Horror Puppies Redux: Is Souldancer Really Horror Fandom’s New Favourite Novel?

dragonawardcartoon

A while back I made a post about how the Sad and Rabid Puppies campaigns have treated horror fiction. I pointed out that when the pro-Puppy authors write something within the horror spectrum, they generally end up with the kind of work that editor and horror expert Stephen Jones associates with the term “horror-lite”:

These days our bloodsuckers are more likely to show their romantic nature, werewolves work for covert government organisations, phantoms are private investigators and the walking dead can be found sipping tea amongst the polite society of a Jane Austen novel. […] Today we are living in a world that is ‘horror-lite’. This appalling appellation was coined by publishers to describe the type of fiction that is currently enjoying massive success under such genre categories as ‘paranormal romance’, ‘urban fantasy’, ‘literary mash-up’ or even ‘steampunk’. […] The audience for this type of fiction has no interest in being deliciously scared by what they read, or left thinking about a particularly disturbing tale long after they have finished a story and closed the book.

This description fits Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter, Declan Finn’s Honor at Stake, and arguably Brian Niemeier’s Souldancer.

I also noted that the Puppy supporters appear to pay little attention to the contemporary horror field, as evidenced by this dismissive Twitter discussion about the four non-Puppy nominees for the Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel – Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, Christina Henry’s Alice, Cherie Priest’s Chapelwood and Jim McDoniel’s An Unattractive Vampire:

2016-08-23 10.15.28SouldancerSince then, Souldancer succeeded in winning the Dragon Award for horror, and the Puppysphere seems to be making a concerted effort to present Brian Niemeier as being the contemporary horror author (with honourable mention sometimes being given to Declan Finn). Around Halloween, the Castalia House blog ran a post called “SUPERVERSIVE and Horror Stories” in which Josh Young argues for the superiority of horror films with clear-cut heroes (such as Alien and The Evil Dead) to those which focus on college students being chopped up (such as Friday the 13th). Towards the end, he makes an abrupt change of subject from heroic horror films to heroic horror literature: but does he mention Robert E. Howard, whose sword-and-sorcery protagonists regularly faced Lovecraftian abominations? Does he acknowledge the writers who have shaped the occult detective genre, from H. and E. Heron through to Jim Butcher? Does he namecheck anyone from the legion of authors, from Bram Stoker onwards, who have thrilled readers with tales of cross-wielding vampire hunters?

Nope, nope, and nope. It is Brian Niemeier who has the distinction of being the only writer mentioned in Young’s survey of horror.

Now, the Dragon Awards claim to honour “the works that are genuinely most beloved by the core audience”, and this is a description that the Puppies have taken as gospel truth. But the obscure, self-published Souldancer is not beloved amongst horror fans. Evidence of this can be gleaned simply by registering at the horror forum of your choice and asking the members if they have ever heard of Brian Niemeier. Indeed, a search through Google (or Amazon, or Goodreads, or Twitter, or Reddit) will indicate that Souldancer has made almost no impact outside of Puppy circles.

This is a point I made when I reported on the Dragon Awards at WWAC:

One result of this campaigning is that novels with which the Sad Puppies were generally unfamiliar appear to have been at a disadvantage.

This is most evident in the category for horror fiction, a genre in which the Puppies have previously shown little interest. The winning novel, Souldancer, currently has just eight reviews on Amazon and three on Goodreads; any award handed to it clearly does not reflect “the works that are genuinely most beloved by the core audience” or “the populist side of science fiction and fantasy.” It would seem that Souldancer succeeded in beating out more popular horror nominees, such as Christina Henry’s Alice, merely because its author is pro-Puppy.

I was not soon forgiven for making this observation. Throwing dignity and humility to the wind, Brian Niemeier wrote an irate blog post in response to me:

Predictably, the self-styled masters of SF fandom have learned nothing from the last time they gave my fans a reason to mobilize. Here, a butthurt CHORF [Cliquish, Holier-than-thou, Obnoxious, Reactionary Fanatic] attempts to DISQUALIFY! Souldancer’s Dragon Award win by citing Amazon review numbers as evidence that the winner of a populist award isn’t popular.

Niemeier then went on to claim that Souldancer outsold N. K. Jemisin’s  The Fifth Season, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel earlier this year:

niemeiercharts

What Niemeier fails to clarify here is that he is comparing two separate charts. His screenshots show Souldancer‘s place on the free Kindle ebook chart, and The Fifth Season‘s place on the paid Kindle ebook chart. The former shot obviously comes from the period in which he was giving Souldancer away free of charge – which was after it became a Dragon Award finalist. This no doubt gave it a boost from readers curious as to what had been nominated for the new award; we are still left with the novel’s overall lack of coverage online, which indicates that few of the people who downloaded free copies liked it enough to recommend.

I will admit that Kindle sales charts are not my area of expertise, so in the hopes of finding an informed opinion I started a thread at Amazon’s Kindle Publishing Forum. The community members confirmed that Niemeier (whom I avoided mentioning by name, so as to escape political bias) is completely misrepresenting how Amazon’s rankings work:

There are 90K free Kindle books. There are 4.9 million Kindle books overall. Ranking placement is in no way equivalent. Also, many free downloads are by free download hoarders who have no interest in the book and will never read it, so the readership-expanding value of units moved is likewise unequal between free and paid. Ebook A [Souldancer] gave away more freebies than 90,300 other freebies. That is all a free rank of 100 signifies.

If we compare the current positions of the two books on the paid Kindle charts, things are considerably less rosy for Souldancer:

screenshot_2016-12-11-08-07-46


screenshot_2016-12-11-08-10-09

(The Fifth Season‘s lead was not quite so pronounced when Niemeier made his post, but it was still overwhelming.)

Furthermore, while an indie novel like Souldancer will be sold largely in digital format, a professionally-published book like The Fifth Season will shift a significant proportion of units as hard copies. This means that we will also need to compare physical book charts for the full picture:

screenshot_2016-12-11-08-08-15


screenshot_2016-12-11-08-09-50

And while we’re at it, let’s look at the two books that I personally found to be the strongest contenders in the Dragons’ horror category. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay is at #156,590 in ebooks, and at #561,851 (paperback) and #60,849 (hardback) in books; Alice by Christina Henry is at #156,678 in ebooks and #27,655 in books. I stand by my statement at WWAC: if the Dragon Awards truly honoured the works most popular amongst fans, then the award for Best Horror Novel would not have gone to Souldancer.

Niemeier concluded his post by asking his readers to prove me wrong by posting reviews of Souldancer; he confidently predicted that the book would soon have more than fifty ratings on Amazon. This call to action resulted in Souldancer‘s review count going from eight to twelve, prompting Niemeier’s glass-half-full statement that “Souldancer reviews are up 50%”. A few more reviews have been posted since then – although the more recent ones have been somewhat mixed, as is to be expected from the novel reaching a broader audience following its Dragon Award victory.

Poke them CHORFs!
One of the Souldancer reviews written at Niemeier’s behest. It will, of course, be largely incomprehensible to anyone who has not followed the Sad Puppies controversy.

Nevertheless, the Puppies – or, more specifically, Niemeier and his immediate circle of friends – kept up the charade that the little-known Souldancer was the most popular horror novel published within the Dragons’ twelve-month eligibility period. Niemeier’s blog post received replies comparing me variously to a spoilt child, a high school mean girl and a wiggling worm for venturing to suggest otherwise. My personal favourite comment came from Niemeier himself; apparently channelling his inner Benjanun Sriduangkaew, he felt it appropriate to threaten me with physical violence:

It’s not the easily excitable guys whose anger you should worry about. It’s the patient, reserved guys quietly sipping their drinks and reading Heinlein novels until they decide they’ve had enough of the loudmouths making a scene, take you out in the parking lot, and bust out your teeth.

One of Niemeier’s friends, a blogger named Alfred Genesson, made a post of his own attacking me. Here is his reply to my comment about Souldancer‘s lack of reviews online:

Maybe some of us realize how active your type is at disemployment. Maybe we were busy reading books. At any rate, it’s not your crappy pastiche of urban fantasy, faerie tales, and WoD fanfic that you love.

Genesson starts his three-pronged rebuttal by suggesting, bizarrely, that people who give positive reviews to Souldancer are in danger of losing their jobs. He seems to expect us to believe that the legions of Souldancer fans have gathered into some kind of Fight Club-like underground subculture that dare not speak its name.

He then suggests that fans are too busy reading books to leave reviews, an argument which ignores the basic fact that fandom is built upon discussing media as well as consuming it: a work that is not being discussed clearly has no fandom. But most interesting of all is his third assertion: that I prefer “crappy pastiche of urban fantasy, faerie tales, and World of Darkness fanfic”.

This irrelevant ad hominem (I was talking about whether a book is popular, rather than whether I personally like it) seems to be a response to my earlier comment that the Sad Puppies have shown little interest in horror fiction. Genesson is trying to give the impression that he and the other Puppy supporters are actually hardened fans of the horror genre; but as he has no evidence to back up this claim, he settles for simply impugning my own tastes. He has no idea where my tastes lie, of course, and so makes a wild stab-in-the-dark involving urban fantasy pastiche and World of Darkness fanfics (a description that, amusingly enough, is not too far from Declan Finn’s Puppy-approved Honor at Stake).

Behind all of the bluster, Genesson’s post marks an attempt to frame the Puppies as the true custodians of horror fiction, with Brian Niemeier and (presumably) Declan Finn being the toasts of horror fandom. As for those horror fans who do not read Niemeier or Finn, well, they are merely consumers of urban fantasy and other forms of horror-lite. As I have already shown, this is a complete reversal of the truth.

Niemeier himself has stated that his book won its Dragon Award due to voters who wanted to show their contempt for the Hugos. If so, this is further evidence of a lack of votes from horror fans, who in my experience do not generally keep up with the Hugo Awards. A number of my friends are indie horror writers, and they pay little attention to the Hugos: they seem to view the award as being purely for science fiction, and consequently not their territory as writers or readers (by the same token, I’d imagine that the SF community generally does not look at the Bram Stoker Awards too closely).

And if you are not paying attention to the Hugos, then you are unlikely to be aware of the Sad Puppies. I have sometimes mentioned the campaign to my friends in horror fandom, and none of them had heard of it. The notion that legions of horror fans (who care little about the Hugos) have suddenly become card-carrying supporters of the Puppy campaigns (which care little about horror) is simply not something that I can swallow.

If you want to argue that Souldancer is a good novel, then go ahead. If you want to argue that it deserves to be popular, and may someday be popular, then go ahead. But you cannot argue, with any kind of intellectual honesty, that it is currently a popular novel amongst fans of the genre. This claim will never escape Niemeier’s echo chamber: go around saying that Souldancer is horror fandom’s new favourite novel, and the first people to call you out will be horror fans.

Incidentally, when I first reported on the Dragon Awards at WWAC, I received a reply from one of the non-Puppy nominees where she mentioned her “obscure indie published military sci fi book”. She has the right idea. She sees that there is no shame in being a little-league writer who does what they enjoy, who picks up a few fans along the way, and who may someday go on to bigger things.

Brian Niemeier does not seem to realise this. For him, it is clearly not enough to have a small but loyal readership that has pushed him to the top of an online poll. He has to present himself as being fandom’s favourite horror writer – the “Dragon of Horror”, as he styles himself – even though he knows full well that this is simply not the truth.

I shall leave you with some comments made at around 1:17:00 in this episode of Brian Keene’s podcast, during a discussion about the Worldcon controversies:

I remember a con in Ohio… it was Nick Mamatas, who’s a socialist; F. Paul Wilson, who’s a libertarian; Bob Ford, who’s a Democrat; Maurice Broaddus, who… I guess Maurice would probably identify as a progressive; Steven Shrewsbury, who’s a Republican and a conservative; and myself who is, y’know, apolitical. And we were all hanging out in the bar and we drank all night and we had lovely conversation and nobody fought with each other and nobody offended each other… you know, everybody likes to make fun of the fucking horror genre, but maybe the rest of y’all need to start taking some fucking clues from us, you think?

To which Keene’s co-host Dave Thomas adds:

I’ve always said that, to me, of the different communities I’ve been involved with over the years, the horror community by far is the nicest community, the most accepting people, and they’re easy to get along with. But if you’re an asshat, you will not be tolerated. Don’t be a dick. Because if you are, you’re going to get called out real quick.

If the “Dragon of Horror” keeps things up, then this is a lesson he will soon learn the hard way.

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