The Definition of Horror Fiction

October 26, 2010 Fright Fest 8

This is a question I get asked quite often…what makes a book horror, versus let’s say thrillers or suspense?  Admittedly, it is quite confusing to discern the differences.  To me, horror is any piece of writing that causes the reader to experience a sense of dread or fear.  Horror forces us to realize and confront our fears.  In many cases, as I’ve stated repeatedly, horror forces us to examine social issues that are often ignored or frowned upon. Notice I didn’t state that said writing must contain vampires, ghosts, werewolves, or anything supernatural? There are many ways in which this fear is elicited, including unnatural things like monsters or ghosts, but realistic situations, including mass murderers, serial killers, etc. can be used. Part of the way this fear is created is through the setting and atmosphere.  Picture a dark, abandoned house, full of spider-webs, shadows, creaking with age. This setting quite easily evokes fear and dread, right? With horror movies, the chilling background music adds to the atmosphere as well.

Classic examples of what could be termed horror fiction include Dracula, Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Modern horror would include the likes of Stephen King and books such as The Strain and The Passage.

I’ve been a fan of horror for nearly 20 years.  Throughout this time, I’ve noticed that horror gets a bad rap from readers or other writers.  Why is this?

In the late 70s and early 80s, horror fiction was quite popular.  We can thank Stephen King for that. All sorts of other horror authors came out of the woodwork but instead of creating a strong, established genre, horror lost its identity.  So many books falling under the horror genre were published and it became hard to describe exactly what horror was. Then in the early 90s, the public’s view of horror changed. It was no longer good for writers to be labeled as horror authors. Instead, their books were published under other genres, including thriller, speculative fiction or science fiction. Somehow, in this time-frame, the term “horror fiction” became a bad label.  

It’s a shame, really.  The point of Fright Fest was to show there is some really quality “horror” fiction out there.  It isn’t just blood and gore and chainsaws and violence. If you look hard enough, you can find some pretty outstanding writing hidden under all that gore, and frankly,  hidden within the gore.

8 Responses to “The Definition of Horror Fiction”

  1. Becky
    Twitter: BeckyLeJeune

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Jenn! It is a shame that horror became such a “bad” label in the writing world. I’m hoping that it’s changing. It seems to experience ups and downs and right now there are quite a few literary authors trying their hands at it (The Passage). We’ll see.

  2. DeAnna
    Twitter: dknippling

    I go with “horror” vs. “terror.”

    Terror is some guy jumping out of the closet and stabbing someone to death. Horror is their father doing it. Terror is zombies. Horror is your loved one turning into a zombie.

    Horror’s the next step past irony – the opposite of what should happen, in an ideal world, happens, in a dangerous way. Your loved ones shouldn’t attack you. Your children should be innocent. You fall in love with a monster and help it do bad things to other people. A safe place isn’t safe. There’s a reversal of expectations.

    Terror is playing with the fear of the unknown – some random thing happens, and it’s unexpected, dangerous, and unavoidable. The Alien movies are mostly terror.

    I haven’t read The Strain yet, but I’d argue that The Passage, while it has elements of horror, is mostly an epic. The central, crushing irony of us causing our own problems is there, but on a page-by-page basis, I see more “here are the small cogs that made up the giant wheel of this tale,” which is what epics are, to me. I liked it quite a bit, whatever it was.

  3. Amy
    Twitter: JustBookReading

    I agree. There are some great horror books out there but sometimes you have to look under diffferent genres to find them. I’m always confused by the thriller/suspence category but if it works… I read The Strain and thought it was fun but it read a lot like a movie script. Still haven’t picked up the sequel. Tim Lebbon is a good horror writer. I’m particuraly fond of his Noreela series but they might classify them more as dark fantasy rather than horror.

  4. TopherGL
    Twitter: itwasuphill

    I like that definition and what others have said.

    I used to love reading horror, but somewhere along the way I sort of stopped picking them up, for some reason. I like that a few people are kind of putting the spotlight on good literature that at least have some horror elements. Makes me want to read Dorian all over again, and then some. Thanks, Halloween!

  5. Erin
    Twitter: ErinReadsblog

    Very interesting post! I find I don’t mind the monsters and vampires and such nearly as much as I do the more realistic horror: murders, kidnappings, stalkers. Those are the scary books that keep me up at night and that I avoid!

    I just read The Picture of Dorian Gray for the Dueling Monsters readalong and really enjoyed it. Reading everyone’s take on Halloween this year has helped me refine my horror aversion. I still can’t quite say where the line is drawn, but I’m getting closer!

  6. Elise

    Stephen King’s writing is brilliant, and because he’s a “horror” writer (and disturblingly prolific), his work isn’t always as respected as it should be. His characterizations are spectacular — looking at childhood vs. adulthood through his eyes in IT is absolutely beautiful and rings so true I remember it making me cry.

    • Jenn
      Twitter: jennbookshelves

      That’s a very good point! Why does prolific writing make an author less respected, though?

  7. S. Krishna
    Twitter: skrishna

    Great post! I know I’ve asked you what horror is exactly before, this is a great way to sum it up.