The most wonderful thing about the horror genre is how broad and expansive it is. There’s more variety here, I’d say, than pretty much any other genre. From extreme gory terrors to slow-burning quiet scares, the spectrum of content is so wide it can be hard to see through to the other side.
Of course, this content diversity opens up the door to disagreements as to what really belongs under the horror umbrella.
Is it useful for readers to have such a plethora of stories to wade through in one singular genre? Should the horror spectrum be divvied up into parts and sold off to other genres? And, at the end of the day, is this genre discourse constructive, dismissive—or ultimately irrelevant?
Coming from a position within the industry (the call is coming from inside the house), come along as I attempt to answer the age-old question: what is horror?
When isn’t horror horror?
The answer to this is simple! But also very nuanced and complex. With beautiful genre-bending—and blending—works out there, it can be difficult to tell sometimes where a book belongs. But it’s also important to remember that a book can have two homes!
Horror is easy to spot in a book like Stephen King’s It. A child-eating clown is a pretty open and shut case. However, a book like Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall isn’t so blatant with its Gothic unease. One could easily agree both books have elements of fantasy to them, but no one is going to say that It is a fantasy novel. Though the protagonist have some major conundrums to piece together, no one is going to call It a mystery, either. But why?
It’s all about what is at the center of a story. I’ve explored here on The Lineup the blurred lines of horror and dark fantasy before, and to simplify it: horror boils down into the natural world being introduced to unnatural things, while fantasy sees spectacular worlds meeting ordinary people. Of course, it’s not a one-size-fits-all all definition—there will always be exceptions.
Other genre crossovers are a bit easier to parse. Romance and horror are typically on opposite sides of the spectrum as stand-alone genres, so if you see them together to a significant degree, it’s fair to assume it’s a solid “horromance”. If it’s all about the questions and the motives, it’s a mystery. If you’re in space or fighting robots, it’s probably plain ol’ sci-fi if the focus is on world-building and existential meaning.
Just because something has elements of horror doesn’t necessarily mean that it belongs in the genre. If there’s a scary dream sequence in an otherwise fluffy romance, you can assume it’s just a brief nod to the macabre.
Genre exists as a marketing tool—a way to pitch what a reader is about to consume. They also serve as a guide to offer conventions for authors to follow or acknowledge. But they aren’t an exact science. There’s no standard percentage of tropes or conventions a book needs to fit under a genre.
This loosey-goosey wielding of genre is great for authors who want to explore more than one flavor at a time. But the “you’ll know it when you see it” approach opens up the door to people rebuffing subgenres that don’t sit comfortably at the center of the horror spectrum.
So what IS horror?
In this day and age, there’s a large group of readers living with the misconception that the horror genre is defined by media that makes you scared. Of course that’s a large part of what you’re going to see from mainstream horror, but that’s not a comprehensive description.
Horror (both the genre and the word itself) covers a larger span of emotions than one might think. Beyond terror, it evokes shock, unease, revulsion, loathing, and even dismay. It’s not always about instilling a fear of turning off the lights. Sometimes all horror has to do is leave you with a sick, uncomfortable feeling long after you’ve flipped the last page.
One of the subgenres that sometimes gets brushed aside by mainstream horror readers is extreme horror. Unfavorably referred to as “torture porn” by those who rebuke it, extreme horror puts an extra emphasis on violence, leaning into graphic and gory depictions that hold nothing back. The point of this subgenre is to disturb and disgust. It rails against traditional horror and the concept of “suggesting” anything. Alongside body horror, this subgenre doesn’t shy away from sex—or sexual assault.
Readers who dislike extreme horror dismiss it for being “pointless” and “gross.” While mainstream horror often has some kind of commentary on the human condition, many find extreme horror to lack that. And since gross isn’t scary, they toss the subgenre to the wayside.
While I don’t personally see myself sitting down with an extreme horror book in the near (or foreseeable) future, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place in the genre. “Different strokes for different folks,” as they say. Extreme horror provides an adrenaline rush. It satisfies a curiosity—the same curiosity that has drivers rubbernecking at car accidents. And it certainly ticks multiple boxes in the above definition of horror.
On the opposite side of things, the quiet horror subgenre gets rejected by horror fans on a regular basis. Quiet horror features stories that take a more subtle and atmospheric approach, centering characters and their inner struggles. You’re not going to see a lot of blood-splatter depictions across the page, here.
Whereas extreme horror is absolute certainty and clarity about the atrocities happening in a tale, quiet horror is all about uncertainty—it’s the suspicion that somewhere nearby you think something awful is happening, but when you look over your shoulder, it’s gone. Quiet horror is ghosts (sometimes literal, sometimes figurative), and psychological agony, and all of the eerieness of classic Gothic literature.
People criticize the genre for not leaning hard enough into horror, for not delivering immediate scares. But quiet horror can be very scary—so long as you’re patient enough to follow it through. This subgenre is all about the build-up, establishing fear by adding mounting building blocks of unease until the reader is choking on all of their anxiety. Horror isn’t synonymous with immediate gratification, and quiet horror deserves a fair bit more respect than it gets.
Horror can be a lot of things. It can be funny, visceral, sexy, artistic, blatant, abstract, romantic, perplexing, gritty, and bizarre. If a subgenre doesn’t suit the needs of every single reader, that doesn’t mean it needs to be belittled or tossed aside. Just like how a romance book isn’t any less of a romance book because you don’t find those particular tropes sexy, horror is still horror even if you personally aren’t frightened.
Having such a vast offering of content under one genre is a blessing, not a curse. It allows readers to explore different sides of themselves, and to find gateways to new things. And if you ever feel overwhelmed by just how much the horror genre has to offer? The Lineup is always here with recommendations from every kind of subgenre.
Featured image: Steinar Engeland/Unsplash