The Horror! The Horror!

Ghost stories.  Vampire slayers.  Impossible monsters out of nightmares and nasty alien parasites from other worlds.  Things that inspire titillating fear, dread . . . and night lights.  Yes folks, lets discuss the genre of horror fiction for a bit.

When I was a teen and I brought up my reading tastes in science fiction and fantasy to a new acquaintance, they’d usually say something like: “Oh, science fiction . . . that must mean you read Stephen King.”  At the time it made no sense at all to me.  Stephen King didn’t write SF or Fantasy (at least not that I knew at the time).  He wrote spooky and gory stuff that I generally avoided.  These were the pre Harry Potter and Hunger Games days and there was a tendency for non-readers to lump odd fiction under the banner of the one writer who they knew about who did “weird” stuff.

Then I happened on a website discussing science fiction for Fall 2013  quite a few of the movies mentioned aren’t really sci-fi or fantasy, they are horror.  Comments on the website waste no time in pointing out that “horror is not sci-fi”. It got me thinking a bit about where horror fits into the genre shuffle.  It’s a bit tricky.  You’ve got a horror story . . . and it has a mutated creature escaped from the science lab terrorizing a town.  Isn’t that science fiction?.  You’ve got a horror story . . . and your protagonist is a monster hunter who kills demons for a living.  Isn’t that fantasy?  You’ve got a horror story . . . and it’s about a crazed serial killer stalking kids who wear plaid. Wait, that’s not speculative fiction at all! Is it? Obviously everyone has their own opinions on this, but now you’re going to get mine.

Look into my eyes . . . you will listen to my opinion . . .

Look into my eyes . . . you will listen to my opinion!

 Now, to an extent, any specific genre may crossover into another genre occasionally.  But in horror, the inclusion of speculative fiction elements is incredibly common.  While it’s entirely possible to have a horror novel with only realistic elements,  horror fiction is full of monsters and nightmares and blobby amoebas from outer space.   The significant difference with horror, and where it departs from science fiction and fantasy is tone and intent.   The horror genre is meant to evoke fear and terror.  It is meant to thrill and make the heart pound and leave the reader scared. The focus is on the fear and spooky atmosphere.  The speculative elements that might otherwise be fantasy or science fiction become secondary to that atmosphere .  These are the books that leave you a little nervous in a dark room.  Probably avoiding windows and jumping at sudden noises.

 It doesn’t take much to turn the tone to horror.  Take this little set of sentences.  It’s been going around the Internet as humor, but it exemplifies the shift.

A baby’s laugh is one of the most beautiful sounds you will ever hear.

Unless it’s 2am.

And you’re home alone.

And you don’t have a baby.

demented baby

At the first sentence, it’s all good and sweet and fine.  By the second sentence it’s weird, by the third it’s creepy, by the fourth it’s practically terrifying.  That’s the essence of good horror, in my opinion.  It depends on your own imagination to add in all the elements and begin to speculate on the awful things out there in the dark.

There’s a fraction of horror that’s not speculative, and thus not my purview.  The rest of it falls squarely into speculative fiction and, I think, into the range of this blog–at least as far as children’s books.  So I’ll look at occasional ghost stories, monster stories similar stuff, just so long as they have some kind of science fiction or fantasy element.  No sparkly vampire though.

I think It’s occasionally refreshing to get a good scare, as does Baba Yaga.

baba yaga

Baba Yaga and the Wise Doll by Hiawyn Oram, illustrated by Ruth Brown (Dutton, 1998)

So  where Science fiction gets to be the red-headed step-child of the genre fiction, horror is sort of the goth teenager, falling between the worlds of realistic and purely imaginary with a distinct preference for dark and spooky. Which begs the question:  does that make fantasy the hip older sister? Is steampunk then the weird aunt who likes to tinker with machines?   . . . maybe madcap adventure would be the annoying younger brother?


Are you a fan of horror?  What are your favorite horror stories?  Comments Welcome!


About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on October 23, 2013, in General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hi, Stephanie–I’m a big fan of “horror sci fi”. Taking some science fiction concept, and then having it go horribly wrong makes for some fun stories. There’s not a lot of horror sci fi being written for kids, but my favorite adult-oriented story would be “The Mist” by Stephen King. I actually took a shot at writing a horror sci fi book for kids called “Infestation”, which is based on the old 1950’s “giant bug” movies.

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