Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Horror Fiction: Is There Really Such a Thing?

We have discussed different types of crime fiction, sub-genres and such, and found that this particular type of fiction is a multi-faceted one. So many different categories, cross-genre pieces; but, what about horror? Are there different sub-genres of horror fiction? Is the term 'horror fiction' even a valid one, or is it simply another story component? Can the idea of horror be incorporated into crime fiction/thriller tales, or is it already in there?

Let's begin at the very beginning. What exactly is horror about? I believe we can all agree that the concept of horror is all about fear. Fear and revulsion. So where does that take us story-wise? Generally, we encounter a 'normal' person caught up in some 'abnormal' situation, in which they are totally powerless and have completely lost control. What is it about these stories that dredges up the fear? What type of things/situations would cause us to feel utterly powerless? The possibility of madness would be one--the hint of the onset of insanity in ourselves or someone close. Others would certainly be death (by any means), specifically, by being murdered, being kidnapped/held captive, as well as those of a supernatural nature, like supernatural forces, evil spirits, ghosts, demonic possession, witches, vampires, werewolves, and other assorted creatures of that type. While other-worldly entities are generally associated with horror stories, I feel we have too narrowly viewed the whole concept of horror fiction by restricting it to only include the undead and those who commute via broomstick handles. Let's look at a general breakdown of the types of horror literature.

1. Psychological: This is an element of horror that toys with the mind and targets the psyche. There doesn't necessarily have to be anything supernatural involved here since usually, this type of horror is internalized and explores the inner darkness of the human mind.

2. Allegorical: Here we have an element of horror that is largely symbolic in nature and may possess a deep, or even, hidden meaning. This is the one that brings out fears from within to couple with fears brought on from outside oneself. Examples of this type of horror are The Big Bad Wolf, The Witch in the Gingerbread House, etc.

3. Sociological: This type of horror is generally a commentary on the evils of society, such as the lack of morality, the lack of traditional values, and sometimes focus on specific cultural issues. Often, the idea of corruption is utilized in this type of horror tale.

As you can see, these descriptions can stand alone, alongside, or co-mingle with any element in crime fiction. Let's see if there are any other similarities.

Following are some descriptions I found that are used to reference types of horror literature.

1. Dark Fantasy: These are generally fantasy stories that may or may not contain some supernatural elements. But, if they do, they do not utilize ones of vampires, werewolves, etc.

2. Dark Fiction: This is not a term used often, but when it is, it generally refers to a type of contemporary horror that is mixed with suspense.

3. Extreme Horror: This is the old cut 'em up/hack 'em up just because we can type of story. You know, the old 'let's go go camp and wander the woods at night in our underwear, even though there's an axe murderer loose' type of thing. Come on--we've all watched those, and sat in our living rooms and advised the kids not to go through THAT door into the dark room, but they do, and they die, and we knew they would and... Sorry. Next...

4. English Gothic: These usually involve hauntings that occur in castles, mansions, crypts and contain bleak settings. These are tales of ruin and decay, persecution and imprisonment.

5. Noir: Yes, I did say noir. This was included in the description of a type of horror. Stories that deal with an underworld of crime, moral ambiguity, and contain dark themes of violence, corruption, and have an aura of menace and suspicion.

6. Dark Suspense: These contain no supernatural elements, but contain an ever-present sense of threat from an outside source.

It would appear that if you omit the demons and such, elements of horror can be present in any type of crime fiction piece. Horror is an important component in suspense stories, thrillers, mysteries, etc., since they all involve the emotion of fear from some perspective, and that's what horror is and brings.

Author Douglas Winter stated in his anthology, Prime Evil, that "Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion." Also, in one of his later anthologies, Revelations, he stated "Horror is that which cannot be made safe--evolving, ever-changing--because it is about our relentless need to confront the unknown, the unknowable, and the emotion we experience when in its thrall."

I do believe he really had something there. Horror is not a category, it is a feeling, something that comes over you in certain circumstances with certain stimuli. Whether you think the noise outside your bedroom window is a zombie with a craving for human flesh as a midnight snack or a serial killer who's been dismembering people in your town who wear shoes exactly like the ones you just bought, the fear--the sense of horror--is one and the same.


  1. this is great! very thought provoking.
    i write dark horror. to me the core thing is the fight between good and evil.
    add the supernatural in there.
    hey this is like a recipe:
    for horror:
    take one cup of good, one of evil--
    add litre of supernatural
    add litre of fear
    stir them together or if you want something extreme, put them in a blender!
    pour out and bake--preferrably in a hot as hell oven. sprinkle brimstone and voila! Vous avez HORREUR!
    seriously, horror to me is mostly what you've said: fear of the unknown, the possiblity that because it is supernatural (the kind of horror i like) anything can happen--that makes it more frightening to me! ooh i'm scared now.
    great blog!

  2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Carole. Glad you enjoyed it. I am really happy to hear from a writer who writes top quality horror like you do. Love your recipe, by the way. Sounds like the perfect blend for a terror-ridden time, which is always fun. Thanks again for your comments, and please do keep scaring us, Carole. You do it SO well!

  3. I've decided I'm not very good at writing horror and don't think I'll be doing too much of it - after I finish the two stories that I'm working on!

  4. That will be the day, Paul, when there is something that YOU can't write. There isn't a genre or style that you couldn't conquer. Please do finish the two horror stories you are working on and let me know where I can read them. Horror is an interesting category and can mean different things to different people. Are yours creature or supernatural type horror or human type horror? Now, I'm really curious!