Friday, October 29, 2010

Introduction to Horror: A Tribute to Halloween

In honor of Halloween I thought I'd give a little background on the often misunderstood genre of horror. Many look down on it as low-brow torture porn full of nothing but oversexed teens and gratuitous mutilation. A look at many of the greats--Stephen King, Mary Shelley, and others--will show you that crafting a truly frightening piece of prose is an art form and one that transcends genres.

So what is horror? As Mort Castle so eloquently stated, horror is “anything that scares you.” Broad to say the least, Castle hits on a very important point—horror can be anything. Think about it. What frightens you? What keeps you up at night? Is it chainsaw wielding serial killers, or something more realistic like losing a loved one? I know that I have the occasional zombie nightmares, but the ones that really frighten me are the dreams where my family is in danger whether it be from zombies or tornadoes.

With that in mind it is easy to see that there is an element of horror in almost every genre. Nonetheless, some identifiable subcategories of horror have emerged as literature has evolved and no doubt the list will continue to grow. Here is a brief introduction into the many types of horror that can be found on the bookshelves.

Gothic: There is some debate within the genre as to what is truly “gothic.” Often times there are strong elements of both horror and romance woven with other themes such as the paranormal. Often, characters are placed in an oppressive setting where old dogmas reign and reason and logic are seen as threatening. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole is often credited as the first work of fiction in this genre. Other notable authors are Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Lovecraftian: Named after H.P. Lovecraft, it is often psychological work that is based on the premise that the world was once ruled by a dark and supernatural race that is waiting for the opportunity to reclaim power.  Misanthropy, a fragile sense of reality, and an antiquated use of terminology is often associated with the style. Many writers have developed works within this genre including Stephen King and Caitlin R. Kiernan.

Paranormal: Anything outside of the typical, physical world fall under this category including ghosts, werewolves, zombies, vampires, etc. Many sub categories have emerged under this group and it often overlaps with several other categories of horror and other genres. Dracula and Arabian Nights are often cited works in this category.

Dark Fantasy: Combines both horror and fantasy elements. It is often used to describe works that can also be labeled as paranormal since they both deal with forces or creatures that lie outside of humanity’s understanding of reality. Most comic books fall in this category such as Batman and The Crow, as do works from Anne Rice, Neil Gaiman, and other fantasy writers.

Splatterpunk: Here is where the blatant gore and gruesome elements of horror come to play. There is nothing suggestive or hidden in this genre. Authors in this field take the “don’t look away” approach and reveal every horrific element to the reader in often sickening detail. Clive Barker and Jack Ketchum are famous for this type of writing.

Weird Fiction: Also known as “bizarro” fiction, it is a broad category that includes works with unusual structure and other weird elements. Essentially, it is any strange and outlandish fiction that seeks to provoke and challenge the reader and often contains a significant amount of humor. Noted authors include Jeremy C. Shipp and Eckhard Gerdes.

Psychological: Here the horror element is not so much a person or thing, but often the slow decay of reality or some other psychological bent. The antagonist in this genre is often the protagonist (man versus self) as he or she slowly succumbs to their own fears or other irrational beliefs. Lovecraft and Kiernan are again cited in this genre.

I hope you've enjoyed this basic introduction to horror. When you trick or treat this weekend be mindful of the many ghouls and goblins running the streets and be safe!

Happy Samhain!

1 comment:

  1. Since I've just begun writing horror this year, these categories will come in very handy. Thanks for the rundown!