is Horror Fiction,
and How Do You Know if Youíre Writing It?
(First of six articles)
to the first article in a series covering horror fiction. Iíve chosen to begin
with what I thought would be a simple question Ė ĎWhat is Horror Fiction?í
Itís a question that Iím often asked by new writers who arenít sure if
what they have written is classified as horror or dark fantasy or thriller. As
with everything in life, answering that question didnít turn out to be as
simple as I had expected.
I planned to start this
article with a nice clear-cut definition of what constitutes horror fiction.
However, as you can see, there isnít one, and the reason for this is
because I couldnít find one! Now I donít claim to have looked at every book and web site for a
definition, but I had a damn good look. The Horror Writerís Association web
didnít explain what made their membersí fiction different from, say, the
Science Fiction Writers of America. The how-to book that the HWA have published
in association with the Writerís Digest, Writing
Horror: A Handbook By the Horror Writers Association (ISBN 0-89879-798-5)
gives no definition either. A Google (http://www.google.com
) search on Ďhorror definitioní proved equally fruitless.
So, lacking a definition
of horror fiction itself, weíll go back to basics with a dictionary definition
of horror. The following is from the Collins
Paperback English Dictionary (ISBN 0-00-472208-6).
ďhorror (noun) 1. Extreme fear or terror 2. Intense hatred: she
had a horror of violence 3. A
thing or person causing fear, loathing, or distaste
4. Having a frightening subject, usually connected with the
supernatural: a horror filmĒ
Obviously itís not all
appropriate to horror fiction, but itís actually quite a good definition, and
it is the starting point for our discussion.
ď1. Extreme fear or
Well, thatís obviously
referring to the emotion of horror, but itís still relevant to us here,
because thatís what weíre trying to make our readers feel, after all. If we
were trying to make our readers laugh and feel happy all the way through the
book it wouldnít be called horror fiction, would it? No, we are trying to
scare them, so that they donít want to turn off the lights or look under the
ď4. Having a frightening
subject, usually connected with the supernatural: a
is one of the most contentious issues surrounding horror fiction Ė does horror
fiction have to be about the supernatural? Some people think yes, and some
people think no, and both sides will argue their point passionately. I donít
claim to have the definitive answer, Iím not sure there is one, but Iíll
give you my opinion on the subject.
I used to be a member of
the yes camp, and Iím not afraid to admit that I was a bit of a horror snob
Ė if it wasnít supernatural I didnít consider it to be horror. I also had
a very limited knowledge of horror fiction, which pretty much included only
Stephen King. Since then, Iím glad to say, Iíve seen the error of my ways,
and I now read as large a range of horror novelists as I can. My ideas about
horror have changed also.
I no longer think that it
is the supernatural element which makes a novel into horror fiction or not, but
rather that it is the focus and aims of the author. If the authorís aim is
fear Ė both creating it for his characters and instilling it in his readers --
then it seems pretty clear to me that he is writing horror.
Let me give you an
example, albeit from the movie world. The basic plot of the various Alien films
staring Sigourney Weaver involves a woman on a spaceship being chased by an
alien monster that is trying to kill her. Emphasis here is everything Ė if the
spaceship and alien angle are emphasised, it would be a science fiction film,
but if the fear of the woman and the viewer are emphasised then it would be more
of a horror film. I believe that the same is true for novels.
The main reason I now
think that there is more to horror than the supernatural is that there are many
more things that scare us, and a good horror writer can find fear in sometimes
unexpected places. Stephen King wrote Misery
about an obsessed fan, and Dreamcatcher
about aliens. Dean Koontzís Demon Seed
concerns a too-powerful computer, and Rats
by James Herbert is about giant mutant rats infesting London. These are just
a few examples; there are many more.
I did think that including
non-supernatural fiction was a new direction for horror, and that it was a
modern phenomenon. A look through the classics, however, quickly proves me
wrong; since the beginnings of the genre there have been non-supernatural horror
novels such as Frankenstein by Mary
Shelley and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R S Stevenson, which sit equally beside Dracula
by Bram Stoker and the Victorian ghost stories.
So if youíre writing a
piece of fiction and youíre not sure whether itís horror or not, have a
think about what youíre trying to achieve. If you want to give your reader
chills, or pit your character against a terrifying monstrosity, then youíre
likely to be writing horror.