Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Epiphanies From Deconstruction - Horror

I did a workshop for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers recently that made me look at how I thought of horror and reanalyze it in an attempt to help others understand it more. As I've delved deeper into the genre, I've expanded my own definition of it. Problem being, I see the same original, narrow view that I've left behind reflected in others' views on horror.

I frequently get comments like "I don't read/watch horror" or "I don't enjoy horror." But then there will be an exception to that. For example, "I don't enjoy horror, but I really liked Coraline/The Handmaid's Tale/Hunger Games/Stepford Wives/Planet of the Apes/Flowers in the Attic," etc. Right now, some of you are reading this and saying "Stepford Wives wasn't horror." Wasn't it? If Get Out is horror, Stepford Wives is, as well. Both look at subjugation and internal, unconscious biases in a frightening way that puts others in harm of losing themselves.



We've pigeonholed horror by defining it by one aspect, and each of us has a different aspect we define it by. Some might think horror is all slashers and gore. Some think it has to involve a monster. Sadly, even known authors of horror deny writing it, because they fear turning off readers and limiting their audience.

Interestingly, the Horror Writers Association pinpoints when this narrowing of the genre definition occurred: the 80s. And they blame it on one specific work: Stephen King's Carrie.



You see, horror wasn't a genre until sometime in the 80s. Even now, it's just a subgenre of fantasy, technically, but then we've split fantasy out into subgenres like dark fantasy and urban fantasy, as well, both of which can contain elements of horror.

The real trouble began when the publishing industry started trying to pinpoint the formula that made Carrie such a big hit. They then tried to duplicate that success by seeking similar stories. Suddenly, literature that met the definition of horror was pushed to the side, targeting this very specific form of horror to make sales and get movies made.

If you want to read more about this, put much better than I can, go to the HWA site.

A second problem we writers, specifically, have is that we're taught to pigeonhole our own writing to sell it. Pick a genre. You can't put "historical romantic mystery with speculative elements" in a query letter; you have to narrow that down. Where is it most likely to be put on a shelf? Well, with true horror, in the widest definition possible, it can go on many shelves.

Where would you find The Lovely Bones? Not in horror. Not even in fantasy, even though there are speculative, even supernatural, elements. It's a touching story, but it's also horrifying. There is clearly dread and horror brought out in the reader. What is NOT horrific about a little girl being raped and murdered then forced to watch from beyond the grave as her killer and family become involved in an intricate dance full of risk?



Where would you find The Hunger Games? Not under horror. It's a YA dystopian. But guess what dystopians are? A form of horror. Again, I ask you what is not horrific about children rounded up and forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the wealthy?

Horror, in its purest form, exists to elicit darker emotions from its readers. That does not always have to be fear, though that's a strong thread, and is frequently present. It can be despair, horror, alarm, terror, disgust. It can be existential dread. It can be unfulfilled hope, brought to a crushing end. It can make you question society, your neighbor, or even your own morals. What it does not have to do is make you fear the creature under your bed (though it's completely legitimate if it does so).

What you'll often find in horror is that the things that scare you aren't the monsters, even when they exist. In The Shining, the ghosts are the least frightening part. The fright factor in The Shining has more to do with Jack's backslide into alcoholism and mental illness. It has to do with the sense of isolation and helplessness his family feels. The horror of a man coming after his wife and child with an ax is far more impactful than a lion shrubbery or a naked ghoul in a bathtub. At our base, we fear those close to us being able to harm us. Even more so, we fear our capacity for violence and wrongdoing. We fear hurting our loved ones, whether by causing physical harm or mental harm.



I realize I won't convince anyone with one short post. But I ask that you think about the wider implications of horror and try looking at things with a slightly different eye. Just because it was not slapped with a label of HORROR, does not mean it does not play in that particular playground. You may truly not like horror, but you may also just not like the narrow definition of horror you've been presented with. Either is legitimate.

Even I, a longtime fan of horror, didn't see it in its full scope. If you've read any of my horror list review posts, you know that I've said about many of the stories that I didn't feel they were horror. Now I know that they were, and that they existed on that list because they impacted someone emotionally in all the right ways. As a result, I'll go forward with a new set of eyes when reading the stories from Nightmare Magazine's Top 100 Horror Books.

Link time. Bear in mind that I'm not endorsing these, merely passing them along. Always do your own due diligence before submitting to a market or contest.

Accepting Submissions:

Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores is accepting flash fiction and short stories in the speculative fiction genres (minus horror). Pays $.06/word. Deadline June 28.

The Threepenny Review is accepting short fiction and poetry. Word counts vary per type of submission. Pays $400 for story/article, $200 for poetry. Deadline June 30.

Subprimal is accepting flash fiction and poetry. Up to 750 words. Pays $20. Deadline June 30.

Alban Lake is accepting horror short stories concerning the Ancient Ones for The Mad Visions of al-Hazred. 3000 to 10,000 words. Pays $25. Deadline June 30.

Chicken Soup for the Soul is accepting short pieces for My Crazy Family. Up to 1200 words. Pays $200. Deadline June 30.

Inklings Publishing is accepting short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for Perceptions: Bullies. This is an anthology for kids. Up to 5000 words. Pays $20. Deadline June 30.

Broken Eye Books is accepting weird fiction set in Miskatonic University. Must involve the Cthulhu mythos. 3000 to 6000 words. Pays $.08/word. Deadline June 30.

Contests:

Helen: A Literary Magazine is holding their Visual Prompt Quarterly Contest. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or experimental. There are three images, and it can contain one or all of them. $25 prize. Deadline June 30.

How do you define horror? Have you looked at any of the mentioned stories as horror? Do you find yourself pigeonholing horror into narrow definitions? Are any of these links of interest? Anything to share?

May you find your Muse.

34 comments:

  1. I always thought The Stepford Wives was considered horror. Scared me! :)

    I think of horror the way I think of other genres, like Romance or Mystery, how there are different categories inside the genre, like Christian Romance and Paranormal Mystery. In Horror, you might have Slash and Gore or Psychological or Paranormal categories, etc.

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    1. Exactly! And there's a fine line between some of those subgenres and other subgenres. How often is psychological horror the same thing as suspense, and vice versa?

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  2. Hi Shannon - I have to say I've no idea as I haven't watched any ... I am one of those who 'dislike' horror -but I am taking more notice! Cheers Hilary

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  3. Horror wasn't a genre in books until the 80's? Wild considering it's been a movie genre for many years before that.
    Anything that scares you. That would be a good description.
    I've never thought of fantasy as horror though.
    I also think some thrillers lap over into horror.

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    1. It existed, but didn't really have its own designation. In fact, horror has not had its own shelf at bookstores off and on through the decades. It did in the 80s, didn't in the 90s (at least where I was shopping).

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  4. Yeah, but you can broaden any definition to include, well, everything. It's part of why I hate the bandwagon about "speculative fiction," because, really, ALL fiction is speculative. Using the term is just a way to legitimize genre writing.

    For horror, I think you have to look at the intent of the author. If the author's intent is to frighten, then you get "horror." It's why I wouldn't call Shadow Spinner a horror novel, though it does have some pretty horrific elements.

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    1. I actually disagree with that. Stories can be horror whether the author intended it or not. Part of that goes back to people not recognizing horror when they see it, necessarily. And if you go read the HWA page I linked to, you'll see that Clive Barker and Dean Koontz both refuse to be considered horror authors. Obviously they are/were, again, whether they intended to be or not.

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    2. I don't mean an intent to write "horror;" I mean an intent, specifically, to invoke fear. I don't think either Barker or Koontz could legitimately claim that their intents were not to cause fear in their readers.

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    3. They don't always intend to scare either. They may intend merely to make you think about something people tend to avoid thinking about. It's tricky.

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  5. I thought Flowers in the Attic was horror. Although when I think of horror, I think of ghosts and monsters first.

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    1. Which is what we've been "trained" to think in some ways by labeling other types of horror as something different.

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  6. There are far more horrors than the boogeyman, can be subjective to each indeed. But yeah, when you really look at it, lots can be horror.

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  7. This is a very thoughtful post. Yes, 'Horror', like many genre labels, is constricting. Much more could be considered horror than one could find on 'Horror' shelves in stores. But then, that's true for most genre labels. Maybe that's why Amazon refused to sell books by genre. Instead, it has another, much more revealing feature: 'Those who bought this title also enjoyed...'

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    1. I agree whole-heartedly. Genre narrows focus too much, and also narrows minds. I do like that feature of Amazon.

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  8. You posed a very hard-to-answer question, that is almost impossible to nail down. "it does not play in that particular playground" is so perfect.

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    1. I like to pose hard to answer questions!

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  9. While I agree with your main points, it's a stretch too far to consider dystopian novels primarily a subset of the horror genre, when they have clearly been considered a subset of science fiction since their birth. (Orwell's "Nineteen-Eighty-Four" and Huxley's "Brave New World" come to mind as among the earliest examples.) Not saying horror CAN'T go there -- Stephen King's "The Stand" does -- but the YA novel you specifically cite, "The Hunger Games", is surely in the science fiction camp.

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    1. My comment came across harsh, so I deleted it, since that wasn't the intention. Dystopian can be both horror and science fiction. One doesn't preclude the other. So, yes, there are elements of science fiction in Hunger Games, and there are elements of horror in Hunger Games. Psychologically, the concept of Hunger Games is terrifying. There's plenty of dread and horror to it. So it's both. My focus is removing the narrowing of the definitions, which includes not saying because it is one genre it cannot be another.

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  10. As Madeline mentioned, horror is like the big umbrella with lots of subs underneath it. I believe there a little horror in all books (adult and YA too, maybe not as much MG). That the part that need to read more, ya know? The first horror book I read was The Amityville Horror. It scared the pants off me!

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    1. I agree about there being elements of horror in a lot of things. I believe the same about romance and mystery, which is why I've started attending workshops in those areas, too.

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  11. You make some very good points, particularly about how the concept of horror could be expanded to encompass a much broader range of genres. I supposed horror is simply an inherent part of tension in some ways:)

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    1. That's a good way to put it! Yes, there are elements of horror in quite a bit of suspense. It's just packaged a specific way.

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  12. That was so very interesting. Lots of things that go in speculative fiction have horrific qualities. Now I have to rethink a lot of things that should be in that genre.

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  13. I had avoided horror in that it scared me. Then I helped with a mucho low budget horror film. I have watched a few since. The first time is disturbing. The second time, I recognize how innocuous items are can be very terrifying. I think every film has dolls.

    You are right, the dystopian novels are horror stories.

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  14. It looks like Google ate my first reply.... Poo.

    Horror is tough for people to agree upon because it's a genre of effect rather than content. Fantasy has to have an impossible element; SciFi has to have a somewhat scientific plausible but not currently existing element. Horror can be Fantasy (Nightmare on Elm Street), Science Fiction (Alien), or non-speculative (Saw). This is because Horror's defining trait is its effect on the audience, eliciting dread and fear. It's similar to Comedy, the defining trait of which is to elicit mirth. Of course Stepford Wives is Horror, but many men don't recognize this because they don't feel as unsettled by the implications for femininity that women do. Right now we have white people saying Get Out isn't really Horror. That's to be expected.

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  15. What an interesting post!

    I have read a lot of horror and books that may be considered horror. It is hard that books are expected to fit in a certain genre. Lots of books straddle multiple genres.

    I am a big fan of Neil Gaiman and tend to read a lot of books that are dark.
    ~Jess

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  16. Awesome post! I was cheering while I read it because SO MANY people think horror is slasher gore and nothing else. When I tell people "Gone Girl" is horror, though it was marketed otherwise, they're shocked until I explain why.

    If you get that disbelief about Stepford Wives again, just tell them it was written by Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary's Baby. Maybe that will convince 'em.

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  17. Excellent post. I do like horror, as long as it has certain elements, and if it's a movie it better be clever. Just watched Get Out. Still thinking about it.

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  18. This is such an interesting post. I'm one of those people who always says they don't like horror, but reading how you describe the genre, I guess I do like some horror books, movies etc.

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  19. Pigeonholing is convenient for book marketers and there are so many books that don't fit neatly onto a shelf. I'd love to see us just sell books: fiction and non-fiction, but that won't ever happen. If it did, we'd probably discover a lot of different kinds of books we enjoy.

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