Horror Writers Association Blog

Halloween Haunts 2013: Reclaiming Horror by Annie Neugebauer

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For years now, I’ve been hoping for The Horror Revolution. A resurgence. A return to the good old days of the eighties (before I was born!) when horror was not only successful, but thriving. In some ways, on some days, I feel like we’re almost there. I read exceptional horror novels and short stories (many from HWA members) all the time. I feel that the industry is teetering on the brink of Big Change, and that one little push could bring about the boom that will pull us out of the bust.

On other days I feel seriously frustrated with the whole thing. One glance at the movie and TV industries shows us that audiences are hungry for horror, and I’m not at all convinced that the problem in the book industry is a lack of good content. I think it’s a lack of central genre—a failure to call horror horror. The problem is not with the stories but with the marketing of them.

What’s Going On

I explained in my post for last year’s Halloween Haunts series why I have an issue with the scattering of the term “horror.” What it really boils down to is that many of the sub-genres of horror are being removed and taken under other labels. Instead of seeing books sold as “horror,” we’re seeing an increase in “psychological thrillers,” “dark fairy tales,” and “twisted dramas.” Novels that are actually rightfully horror are getting shelved instead under science fiction, fantasy, or general literature.

But it gets worse. I won’t get into a chicken or egg debate, but the scattered genre labeling has correlated with a scattered readership—a readership that no longer embraces the term “horror.”

I recently read a blog post by an author saying she doesn’t like horror – doesn’t read it – because she doesn’t like gore, but that she loves “dark fiction.” I wanted to pull my hair out, because the “dark fiction” she was describing absolutely is horror. Somewhere along the line, the subtler, less-bloody subgenres (like gothic, psychological horror, and things of that nature) have been annexed as “not horror” by those who love the genre but hate the stigma that comes with it.

If you talk to one of these readers, you’ll hear evasions. “I don’t read horror,” they’ll declare with pride or indignation. But they love ____ (Anne Rice, Emily Bronte, Bram Stoker, William Peter Blatty, etc.). That doesn’t count though. “That’s not really horror, because _____ (it’s so deep, there’s no gore, it’s a classic, it focuses on transcendence, etc.).”

Why It’s a Problem

The problem with closeted horror fans declaring proudly that they “don’t read horror” is that it furthers this false stereotype that all horror is slasher-movies-style blood and guts. People are so afraid of being associated with so-called “torture porn” and its kin that they’re denouncing the whole genre. Taste is one thing, but denouncement is another.

One example of this is literary horror. Since horror has the problem of not being taken seriously as a genre that has literary merit (an admittedly subjective concept), it reinforces the disassociation with it for literary authors. So the best literary horror authors often don’t call their books horror at all, knowing it will knock down their estimation in the literary community, and the ones who do often don’t end up with the same esteem. As a result, the “literary” books of horror often get either overlooked, underappreciated, or taken out of their label completely—once again, hijacking some of our field’s best work under secondary labels.

By taking the very best horror works out of their genre—whether literary, commercial, or in between—it weakens the genre. And since genre is truly a marketing device aimed at finding a type of product’s most ideal customer, this is detrimental to all of the authors trying to work within the horror genre.

But writers are guilty of this too, not just readers. Or maybe I should say marketers are (which now days often includes writers). They don’t want to label a book horror because they know it will scare off many readers, so instead they dub it a “dark whatever.” (Action-intense horror = dark thriller, supernatural horror = dark fantasy, gothic horror = dark romance, etc.) This is great for the marketing of that one book, but horrible for our genre as a whole because it furthers the false divide and continues to fracture our strength as a community.

Ways to Help Fix It

Education. This is where HWA members come in, because what we need is a grassroots effort to educate the reading public on what horror actually is. Slasher stories and torture porn are horror, yes, but so are psychological thrillers, supernatural monsters, many a vivid murder mystery tale, ghost stories, gothic novels, dark literary fiction, creepy poetry, and so much more. Horror is defined as any piece of work that intends to frighten, unsettle, or disturb its readers. If fear is the core of a piece of work, that work is horror. Some of the best literature ever created falls under the genre of horror, and we need to remember that and take pride.

I’ve heard it argued that horror isn’t a good enough label, because some people really don’t want to read _____ type of story (usually gory). To that I say: that’s what subgenres are for! Don’t like splatterpunk? Look for gothic, paranormal, or noir. Don’t care for the slow build of psychological horror? Browse for apocalyptic, creature horror, or weird tales. Not having the taste for a particular flavor of horror is not a good enough reason to denounce the entire genre.

So what can we in the community do? Well, we can talk about it, for starters. As readers, we can seek out and promote quality horror books without shame. As writers, we can encourage our agents, editors, and publicists to market our books as horror. And as fans, we can recommend our favorite books as horror without evasive phrasing. As a general public, we can stop allowing the discomfort of someone’s stigma to deny a book its proper genre.

Neugebauer_bioIn short, we can reclaim those wonderful works that continually get “re-shelved.” The achingly intelligent stuff that uses fear to explore the incredibly important and all too often avoided dark side of humankind. The zombies that speak to the much deeper fear of losing our humanity. The ghost stories that illuminate our grief, our loss, our exploration of what lies beyond death. The gleefully macabre tales that make us shiver, squeal, or smile. And yes, the gory ones too—the work that reminds us we can still be shocked, that physicality, too, can be frightening, that bodies and indeed life itself are temporary things.

We can embrace works of all walks that fit into our parent genre. We can talk about what makes them great. We can produce and buy the finest horror possible, and spread the word.  If we embrace the best of our genre and continue to do great work, I don’t see how we can go wrong. Let’s bring on The Horror Revolution, already. Let’s start today. It’s about time.

What can you do to help reclaim horror?

TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: HWA member Tonya Hurley is offering a set of her Ghostgirl books with a tote bag and a tee shirt.

Giveaway Rules: Enter for the prize by posting in the comments section. Winners will be chosen at random and notified by e-mail. You may enter once for each giveaway, and all entrants may be considered for other giveaways if they don’t win on the day they post. If you would like to comment without being entered for the giveaway, include “Not a Giveaway Entry” at the end of your post. You may also enter by e-mailing memoutreach@horror.org and putting HH CONTEST ENTRY in the header.

ANNIE NEUGEBAUER (@AnnieNeugebauer) is a novelist, short story author, and award-winning poet represented by Michelle Johnson of Inklings Literary Agency. She has work appearing in over thirty venues, including Buzzy Mag, The Spirit of Poe, and the British Fantasy Society journal Dark Horizons. She’s president of the North Branch Writers’ Critique Group and a member of the Horror Writers Association. She also blogs for Writer Unboxed. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com.

20 comments on “Halloween Haunts 2013: Reclaiming Horror by Annie Neugebauer

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  3. I read your thoughts with interest. When I was a junior in college (WAY back in 1970-71) I enrolled in a course entitled Romanticism. The professor was a Scottish immigrant, Presbyterian minister and most emphatic on all matters of opinion that his was the correct thinking. His brogue was thick; his ties were plaid. Anyway, he had us read 1796’s The Monk, dubbed a Gothic novel & written by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Sifting through the archaic twists of phrases wasn’t always easy for a 20 year old, but at least I had the good sense to realize that this was horror & effective horror at that. I think genres often can and do overlap. Take the 1950s’ Sci-Fi films–those black & white, low-budget 89 minute affairs with actors most people have never heard of. They are classified as science fiction, yet there is a certain horror aura around them, especially during the decade where we convinced ourselves we’d all be blown to bits. There didn’t seem much we could do about the Russians–and there sure as heck wasn’t much we could do about the Martians either. So, on the surface and in hindsight, yes, it is science fiction, but to us in the ’50s, it was every bit as “horrible” as a windswept Cornish landscape of the 18th century. As you noted, a Bronte novel is certainly dark, shadowy, filled with innuendo and secrecy and been given the imprimatur of time that elevates it–or so we are told–into classic literature. I also have found, as I believe you hinted, there is some snobbery associated among genres–a “my genre is deeper than your genre” or, in fact, “my genre is so deep, it cannot even be pigeonholed into something as mundane as a mere genre due to factors x, y and z.” Just thought I’d throw my two cents (more like 20 cents) in this discussion. Thanks for the opportunity to do so.

  4. You stole my dark little heart with this post. I remember the hay days of the horror genre in the 80s. I love the books- Stephen King and all the greats and the wild, weird, almost hallucinogen inducing movies of that time frame as well.

    I’ve run into this working on my story. It is YA and I spent the first jillion rewrites thinking of it as a paranormal romance, but as my writing improves and I get closer to the story each time, I’m proud to say I have something that, yes, falls into the horror genre. Quite proud. And this has brought great relief and a spirit of playfulness (macabre playfulness, yes, but oodles of fun)back to my storytelling.

    Thank you for this post. I’m bookmarking it for those nasty days when I doubt my calling.

    A proud horror fan since 1987.

  5. I write short stories in a number of genres. I always get a chuckle out of calls for “literary” stories that specifically exclude genre, horror in particular. Think Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Poe, Shakespeare. And Stephen King, Dean Koontz, to say nothing of the great scifi authors from Wells to Bradbury.

    Not literature?

    Nonsense.

  6. Really liked the article, and agree with it. I have noticed a trend in allot of commercial bookstores, where they no longer have a horror category. It all gets lumped in with fiction. Funny (not) is the fact that they still maintain science fiction and fantasy category’s, often times lumped together. They keep the romance stuff all in one place also. Is it possible to persuade bookstores to shelve things by the genre as they once had?

  7. I completely agree. I am a bookseller and a writer and I see it from both ends. Romance and horror have the same stigma if you will and a lot of people don’t want to admit they like it. Erotica too. It gets really fun when you combine the two. Horror has so many subgenres- I completely agree with you. One size does not fit all. My own tastes tend to run either paranormal, apocalyptic, and Gothic. I don’t care much for splatter punk, but then again, tastes change and evolve constantly both as a reader and a writer. I have read horror since I was old enough to have any sense. One of my favorite Christmas presents is a horror anthology that I break out and read every Christmas eve without fail. Horror is a truth in my heart and as I grow as a writer, I want to portray it for what it is-the dark truth that runs through us all, threatening to peel back the scabs just to hear us scream. It can be dark and beautiful at the same time. That’s what I love most about it.

    Thanks for the great article. I am now following your blog and will be checking out your work.

  8. Good post, as I do think many think all horror is slash and gash these days. I typically describe what I write as dark fiction when I’m out and about, mostly because I sometimes have trouble pronouncing r’s, but also I do think it is easier to breach when having a conversation with someone I just met. I do consider what I write as horror, first and foremost, but I also enjoy blurring the lines when I can.

  9. The exact same thing–the stigmatization–happened to the word “feminist.”. Good luck!

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  11. Testify, sister! Love this column and agree with you completely. Too much argument about what “constitutes” horror these days, and too many people putting too many labels on stuff. Leave it alone, it ain’t broken. It’s ALL horror.

  12. Regina- Romance and horror have a *lot* in common, actually. I’ve had a post brewing about that topic for a long time, so I’ll withhold my ranting here. 🙂 I also happen to be a sincere fan of both, so yes, I agree with you.

    Sandra- Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! I think you are spot on with all of this. Today’s horror has deep, deep roots in the gothic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, so yes: Matthew Gregory Lewis’s work is absolutely horror! And horror shows up in many, many genres as scenes, atmosphere, storylines, etc. There is always overlap potential, and I think that’s wonderful! Sometimes romance, horror, and other emotions are even stronger in less-expected places. Snobbery… yes. Always! I do my very best to ignore them, though I don’t always succeed. 😉

    Tonia- I always love hearing from others with dark little hearts! I’m so happy to hear you’ve realized your novel’s genre and are now embracing it with gusto. I wish you the very best success with it! Thanks so much for stopping by.

    Tim- That irks me too! I try not to let them get to me, though. Really, it’s their loss.

    Robert- Thank you, Robert! The loss of the horror bookshelf breaks my heart. I do think it’s possible to persuade bookstores to bring it back; unfortunately, I don’t know how. I think it would require the right person with the right leverage talking to the right person with the right leverage – but isn’t that always the way it goes? Maybe if we all raise our voices loud enough they’ll be heard.

    Dana- They do! That’s so true. My tastes run similar to yours, but you’re very right that tastes are always changing. I would love to know what horror anthology you read for Christmas; that’s such a cool personal tradition! Dark and beautiful are two of my very favorite things – especially together. Thank you so much for commenting, and for the follow! I really appreciate it.

    Nina- Thanks! It does. Who can we hire for that? 😉

    Kenneth- That’s understandable. I usually don’t let myself do that, but I’m often tempted, especially when I’m somewhere like a doctor’s office. But I’ve found that if I just answer calmly and confidently, “I write horror,” they are surprised, but then they usually think it’s cool and start asking interested questions. Maybe I should start thinking of it as part of my education campaign. But I love blurring lines too, and often do so. Embracing a genre doesn’t mean chaining ourselves to it!

    Allison- So true. Destigmatizing is always a huge, overwhelming task. Thank you!

    John- Haha, that makes me want to do a sassy snap. I am very passionate about this (obviously), and maybe that’s what our genre needs to rally. Acceptance is a good place to start, too. Thanks so much for commenting!

  13. Good post, dude; I totally agree. I think another part of the issue may be that horror films are the first thing that come to most people’s minds when they think of Horror as a genre. Sadly, most horror films are the lowest type of art cinema’s capable of next to porn, blatantly disobeying every rule for making a good story to instead eternally retell the same stories. The works of George Romero are the kind of thing that most horror filmmakers should aspire to- he doesn’t just film a bunch of people getting attacked by zombies, he uses the zombies to explore the human condition and his stories as metaphors for aspects of real life. You know, the kind of shit real writers do. Anyway, I think having more horror peeps like Romero out there would help de-stigmatize Horror, and make it easier for us to reclaim it as a literary genre.

  14. This is such a real concern in the genre of horror, Annie, and you’ve proactively addressed it–enlightening people to the fact that there is a problem and providing actual, potential solutions. You’ve brought attention to a practical issue, implicitly hinting at its lucrative ramifications for writers that associate themselves with this genre. The fact that marketers have stirred this genre all up, dispersing it throughout other, more accepted areas, is sad, but I think dispelling the myth of what “horror” has become to the general public can truly help. As always, I am indebted to you for opening my eyes to something I had never quite thought about in the same light before—but I supposed that’s exactly what writers do. 🙂 I feel empowered to rethink my genre classifications after I do my sorting of what horror means to me—I will eventually get to that post and let you know!

  15. Alex- That’s a really good point. When it comes to horror, movies are way more popular than books right now, so books get a lot of the runoff from whatever’s happening on the big screen. Better quality movies would do wonders for horror in general, although I have to admit that I love the cheap crappy ones in a total different way. (Fun!) Thanks for commenting!

    A.B.- Thanks so much! I love to hear that this post is making a few writers think about their genres – cool. And I think you’ve touched on a central matter; horror is horror, but it means something different to everyone, and *good* horror looks different to everyone. So yes, taking a look at what and why is always smart. Best of luck!

    Marge- Thank you!

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