Writing: What is Horror?

As I write up these different definitions there will indeed be crossover as there are genres and subgenres and sub-subgenres for each type of writing. The world of publishing is taken up with labeling, much like the world in general. We like things to fit into neat categories. For marketing we want to appeal to a certain demographic so although I might write a story and not put any tag on it, someone else will: either the reader, the publisher, or the reviewer. And they may all tag it differently.

Horror in essence is meant to do one or more of these things: terrify, scare, gross out, disturb. At its simplest horror revolts and scares. At its most complex horror is disturbing and thought provoking. I did an earlier review on the novel A Fall of Angels by Stephen Gregory, which presented an insidious horror of a disturbing life that included murder and incest. Horror has an interesting niche. If you think of movies, there are those ridiculous (in my opinion) teen slasher movies with really dumb plots and lots of Freddy Krueger gore and murder. And stories can range too. Recently, doing a panel at Orycon on gore versus terror, we talked about when gore is appropriate (the satisfaction of seeing or reading about a zombie’s/bad guy’s head exploding) and when terror is effective. Gore is throwing a bunch of intestines in your face. Terror is me telling you that there is something alien eating its way into your brain right now, can’t you feel it? All of this is horror. Horror includes tension and suspense. It keeps you on the edge of your seat or wriggling with moral or psychological discomfort. Sometimes it lulls you into a false sense of security until it unleashes the terror.

Most mainstream publishers no longer publish horror, just as they don’t publish westerns anymore either. It fell out of favor, meaning the sales dropped because the publishers were probably marketing it as gore and guts. In fact, horror, like any of the major labels or genres, encompasses many subgenres. Some of these include dark fantasy, psychological horror, splatterpunk, gothic horror, supernatural horror, and others. (BTW, this is my take on the genre; you are bound to find other or varying definitions.)

  • Dark Fantasy–these stories involve anything fantastical. It could be a person who extracts blood from their victims to make plants grow, a man-eating troll, an insidious worm that crawls into your pores and makes you see corpses, or a host of other hobgoblin nightmares. Lord of the Rings, interestingly enough can fall into a lot of categories and the whole story could be considered dark fantasy. The anthologies I’m in, either Evolve or Horror Library Vol. 4 could both be considered dark fantasy though some of the stories in the latter may be straight horror with little fantasy. Whereas Evolve is all about vampires and almost all of them are dark fantasy.
  • Psychological Horror–these stories deal with the twistings of the mind. The novel I mentioned, A Fall of Angels, is definitely a psychological horror. It is both the horror of a man sliding farther from the norm and his feelings as well as the horror of seeing this decline. It may be that the person imagines something but it’s not real, or maybe it is, or perhaps they’re crazy but instead there is a conspiracy against them. These can be very insidious and subtle to outright living hells in one’s mind, or the prison of their bodies that can drive them insane.
  • Splatterpunk–I haven’t read the Resident Evil books but a lot of that shooting and gory mayhem, bodies and heads exploding, blood gushing on a rampage of carnage falls into the splatterpunk category. It may include punky or trendy people but it will definitely include lots of gore and splatter although the story can also be a dark fantasy, splatterpunk psychological horror. What defines a story’s genre or sub-genre over another is that the emphasis or main theme is more in one category, or how the publishers think they can market the story.
  • Gothic Horror–such stories could involve hauntings, old mansions, vampires, strange brooding towns and people. Think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and any H.P. Lovecraft story whether about the Great Old Ones or the darkness of the human soul. Gothic can be set in the past but is just as likely to be in the present or even the future. The mood and atmosphere is always very important, where the setting itself can be as oppressive as the creature. Victorian sensibilities can abound. And thankfully Lord of the Rings is not gothic horror.
  • Supernatural Horror–involves just that. Whether its ghosts, Great Old Ones, witches, vampires, mages or some other sinister sword or hat that takes over a person’s mind, it is all supernatural. And the biggest area in supernatural would be religious themes; demons, devils, angels, saints, priests; heaven and hell feature very big in the supernatural. It’s the most popular sub-genre for movies. If the devil’s involved it’s most likely supernatural horror.

There are of course, other categories and the definitions will blend and change as they evolve. Like the horror genre,which was blacklisted by the major publishers, like a sinister demon that they thought they had killed, horror has resurrected itself in numerous small but professional presses, coming back stronger, more diverse and respected for its tenacity. The World Horror Convention, and the Horror Writers Association continues strong through the dark imaginings of writers in horror.

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6 Comments

Filed under art, Culture, entertainment, fairy tales, fantasy, horror, Publishing, science fiction, Writing

6 responses to “Writing: What is Horror?

  1. Mick Sylvestre

    Not a bad write up on the horror genre. Stephen King wrote a good book called “Danse Macabre” which I find that others into the horror might like to check out (if it’s still in publication).

  2. R.A. Evans writes...

    Great thoughts on horror. It’s always tough to classify what constitutes horror. You’ve done it quite nicely.

  3. Reblogged this on Official Site of Alex Laybourne – Author and commented:
    A nice little post about horror and it’s different forms.

  4. As a horror writer myself, I am keenly aware of the negative impact film like Saw (the first one was great, the rest just about the torture and gore, especially after part III) and Hostel to name but a two have had. Torture porn style movies and writing are considered by many to be Horror, but it could not be further from the truth.

    It is part of a wide genre, and in my opinion one of the widest genres around. It has it’s place, but it is not the be all and end all.

    What I find saddest of all, is that horror authors are starting to market their work as Thriller or Dark Thriller just because of the damaged reputation Horror currently has.

    Nice post by the way.

    I reblogged it to my site… I hope you don’t mind.

    • colleenanderson

      Thanks, Alex. And I agree. The splatterpunk aspects are gore for gore’s sake. I dislike and won’t watch movies like that. I’m about to blog about the new movie Sinister. And yes, horror writers must market their stories as other because that’s what publishers are doing. After horror went down in flames because it was getting too splatterific, the genre shifted in packaging.

      • True, but I am stubborn and rather old school. I write horror and won’t be bullied into leaving my genre. I may venture outside with some novels, but if I write a horror novel, as 99% of my work is, I advertise it as such. I know I will lose sales, but hey, we have to make a stand at some point right. Maybe I will the guy who brings horror back to the heights it deserves… I’m sorry, I slipped into the fantasy there. I’ll stop. lol

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