s more than swapping sexes, it’s more than an exotic setting. What do we see in the film The Arrival that totally flips the genre upside down? I think it’s still science fiction, but what’s driving it—the family, the emotion, the loss? More so than the technology, more than time travel, or some other expected trope—it’s almost anti-science in nature.

6) Utopian

This is just starting to happen. I think we’ve been beating dystopian into the ground for so long, and the current events of the world are so distressing, that it was only a matter of time before this also did a 180 and the utopian stories started to seep in. You remember Avatar and Tomorrowland? It’s so much more than Brave New World, right? It’s not a story told with naivete, it’s honest and open, it’s fighting for the things we believe in—something beautiful, touching, and colorful. 

7) YA and NA as Adult

I think we’ll also see a resurgence of young protagonists in stories that are aimed at teens, and young adults, as well as adults. You can see it in the Star Wars franchise, and you can see it in Stranger Things. It’s not just nostalgia, although that’s there as well; it’s the universal truths we all experience as children (and adults). It’s also the ability of kids to speak the truth—not caring if their friend is gender fluid or a minority or different, in fact, embracing those differences. It’s that innocence and honesty before the world makes them bitter and biased. Of course they have to go rescue their friend. Of course they’ll take in the alien child to feed them—they all know hunger, right? Of course they’ll fight the bully, be it a kid in school, a corporation, or something else entirely.

8) Alternate-History from the Oppressed POV

I think this is also bubbling to the surface. In the wake of the pushback against Game of Thrones creators about a new alternative-history show, Confederate, we get news about Aaron McGruder’s take (The Boondocks) entitled Black America. THIS should piss off some racists. I mean, look at these details:

Another alternate history drama series, which has been in the works at Amazon for over a year, also paints a reality where southern states have left the Union but takes a very different approach. Titled Black America, the drama hails from top feature producer Will Packer (Ride Along, Think Like A Man, Straight Outta Compton) and Peabody-winning The Boondocks creator and Black Jesus co-creator Aaron McGruder. It envisions an alternate history where newly freed African Americans have secured the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama post-Reconstruction as reparations for slavery, and with that land, the freedom to shape their own destiny. The sovereign nation they formed, New Colonia, has had a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship with its looming “Big Neighbor,” both ally and foe, the United States. The past 150 years have been witness to military incursions, assassinations, regime change, coups, etc. Today, after two decades of peace with the U.S. and unprecedented growth, an ascendant New Colonia joins the ranks of major industrialized nations on the world stage as America slides into rapid decline. Inexorably tied together, the fate of two nations, indivisible, hangs in the balance.

That’s the POV we want. That’s a show I’d watch. We don’t want appropriation, we want the voices and stories told from the POV of the people that suffered, right? Look at how The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted.

IN CONCLUSION

Whatever you’re working on, see if you can’t find a new way to take your story in an entirely different direction. Not just original choices, not just weird choices, but choices that make sense as you weave a new narrative, as you subvert expectations and formulas, to create something entirely your own.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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