to The Qwillery. I had the pleasure of meeting JG at BEA in May. I'm thrilled that he's sharing his thoughts on what is horror with us today.
both published on May 5, 2015 by Samhain Publishing.
A Discussion of Horror?
Guest post by JG Faherty
I write horror. At least, that's what I tell most people, and that's how I tend to get categorized. Of course, like most writers, I do more than that. I write science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and pieces that fall into various sub-categories such as paranormal romance, paranormal erotica, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, weird fiction... the list, like the possibilities for stories, is probably endless.
Being labeled a horror writer – or any other kind of writer, comes with built-in advantageous and disadvantages. Genres have ready-made target audiences, but the various terms can also push away potential readers with a pre-cast prejudice. "Horror? Oh, that's all blood and guts. I don't like that." "Paranormal romance? Oh, that's for girls." "Science fiction? No, I like stuff with more adventure."
Which leads me to the idea of definitions, and back to the title of this blog. What is horror? Perhaps if more people understood the term they'd be more apt to browse some titles and see that there's plenty under that umbrella to pique their interest.
For me, horror encompasses anything that is "dark fiction." Pieces of writing that exist to create a sense of fear, unease, terror, or just plain chills in the reader. Horror isn't just entrails flopping on the ground, nor is ghosts wafting across a darkened moors or a possessed child spouting bad language and last night's dinner with equal ease. Horror is a feeling, or perhaps a set of feelings, and they are not beholden to any one category of fiction. Which is why my go-to term, dark fiction, is more accurate. You can think of it as books meant to be read in the dark, or books that have a dark tone, or books that involve dark acts and creatures of the dark.
Dark fiction also allows for the inclusion of other genres, which is appropriate. Just because something is sci-fi or fantasy or gothic doesn't mean it can't be dark. And by dark I am referring to things worse than criminal activities. I discuss this with parents, librarians, and teachers all the time, especially when I hear "I don't read horror." Or "I don't want my kids to read horror." The truth is, you do. And they do. Don't believe me? Look at these examples:
Frankenstein: Technically, it's as much science fiction as it is horror.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Either science fiction or early steampunk, your choice. But the horror aspects – giant squid, murder, mysterious dangers – are all there as well.
Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Time Machine – both a mix of sci-fi and horror. Same goes for the Invisible Man and old Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.
Dracula: A classic gothic romance with a vampire tossed in to change things around.
A Christmas Carol – ghosts, ghosts, and more ghosts. Maybe the first urban fantasy?
The Grimm fairy tales – you must be kidding. Cannibalism, torture, monsters... horror at its very best.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Many of what we today call 'classics' are in some part – if not all – horror. Yet we don't classify them that way. They are 'fiction.' They are 'gothic.' They are 'children's tales.' It demonstrates how there once was a time when we didn't need so many labels. It was all just fiction, and you called it for what it was: scary fiction, romantic fiction, adventure, etc. But descriptions turned into labels, and then labels into categories in book stores, and categories begat sub-categories... and now we're stuck with so many sub-genres that it can be overwhelming when searching Amazon for a book, or discussing your favorite kind of story with someone.
Lots of readers like the idea of specific labels, because they have a certain type of fiction they prefer to read, any searching online for those types of books is a lot easier when you can turn to ready-made, corporate-approved labeling. You like Twilight? Young adult paranormal romance is for you. The Harry Dresden books? Check out all our urban fantasy titles. Soldiers hunting werewolves? Military paranormal horror is your safe place. And so on.
Yes, it makes things easier when you want to buy a book. But it also hinders the joy of finding new things to read, of expanding your horizons. Remember when you would go into the local bookstore and the only labels they had were Science Fiction and Horror? You never knew what you'd find, and you often had to search both categories because sometimes things got classified oddly. (I'll never understand why my local Barnes & Noble back in the 1990s always put the Saberhagen Dracula books in the sci fi section.) You would look at all the titles, examine the covers of anything that looked interesting, and maybe walk out with something new to try. A ghost story instead of vampires. An unknown writer instead of King or Straub. Some stores even dropped the horror category altogether and just placed them in Fiction. Part marketing strategy as horror bottomed out, but also weirdly accurate. Because it's all just fiction.
Let's take my most recent novel The Cure as an example. In the 1980s or 1990s, it would have sat on a shelf mixed in with all the other horror novels, right between Dennis Etchison and John Farris (not a bad place to be, am I right?). The story of a woman who has the power to both cure people or kill them just by touching them. But she can't control it. Now her life is in ruins and she's on the run from the government and two criminal organizations. And all the while, this power is growing. Changing.
Now, however, I can't just market it as horror. Because there are whole subsets of readers who wouldn't bother to look at the back cover and see what the book is about. So I also market it as a paranormal thriller and as a story about a woman's retribution against the people who've abused and wronged her.
And what about my other books? They run the gamut of subcategories:
Carnival of Fear: classic monster horror
The Burning Time: Southern Gothic
Cemetery Club: Zombies
Cult of the Black Jaguar: Supernatural Pulp Fiction
Legacy: Lovecraftian quiet terror
Fatal Consequences: Ghost story
Thief of Souls: Suspense/Revenge, with a twist of supernatural
Castle by the Sea: Gothic tragedy
Winterwood: Fairy Tale
And my short stories – science fiction, sword and sorcery, mysteries, thrillers, weird fiction.
All of it with a dark twist, to be sure (although I've done some humorous horror as well), but nevertheless not traditional 'horror' as most people think of it. Just plain old fiction.
That's why my business card doesn't say Horror Author. It reads: JG Faherty, author of Dark Fiction, Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy. Cover all the bases, that's my motto.
So now let's get ready for comments.
What does horror mean to you? And how should it be labeled?
*My thanks to Sally and The Qwillery for having me on!)