Halloween Haunts: Why Horror Should Be Its Own Genre by Annie Neugebauer
“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. At the risk of preaching to the choir—this is the Horror Writers Association blog, after all, so they obviously support horror as a genre—bear with me for 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. (And please don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that horror writers shouldn’t branch out into other genres. I’m all for exploration and genre-bending. I’m talking about books that are genuinely horror first, here.) 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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My goodreads shelf has lots of horror. I too hate when it is grouped with other books in the book stores. It certainly deserves to be in its own category. A lot of my favorite stories are “Horror” stories.
Thanks Nina! I don’t think there’s any doubt that book sellers choose genres based on the potential for sales. That’s why right now you see many horror authors being published as “suspense thrillers” or “post-apocalyptic noir” instead of “horror”; those genres are, quite simply, selling better. And since many books now days have elements from several genres, it not only makes them more interesting, but also opens them up to several different audiences, if the marketing is smart about it. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
That was a great education in genre for me, Annie. Thank you! Sometimes the combos are confusing. I just read Age of Miracles, which has had tons of great reviews from the big guys (NYT, etc.) It can be seen as YA dystopian, but it’s being pegged (it seems to me based on the reviews and attention from high brow places) as literary fiction despite the young narrator, coming-of-age storyline, and the dystopian backdrop to the whole book. I wonder what elements make book reviews, sellers, etc put a book in genre over another . . . ?
@Lura I hear you on that. Every time I go in I get more angry about how few actual books there are. It’s truly disheartening all around—no doubt. And yes, I think you’re spot on that all of the horror-specific venues are even more important now. (Cemetery Dance, Buzzy Mag, and Tor are a few others that jump to mind.) Luckily, many of them support and/or are involved with the HWA and its members, so I’m learning more and more about who to go to for my horror fix. =)
@Regina Thanks so much! Yes, the much-overlooked midlist author. They are increasingly being pushed out these days, not just because of this shelving phenomenon but also due to publishers being less willing to keep them on if they’re not making blockbuster sales. It is a sad thing.
@Peggy Thank you! I love the brick-and-mortar stores too, although they are making it more and more difficult not to turn to online venues due to their lack of books, as Lura mentioned. One of my few (small) consolations is that the Amazon link I use donates money to a very good writing-industry cause. Whenever possible, I buy directly from the author.
@Russ Thanks Russ! I totally get where you’re coming from. I actually have an entire blog post about this subject in the works, so I’ll try to be brief here.
Personally, I like a decent dose of sexy “monsters,” but I do think they’re a different game than horror altogether. Since horror came from gothic, which involved both romance and horror, the whole trend towards romance and sex in the horror field makes sense to me. Some of the most original horror stories (for their times) involved turning the POV on its head and making the monster the protagonist (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Lestat). Once you make that switch, it’s an easy leap to what we have today.
I do think there’s a big difference between going for sex appeal and doing so at the expense of fear, though. Sex appeal without fear, even if there’s a monster, isn’t “classic” horror: it’s paranormal romance. I think it could be argued that that subgenre has become a genre all its own. Its association with its parent genre is perhaps what throws off classic horror fans who want frights instead of tingles.
But there’s no reason there can’t be both—and no reason all horror *has* to attempt sexiness. I still think there’s plenty of good stuff out there that’s what most readers would consider classic horror without the romanticization. But yes, you definitely have to look harder to find it.
Good luck with your short!
Great post Annie!
I’d say once creatures of the night got downgraded to sex-machines or people started going into heat for were-creatures, Horror was overwhelmed with stories doing their best to switch from “fear” to “turn on”. It was a slow process (can’t blame Twilight or Anne Rice even – I’d say compare Bella Lugosi’s Dracula to the original Nosferatu as far as pop culture goes.)
This has lead to the romanticization of a ton of things – real life horrors such as serial killers for example. IMO what happens is that people are essentially taught -not- to fear these base concepts (which is in itself disturbing IMO). They become the boy next door, the hero, the love interest and the only “horror” is the gore that MIGHT splatter on the page.
Bah. I’m surfing over to YouTube to watch serial killer interviews for a short I’m writing – and for a legit scare. *locks the doors*
Very thought-provoking post about the horror genre!!I totally agree with and love your comment that, “the many, many branches of horror still all belong to one central trunk: fear”.
Patrick, I love your comments, also! You beautifully expressed why I love a “real” bookstore rather than ordering all my books online.
The whole post is fabulous, but I particularly identified with the point about the opportunities that come to midlist writers in other genres simply by being shelved near the superstars. So true. Horror does need its own shelf space.
I don’t know if this will make you feel any better, but I once walked into a Barnes & Noble and despaired at the lack of books of any genre. The place was overrun with toys and games and a huge Nook display. 🙁
I wonder if horror’s own popularity is working against it here. A lot of people probably read Stephen King or Peter Straub but say they don’t read horror, so stores and publishers adjust to meet market demands. Which is still awful. Horror book blogs, lit mags, small presses (like ChiZine Pub, not sure if there are others), and old-fashioned word of mouth will be more important than ever now.
@Melissa Well… it was, once, but now it seems to be disappearing. And yes, it’s true that this is happening to many genres. Genre labels have always been somewhat subjective, but as you say, they’re there for a reason. At first, most writers rejoiced in the new mixed-genre concept because it allowed us to stretch outside our genres without being “unmarketable” or angering fans, but now I feel that the genre-blurring has gotten to the point of making looking for books difficult.
@Cher I hear you. I don’t think paranormal romance is a sell-out though. Not at all! As I mentioned, horror came from gothic, which is a blend of horror and romance, so to me the two have always seemed well-fitted. Plus, I always say write what you love. If you love paranormal romance, that’s probably what you should be writing!
@Cynthia Thank you, Cynthia! I’m glad we’re in agreement. =)
@Patrick Hi Patrick! Lovely to see you here. And yes; so many readers are horror fans without even realizing it! Fear is a very primal emotion. It’s difficult not to be moved by it when you pick up the right book. It truly is sad what’s happening to brick and mortar bookstores. I haven’t completely abandoned hope that they can turn it around, but I feel like I might be the only one.
@ Geoff Thank you both very much!
@Julia Well, as I mention above to Melissa, it was its own genre, and I believe it still should be. The problem is the marketing of that genre, truly. As with any genre or subgenre, making it a title increases its popularity. Steampunk is easy to find because people call it that. Same re: paranormal romance. So correctly identifying a genre is the key to getting the right readers. It seems that bookstores are doing away with identifying horror, which scares me for the future of the genre.
Thanks very much to everyone for commenting!
I’m so surprised! I always assumed horror was it’s own genre. And it’s really puzzling to me that there is NOT a horror genre as it seems so distinctly different than other genres you’ve mentioned — even Gothic from whence it originated…. but if even Gothic is gone… it does just seem downright weird since the label would actually help sell books!
Great post, and very relevant to the variations within an area that is commonly accepted as being one single genre.
Very nice post and descriptions.
Annie, I always enjoy your posts, this one included. Until I read your list of horror authors, I did not know I was such a fan. 🙂
But I agree, If I went to Barnes and Noble to get a known writer I could probably find it. But to search through other genres to find a horror book, something possibly new and interesting, would not be a pleasant task, one I would quickly abandon. So they force us to browse through the internet and then maybe order on-line and we may walk away from the experience with one book. Ofen a morning at a bookstore means coffe, desert, and several books tucked under my arm before I leave. Modern marketing personnel are destroying the market that provides their salaries. Now…that is a story line for a “Horror” book. When Brick and Mortar are Gone.
Hear! Hear!! I totally agree, Annie, Horror should be its OWN genre. I’m dismayed by the experience you had in B&N. While I recognize that many novels are now a blend of genres, there should still be a shelf to go to for King and Poe, Lovecraft and any who are writin’ to frighten.
Wonderful post! You did a great job describing the differences in genre. I try not to go in bookstores anymore. I never know where to go to grab the latest Dean Koontz or Stephen King novels, just to mention my faves. Go to vampire section, yes our Books a Million has a specific section for these, and you get glittery vampires. 🙂
I feel a little like a sell out with my ‘paranormal romance novellas.’ 🙁
Thanks for the education, Annie. Not being a horror writer or reader, I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know that it WASN’T its own genre. I agree that the classification of a horror genre not only helps readers FIND what they’re looking for, but helps authors SELL their books. To do away with the genre just seems downright irresponsible. I’m seeing that blurring of genre lines across the board though; I guess ‘labeling’ books will always be a difficult endeavor and in some ways very subjective since the folks shelving the books at the bookstore have their own interpretations as well.
@Donna Thank you, Donna. Yes, we avid fans can certainly tell the difference! And I wish I could take credit for the giveaway, but that wasn’t my doing; I was just lucky enough to have it land on my post. =)
@Bonnie My town never had a Borders, so I never really experienced a difference, although I guess it doesn’t matter now. Online genres tend to be less clearly stated, but easier to find, so maybe you can find what you’re looking for somewhere on the web?
@Sharon Thanks! Subtle indeed. I guess that’s why I felt such a strong call to write about it. This huge thing is happening to a genre I love and… no one seems to notice. =(
Excellent post, Annie. You described the genres perfectly! I, too, decried the disappearance of a designated Horror shelf–its demise was so subtle, too.
I ran into the same thing at Barnes and Noble. I went into get a selection of books for my halloween theme reading list. I couldn’t find one graphic novel that interested me. Borders that had a great selection …. unfortunately went bankrupt.
I would hate to see a group of genres all lumped together, it would make it much more difficult to find exactly what you’re looking for. I agree that Horror should continue to be it’s own genre, and like other genres, it may have elements of many but have that one element of “a fear driven story” in common. I think fans of each of those categories can see very clear differences in say, horror and dark fantasy, or horror and sci-fi. You make a lot of very valid points. Thanks for the giveaway!