All Round the Table, “What is Horror?”

Horror is the implacable reality of death. I once heard the phrase, “All love stories end in death.” I would simplify the statement, shorten it.

All ends in death.

As a genre, horror embraces that truism. It may do it in a nearly slapstick way, overdosing the audience with gore and gross. It may do it in a calculated, bloodless way, and approach the cold reality by gut-wrenching degrees. Horror pays homage to the innate and powerless truth of our existence: all ends in death.

Marie Loughin is chief of  The Emissaries of Strange (TESSpecFic), a speculative fiction group of which I am a member. Marie posed the question: what is the difference between horror and dark fantasy? The Emissaries are taking a round-table discussion approach to answering Marie’s question, each of us posting a response on our own blog on a predetermined day. Today is my day, and I am the fifth member of TESSpecFic to reply.

Marie’s answer is Aristotelian, giving a categorization of elements that must be present for a work to meet her definition of horror. I challenge anyone to come up with a work of horror that does not contain at least one, if not several of her elements. Marie’s elements are:

1)   Creepy atmosphere.

2)   Suspenseful.

3)   Victims experience psychological trauma (i.e. they are aware and helpless).

4)   Inspires fear and/or dread in reader.

Jaye approaches the question from a more Platonic stance. She locates the definition somewhere beyond the bounds of plot or story elements. The ultimate determination of whether or not something is horror, for Jaye, is to be found in the effect it has upon the reader. A work is horror if the reader is left with the question: “How do you live with that?”

Paul takes a Utilitarian approach to answering the question, stating that the purpose of any genre label is to help guide potential readers to a particular type of book. Definitions of “horror” or of “dark fiction” fall to the side, replaced by the  practical question of how to least mislead potential readers. The difficulty is that the definitions the publishing industry uses may not match the definitions that the general public applies; muddy as they are, these are the linguistic waters upon which our marketing terms float – or sink.

Kim chimes in with  characteristic metaphysical flourish, giving a response as Phenomenological as they come. She says the roots of what can be defined as horror are found in the psychological reaction of a person to reading a particular work. Horror is a core emotion, and as such is subjective. Like Jaye, Kim takes the onus of definition and puts it out there, in the reader. However, Kim agrees with Paul that labeling has a purpose, and feels the angst of trying to find the right term to categorize her work.

I argue that to fully define horror, you need to include the work and the audience. A horror story is the sum of its elements plus the effect it has on the reader. Of course, the same could be said of romance, sci-fi, dark fantasy. The difference between genres, then, would seem to be given by the specific, intended effect a collected set of story elements has on the reader.

I don’t mean to say that only the author’s intentions matter; no, the elements that the author arranged will have varying effects on different readers, although the general reaction might be in the same vein. In that sense, I agree with Paul that the labels matter because they help readers winnow their choices. I have a general impression of what I’ll get when I pick up a supernatural thriller, or a gaslight romance, or a steampunk fantasy. Do I think that a particular label, even these compound varieties in vogue of late, give me the full picture of what I will experience within a given book? Of course not. It is a label. It is a guidepost. It is not the substance of the work, it is not the thing-in-itself. I am happy to find that my gaslight romance has a dash of horror, or that my horror has a sprinkling of steampunk. The wonderful thing about art – and life, for that matter – is that labels can’t contain the essence of the thing. When it comes to books, not even the book itself can contain what it truly is. A story, no matter how labeled, does not come into true existence until it has interacted with a reader’s psyche. Only then is it real, and only then can it horrify.

To answer Marie, I would say that horror has the intent of making the reader feel the inevitable approach of death. Dark Fantasy, to me, would have the intent of giving the reader the option to believe there is something beyond death, something beyond the boundaries of our implacable outcome. By my own definitions, I would have to class Marie’s novel, Valknut: The Binding, as Dark Fantasy.

Please visit the other Emissaries for the full round-table discussion  – and don’t forget to mark your calendars to catch Penelope and Jonathan’s upcoming posts!

Marie Loughin: Just what the heck is “Horror,” anyway, and how is it different from Dark Fantasy?

Jaye Manus: What is Horror? The Answer is in the Question

Paul Dail: Potential Perils of the Horror Label… or … The Difficulties of Defining a Genre

Kim Koning: Shivers down my spine…

Jonathan D. Allen: Monday, May 14

Penelope Crowe: Tuesday, May 15

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