"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."
-- Douglas Winter, 1982

As a literary genre, "horror" can be loosely defined as any work that creates as atmosphere of fear or dread and provokes those reactions in the reader.

Many people associate horror with spooky tales of the supernatural: ghosts, demons, vampires and the like. Such stories are often the modern-day equivalent of old tales about the unknown dangers that lie in the shadows beyond the comforting light cast by the campfire.

But in this modern age, we have lit virtually the entire planet, and so the midnight world has lost much of its mystery and fear. So others insist they couldn't be frightened by a story unless it dealt with a scenario that could really happen: being stalked by a serial killer, being trapped in a basement with hungry rats, etc.

And still others insist they can't be spooked at all by a story ... but they can be plenty grossed out by one. These people associate horror fiction with the sense of revulsion that gory descriptions of decay and mayhem can create.

Thus, to a certain extent, horror is in the eye of the beholder; it can be quiet or over-the-top, fabulist, surreal, or mundane. Horror sends its tentacles into virtually every other genre: mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, romance, erotica, etc.

The basic qualities of a good horror tale are ideally the same as for any other story: a compelling plot and sympathetic and interesting characters. There should be plenty of atmosphere and suspense; if a good horror story can't make jaded ol' you want to sleep with the lights on, it should at least give you a delicious shiver now and then.

Horror became hugely popular in the 1980s due to the burgeoning popularity of authors such as Stephen King in the mid-to-late 70s. Publishing companies were eager to cash in on the trend, and by the late 80s, bookstore shelves were absolutely flooded with hastily-commissioned, poorly-written novels. The good stuff was lost in a sea of crap, and disenchanted readers naturally stopped looking to horror for entertainment.

The horror market crashed, and throughout the 1990s major publishers shied away from horror novels from beginning writers. King and other authors such as Anne Rice continued to sell very well, but the industry as a whole treated horror as a dead genre. Good novels continued to find publication, of course, but they were most often marketed as thrillers or as dark fantasy. Unestablished writers of works that could be marketed as nothing but horror had to seek publication in the small press.

The commercial prospects for horror started to improve in the late 1990s, but the re-emergence of horror as a popular genre has been slowed by real-life horrors such as the Columbine school shootings and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Horror is a bit like science fiction: it's popular as long as the real thing isn't readily available in the Real World. Just as many people lost interest in science fiction movies when the space program was going full steam, many people lose their taste for horror when the evening news is full of it.

A few subgenres

"How can you write this shit? I mean, doesn't it ever bother you to write about horror all the time?"

That question was put to me recently, and after I recovered from my surprise (I was expecting the traditional "Where do you get your ideas?"), I realized that I had no ready answer.

It seems like a simple enough question at first glance, but if you think about and examine it closer, you might find some disturbing implications. I know I did.

One possible answer might be, "Yeah, sure, it bothers me sometimes. I wish it were in me to write something more humorous and genteel, something like The Wind and The Willows or Sense and Sensibility or the Dortmunder novels of Donald Westlake, things that would appeal to a wider audience and not clear the room of humans every time I announce what I do for a living, but I can't; my particular point of view won't allow me."

That's one answer.

God, if only it were that easy.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the purpose of all good horror fiction (aside from its duty to entertain) is to explore the relationship between violence and grief while trying to reconcile the existence of those things with the concept of a Just universe, and to do so in a manner that will disturb the reader in such a way that maybe they'll come away from the story or novel a little more able to deal with the suffering and injustice that exist in the real world.

That horror fiction deals with subjects of a dark and unpleasant nature is a given; so too is it a given that the writerof horror fiction spends a decent portion of their waking (and sometimes sleeping) hours thinking about and exploring these self-same dark and unpleasant things in order to strengthen and enrich their fiction.

The horror writer has to accept that darkness, pessimism, anger, violence, loneliness, grief (and all the other more unpleasant aspects of life that no one else wants to talk about) will always be a part of their daily thought processes, and therefore, to an extent, their own personality. This eventually becomes something of a necessity, because any combination of those darknesses has to be available to them at a moment's notice when the story or novel demands they make an appearance.

The result (and I'm basing all of this on my own personal experiences) is that all of these darknesses exist a bit closer to the surface than they do with most folks. In order to make their fiction as rich as it can be, in order to ensure that the bigger-than-life events they portray on the page are still very much in touch with life, to some degree or another, the horror writer has to make these darknesses a permanent part of their psychological make-up.

Admittedly, that's probably an oversimplification, but I think you get the point.

That's one implication of the question "Why do you write this shit?"

Here's another: Is it possible that the horror writer can end up disturbing him/herself just as much, if not more, than the reader?

Think about it: If something gets too ugly or too intense or too real, the reader has the luxury of putting down the book and returning to the story at a later time, when they've had the chance to rally.

The horror writer has no such luxury. Sure, we might stop the physical act of writing for the day, but the thoughts and emotions of the work are still there, churning around inside our teeny skulls in an effort to shape themselves into something worthwhile.

That led me to the following question: Can writing horror fiction have an adverse effect on your life? Can it eventually begin to poison you?

Hell, yes. We've lost too many good writers to suicide and alcoholism to think it can't happen.

But it can also enable you to produce powerful fiction, if it doesn't kill you.

Hor"ror (?), n. [Formerly written horrour.] [L. horror, fr. horrere to bristle, to shiver, to tremble with cold or dread, to be dreadful or terrible; cf. Skr. hsh to bristle.]

1.

A bristling up; a rising into roughness; tumultuous movement.

[Archaic]

Such fresh horror as you see driven through the wrinkled waves. Chapman.

2.

A shaking, shivering, or shuddering, as in the cold fit which precedes a fever; in old medical writings, a chill of less severity than a rigor, and more marked than an algor.

3.

A painful emotion of fear, dread, and abhorrence; a shuddering with terror and detestation; the feeling inspired by something frightful and shocking.

How could this, in the sight of heaven, without horrors of conscience be uttered? Milton.

4.

That which excites horror or dread, or is horrible; gloom; dreariness.

Breathes a browner horror on the woods. Pope.

The horrors, delirium tremens. [Colloq.]

 

© Webster 1913.

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