George R. R. Martin: The Man Who Put Horror in Every Home

This essay appeared in the program book for the 2017 StokerCon convention, which took place April 27 – 30 of this year on the Queen Mary. George R.R. Martin was the Guest of Honor.

Pfui, I say. Let’s mix this with that and see what happens. Let’s cross some genre lines and blur some boundaries, make some stories that are both and neither. Some of the time we’ll make a mess, sure… but once in awhile, if we do it right, we may stumble on a combination that explodes!”

— GRRM, “Hybrids and Horrors,” Dreamsongs: Volume I

Each year on Epiphany, Len Wein and Christine Valada throw a remarkable party that they simply call “Twelfth Night.” If you’ve ever been to a party at the home of the man who created Wolverine and Swamp Thing, and whose wife is a four-time Jeopardy Champion and former photographer for the Washington Post, you’d know this party is a Who’s Who of fantasy, science fiction, comics, animation, TV and film. Notables such as Nichelle Nichols, Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold, Melinda Snodgrass, Larry Niven and Steven Barnes are just a few of the major talents decking the halls at this event. Even when I love an author, I tend not to find out what they look like. With the exception of Harlan, it’s been at Len’s parties that I’ve put a face to the name of many literary heroes.

It was Epiphany night, 2010. I’d been to dinner numerous times at Chris and Len’s house, but this was my first time at their famed Twelfth Night. As soon as I entered, a fellow named Michael greeted me, anxious to introduce me to someone called “George” wearing a Greek fisherman cap and suspenders. But “George” seemed to be surrounded by people all the time, and since I had no idea who he was, I didn’t pursue the introduction. Besides, there were so many interesting people there. No rush. Instead, I ambled, ate, and chatted with other guests, some of whom were friends.

Eventually my back ached and I wandered into a room on the far side of the kitchen, searching for a seat. Unable to find one, I tried crouching on a footstool when Michael’s wife, who was sitting on the futon with “George,” got up and insisted I take her place. I thanked her profusely and proceeded to have a wonderful conversation with “George” about LiveJournal, Lovecraft, Robert A. Heinlein, and much more. He asked me how I knew Len, and I told him about how we met at LosCon. I then asked him, “So, how do you know Len?”

“Oh, we used to write comics together.”

“Of course you’re a writer! What’s your name?”

At that moment, I was dimly aware that the room had fallen silent, all eyes and ears locked on the unlikely exchange. You could have heard the wind whistling past the tumbleweeds as he replied:

“George… R.R. …Martin.”

I sighed and rested my head on his shoulder. “I…love you.”

The room erupted with laughter, including George’s. (Chris told me later that he’d loved my reaction.)

Thinking back on that conversation, I realize I got a glimpse into Martin’s personal chemistry lab in his approach to horror. His this and that in our discussion were H.P. Lovecraft and Heinlein, but he has many other ingredients. Not only does the blurring of boundaries make his work “explode,” but he’s also changed the boundaries of the horror genre itself.

His 1979 novellette, Sandkings, for which he won both a Hugo and a Nebula Award, brilliantly illustrates. Simon Kress is a wealthy man who adopts alien pets called Sandkings and tortures them to make them war with each other. The Sandkings’ bloodlust mingles psionically with Simon’s, and it’s not long before a prolonged bloodbath ensues at Simon’s hand. And then in 1980, Martin’s Nightflyers novella would introduce an unusual serial killer on a spaceship. In it we discover blood and brains are messier in Zero-G, and that laser cutters wielded by disembodied hands are more terrifying than bad guys with guns.

Martin certainly doesn’t need to smudge genre lines to scare the living hell out of us. His short story “The Pear-Shaped Man” falls right in the boardroom of the Horror, Inc. It won the 1988 Bram Stoker Award for Long Fiction from the nascent Horror Writer’s of America, and left its readers gagging on imaginary cheese curls for months after reading.

But it’s when he reaches into his chemistry set and mixes with glee that we see his greater genius. Fevre Dream set the genre world on fire with its antebellum vampires. In this story, Martin’s new species of nocturnal humanoids embark on a life and death quest as they travel Mark Twain’s historic Mississippi on the Fevre Dream, the latest and greatest steamboat ever made. We feel for its captain, Abner Marsh, our simple yet respectable protagonist struggling with his enigmatic partner, the soft-spoken Joshua York, who eventually takes them and their glorious steamboat into utter peril. As it explores the concept of slavery in surprising ways, the story is so atmospheric that you can feel the humidity of New Orleans and taste the savory meals that Marsh eats with gusto. Nominated in 1983 for the World Fantasy Award, this book was like no other vampire story we’d seen before. People who didn’t like horror or Anne Rice’s books couldn’t get enough of Martin’s vampires.

And then there’s the ubiquitous A Song of Ice and Fire series. “J.R.R. Lovecraft” is an apt description because Lovecraft’s nihilism pulses in the molten core of Martin’s medieval fantasy. The pervasive darkness of the series, brightened only by Tyrion’s bon mots, is its overriding feature, providing a cornucopia of horrific elements. Rape. Betrayal. Cannibals. Murder. Homicidal demons. Human sacrifice. Torture. Mutilation. Vivisection. Execution. Assassination. Resurrection. Patricide. Infanticide. Suicide. Regicide. Genocide. Crushed skulls. Flayed corpses. Animated corpses – that is, the White Walkers, Martin’s zombie hoards that are about to overrun the Seven Kingdoms from the North. If their blue eyes that “burn like ice” don’t chill you to the bone, nothing will.

HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation has put horror in almost every home in America, not to mention across the globe. People who would never read Stephen King devotedly read the A Song of Ice and Fire series and watch Game of Thrones. It’s an unprecedented advancement of the horror genre, and we have George R.R. Martin to thank for that.

Mix horror with fantasy…


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