Don’t Say The ‘H’ Word
I review and self-publish horror, and I’m thinking about directing a workshop for aspiring horror writers in the near future. Furthermore, I like to read the Horror Writers Association Blog to make sure I don’t miss out on what’s new and hot in the horror community. I’ve developed this weird fascination with the dark side ever since I was a kid, but I still find people who ask the question, “So, what kind of horror you like?”
I always thought I knew the answer to that question.
The meaning of the word ‘Horror’ has metamorphosed throughout the years, pretty much like Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s unforgettable The Metamorphosis. People back then didn’t call it ‘Horror Fiction,” even though the thought of turning into a giant roach kept me awake many nights in a row. People called this ‘Absurdist Fiction,’ allegedly because it was merely a narrative that focused on situations where the main character cannot find any purpose in life.
Well, that’s absurd.
When thinking of the ‘H’ word, I sympathize with it. The abuse it has suffered is unthinkable. First, they made it look like an octopus, marveling at its many tentacles, wondering how profitable it could be, and then suddenly turning cold and curt at its appearance, to finally disposing of it like it was something that could never sell. And because of the confusion and mayhem, fans often (and perhaps with good reason) wonder what ‘Horror’ actually is.
Look, I get it. The confusion is understandable. The industry has redefined horror since the dawn of time. Up to the 70s, Horror was only part of literature. Those who wrote scary stories only published them in what was called “men’s magazines,” and those who read them would often hide, feeling pretty guilty about it. In other words, horror back then was like watching PornHub dot com today.
But after the overwhelming success of films such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, people felt some sort of an out-of-the-closet liberation and began yelling, “I want more! I want more! I want more!” And after that, writers like Stephen King became the Elvis Presley of literature. Horror then won a section at the local library, right next to science fiction and mystery.
Unfortunately, going back to my octopus metaphor, publishers now claim the ‘H’ word should not be used because it didn’t sell anymore. Sure, they still publish it under different labels such as dark fantasy, psychological thriller, suspense, supernatural and even science fiction. I’ve heard some people call it ‘stealth horror,’ as if they are looking for ways to make readers shut up.
Some people even say ‘horror’ should not be a genre at all because every movie or book out there somehow brings out something horrific in the story. In other words, ‘horror’ is a feeling, not a category on its own. That makes me think of Rose, as she saw Jack going down the cold waters in the last scenes of The Titanic. What did Rose feel? Horror? Even though the story is a drama?
What is horror then? A genre? An emotion?
I am beginning to think it is the latter. Perhaps I’ve been wrong all these years, calling it a genre when in reality it is a feeling, an interaction between reader and writer, as though they were two loners in front of a campfire on a dark night in the middle of nowhere, ready to be frightened to death. Horror fiction is then an insidious je ne sais quoi that burns holes into our minds and brings about a primal emotion: Fear.
The strongest emotion.
There are many ways to accomplish fear. For example, Lovecraft used the term ‘Atmosphere’ to describe what makes us feel dread. You can find this atmosphere in Kafka’s works. Hell, perhaps Mark Twain’s. The atmosphere is there and it reaches for and pulls out that dark emotional response in all of us. It’s hard to define what works in horror since everyone responds differently. For example, I no longer feel anything when re-watching Goosebumps episodes and Stranger Things makes me fall asleep. That doesn’t make these shows bad. I’m simply used to a more intense kind of horror. Perhaps something more perverse and shocking.
If I have to choose a label to define my particular taste, I guess I would stick with Dark Fiction or even Trangressive, since every story I write is about someone who doesn’t give a fuck. Despite everything, you might still find books labeled ‘Horror.’ Be careful, though, and pay close attention to reviews. Who knows, maybe they one day manage to succeed and keep us from using the ‘H’ word.
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