Saturday, 16 July 2011

Genre Talk: Dark Fiction & Horror

 So, where’s the line?

This post was inspired by a friend who said to me yesterday, “Horror is about blood and guts. If there is no blood and guts, it’s not horror.” I tried to argue, but then my friend said, “Yes well, that’s what the genre has become.”


Let’s define our terms first shall we, so at least you understand what I might be trying to say. I really like this explanation given by The Horror Writer’s Association. I like how they define it, and I think it works for all horror media. Plus it saves me writing a page alone on what horror is. They even give a handy Webster’s definition: Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives the primary definition of horror as "a painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay." It stands to reason then that "horror fiction" is fiction that elicits those emotions in the reader.”

Yes. Out of all the genres, Horror does this best. Sometimes that fear is turned to disgust. Sometimes that dread is turned into nervous laughter. Sometimes that dismay turns to rage. To me, Horror is about the darker emotions. The one’s that society tells you to keep under control. Put a cork on. Lock up or leash. It’s the red-headed step child of the genre world for that reason. The other’s genre’s fear it, as they should. It’s what horror does best. And not all of it needs blood and guts to be horror. Just because there is a section of horror in the movies with blood and guts as their staples, doesn't mean they represent all of horror. The genre is huge, far bigger than people realize. To say Horror is one thing limits it.

But Dark Fiction is different. It straddles the line between Horror and Fantasy, sometimes blurring the lines so intensely no one can tell the difference where one begins and the other ends. I like well done Dark Fiction. I’m a big fan of it. But if it’s done poorly I am more than happy to bitch about it.

I’m also not willing to call something Horror that isn't. For example, Twilight is not horror. Yes, it’s an easy target for this, but that’s because it takes a classic horror element, the vampire, and pretties him up far beyond that of what Anne Rice did. Anne Rice still kept the darkness about vampires intact. The horror of eternal life and being trapped in stasis while the rest of the world grows, ages, and dies. Fine, you’re beautiful for eternity. But you’re a hollow husk, just trying to find things to pass the time until you finally give up and walk out into the sun.

Sparkle vampires just don’t have that kind of pathos. Especially when they are chasing after vacant, one dimensional teenagers with the characterisation of a piece of fruitcake.

I wouldn’t even call it Dark Fiction. Just because you take a staple from another genre and stick it in your story doesn’t mean it is now of that genre. Twilight is a Romance with the mask of vampires on it. Not Dark Romance. It’s in no way DARK. To have any use of that word would mean there was something to contemplate in the series, something twisted lurking under the surface. Even if only a tad. And sure, I haven’t read all the books. I saw one of the movies out of boredom, morbid curiosity and because I was drinking a little. Okay, maybe I was drinking A LOT. At least near the end of the film, to end my torment. I read the first book half way before throwing it across the room in rage at how terribly written it was, and how much I hated every single character. I tried really hard to like it. Hell, Laurell K. Hamilton isn’t a profoundly deep writer. Her work is riddled with typos and bad word use. But it’s STILL better than Twilight, and not just because people actually have sex in Hamilton’s books. (If I read the synopsis of some of these Twilight books correctly, Bella gets preggers so there must be sex at some point. Even if it’s glossed over.) I try to give things a chance. I really do. But there’s a line for me.

Laurell K. Hamilton is a Dark Fiction Writer. A smutty one, but still. Hell, I'd say Harry Potter is closer to Dark Fiction near the end of the series than Twilight ever gets. I love this quote from Stephen King:‎ "Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend."

Anyhow, there’s some amazing dark fiction out there being written, and some amazing horror stuff being written. And people who write either or both well are awesome. In the end, both are contributing to similar goals if you think about it. Making people step out of the safety of the light. Even if all you are doing is writing dark sexy fiction like Laurel K, or writing something truly disturbing and profound like some of the stuff Gary A. Braunbeck writes (Seriously, the guy is amazing. His characters suck you in and his storytelling is superb. Check out his stuff) you’re contributing to drawing people out of the light. I think of the creation of Dark and Horrific storytelling as being guides on an Underworld journey. Depending on the guide will depend on how far down the rabbit hole you go. If you pay your coin, the Ferryman will take you. Some people only ever want to flirt with the darkness. That’s it. They want books with supernaturals in it, but nothing visceral. Nothing that keeps them up all night wondering about themselves and the human condition. Luckily there are many kinds of guides, so if you want the full tour of hell there are those gladly waiting to assist with that.

Personally, I like both kinds of guides. I want to spend my life seeing every corner of the Underworld. Because it’s only in the Underworld do we learn about the depths of our souls. And sometimes, I find things I wish I never saw. Like My Little Dethklops. *shivers*


  1. I don't think your assessment is fair; I love fruitcake, but I'd never eat anything as bland and dry as Bella. :P

    But you're absolutely right- 'horror' and 'gore' aren't synonymous, despite the obvious overlap, and anyone who says otherwise obviously hasn't seen the likes of Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (a movie that completely dissects and deconstructs the psycho-killer subgenre), or A Tale of Two Sisters (a movie creepy and startling enough to make me jump, despite the relative scarcity of onscreen gore). There's a lot of scary, alarming stuff coming out- especially if one broadens one's search to include Asian cinema- that doesn't depend on a lake of blood to keep the plot afloat.

  2. Sorry Phil, I'm not a fan of fruitcake. And I've tasted some bland and dry crap passed off as such. ;)

    Ah yes, two very good movie examples! I think the reason some people associate the gore fests as the definition of Horror is because they get the most publicity. It's easy to assume such things when the media is always pimping out the gore.

    Also: YAY! My first comment! I feel like a real blogger now. LOL!

  3. I'd eat Bella, one finger at a time, till she screamed for help and GlitterFairy appeared. That's what the napalm is for.

    Seriously though, horror _is_ about fear, dread or dismay. If you're not afraid, if you're not dreading the possibility of something in the story happening in real life, if you feel dismay for the protagonists, then it's horror. Martyrs can be seen as having almost no supernatural elements, but it's one of the most horrific movies I've ever seen. Splice is horrific sci-fi and there is almost no gore. Kafka is the master of dread, and yet in his classic Metamorphosis, there is no gore or supernatural forces, yet it is still regarded as one of the most dreadful pieces of literature ever. Honestly, I think those three categories of horror are better descriptors than "slasher", "gore fest" and "torture porn". The problem is that it takes a thinking reviewer to take time to allocate according to those lines, and there are precious few of those.

  4. I'm a big fan of psychological horror, and I am SICK AND TIRED of girlie slashing. I'd like to suggest Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose story "The Yellow Wallpaper" rocked my world.

    And don't even get me started on my Dad's NARROW view of what horror is, and why he's unwilling to look beyond it. :P


  5. Also, there is always the paranoia-inducing, what the duck am I reading type of horror. Notably, House of Leaves.

    I'm fine with slashers, Krueger FTW, but the ones that drive you insane with suspense and suspicion are the best. Give me detective horror! Nero Wolfe meets Shub-neggoroth or something. - yes, I know Gaiman did a pastiche of Doyle and Lovecraft, but I want more!

  6. @ironhammer: I love Martyrs. It's such an amazing movie. I remember watching it with you, and how I couldn't speak for hours. All I could do was stare off into space, stunned by the horror and beauty of it all.

    It's true that some of the descriptors for horror are very limiting, and don't take into account the philosophical and psychological impact some horror can provide. It's a shame really. I'm not saying I don't enjoy a good gore fest like the next horror geek, but I wish people understood that the genre is huge in scope.

    @ Marcy: "Girlie Slashing?" Is that just how you label slashers personally? Or are you making a comment on certain slashers?

    I will definitely check out this new writer suggestion. I love reading new voices in horror.

    PS: Your Dad just don't know. :P

    @Stark Stout: Woot Freddy Kruger! I prefer him over Jason any day. Slasher's are fun, but the horror that sticks with me are the ones that make me think. I'm sure there is more detective horror out there. I will have to look it up sometime. :)


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