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THE MEANING OF THE "H" WORD

by Paula Guran
December 1997 (Originally published by OMNI Online, 1998)

I edit a magazine that publishes, for want of a better word, "horror" fiction; I review "horror," publish a horror newsletter, and direct a workshop for horror writers. I also belong to the Horror Writers Association, an organization that gives awards for "superior achievement" in horror. I attend horror conventions and sit on or moderate panels discussing the field. I do all this -- but what is this thing called horror? -- Paula Guran, editor, DarkEcho OMNI Horror (1997)*

The word horror (in a literary sense) has had so many meanings and connotations over the years it's easy to get confused. Recently, the "H" word has been downright abused, twisted into a salable product, then abandoned as not commercial. It's become as much an epitaph as a description. It's been both disavowed and vaunted by its creators, fans, and publishers, but seldom have most readers considered what horror is.

The confusion is underscored by the publishing industry, which has continually redefined horror -- as a literary style and a market category through the years. Up until the 1970s, horror was simply part of literature. Writers wrote stories and books that scared people, but they weren't sold under a separate label in a marketing niche called horror. Readers interested in dark fiction found what they were looking for in "men's magazines," and the pulps or by trying to spot those tell-tale black covers in the science fiction or fiction section.

The explosive success in the late sixties and early seventies of films like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist brought an upsurge in the demand for horror fiction and in the early eighties Stephen King became a popular publishing phenomenon. Horror took its place with science fiction and mystery as a genre unto itself.

Recently, the tables have once more turned. Now publishers are shunning the word "horror," contending "Horror doesn't sell." Sure they still publish it -- under labels like suspense, thriller, romantic suspense, psychological thriller, supernatural suspense, dark fantasy, even SF. You know the terms.

Ace senior editor Ginjer Buchanan calls this ploy "stealth horror." To me, it's a reminder that horror isn't necessarily a genre at all. Perhaps John Clute and John Grant, editors of the massive new The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, put it best:

Unlike fantasy, supernatural fiction and science fiction -- terms which describe generic structure -- horror is a term which describes an affect. A horror story makes its readers feel horror.
Or as Douglas E. Winter wrote in his introduction to Prime Evil, "Horror is not a genre...horror is an emotion."

Horror exists in the interaction between the writer's words and you, the reader. Horror fiction burrows into our primal psyches and ferrets out an emotional reaction: fear -- "the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind" according to the founding father of modern horror, H. P. Lovecraft. The feeling of fear can even be simply atmospheric -- just eerie or weird. In fact, Lovecraft used the term, "atmosphere" to describe what creates the sensation of horror.

You can find this atmosphere throughout literature from Shakespeare to Gogol, in Melville's Moby Dick and decidedly in Kafka. Horror can deal with the most fantastic of the supernatural or the terrors of the mundane. Readers today find it in the "romantic suspense" of Barbara Michaels, in the bestselling works of Stephen King and Clive Barker, in scores of mysteries and thrillers -- and in books that may be poorly categorized as thrillers like those of Andrew Vachss or as "mysteries" as have James Lee Burke's, in fantasy, in the magic realism of Jonathan Carroll, with Anne Rice's vampires and witches, in traditional ghost stories, among the "alternative" literati, in gross-out gore stories. It's all horror: The atmosphere is there and it reaches for and pulls out that dark emotional response.

But defining what "works" in horror is a tricky thing because we respond in such individual ways. A time-tattered ghost story can deliver emotional wallop for one reader and not raise a goosebump for someone else, someone who needs horror that is more macabre, visceral or perverse to respond. Taste in horror is like taste in music: It all has a beat but that doesn't mean you want to dance to every tune. Despite individual preferences and a certain stigma, horror is still a handy inclusive noun that encompasses the basic "dark" emotions -- fear, abhorrence, aversion, antipathy, disgust, dread, terror, alarm, dismay, shock, disquietude, consternation, panic. And, even though I personally tend to use the term "dark fiction" in an effort to broaden reader perception of the literature I deal with, horror is still as good a term as any. We are not going to change the name of the HWA to the Scary Writers Association. Don't look for the Bram Stoker Awards to be given in recognition of Superior Achievement in Weird Fiction. None of us will be going to the World Dark Fiction Convention.

The type of fiction I write about and am trying to define here has always been found lurking under a variety of labels or without any label at all. You'll still find effective horror branded with the "H" word on the spine, but you may need to broaden your search and perhaps pay closer attention to reviewers and horror mavens to find the best of it -- because these days it may not be called horror.

When you do find it, you'll define horror the only way it ever really has been defined -- by each reader and writer, in an individual way. -- Paula Guran, December 1997


Almost five years later, I still edit a magazine that publishes, for want of a better word, "horror" fiction -- it's just an entirely different magazine (Horror Garage) than the one referred to above. I still review "horror," but no longer publish a horror newsletter or direct a workshop for horror writers. I still belong to the Horror Writers Association and attend horror conventions and do panels. There was, for a brief period around 1998, a serious attempt to change to name of the HWA to something without the "h" word in it. The word has also crept back on a few more book spines. -- PRLG, April 2002


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