(Expanded & Rewritten July 2002 from an Article Originally Published
November, 1997 with notes from November 2003)
Don't expect to find a definition of horror here. The closest I get to
even attempting that is in an essay, The Meaning of the "H"
Word. And you can re-read Doug Winter's words on
the site entry. These will remind you that horror isn't a genre at
all. Once you have that firmly in mind, then you can ponder the irony
of the following -- horror sub-genres and related terms. Not that
these can be considered definitive. Horrorists disagree about such
things; academics debate them. Some that have complex meaning are
treated simplistically and with great brevity.
I never promised you this would be easy.
If you can
establish genre lines, then you can cross them. When genres --
horror, fantasy, science, romance, speculative, whatever fiction --
slipping into one another the Brits call it (appropriately)
[Note from 2003:
Ellen Datlow reminded me that
the term was created by Bruce Sterling back in 1989. You can read his original take
the term "cross genre" or "mixed genre."
Lately I've been calling it all
-- science fiction, fantasy, horror, and any
aspects thereof -- "fantastic fiction" or "fiction of the fantastic"
or even the "fantastique." I never
promised to always stick to the same definitions either.)
In fact, much of the best fiction of the 21st century is cross
genre, and I think that it is beginning to be even more difficult to assign literature to
one category or another. Which brings me to add
another couple of terms: "New Weird and "Interstitial Fiction."
The best non-definition non-manifesto so far probably
published (in "The Third
Alternative," Issue 35, Summer 2003) has been from
China Mieville (who is definitely New Weird) who attributes current
definition of the term to M. John
Harrison (who is also New Weird, most of the time). Here's a bit of
"Something is happening in the literature of the
slippage. A freeing-up. The quality is astounding. Notions are
sputtering and bleeding across internal and external boundaries.
Particularly in Britain, where we are being reviewed in the papers, of
all things, and selling copies, and being read and riffed off by yer
actual proper literary writers. We are writing books which cheerfully
ignore the boundaries between SF, fantasy and horror. Justina Robson,
M John Harrison, Steve Cockayne?, Al Reynolds, Steph Swainston and too
many others to mention, despite all our differences, share something.
And our furniture has invaded their headspace. From outside the field,
writers like Toby Litt? and David Mitchell? use the trappings of SF
with a respect and facility that has long been missing in the
clodhopping condescension of the literati.
Much discussion has ensued. Nothing is settled.
According to the Interstitial Arts Site
(subtitled "Artists Without Borders")
"Interstitial Arts is an idea, a conversation, not a hard-and-fast
definition Ñ- and
it's a conversation we invite you to join. Delia Sherman also writes
there: "Interstitial fiction defies categories and laughs
at expectation; Interstitial fiction breaks the rules. Interstitial
lurk near or on the borders of two, three, or more genres, owing
to no single genre or set of conventions."
So, there you go. End of Note. Back to the article...]
This term's meaning shifts -- often from person to person -- so I can
really only offer what I think it means. For ME, cutting edge means
that the fiction usually refuses archetypal, supernatural aspects --
unless those elements are used so originally they become antithetical
to traditional horror. Cutting edge can be hard, soft, quiet,
psychological, surreal, eerie, avant pop, post-modern, literary,
alternative, have erotic, and sexual aspects, etc. The idea is that it
is not exactly the same old thing -- even if the departure is only
stylistic rather than purely thematic.
A term that could arguably be applied to most horror and sometimes is,
but generally it means a fantasy story that can have supernatural
elements but is not the supernatural fiction of vampires, werewolves.
etc. You'll often find stories like Robert E. Howard's of Conan the
Barbarian referred to as dark fantasy. A "purer" reference in
this context, however, would be Karl Edward Wagner's doomed immortal
anti-hero Kane. Characters/fictions that originated in graphic
narratives (comics) like James O'Barr's The Crow and modern
interpretations of Spiderman and Batman are dark fantasy.(Although
the heroes and magic of "sword and sorcery" is sometimes dark fantasy,
"S&S" generally belongs to the fantasy genre more than horror.)
Back in 1994 I started using the term "dark fiction" to (1) allay the
fears of writers and readers who didn't want to be associated with
"horror", a word that's always been troublesome and was, at the time,
falling even further out of favor in some circles; (2) have an
inclusive term that covered more than some folks thought horror did;
(3) use as the title of the AOL workshop --Dark Fiction/Horror Writers
Workshop -- for the first two reasons and also because, in
alphabetical listings "d" was preferable to "h". It wasn't original,
of course, but I honestly don't know where/when it started to be used
to label a particular type of fiction. (Thomas Monteleone used the
acronym HDF in the introduction to the first volume of the Borderlands
anthology series to refer to "contemporary horror, dark fantasy, and
suspense literature." I don't think he used it for long, though.) In
any case, for the first couple of years I was repeatedly told that
"dark fiction" was not an acceptable term, that no one in publishing
used the phrase, that it meant nothing, and that, surely, I meant
"dark fantasy." Well, that was probably true then, but I used it
anyway. Now I see it used all over the place.
Usually "erotic" means sensual sexual content integral to the story
and can be as mild as "romantic suspense." Many editors and writers
prefer the term "sexual horror" over erotic, as the sex in horror can
be far from nice or arousing. "Erotic" can be stretched to mean
graphic, intentionally explicit sex in a story meant for a
pornographic market. The code word being "explicit."
It's, well, extreme. It goes straight to the blood-and-guts and aims
for the gross-out without hesitation. In guidelines you might find
terms like "splat," "splatter," or "splatterpunk" and "gore," "grue,"
and "gross." (Most GLs tell you to AVOID these things.) Splatterpunk,
by the way, was just a label made up to describe the "young Turks"
bringing a more visceral, gritty edge to horror 10-15 years ago.
- English Gothic: Novels and tales that developed as a
reaction to the Age of Rreason and dominated English literature from
1764 with The Castle of Ortanto by Horace Walpole into the early 19th
century. Characteristic theme is the stranglehold of the past upon the
present or the encroachment of the '"dark'"ages of oppression upon the
"enlightened" modern era. Enclosed and haunted settings (castles,
crypts, convents, mansions), gloomy images of ruin and decay, episodes
of imprisonment, cruelty, and persecution are used to express
- American Gothic: Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810),
considered America's first novelist, gave Gothic an American setting
and more of a psychological interest in aberrant mentality. Gloomy
atmosphere plays a smaller role in American Gothic, psychic breakdown
plays a larger role.
- Although sometimes used as a synonym for "horror," it shouldn't
be. Although there is academic debate, gothic can probably be
identified by themes of a character being *trapped* -- by location, by
family destiny, whatever. Joyce Carol Oates extends this to what she
calls "assaults on individual identity and autonomy."
- An entirely different meaning arises when Gothic or Goth
subculture is refered to in connection with horror fiction. Any
attempt to define Goth winds up stereotyping an extremely diverse
subculture. It's also wrong and probably stupid and calling fiction
"Goth" is just the same. Since the stereotypical goth wears nothing
but black, too much eyeliner, and is full of gloom, pretension and
angst, then I suppose "goth fiction" is the first form of literature
to wear make-up.
Lovecraftian, Lovecraft Mythos, Cthulhu Mythos, etc.:
As long as you have some idea of who H.P. Lovecraft was and what he
wrote, these probably make sense. Lovecraft's fictional premise was
that the world was once inhabited by another race of dark powers.
Although cast out, they live on somewhere always ready to take the
world back. "Lovecraft style" is florid and never stints on
Usually set in an urban underworld of crime and moral ambiguity. Dark,
cynical, paranoid themes of corruption, alienation, lust, obsession,
violence, revenge and the difficulty of finding "#CC0000"emption in a
far from perfect world. An oppressive atmosphere of menace, pessimism,
anxiety, suspicion, and dingy realism. You'll also find the term in
combinations like neo-noir, future noir or noir sf, tech-noir.
Based on the disturbed human psyche. Obviously psychos on rampages
fall into this category, but it is just as often more subtle. Since
the reader's perception is sometimes altered by exposure to an insane
viewpoint, psychological horror can also deal with ambiguous reality
and seem to be supernatural.
Quiet (or Soft) Horror:
Subtle, never visceral or too shocking, with atmosphere and mood
providing the miasma of fear rather than graphic description. The
opposite of "Extreme."
The rules of the normal world don't apply; ghosts, demons, vampires,
werewolves, the occult etc. Within this sub genre is an ever-growing
list of sub-sub-genres -- most of which deal with vampires.
Not really sub-generic, it can be used just to mean unreal; strange or
bizarre. Or it can be used to tie a style to the surrealist movement
in art and literature that attempted to express the subconscious and
move beyond accepted conventions of reality by representing the
irrational imagery of dreams and bizarre juxtapositions.
Suspense (or Dark Suspense) and Thriller:
No supernatural elements, but a constant sense of threat coming from
an outside menace. Add a strong investigative angle and becomes
mystery more than horror. Add action and adventure to suspense and you
come up with "thriller" -- except you can have "supernatural
A term, not a sub-genre, that refers to earthier, more reality-based
or supernatural fiction with a tendency to be "in-your-face" with
descriptions of the bad stuff -- but not as extreme as Extreme.
Can be used in several ways. "Weird fiction" is sometimes used as a
synonym for horror. It can also mean only strange, uncanny,
supernatural stories or refer to a school of writing popularized by
the pulp magazine "Weird Tales" that tended to be Lovecraftian or
occult; more "traditional" horror. "Pulp" is also a word used to
describe this type of tale, although "pulp" can also mean more
SUB-GENRES OF ROMANCE WITH POSSIBLE HORRIFIC
Suspense and mystery fiction with strong romantic elements (woman's
suspense, woman-in-jeopardy, romantic suspense, and Gothic). Is it
horror? Sometimes. Daphne du Maurier's REBECCA might be called
romantic suspense. Mike also be called horror.
Sometimes considered a sub-genre of suspense or paranormal romance,
the distinction among aficionados emphasizes a heroine trapped in a
perilous situation in a remote area. The hero is mysterious and has
questionable motives, but the heroine is attracted to him anyway.
Charlotte Bront&eunlaut;'s JANE EYRE is definitely and Daphne du
Maurier's REBECCA is probably. Seems to me it could be horror.
Often involves creatures such as vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and
faeries. Some are dark and gloomy, but others are light-hearted.
Paranormal in this sense means "other-worldly" and science fiction,
futuristic, or fantasy romance may be sub-genres. Or paranormal and
the others may be sub-genres of science fiction romance. (Romance
writers have there problems, too.) They have romantic subplots or
main plots and usually lack the "world building" of science
fiction/fantasy. Horror? Chelsea Quinn Yarbro Saint-Germain series
might be considered paranormal romance.
Copyright © 2002-2003 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.