Yesterday’s Booking through Thursday asked how many people read horror, and I was very surprised to see most of the respondents narrowly define horror as gross-out horror. I suppose I shouldn’t have been—this has been a long-standing problem for horror authors, and one which I’ve been quite aware of as a horror writer in the past—but it’s been a long time since I wrote horror and so I’d largely forgotten about the issue.
Horror fiction is any fiction designed to evoke a feeling of horror (i.e. dread, terror, shock, revulsion, loathing, fear). That sounds obvious, yes? And yet apparently it isn’t, if people are narrowly defining horror by its current trend of gross-out examples such as ‘Hostel’ and ‘Saw.’
It becomes more obvious that horror should have a wider definition than buckets of blood if you look back in time a bit. ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is a very famous horror movie/book, and yet there’s no blood. It’s all psychological horror. Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft are two classic horror writers, and yet they didn’t write gross-out horror. Horror doesn’t require a single drop of literary blood to be shed.
So why the change?
No, I’m serious. ‘Horror’ has long been seen as a tiny niche, as a low-brow pursuit of often disturbed minds. In order to give books a potentially wider audience, marketing people have long searched for any means possible to put some word other than horror on the back of a book—’thriller,’ ‘suspense.’ If it’s a cross-genre work, then it immediately gets filed under its other genre, labeled perhaps ‘dark fantasy’ or just ‘science fiction.’ This is why people have gotten so confused. Any fiction designed to evoke horror is still horror, it’s just that it gets labeled by other names in the hope that it’ll sell better that way. And this works, as evidenced by the number of people I saw yesterday who said, “ew, I hate horror with all its buckets of blood, but I like thrillers, suspense, dark fantasy, etc.” Really what they’re saying here is, “yeah, I like horror, I just don’t like gross-out horror.” They’ve been caught up in an artificial distinction designed to sell more books.
Further confusing things is the fact that any kind of fiction can also be horror fiction, since horror is defined by an evoked emotion rather than by genre tropes or settings. Literary fiction can be horror fiction. Fantasy, romance, SF, mystery… it can all be horror fiction.
The best summation of this is found in Douglas Winter’s immortal words from his 1982 anthology Prime Evil, which I expect to be immediately familiar to nearly every horror author out there:
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.