What makes a horror novel?

Cincinnati-based Samhain Publishing oversees the division for which I write: Samhain Horror.

So, does this make me a horror writer? I honestly don’t consider myself to be one.

What is horror as a genre? Whenever I go into the local Barnes & Noble (sorry, there’s no independent bookstore near where live—gee, why would that be?) I can’t find a horror section. It’s lumped in with fiction/literature. (In fairness, thrillers are treated the same way, but they’re generally easier to define.)

I think true horror can be discerned by Justice Potter Stewart’s method of spotting porn: “I know it when I see it.” (No, I’m not suggesting there’s a moral equivalence here. I simply believe defining horror can be tricky.)

Salem’s Lot? Horror!


(Courtesy: the Internet)

Dead Until Dark? Hor—wait. I mean, there’s a vampire or two in it, but it’s not exactly scary.

Twilight? Not even close to being horror, despite all those pale-skinned blood suckers and shirtless Native American werewolves.

How do you define Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein? Horror or Science Fiction? I’d lean more toward the latter.

The inclusion of mythical monsters or supernatural elements doesn’t necessarily define a work as horror. Then it must be the feelings the stories generate within the reader. We get scared! But thrillers are scary, right? They inspire dread, too. Silence of the Lambs is considered a psychological thriller, and not horror.

Honestly, when someone suggests a book is horror, I immediately think overwhelming blood, guts and gore. But that’s simplistic. While it’s true horror can have heaps of gore, it’s not necessary to scare. (It’s like comedians using profanity to get laughs: Good stand-up comics don’t need to work blue.) Salem’s Lot lacked gore and ranks as one of my favorite books.

So what makes it an absolute horror novel to me?

The book must:

1. Consistently evoke feelings of terror/dread/hopelessness;

2. Convey a sense of ever-present creepiness;

3. Be set no further back than the 19th Century and not in the too-distant future (anything that’s set hundreds of years in the future and involves vampires [Justin Cronin’s The Passage] strikes me more as sci-fi/supernatural thriller than horror);

and contain at least one of the following:

A. Supernatural and/or undead creatures, humans, and/or entities (e.g., werewolves, zombies, witches, ghosts) that are deliberately written to be scary, vicious and predatory and not created to make teenage girls swoon. They’ll kill you if they catch you. (Sure, they might toy with you for a little while. But eventually you’re dead.) Vampires are supposed to be terrifying, dammit—not insipid Robert Pattinsons.

B. Non-supernatural killers (e.g., humans, wildlife, diseases not originating from outer space) tormenting innocent people, with as little police involvement as possible. Too many police officers or mysterious government agents gets you too close to thriller territory for me. Sure, police can be involved, but not in every chapter. It helps if the main protagonist isn’t an agent of the law.

True horror novels, to me, cannot involve extraterrestrial beings or technology, and cannot be set in the old West and/or involve cowboys. Sorry, you’re either too close to science fiction and/or westerns.

We all have our own standards by which we judge things. And when it comes to horror, the aforementioned ones are mine. But when you think about it, in the grand scheme of life this discussion is about as relevant as attempting to determine the greatest baseball player of all time (Babe Ruth).


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