Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Defining a genre: Horror

When I began writing, I wrote what I loved to read: horror stories. My biggest inspiration, which probably sounds cliche, was Stephen King's work. I, like many people, read his books and came away from them feeling that "I can do that, too!" So, I began my writing career by spinning tales of horror. Needless to say, my writing is by no means on par with Stephen King's! He makes writing look easy, but it's not. And, I see I've already digressed.

I say that I wrote horror, but, in retrospect, I wouldn't really categorize many of those first stories as horror. Not in the truest since of the meaning, anyway. Now, I like to think of them as psychological thrillers or noir. You might be wondering why I would make that claim. That's what I want to discuss in this blog post and, hopefully, illustrate.

Stephen King is revered as the King of Horror [nice pun, too], but I wouldn't even classify much of his writing as truly horrific. Sure, his stories elicit an emotional response--typically a strong negative emotion--as all writing is wont to do, but I wouldn't say that they are mainly horror by nature. At least, not according to the definition of the genre. As Wikipedia describes it:
"Horror fiction, Horror Literature and also Horror fantasy is a genre of literature, which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten its readers, scare or startle viewers/readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror."

That last part, about feelings of horror and terror, to me at least, is a strong statement. Of course, others may disagree because we all have varying thresholds for fear. For instance, in my short story, Hush, Hush, My Love, the main character is talking to a woman he has just finished copulating with. Throughout the monologue, she never says a word. Later, I reveal that she is dead and the man has been engaging in necrophilia. While this is certainly a taboo, it (again, to me) is not horrific. Repulsive maybe, sure. I classified this story under horror, not because of the necrophilia, but because her lifeless corpse reanimates and kills him in the final chapter.

I have other stories that I assembled into an anthology that many readers may label as horror. While I agree that some of them border on horror (When the Dead Whisper and Jason's Last Wish, for example) because they center around ghosts and/or supernatural phenomena, I also claim that many of them are not. I don't feel that they "cause the reader to react with fear" as the definition states. As examples, I would refer you to The Show Must Go On, about a death row inmate's exercise in introspection before his impending execution; Footprints in the Snow, is about a young man who undergoes a strange and life-changing experience on a snowy rural road; and Sweet Charlotte, which is about a special little girl who is caught in a predator's web. I would argue that these are simply dark stories meant to stimulate the reader's mind as well as entertain.

Also, it seems to me that the horror genre has gone through quite a change in recent decades. Perhaps this is due to the influx of so many sub-genres. I will admit, I am not a fan of zombie books (although, I do love to watch The Walking Dead). I think vampire stories have appeared ad nauseum. And, the worst, are graphic stories (labeled horror) that do nothing more than gross out the reader.

Again, all of this may just be my opinion. However, I enjoy a horror tale with a slow build of events that ratchet up the creepy tension. I also enjoy hints as to what is lurking in the shadows or under the bed, instead of fully seeing the creature at the beginning. The lack of description up front allows the reader to conjure his/her own fearful being. To me, the scariest stories are those that can actually happen. I don't believe in ghosts, but a mentally unstable person with a sling blade sneaking into my house would scare the hell out of me!

If, on the other hand, a story is about a bunch of mutated hillbillies who eat unsuspecting campers, or sparkly vampires (*facepalm*), or just a lot of blood splatter to elicit shock, then I don't consider them horror. But, again, that's just me. I've worked as a firefighter and EMT, so gore-porn isn't for me. I've seen real life atrocities up close and personal. As a coping mechanism, I learned to desensitize myself to it like many others in that profession. I think Stephen King summed up the gross-out best:
"I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."

The most enticing horror stories are those that successfully break new ground in an already well-mined field, with new creatures and situations. Not rehashing the same old tropes we've read time and again.

So, what do you consider horror? I'd like to hear your opinion about what makes a story horrific. You can sound of in the comments below. Thanks for stopping by!

1 comment:

  1. I've been scared while watching 'horror' movies, but the true horror/terror comes when those planted seeds start being entertained by your mind at the most inopportuned times.