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Horror Sub-Genres
by Paula Guran

(Reprinted with permission from and with special thanks to the folks at
Dark Echo Writer's Workshop)

Don't expect to find a definition of horror here. The closest I get to even attempting that is in an essay, The Meaning of the "H" Word. And you can re-read Doug Winter's words on the site entry. These will remind you that horror isn't a genre at all. Once you have that firmly in mind, then you can ponder the irony of the following -- horror sub-genres and related terms. Not that these can be considered definitive. Horrorists disagree about such things; academics debate them. Some that have complex meaning are still treated simplitically and with great brevity.

I never promised you this would be easy.

Cross Genre:
Of course is you can establish genre lines, then horror crosses them. When genres -- horror, fantasy, science, and speculative fiction -- start slipping into one another the Brits call it (appropriately) "slipstream."

Cutting Edge:
This term's meaning shifts -- often from person to person -- so I can really only offer what I think it means. For ME, cutting edge means that the fiction usually refuses archetypal, supernatural aspects -- unless those elements are used so originally they become antithetical to traditional horror. Cutting edge can be hard, soft, quiet, psychological, surreal, eerie, avant pop, post-modern, literary, alternative, have erotic, and sexual aspects, etc. The idea is that it is not exactly the same old thing -- even if the departure is only stylistic rather than purely thematic.

Dark Fantasy:
A term that could arguably be applied to most horror and sometimes is, but generally it means a fantasy story that can have supernatural elements but is not the supernatural fiction of vampires, werewolves. etc. You'll often find stories like Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian refer"#CC0000" to as dark fantasy. A "purer" reference in this context, however, would be Karl Edward Wagner's doomed immortal anti-hero Kane. Characters/fictions that originated in graphic narratives (comics) like James O'Barr's The Crow and modern interpretations of Spiderman and Batman are dark fantasy.(Although the heroes and magic of "sword and sorcery" is sometimes dark fantasy, "S&S" generally belongs to the fantasy genre more than horror.)

Dark Fiction:
Back in 1994 I started using the term "dark fiction" to (1) allay the fears of writers and readers who didn't want to be associated with "horror", a word that's always been troublesome and was, at the time, falling even further out of favor in some circles; (2) have an inclusive term that covered more than some folks thought horror did; (3) use as the title of the AOL workshop --Dark Fiction/Horror Writers Workshop -- for the first two reasons and also because, in alphabetical listings "d" was preferable to "h". It wasn't original, of course, but I honestly don't know where/when it started to be used to label a particular type of fiction. (Thomas Monteleone used the acronym HDF in the introduction to the first volume of the Borderlands anthology series to refer to "contemporary horror, dark fantasy, and suspense literature." I don't think he used it for long, though.) In any case, for the first couple of years I was repeatedly told that "dark fiction" was not an acceptable term, that no one in publishing used the phrase, that it meant nothing, and that, surely, I meant "dark fantasy." Well, that was probably true then, but I used it anyway. Now I see it used all over the place.

Erotic Horror:
Usually "erotic" means sensual sexual content integral to the story and can be as mild as "romantic suspense." Many editors and writers prefer the term "sexual horror" over erotic, as the sex in horror can be far from nice or arousing. "Erotic" can be stretched to mean graphic, intentionally explicit sex in a story meant for a pornographic market. The code word being "explicit."

It's, well, extreme. It goes straight to the blood-and-guts and aims for the gross-out without hesitation. In guidelines you might find terms like "splat," "splatter," or "splatterpunk" and "gore," "grue," and "gross." (Most GLs tell you to AVOID these things.) Splatterpunk, by the way, was just a label made up to describe the "young Turks" bringing a more visceral, gritty edge to horror 10-15 years ago.


1. English Gothic: Novels and tales that developed as a reaction to the Age of Reason and dominated English literature from 1764 with The Castle of Ortanto by Horace Walpole into the early 19th century. Characteristic theme is the stranglehold of the past upon the present or the encroachment of the '"dark'"ages of oppression upon the "enlightened" modern era. Enclosed and haunted settings (castles, crypts, convents, mansions), gloomy images of ruin and decay, episodes of imprisonment, cruelty, and persecution are used to express this.
2. American Gothic: Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), considered America's first novelist, gave Gothic an American setting and more of a psychological interest in aberrant mentality. Gloomy atmosphere plays a smaller role in American Gothic, psychic breakdown plays a larger role.
3. Although sometimes used as a synonym for "horror," it shouldn't be. Although there is academic debate, gothic can probably be identified by themes of a character being *trapped* -- by location, by family destiny, whatever. Joyce Carol Oates extends this to what she calls "assaults on individual identity and autonomy."
4. An entirely different meaning arises when Gothic or "Goth" subculture is refered to in connection with horror fiction. Any attempt to define Goth winds up stereotyping an extremely diverse subculture. It's also wrong and probably stupid and calling fiction "Goth" is just the same. Since the stereotypical goth wears nothing but black, too much eyeliner, and is full of gloom, pretension and angst, then I suppose "goth fiction" is the first form of literature to wear make-up.

Lovecraftian, Lovecraft Mythos, Cthulhu Mythos, etc.:
As long as you have some idea of who H.P. Lovecraft was and what he wrote, these probably make sense. Lovecraft's fictional premise was that the world was once inhabited by another race of dark powers. Although cast out, they live on somewhere always ready to take the world back. "Lovecraft style" is florid and never stints on adjectives.

Usually set in an urban underworld of crime and moral ambiguity. Dark, cynical, paranoid themes of corruption, alienation, lust, obsession, violence, revenge and the difficulty of finding redemption in a far from perfect world. An oppressive atmosphere of menace, pessimism, anxiety, suspicion, and dingy realism. You'll also find the term in combinations like neo-noir, future noir or noir sf, tech-noir.

Psychological Horror:
Based on the disturbed human psyche. Obviously psychos on rampages fall into this category, but it is just as often more subtle. Since the reader's perception is sometimes altered by exposure to an insane viewpoint, psychological horror can also deal with ambiguous reality and seem to be supernatural.

Quiet (or Soft) Horror:
Subtle, never visceral or too shocking, with atmosphere and mood providing the miasma of fear rather than graphic description. The opposite of "Extreme."

The rules of the normal world don't apply; ghosts, demons, vampires, werewolves, the occult etc. Within this sub genre is an ever-growing list of sub-sub-genres -- most of which deal with vampires.

Not really sub-generic, it can be used just to mean unreal; strange or bizarre. Or it can be used to tie a style to the surrealist movement in art and literature that attempted to express the subconscious and move beyond accepted conventions of reality by representing the irrational imagery of dreams and bizarre juxtapositions.

Suspense (or Dark Suspense) and Thriller:
No supernatural elements, but a constant sense of threat coming from an outside menace. Add a strong investigative angle and becomes mystery more than horror. Add action and adventure to suspense and you come up with "thriller" -- except you can have "supernatural thrillers."

A term, not a sub-genre, that refers to earthier, more reality-based or supernatural fiction with a tendency to be "in-your-face" with descriptions of the bad stuff -- but not as extreme as Extreme.

Can be used in several ways. "Weird fiction" is sometimes used as a synonym for horror. It can also mean only strange, uncanny, supernatural stories or refer to a school of writing popularized by the pulp magazine "Weird Tales" that tended to be Lovecraftian or occult; more "traditional" horror. "Pulp" is also a word used to describe this type of tale, although "pulp" can also mean more action-oriented material.

Copyright Paula Guran. All rights reserved.

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