What is Horror
When I started out as a writer, I wrote fantasy stories—and usually the heroic type. I still like the sub-genre. But I admit it didn’t take me long to lean toward darker tales, whether they were in the fantasy genre, or what some people call horror. Before long I spent more time and words on dark fiction than other speculative fiction styles, but not overwhelmingly, mind you.
I want to say a few things about horror for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am presenting my views on what it is (and isn’t), and I also want to stimulate some thought for those writers who want to delve into the murky side (and possible stimulate some debate among those who already write horror). I wrote an article in Angie’s Diary some time ago, that covers a few of the subtopics I am relating here.
I have been a fan of dark fiction for a long time. As a child I liked horror movies, and in the seventies onwards I grew to love much of the literature—H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker. Later I enjoyed Brian Lumley, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, and Clive Barker. Now there are too many quality writers to cover any reasonable percentage, and many are associated with small independent presses. Horror movies also have great representatives over the years, again, too many to mention.
What my brief and inadequate survey of horror literature and cinematography illustrates is that the subject matter, theme, even style and invoked atmosphere, can vary tremendously. So much so there are blurred lines and definitions, and debate whether a story is horror at all. In literary discussions, ‘dark fantasy’ is a relatively new definition, reflecting, perhaps, that some stories are not considered ‘horror’, or possibly cynically, a way to avoid the term ‘horror’ altogether, because it is overloaded with stereotypical connotations that are, in some way, embarrassing.
The reason why some perceive the term ‘horror’ in a poor light is because it is not well defined, and in our society has been loosely associated with the more ‘tropish’ dimensions of dark fiction. People think of the Frankenstein and Dracula franchises, The Mummy, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Nightmare on Elm Street. Zombies. Lots of zombies. Ghosts. And you know what? Yes, they are all horror stories. And so is Alien, Predator, Stephen King’s It, Rosemary’s Baby, and a whole bunch of other stories that may fall within the perceived trope, or not—not by a long shot. Are all of these stories horror? In many cases, my answer is ‘yes’, but it must fall within a definition space that people can be comfortable with, not just geekishly pidgeon-holed.
Firstly, we need to define what horror isn’t, and also elevate the discussion to speculative fiction.
Speculative Fiction is a fairly modern term that describes fiction (stories) that are beyond normal—speculative. What if? Commonly, commentators include the ‘genres’ fantasy, science fiction, and horror under the super-genre of speculative fiction. Many sub-genres fall below these categories, including steampunk, bizarro, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, and so forth (times one hundred).
Science Fiction is a genre that speculates events and backdrops that are plausible, consistent with science at the time of writing. It may not focus on science in itself—often concentrating on humanistic elements—but it must still be plausible and speculative.
In my view, fantasy is what remains of speculative fiction—it crafts stories that are implausible, and yet suspends disbelief to entertain, possibly provide insights that only a fantasy scenario can effectively provide. It, too, can vary tremendously, such as heroic and high fantasy, urban fantasy, contemporary fantasy, weird tales, magical realism (among many more).
So where does horror fit, if science fiction and fantasy, combined, covers the entire speculative fiction spectrum? The answer is simple. Horror is not a genre, but a style, and worthy of having a place in speculative fiction, but housed in a different dimension/overlay. Horror’s purpose is to make the reader (or viewer) uncomfortable, and more importantly, either terrified or deeply disturbed.
The key ingredient of horror is that it places the reader in a very uncomfortable place—Clive Barker aptly states, “[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.” (Introduction by Barker, London, 29 June 1986. (i) Scared Stiff by Ramsey Campbell, 1986 (ii) Clive Barker’s Shadows in Eden. Thanks to the fine horror writer, John Claude Smith, for the quotation). If a story as a whole can’t instill this in the reader, it isn’t horror. If a tale can, even if it isn’t speculative, it most definitely is horror. It would be rare for a comedy or humorous piece to be horror under this definition, even if it has vampires and mummies. Most young adult fiction with ‘sparkling vampires’ doesn’t instill horror—they are focused on romance, light intrigue, and sexual growth.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a science fiction written in the early nineteenth century—consistent with the era’s understanding of science. It is also a deeply disturbing piece, deserving of the label ‘horror’. Dracula is a contemporary fantasy written in the late nineteenth century, which is also disturbing and terrifying in style: horror and fantasy. Alien is a quality science fiction flick with some of the best sequences of terror and disquiet in any cinema piece produced: science fiction and horror. Murder mysteries and thrillers, if crafted well with the intention to terrify or disturb (such as Hannibal), can also be defined as horror.
Why is it important to make this distinction? On the surface, I am trying to define in order to have a clearer discussion when the topic is under scrutiny. Building a solid framework of understanding helps better traverse the nuances of the craft if that is where people want to go. If this purpose was the only motivation to write this article, however, it would not have been written at all.
The major reason why it is important to dissect genre fiction and define its components—and the whole—well, is that it helps writers understand their craft better and, hopefully, write better. For example, those who are new to horror may feel they need to stick to the tropes—the hardcore backdrops of horror—such as the vampires, zombies and black lagoon creatures. Or, they may feel that to write horror they need to have lots of descriptive blood and guts scenes, and pain, torture and suffering. This isn’t the case. Horror isn’t exclusively concerned with terrifying readers and viewers—it can easily be confined to disturbing so deeply that there is no need for the terrifying, for the words, as the tale progresses, to pull at the discomfort chords in one’s being, and when the story ends, one wipes one’s brow and states, “My, that was an amazing story. Creepy, really got to me.” And it is possible that there wasn’t a drop of blood shed, not a single scream emanating from someone’s lips. I think of much of Kaaron Warren’s writing (Sky, for example) when I ponder ‘closet horror’ stories.
This is not to say that bloodless or painless stories are inferior to horror stories that aren’t. On the contrary. The best writers are able to inject whatever is needed to craft a tale that works as an effective horror story. The trick is to pitch each element just right. There is no set of rules for this; it comes with experience in reading and writing dark fiction. It so much depends on the power the author has over words to create a sense of dread, and fright seamlessly in the narrative and dialogue.
Writing is a passion of mine and I strive for the power over words. I particularly love harnessing this dynamic to take readers to places they haven’t been before (or at least try). That is why I like speculative fiction, as it more easily enables the pushing of boundaries, while still delighting with the ‘what ifs’. Dark fiction—horror—is a particularly strong style within this space, which is why I visit this shadowy place often.
I hope you do too.