I’ve been noticing a trend recently towards the publication of quirky books which most would probably classify in or around the horror genre, but which seem to go beyond that easy categorisation. Rather than being the run of the mill shock and gore stories, they are, instead, complex stories immersed in Scottish landscapes and history, adding deeper layers to the narrative. I don’t think this is a coordinated effort, rather it seems that there’s a new generation of writers discovering that Scotland provides a near perfect backdrop for these types of stories. Not only is there a wide variety of scenery to set stories against, ranging from 1960s high-rises and crumbling concrete housing estates to remote islands, rugged mountains, ancient castles and Georgian buildings towering over tightly winding medieval streets, there’s also a rich and lurid history which can be drawn upon. After all, Scotland was the home of people like of Burke and Hare, the notorious grave robbers who got tired of waiting for their victims to stop breathing before selling their bodies to the local medical school for students to dissect, and Aleister Crowley, labelled as a Satanist by some and a prophet by others, as well as countless ghost stories, pagan rituals, bloody battles, unsolved murders and heartless betrayals.
There is also something about the people of Scotland which invites them to become characters in such books. They tend towards the no-nonsense end of the spectrum and few take themselves too seriously. Add to this a propensity towards gallows humour and you can see why they fit into books where few characters are the stereotypes you’d expect.
In many ways, these books seem to draw very heavily on the influence of another Scottish genre, Tartan Noir. These are the hard-boiled police procedurals starring the brilliant but flawed anti-heroes you can’t fail to end up rooting for, best illustrated by the Inspector Rebus books written by Iain Rankin, which are tightly woven into the Scottish landscapes and cultures. These books showed many writers that novels set in Scotland could go beyond the traditional shortbread tin vision of the country and open up its dark underbelly for all to see. Tartan Gore seems to have taken this basic premise and pushed it further, exploring even darker elements and alternate pasts, presents and futures, while still keeping the complex characters and iconic settings. Just as with Tartan Noir, those writing Tartan Gore aren’t writing to conform to a specific genre, instead they are writing what they want in landscapes they know and love, and creating new and though-provoking fiction along the way. It just so happens that they can be drawn together by the common elements of their Scottish settings, the characters which inhabit them and the dark subjects they encapsulate.
This contrasts sharply with how it was when I growing up, where almost all novels seemed to be set across the ocean on the distant and alien shores of North America or the less distant, but equally alien, south of England, and those who inhabited them weren’t really characters I could recognise from my daily life. Yet, that seemed to be what was expected and to have something resembling anything like the reality of Scotland would have somehow seemed wrong. Now, it seems, there are an increasing number of writers willing to accept their Scottish roots and experiences, and write stories which draw on their knowledge of life here while exploring ever-darker themes and avenues. Just as Tartan Noir allowed Scottish detectives to shoulder their way into a genre dominated by their American counterparts, Tartan Gore seems to be doing the same within the horror genre, and bringing with it a deeper complexity which relies less on shock value and more on thought-provoking ‘what ifs?’. Because of this, and the reality of the landscapes in which they are set, they seem more plausible, even possible, making them ever more terrifying.
As I said, I don’t think that people are necessarily setting out to write Tartan Gore books, but rather that there seems to be a growing confidence amongst writers that such books not only can be set in Scotland, but that their Scottish setting can positively contribute to the story being told to the extent that the landscapes almost become a character within their own right. Just as you couldn’t imagine Inspector Rebus stalking any other streets than those of Edinburgh, in Tartan Gore, the stories cannot necessarily be removed from Scotland because of the way they are woven into the real world locations in which they are set.
Within this genre, I would include books like The Edinburgh Dead, Halfhead and Under The Skin. None of them are your typical horror book (indeed some might classify Halfhead as Sci Fi and Under the Skin as a thriller rather than horror), but all of them make the most of their Scottish settings to tell troubling and disconcerting stories which make you stop and think as well as engaging you in the intriguing tales themselves.
Does classifying a book as Tartan Gore make any difference to it? Probably not, but as with all genre classifications, it provides a useful handle for readers to grasp and to bring books together in their minds. It also provides a certain level of expectation as to what they’ll contain and this helps potential readers connect with writers and books which they might not otherwise have found. In this respect, I hope that this genre continues to expand as the stories which fall within it tend to be very different from the standard fare currently available. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are amongst some of the most unusual books which I’ve read in the last few years.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.