So far I’ve covered horror as a publishing genre and horror as a category in Amazon’s Kindle Store.
How about horror as literature, or a part of literature?
Horror generally covers the subjects of love and death, and so does literature. What’s more important, right? Survival of the self and survival of the species, our basic instincts.
Our most basic drives and concerns. And the subjects of our greatest longings and fears.
But to me, that’s too generic and vague. I mean, romances are about love and mysteries are about death.
So what is it horror readers want?
The common assumption is, to be frightened.
That’s implicit in the term “horror,” I agree.
Yet the more I thought about it, the more I had two problems with that.
1. I liked a lot of horror stories for many other things.
Sure, vampires are frightening, but when I’m following Van Helsing and company as they track down Dracula’s hidden lair, I’m getting a glimpse into a secret.
I believe that’s a lot of the appeal. Learning secrets.
I don’t read Lovecraft to be scared to death by aliens with no vowels in their names, but to discover ancient texts and buried doctrines.
It’s learning a truth about the world few people know. The Da Vinci Code played to this desire as well. And as it speculated on the truth of Christianity, and therefore the truth of the universe, it could be termed a kind of horror novel.
2. Many kinds of books attempt to frighten the reader.
Let me say something that maybe is not obvious. When an author wants to frighten the reader, then can’t do it by threatening the reader. How can they? They can’t.
They do it by getting the reader to identify with a character in the book, and then threatening the character.
That’s hardly unique to horror.
Thrillers, suspense, crime, espionage, and many mysteries.
So it comes down horror not being defined by its ostensible goal of frightening the reader, but in HOW.
All good fiction requires conflict. A main character wants something or has a problem they want to solve.
If they just go buy it at Wal-Mart, the story’s over and so is the author’s career.
No, it has to be a difficult goal. And so something must make it difficult.
That can be something amorphous, such as contemporary social standards and attitudes standing in the way of a cross-class, cross-racial, or cross-religious marriage.
It can be nature. Moby Dick.
It can be something broad, but more physical than social attitudes: for example, the Civil War in Gone With the Wind.
But in most genre fiction — and a lot of literature (what would David Copperfield be without Micawber?) — the story antagonist is one or more people. Sometimes in addition to nature and society.
In fact, villains seem to define genre.
Who, or What, is the villain?
A ghost? It’s horror.
A terrorist? International suspense.
A serial killer? A mystery thriller.
A mutated virus? A medical thriller.
Aliens? Science fiction.
A renegade wizard? Fantasy.
Another king’s knight? Historical.
A woman looking for love with the main character’s boyfriend? Romance.
(You sophisticated readers may be saying that in the most satisfying stories the main character’s main obstacle is an internal flaw within themselves.
(That’s true, but in the best stories, heroes and heroines must overcome both kinds of obstacles — their own flaws AND the external antagonist. Often they can’t beat the villain until they figure out how to become better people. Done well, this is the essence of endings that not only satisfy readers, but knock them out of their chairs.)
Furthermore, novels defined as horror seem to me to be often fantasies taking place in the contemporary world we all live in.
What is called high fantasy, such as The Lord of the Rings, takes place in some kind of alternate, magic world. We call all of that fantasy, not horror, although Frodo inside Mordor is one of the most frightening sequences in literature, scarier to me than anything Lovecraft ever wrote, and I like Lovecraft.
Some authors bring conventional fantasy creatures from Western mythology and other fantasy books to modern life. Books with elves are fantasy, whether frightening or not.
Frighten characters with new kinds of supernatural threats, as Stephen King as often done, and you write horror.
Scare them with a dragon in New York City, and it’s fantasy.
Yet, are dragons really any more fantastic than a haunted hotel or a space monster killing children in a Maine small town?
Find a nonWestern mythological monster and bring them to the modern world, and it’s horror, because Western readers have never heard of them before.
Or say they’re clones, or androids, and your story becomes science fiction instead.
Where am I going?
I hate to say this, but I’m not so sure “horror” as a separate publishing genre or category is even necessary.
There’re a thousand definitions of horror, but what works for me is the story must be about the supernatural or hidden nature of reality.
Frightening the reader comes from the dynamics of good fiction — including a powerful enemy to threaten the hero or heroine.
Thus, much as some won’t agree, Psycho in my viewpoint is not horror — not Robert Bloch’s novel or Alfred Hitchcock’s movie.
Yes, it’s frightening as all get out, and that is emphasized, leading to the categorization of both as horror.
Yes the villain is poor Norman Bates, still a Mommy’s boy, but nothing supernatural happens or is implied.
Norman Bates (inspired by real-life psychotic killer Ed Gein, who lived not too far from Robert Bloch), is just Dr. Hannibal Lector’s big brother.
And the Thomas Harris novels about Hannibal the Cannibal are frightening, but not horror by my definition.
However, a book and movie that came out close to the same time as Psycho, is horror, to me: Night of the Hunter.
Unfortunately, the movie didn’t find an audience when first released and, even now, is not nearly so well known.
To me it’s horror because although its villain, Preacher, is also a sexually warped, nonsupernatural sociopathic serial killer, but because in the middle, he chases the two children into some kind of weird alternate reality.
And the movie turns into a sort of weird fantasy. It’s religious, though in a generic sort of way. The heroine of the second half is played by Lillian Gish and, projected into the stars, she begins the movie, setting it up.
I know that’s vague. That’s because the film is so cinematic, the experience can’t be conveyed just by a description.
If you haven’t seen that movie, I strongly advise you to watch it. It’s one of the few movies that surpass the novel. To me, it’s the best horror movie ever made.
When Cujo by Stephen King was first published, I recall Fritz Leiber objecting that it had no supernatural element. The monster is the rabid St. Bernard.
However, to me, Cujo is still horror, because clearly King is dealing with the nature of reality. He makes it quite clear Cujo gets his nose bitten by a bat because of “black synchronicity.” It’s not an accident. It means something.
For that, you have to look at the people. Cujo’s owners seem a nice, ordinary family. Mom, hardworking Dad, and five year old Tad. Shades of Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance isolated in The Overlook.
But in Cujo, the weak link is not Dad, but Mom. She’s having an affair with a guy who is a total jerk.
To me, it was quite clear King intended Tad’s death to be a punishment to Mom for her sin. In short, he assumes the world is run by Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament.
Yet, in The Dead Zone, the main character’s years of suffering from being able to predict the future eventually saves humanity from nuclear destruction. Life doesn’t take the short way around in King’s books, but in this novel, whoever is in charge is more beneficent that the God of Cujo.
Take Anne Rice. She’s most famous for her vampire novels. Yet they don’t scare us by threatening ordinary people with death by vampire. They entertain us with stories about the vampires, their histories, and loves and personal problems.
Still, I like the Talamasca, the whole idea of an instutition dedicated to studying the paranormal.
Some are so much stories of the past, they’re more like historical fiction. Vittorio the Vampire poses a theological problem. (Presumably she wrote it while still a Catholic again.)
The Witching Hour is probably her best work that resembles a normal horror novel — except for its excellence at telling of a New Orleans family “haunted” for generations by a strange spirit.
Is a fire-breathing dragon more supernatural than a vampire?
Is a magic charm more fantastic than a cemetery which restores life to the dead?
Therefore, I’ve come to conclusion I’m okay with calling horror contemporary fantasy. Or dark fantasy.
Though I reserve the right to use “horror” strictly out of habit, on the basis you’ll know what I’m talking about.
I’m no longer sure if my recent stuff is horror or not.
A significant amount of Virgin Blood takes places in a sort of spiritual/astral realm. The villain is the spirit of a dead Indian trying to take over the body of an of an out of control young man. Definitely supernatural. Definitely no elves or dragons.
The novel I’m just finishing up, The Chaos Formula, tells about a young man who is fated to fight for an incarnation of the Moon Goddess. A parallel story takes place 10,000 years ago, when he’s a sort of predynastic Egyptian Conan. There’s a serial killer using magic and big fight at the end. Again, definitely supernatural. Definitely no elves or dragons.
Of course, some contemporary fantasy is humorous. Some humorous stories use horror props, but aren’t themselves horror.
When it comes down to the bottom line, I want to read and write novels:
1. Contemporary (for the most part)
2. Have an interesting supernatural element, including the revelation of wonderful secrets
3. Have a terrific, terrifying villain
4. Have a great hero or heroine
5. Lots of exciting action that leads to . . .
6. An explosive conclusion where both hero and villain put everything on the line
Take away #2, and you have the basics of a lot of thriller novels, which I also enjoy reading.
Call it horror. Call it contemporary fantasy. Call it dark fantasy.
Just make sure you entertain me with #1 through #6.