“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 E. Winter
If you write dark fiction, you’ve probably come across this quote often. In fact, it appears in the very well-written essay “What is Horror Fiction?” right in the FAQ section of the HWA website. The essay makes some excellent points that I whole-heartedly agree with. And yet, several things over the past year have gotten me thinking.
For starters, a major (now only sort of new) book website for writers classified horror as a subgenre of fantasy. Consider my hackles raised, my business taken elsewhere.
Then, my local Barnes & Noble did away with their horror shelves completely, mixing horror in with general fiction. I walked in wanting to pick up a brand new horror novel by a hopefully debut author, but since I couldn’t find one, I didn’t buy one. I am an avid reader, so I went home, did more research, and found what I wanted online. But what Barnes & Noble has effectively done is make it impossible for the casual reader to browse in-store for horror. Again, hackles raised, business lost.
And finally, most recently, I came across this old Douglas E. Winter quote from his 1982 anthology Prime Evil, and I suddenly saw it in a whole new light.
Perhaps, as the FAQ essay suggests, this quote was empowering to some. It attempted to destigmatize horror. With the rise of both Stephen King and the vampire, horror surged in the eighties—and became rather narrowly defined due to popular demand. So maybe this declaration of horror as an emotion rather than a genre was freeing; it allowed writers to explore the many variations and manifestations of fear without sticking to label expectations.
But now, with the rise of genre-blenders like Laurell K. Hamilton and subsequent paranormal/mystery/fantasy/romances, horror has melded with other genres and become much less clear-cut. And due to this dissemination of the genre, the entire bookshelf for horror is suddenly disappearing.
So now, at the threat of my favorite genre (and indeed, the one I most often write in) being swallowed whole, I have a point to make. Let’s do a quick rundown of why horror shouldn’t rightfully be shelved in any one of these other genres:
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We walk a fine line. Many horror authors dabble in dark fantasy and vice versa. No doubt the distinction can be confusing.
How I distinguish between dark fantasy and horror: the presence and importance of fear. Is fear the driver of the story, or is it just an atmosphere? In other words, is the story magical with a dark background, or scary with a magical element? There is unarguable cross-over, but the predominate element (fear or fantasy) wins the genre classification.
The problem with deleting horror and calling it dark fantasy? Not all horror is supernatural. Haven’t you ever read The Girl Next Door? Silence of the Lambs? Some of horror’s best monsters are all too realistic.
I love zombies so much, and interestingly, my husband—who hates horror—loves zombies too. Why? Because they produce a lot of action. And the recent explosion in zombie popularity has done an interesting thing: people hear horror and automatically think zombies.
The problem: not all horror is zombie-based, and few horror monsters are as action-packed as that particular breed of undead, so it sets up false expectations, and perhaps a false association. The aim of action is to thrill with, well, action. The aim of horror is to scare. Calling horror a subgenre of action because it has action in it is as ridiculous as calling mystery a subgenre of romance because it has a love story in it.
Frankenstein, Dracula, Something Wicked This Way Comes… Can’t we just get rid of commercial horror and shelve the other stuff in “classics” or “literature”?
No. We cannot. Because that would knock out Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Laurell K. Hamilton, Anne Rice (well, okay, maybe she would stay), Richard Laymon, Simon Clark, Doglas Clegg, Edward Lee…
How would science fiction readers feel if I wanted to delete every sci-fi book except for Orson Scott Card, H.G. Wells, and Madeleine L’Engle? Speaking of which…
See Fantasy. Same rules apply. Science element predominates? Sure, it can be dark sci-fi. Fear predominates? It’s horror with science elements.
Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Flowers in the Attic. These have undeniable horror elements.
The truth is, horror as a genre actually came from the gothic genre, so this one used to be accurate. But then horror surged in popularity, knocking gothic down to a subgenre of itself. Gothic is a perfect mix of half horror and half romance. Technically, it can’t rightfully be shelved in one or the other. But since they have to be, the marketers pick whichever they think will sell the most books and shelve it there. Thus, romance novels set in a gothic atmosphere become “gothic romance” and horror novels set in gothic atmosphere become “gothic horror.”
The problem? Well, there’s not one. If the bookstores would bring back gothic as a bookshelf genre, I would gladly see horror sub-genred under it. (That’s right, I verbed it.) But gothic is in even more dire shape than horror, so alas, this solution isn’t feasible.
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There is, of course, one other option—and I’m terrified that it’s the option currently happening. We could shelve all the manifestations of horror in their closest sister-genre (dark fantasy, dark sci-fi, general fiction) and do away with the classifier of “horror” altogether. Horror as a genre will effectively disappear and all other genres will just have more dark material somewhere in their bellies. I repeat: horror will be in permanent hiding. Only the most determined horror fans will be able to intentionally find it.
I don’t know about you, but that phrase “confined to the ghetto of a special shelf” suddenly seems a lot less accurate than “given the honor of its own genre designation.”
It seems to me that if we want to build respect for horror, we should do so by publishing the very best horror possible… and calling it horror. Claiming that horror is so much more than a genre is counter-productive; it allows the very best horror novels to be dubbed something else entirely. Shouldn’t we be embracing the label and improving the genre rather than skittering around the label and disseminating the genre?
Think about romance. Love, too, is an emotion… and yet I’ve never heard anyone claim that romance isn’t a genre. Almost every genre of book has a love story in it—but romance writers still band together to reach their most avid readers. The result? A huge and still thriving “romance” bookshelf in major bookstores. Yes, romance has genre giants equivalent to our very own King, Ketchum, and the classics, but due to the popularity of the genre, next to those genre giants are midlist and brand new authors that any casual reader is likely to stumble into. And thus, the very existence of the genre breeds new readers.
I want that for horror. I believe, down to the tips of my toes, that horror is its own genre. That it should be its own genre. That it deserves to be its own genre.
Why? Because no matter how many other genres you try to slice and dice horror into, the many, many branches of horror still all belong to one central trunk: fear. Just as romance is all about the emotion of love, horror is all about the emotion of fear. And that, my friends, deserves the respect of its own bookshelf.
Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) is a short story author and award-winning poet. She has work appearing or forthcoming in over two dozen venues, including The Spirit of Poe, Underneath the Juniper Tree, So Long and Thanks for All the Brains, the British Fantasy Society journal Dark Horizons, and the National Federation of State Poetry Societies’ prize anthology Encore. She’s also a member of the Horror Writers Association, vice president of the Denton Poets’ Assembly, and president of the North Branch Writers’ Critique Group. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com for blogs, creative works, free organizational tools for writers, and more.
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