This past weekend, in my continuing efforts to introduce my wife to some of my fellow writers, the Broaddus family went to a farm in Missouri in order to visit with the lovely and gracious Melinda Thielbar, with John C. Hay dropping by. During one of our late night discussions fueled by NECon envy, the question came up whether or not horror was a genre (and by discussion, I mean an official John C. Hay rant).

Horror is not a genre.

Horror is an emotive element, but it is not a genre.

Though we may experience some periodic hand-wringing about the state of the market, the “market” will remain this nebulous, ill-defined idea awaiting collapse. Horror can be rather hard to define, partly because it’s a genre that often finds itself running from its own label. I don’t write horror, I writer “dark fiction” or “supernatural suspense” or “bizarro fiction”. At its core, horror is about fear, an attempt to get a cathartic release from dealing with what scares us – be it the unknown or ultimately, our fear of death. However, there are no characteristics – no archetypes or tropes – that are always true for the genre or without which a story is not a part of the genre.

For example, fantasy (high, low, dark, whatever) always involves otherworldly elements. Sci-Fi without science is not sci-fi (thus making Star Wars fantasy with science trappings). There is nothing that people classically associate with a horror novel where if you put them in, you have a horror novel. The closest thing to a trope that horror has is … scary.

Is scary enough to define a genre?

What about the individual creature tropes? The vampire novel could almost be considered a genre. It has to have a vampire in it. But that doesn’t make it a horror novel. It could be a paranormal romance. It could be The Vampire Lestat. In neither case does it mean that it’s scary. The same could be said with werewolf stories.

Blame it on Stephen King. He made it into a genre, through no fault of his own. He was so different from everything else that was out there that book sellers had to put him somewhere. And they had to have somewhere to direct people who wanted something “like Stephen King.” So essentially, horror was a bookstore creation, but “like Stephen King” can’t define a genre (even though much of what is put out merely aims to be “like Stephen King”).

People write and publish as a genre. We like labels and we have to know where to put things. Plus, we like to belong and there are a lot of dark fiction writers looking for a sense of belonging. Though there may not be a way to effectively define the genre, and we may argue over what it it we write, horror is what we call our little corner of the literary universe. Emphasis on little.