Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What Makes a Horror Story?

Simple question, really?

But does it have a simple answer?

I received two rejections in the last month that stated (and I'm paraphrasing here): not a horror story. (for different pieces at different markets--and I know the market can make a huge difference)

So what is it that makes a horror story?

I don't find myself horrified at schlock, gore, or weirdo sex, no matter how bizarre. Usually these things just disgust me. Disgust, in my opinion, is not the same as horror--but I know not everyone agrees.

Just wondering what those of you out in blog-land think.

19 comments:

Bobbie Metevier said...

I think the definition of horror is simply something that horrifies. I feel this is true in real life, too.

What were the stories all about?

Jamie Eyberg said...

I believe that horror is a general emotion, terror is more refined. Horror is easy to achieve, just general disgust can create aversion but terror, making you check for the things that go bump in the night, takes more time to build and create in the reader (I think this is why I don't watch or enjoy most 'horror' movies)

I have no clue if I have answered the question.

Aaron Polson said...

Bobbie - one was a pseudo-historical piece about a young man growing up on the prairie. He lived in a sod house and the grass talked to him. He murdered one of his mother's lovers and tossed the body in a nearby creek.

The second...well, a homeless man has a heart attack outside a boy's birthday party. The boy's father hides the body (not a real nice choice). It's more complicated than that, but that's the basic premise.

Jamie - any answer is a good answer. ;)

Jamie Eyberg said...

the second story sounds like an Andre Dubus story, A Father's Story. It is considered a landmark LITERARY story. I can't believe I still have the anthology that I read that story in.

Bobbie Metevier said...

I guess not seeing the actual stories . . . the definitions lead me to believe that either of them could be horror. However, they could be light fantasy . . .

Sometimes the difference is very subtle.

Fantasy: the grass talking to the boy seems commonplace. The murder is also done in an almost relaxed narrative.

Horror: the grass talking to the boy is sinister. It invades his sleep and/or it threatens him in some way. The murder scene is chilling and/or done to appease the grass.

I could be dead wrong in my answers, Aaron. Until recently, I thought fantasy always involved dragons, elves or some other such thing . . .

Either way, it's an interesting discussion.

Aaron Polson said...

Bobbie - nice def. on fantasy/horror distinction. So much of this is subjective. (e.g., sinster grass...horror...commonplace...fantasy)

Barry Napier said...

I think to qualify as horror, there has to be a sense of unease throughout. I agree with you...gore and uber freaky sex do not a horror story make.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

As a new writer, I regularly struggle with that...for example, the guidelines for the NT/Cafe Doom contest: "dark is not enough, must be horror"...where is that line? Just look at King's work, for example: The Shining seems to be cleanly in the horror column; what about The Stand? It had demons and murder, but was more of an epic human story. Dead Zone? Not much death or gore or jump-outta-your-pants scariness, but a lot of tension and darkness and sinister intentions.

I guess that's why I don't regularly sub to horror-only mags, as a lot of my stuff is blurry, and I have no idea where it belongs. It reminds me of having arguments in Jr. High about "death metal" vs. "thrash" vs. "hardcore" vs. "heavy metal"...at the end of the day, unless you are trying to figure out what shelf to categorize a book on, it doesn't make any difference to the quality of the story.

Natalie L. Sin said...

Does it give you a feeling of fear would be my benchmark. Deep sadness can also count, especially if it's more realistic horror.

Catherine J Gardner said...

Ooh, I like Bobbie's answer.

Generally I think a horror story should invoke fear in the reader.

Aaron Polson said...

Causing fear is good...that would steer clear of the entrails (i.e., disgust). Sadness, too. I've been reading from the last two volumes of Year's Best... lately, and most of the horror seemes to land in the intense sadness category (for me, at least).

K.C. Shaw said...

I don't read much horror (because it scares me!), but I associate it with dread. Dread can come from lots of things, not just icky or traditionally scary stuff, but it's hard to do well. I think horror has a bad name among some readers because of all the blood-n-guts-n-gross writers who can't manage to horrify without special effects. If that makes sense.

Your stories sound interesting to me, and very much like horror, in the best sense of the word.

Rob Brooks said...

Unfortunately, I think that gut-splattering stories are horror...not what I care to write or read, but I believe they are included. A horror story is going to invoke a strong emotion such as: terror, fear, sadness, disgust (gut splatters anyone?), or dread, just as everyone has mentioned. It can be any one or a combination of these, but horror will invoke them.

My persoanl favorites are those that invoke sadness or dread. CAn't write them that well yet, but I enjoy to read them!

Aaron Polson said...

Rob - I don't think that is unfortunate at all. Splatter is what splatter is. I remember reading something about how splatterpunk caused a major uproar in the '80s--it was going to be the death of horror.

Well...guess not.

BT said...

I think Rob, and everyone else who mentioned bits of it first, are correct.

Horror, and all its sub-genres, need to invoke a feelings the reader would rather not have see the light of day (or the light of a bedside lamp just before turning in for the night). That's why I prefer to label my stuff dark fiction.

Something which causes an emotional reaction from the reader which is not particularly pleasant - unless you enjoy feeling dread, scared, terrified, sick, etc.

Dark fiction encompasses all genres and sub-genres which have dark connotations within them.

How's that?

Robert said...

Personally I hate labels like this. Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" could be considered horror, but you'll never catch English teachers referring to it like that.

For me, horror is something horrific, that causes dread. A zombie or vampire or ghost doesn't need to appear.

Unfortunately, for most magazines, a zombie or vampire or ghost DOES need to appear to be considered horror. Not all magazines, mind you. Back in the day when I helped edit FLESH & BLOOD, we usually wanted stories that had a "dark fantasy" feel ... but sometimes we took stories that weren't supernatural at all. One flash fiction piece that comes to mind is a woman who sends her child off to the school bus then goes inside and hears a horn blast a minute later -- from ANOTHER school bus, the correct school bus, that's empty. No supernatural there, but horrific all the same.

What it comes down to in the end is each individual market's definition of horror ... and believe me, it changes for every one.

katey said...

Well it's all been said much better than I could say it, but I agree. I watched the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years back and went, "But that's hot scary at all. It's just yucky." Scary things can be gross, but gross does not equal scary. Horror is a genre that exists to be scary, right? Little scare, big scare, discomfort or dread, shock or like you say, deep sadness (what's scarier than being empty, really?)

So I'm late to the party, but I like this post, and I enjoyed reading all the responses very much! It's something I think about a lot, and kind of keeps me from subbing to pure horror markets unless I know they also trade in "dark fantasy" or whatever they want to call it. I always feel I don't quite fit otherwise.

miguel! said...

Anything that involves AppleBees and rambunctious children...but I might be a little jaded.

Aaron Polson said...

Katey - better late than never, right? I search for "horror" on Duotrope, but I read some content before I know...is this "dark fantasy friendly?"

Applebees...(shivers)