Are you writing horror fiction? Before I renewed my acquaintance with Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, I would have thought that was a no-brainer even Abby Normal could answer: Of course not. You’ll find nary a zombie and no trace of a hockey-mask wearing fiend hanging randy teens by their heels with meat hooks and firing up his chainsaw in any of my work.
There’s more to the case than buckets of blood and entrails though. In Danse Macabre, King describes his first personal taste of horror as having been subjected to the then-terrifying announcement that the Soviets had beat the U.S. into space with Sputnik. On the Horror Writers Association site, horror is defined in a post on the basics of horror fiction as a sensation of intense dread and fear, a common definition found in many corners of the web. The post also includes several other definitions, including “that which cannot be made safe.” The author remarks fondly on the classic anthology Prime Evil, which ranges from the-corner-of-your-eye-maybe-you’re-crazy-who-knows to knee-deep-in-blood types of stories, an excellent survey of the breadth of the genre and its sub-genres. The post goes on to lament that horror as we currently define it has slipped far away from the subtle and become dominated by gore.The subtler writers have gone underground so to speak, eschewing the “horror” label for “supernatural” or “fantastic.”
Teresa Hopper at Forward Motion, however, informs us that even if you are merely trying to cause chills for (let alone scare the wits out of) readers, you are writing horror. Stephen King may be better known for splatter but he also gave us The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, which relies solely on mundane but very real fears familiar to anyone living on the edge of the Maine woods (especially two days after the remains of a long-sought elderly through-hiker were confirmed found in a lonely ravine just off the Appalachian Trail). I am reminded of the movie Poltergeist, which featured plenty of traditional scares but also played on the more ordinary adult fears of property loss and injury to family. Fear is fear.
So where does that leave Abby Normal’s original shoot-from-the-hip conclusion? Do I actually write horror? At least one of my works, a short anthology, consists of stories filled with ghosts and shape shifters. I now admit that I meant to at least “cause chills,” which is plain enough from the YouTube trailer with its creepy tune imploring at the end “Where are you? You Gotta get Me Outta Here!”
At the time I posted it, I added keywords like “ghosts” and described the genre as “supernatural.” I avoided “horror” because I was concerned readers would be disappointed by the lack of plasma. I forgot what my mother once said about the old horror movies we all enjoyed growing up: “You could almost see the strings on the bats but they still scared us.” I spent Halloween watching an old favorite, the Boris Karloff version of “The Mummy.” It chilled without spilling a drop of blood in front of us because it obeyed all the rules of horror at their most basic.
P.S. If, like me, you are beginning to feel less afraid of horror (ironically), here are a few prompts to get started.