What Scares You? Horror Fiction, Undefined

Agents and editors, writers and critics have written scads of essays and articles trying to describe what horror fiction is. Some of the best posts come closer to explaining how difficult it is to define horror, but the consensus is that horror fiction and films attempt to elicit a response of fear or dread.

Okay. So the Horror Writers Association website points out that Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones fits this definition of horror, because it’s about a girl who’s been brutally murdered. And some scenes in the book do evoke fear and dread, but the primary emotions the novel draws out are positive ones, focusing on the strengths of love and family and the power of forgiveness. And in case you haven’t read it, it is not a horror novel.

No matter how we try to pin horror down, even our simplest definitions crumble under scrutiny. What’s the criteria? Is it a scary or eerie atmosphere? If a book startles the right people in the marketing department, does it get a black cover? Too often, I bring home a black-covered book with a promisingly creepy jacket description, only to find the content no scarier than in a mainstream novel.

We can’t even rely on shelving to help us out here. These days, shelves in bookstores labeled “horror” have vanished or have been grouped together with Scifi and Fantasy. Is this because we’re writing fewer horror novels? Is it because editors and booksellers are defining fewer books as horror or are (Oh no, please no) buying fewer horror titles? Well, probably. The heyday of horror was the seventies and eighties. Is my favorite genre fading away? There’s a horror-worthy thought.

But who should decide what horror is—the writer, publisher, bookseller, or consumer? We writers argue about who is and isn’t writing horror. Agents and editors tell us we’re writing horror when we’re sure we’re writing paranormal romance, but when we send them our chilling horror manuscripts, they tell us, “This is definitely urban fantasy.” And then the next editor says it’s horror even after we add a hot undead love interest. In the bookstore, sellers shelve us at their whim, and (hopefully) people who love to read will buy our books and review them, writing:

“Yawn. This is supposed to be scary?”

“My mother took this book away from my little brother and locked it in a drawer.”

“This reads like Peter Pan meets Bride of Frankenstein to me.”

“I am sleeping with every light in the house on after reading this book.”

—All about the same novel.
This is who we are.

The HWA site concludes that, since our fears change with every age and even with each reader, so will our definition of horror. And this is true, but in every age, some unifying force gathers certain books into the horror genre. And then we argue about whether the books belong there. This, too, is who we are.

So…what scares you? What doesn’t?

How do you define horror fiction?

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4 thoughts on “What Scares You? Horror Fiction, Undefined

  1. As a writer, I try to avoid genre definitions. Definitions are for the agents and marketers; I feel they can only stifle creativity when writers try to fit some category in order to get published.

    I can, however, tell you what I like and what scares me as a reader of horror. It’s the unknown, the mystery, the anticipation–something ominous is out there, and it’s deadly. All the best horrors are largely off stage; as soon as they come on stage and take shape, they become a known quantity that can be dealt with in some way.

    • I think you’ve explained why so many horror films fall apart for me at the end, turning into a battle scene in which “the monster” is defeated.

      And I wonder what would happen if I removed my (ever-changing) genre identification from my query letter, while still describing the tone and emotional landscape of the manuscript. There’s only one way to find out.

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