TT: What’s Horrible about Horror?

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back for a wander through the fields of poetry…  Then come back and join me and Alan as we take a look at the final member of the “Big Three” of speculative fiction: Horror!

Not Horrible Horror

Not Horrible Horror

JANE: Well, Alan, we’ve taken a general look at SF and Fantasy, two of the Big Three of Speculative Fiction.  The sub-section that always puzzles me when I try to define it is “Horror.”    From reading your “wot I red” column, I know you like at least some horror.  Do you have a definition?

ALAN: Yes, I think so. Some supernatural entity (a ghost or a vampire, for example) does something which terrifies a group of people and puts them in fear of their lives. The story may or may not end happily. In a sense, horror can be thought of as a subset of fantasy. Perhaps it is fantasy in a setting where fantasy would not normally be found (contemporary society, for example). But it always has to have overtones of terror.

JANE: Hmm… If by “supernatural” you mean “outside of normal parameters,” I guess I can agree.  However, I’m not certain that Horror is always a subset of Fantasy.

I’ve heard many people say that the movie Alien is horror set in outer space while the sequel Aliens is science fiction.

ALAN: I’ve heard that opinion expressed as well, but I’ve never understood it – I thought both of them were actually rather good science fiction. Perhaps the “horror” in Alien comes from the chest burster scene, which is undeniably horrific in the sense that you jump out of your seat in shock and go “YUCK!” when you see it. But from the alien creature’s point of view, it’s just following its biological imperatives, and isn’t really doing anything wrong at all. To me that makes the film science fiction. It’s a first contact story, albeit a rather gory one, with very well realised (though quite scary) aliens. I’ve never really considered “horror” to mean “gross out the audience.” But perhaps some people do.

JANE: Perhaps.  I’ll admit, I’ve never seen Alien.  Jim advises me not to on the grounds of how I tend to react to scary movies.   I saw Aliens with some friends – all of whom had seen it before.  After a while, I realized they were watching me, not the film.  Apparently, I jump a lot.

Another example of non-fantasy horror would be George R.R. Martin’s story “Sandkings.”  There’s nothing supernatural in it, but it’s definitely horror…  A terrifying, creepy piece.

ALAN: I don’t remember that one. I know I’ve read it, but the details have vanished from my mind. It must be time for me to read it again. I’ll add it to my list…

JANE: Oh!  “Sandkings” is incredibly creepy.

I decided to see if Ellen Datlow, the renowned editor of numerous anthologies of horror,  had anything to add to our definitions.  You’ll see she agrees with both of us on at least a few points!  Here’s what she sent:

“To me, horror is less a distinct genre than a tone that develops from the approach writers take to their material.  It’s the darkness, always the darkness that prevails.  Even when the protagonist survives, the darkness is never left entirely behind.  Things are not ‘ok’ in the world (which is why most of what is today called ‘urban fantasy’ is not horror).

“There are several different subsets of horror: supernatural horror, psychological horror, SF horror (Alien, The Fly – story and movie adaptations – The Thing are good examples of this).”

ALAN: Stephen King is often thought of as the archetypal author of horror, but actually I think he’s written very little of it. It just so happens that he made his initial reputation with the genre. Salem’s Lot (vampires terrorise a small town) is probably his very best pure horror novel, with It (a supernatural killer clown terrorises a small town) running it a close second. Christine (a haunted car)  is also a special favourite of mine, though others don’t seem to agree with me. Most of King’s work is actually fairly straightforward science fiction and/or fantasy. But the reviewers stuck the horror label on him very early in his career and he’s never been able to shake it off. Not that it’s done his career any harm at all…

JANE: I haven’t read a lot of Stephen King because he does his job very well – he scares me, makes me uneasy, in general evokes that “darkness” to perfection.  I know many people don’t consider his novel The Shining horror, but let me tell you,  to a writer, that level of writer’s block would be a truly horrific situation.  “All work and no play…”

ALAN: Actually I always thought of The Shining as a good example of what we were discussing last time – something that combines elements of different genres and yet remains uniquely its own self because it doesn’t slot neatly into a category. It’s got telepathy (SF, sort of), it’s got ghosts (fantasy/supernatural), and, of course, it’s got the dark terror that belongs to the horror genre.

JANE: Good point!

If I do read Horror, I like those stories that expand on folklore or mythology in an intelligent fashion.  I’m also a sucker for a good “haunted house” tale or for when old gods come calling with an agenda of all their own.

I also like horror where someone manages to evolve a mythology of their own that works well.  H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction may be ponderous and wordy, but his stories still hold me.   He had the gift of making me believe that his version of reality – creepy as it is – is valid.

ALAN: Charles Stross has written a series of semi-comic SF/Horror novels about “The Laundry”, a British secret service agency which deals with occult threats of a specifically Lovecraftian nature. Computer technology and mathematical equations can call up horrors from other dimensions. Lovecraft has a lot to answer for…

JANE: That sounds like fun.  I used to play the Call of Cthulu role playing games because it was fun to solve the problems.  As I mentioned elsewhere, I actually sold a couple of gaming articles based in this milieu.

Looking at other types of horror, oddly enough, I don’t find “slasher” type horror horrific unless I care about the characters.  I actually get bored.

ALAN: I really enjoy a nice bit of blood and guts, grue and gore – but I suspect that’s because I never get so caught up in it that I lose track of the fact that’s it’s just a story, it’s not real. (I’ve seen real injuries and they nauseate me just as much as they nauseate everyone – but a film is just a film and I can easily maintain an intellectual distance from the subject matter).

JANE: Ah, to me, story can seem all too real…  For that reason, psychological horror can get me every time.  Two stories that come to mind for me are Daniel Abraham’s “Flat Diane” and D. Lynn Smith’s “A Building Desire.”  “A Building Desire” is told from the point of view a hammer that is being used in a very interesting fashion.

Of course, in that story, I’ve been told that I may have been rooting for the wrong person…

ALAN: I’m not familiar with these writers – can you be a little more precise about what you mean by  “psychological horror”?

JANE: Well, to reference back to your original definition, this is horror where – even if there is a supernatural element – the real monsters are human monsters.  Stories where the “dark” comes from the human soul, and the reader is all too aware “that could be me” or at least “that’s all too possible.”

ALAN: Ah! I see. I’m going to be a little old-fashioned here. I’d put writers like Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe into that category. Possibly even Dickens in his darker moments. All of them can give me the shudders because their human monsters are so well realised.

JANE: I agree with you absolutely.  Poe’s “Black Cat” is psychological horror.  “The Telltale Heart…”  Geez, I could just go listing titles for both authors.  I think, actually, there’s a psychological horror in all of the best Horror fiction – many of the subcategories come from what else gets put in the mix.

Next time…  Heh…  Let’s build suspense and leave next time for, well, next time!


5 Responses to “TT: What’s Horrible about Horror?”

  1. Debbie Smith Daughetee Says:

    I agree with Ellen’s definition and yes, I think that Alien is horror. Not because of the chest popping scene, but because of the overall darkness of the film — there’s a really scary monster out there trying to get you. Basic horror fair that just happens to be set in outer space.

    Thanks for the mention of my story, Jane. I still have to chuckle at your reaction. You seem like such a nice girl 🙂

  2. Paul Says:

    Back in 1950, an SF movie called “Destination Moon” (with input from Heinlein) came out, with expensive special effects (for its time), and is still the closest movie to how things actually work in space. Next year came an adaptation of Campbell’s “The Thing (from Another World),” also SF, but the only special effect was the makeup on James Arness as the creature. Both did equally well at the box office. So Hollywood SF throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, taking this lesson, largely emphasized the horror element (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” etc.) rather than the SF (“When Worlds Collide,” “This Island, Earth”) even when the story came from a written SF work. Thus, SF movies (especially the quickies: “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “Not of This Earth,” “The Man from Planet X”) seemed more like horror movies which brought in the same profits for less of an investment. I wonder if the genre confusion began there? Now, currently, with the computerized special effects now possible, fantasy has become the tail wagging the SF dog…

  3. John Stephen Barker Says:

    Ellen gets it right.

    Also look at the “What is Horror” FAQ page on the Horror Writers Association website: “[H]orror can deal with the mundane or the supernatural, with the fantastic or the normal. It doesn’t have to be full of ghosts, ghouls, and things to go bump in the night. Its only true requirement is that it elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.”

    Asimov’s SF Magazine’s submission guidelines state: “A good overview would be to consider that all fiction is written to examine or illuminate some aspect of human existence, but that in science fiction the backdrop you work against is the size of the Universe.” (

    Similarly, horror focuses on illuminating truths about our fears and insecurities — those dark aspects of human existence — and uses any genre tools available to do so, SF and fantasy included. In that sense, as quoted on the HWA FAQ page above, “Horror is not a genre…Horror is an emotion”.

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