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October, 2008 : Essay:

Like the Weather

Why Horror is the Odd Man Out in Genre Fiction

When IROSF editor Stacey Janssen asked me to write an article discussing why horror is the "proverbial red-headed step-child of the speculative fiction family" I had to take the opportunity, if only to discuss my favorite things: the implicit assumptions buried in such questions.

That science fiction and fantasy, the two bright-eyed towheaded children of the family, are easily identifiable, if not necessarily separable, is one assumption. That horror is best considered a part of speculative fiction is another. I do not necessarily disagree with either—they have their uses and their own explanatory and predictive power—but it is worth understanding that these two assumptions occasionally obscure what otherwise might be fairly obvious.

A decade ago, Douglas Winter declared that horror is not a genre at all, but is rather an emotion. In his speech, "The Pathos of Genre," he describes the genre of horror as the creation of publishers and booksellers—an attempt to take that which was unsafe and make it "safe for mass consumption." Horror, once there was a shelf for it in most bookstores in the US, became prone to "reproduction, marginalization, and, indeed, denigration." (1)

Indeed, for most of its history, horror was not necessarily labeled as such, but the claim that horror is simply an emotion doesn't satisfy. Yes, horror can be found in SF, in fantasy, in "quality fiction," in experimental literature, and even in non-fiction (e.g., true crime, and lurid histories of the occult or the Holocaust), but there is a longstanding tradition of horror in literature. Lovecraft recognized the existence of this fundamental tradition well enough to write a book on the subject, and without the benefit of the BISAC code for Horror (that's FIC015000, number nerds!) to lead his reading. For him, horror as a tradition can be traced through folklore and gothic novels, and up to Edgar Allan Poe. Poe created horror in its modern form by eliminating the necessity of tedious morals and by introducing a measure of scientific realism into the phantasmagorical. Poe's influence was near-universal: "This example having been set, later authors were naturally forced to conform to it in order to compete at all; so that in this way a definite change began to affect the main stream of macabre writing," says Lovecraft. (2) Poe was certainly the gold standard in Lovecraft's day, and for Lovecraft personally. I'd say that horror writers could do no better than to try to reach Poe's level of quality today.

So there is a tradition of horror that long predates the horror boom so decried by Douglas Winter. And yet historically, as Winters asserts, there was no real "Horror" category. Before the one-two-three combo of Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and Harvest Home, one had to search to find horror. Those three novels created a demand which was gladly filled by the prolific Stephen King and Dean Koontz, as well as their dozens of copycats. Horror had its own subgenres as well: splatterpunk, Lovecraftian, etc. And then it all went away, with mostly only the memory of horror as a marketing category confusing the question of what horror is, where it was going, and where it had been.

I get a laugh at cons by comparing horror's moment in the sun to a particular Cathy comic strip. (Well, mostly, I get the laugh by admitting that I read Cathy.) In this strip, Cathy has an epiphany: about ten years ago, for fifteen minutes, her hair looked great. Ever since then, it has been "blech," as she might put it. But rather than seeing those fifteen minutes as exceptional, she made the error of deciding that what she saw in the mirror was her "normal" haircut, and that every day since then she has had bad hair day after bad hair day. Remember the 1980s and early 1990s, when the major publishers (and the smaller paperback houses, Dorchester and Kensington) had horror lines and there were a zillion neato little magazines and Hollywood was knocking on doors and leaving wheelbarrows full of money on porches? Well, that was the fifteen minutes. The current situation—few horror titles on the shelves, no lines at major publishers, nothing but cheap junk in the moviehouses—that's normal.

Indeed, this was normal before horror was horror—before it was a marketing category. For example, in the fanzine New Frontiers back in the late fifties, Robert Barbour Johnson complained that "the number of tales even bordering on the supernatural published in the year 1958 numbered less than two dozen!" 3 He did note that in the past the sort of fiction he liked could be found anywhere—in Weird Tales, of course, but also in mystery pulps such as Black Mask and even in general-interest magazines including The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. The punchline is this: the name of the fiction he described as a "visitation of ghouls, vampires, efreets and whatnots as has no counterpart anywhere" was…fantasy.

In 1958, The Lord of the Rings hadn't yet exploded onto the public stage. In 1958, fantasy was horror. Fantasy itself in the epic mode emerged as a commercial powerhouse when Terry Brooks managed to clone Tolkien. Since then, fantasy has grown substantially as both a genre and as a marketing category, while horror spasmed to life, mutated, and then died off. Only recently have the fantastic and the horrific rejoined with the rise of "urban fantasy"—itself a problematic term that used to mean fantasies that took place in (often contemporary) cities, but which now often refers to fantasy-action novels with female leads, significant romantic/sexual elements, and generally not-very-frightening supernatural monsters.

Fantasy benefited from the Tolkien model in that the quest fantasy is easily reproducible at a high level of quality. It can be subverted as well, rejigged, shuffled around, you name it, the quest fantasy's narrative and thematic core can withstand it. It can even handle huge amounts of bad writing and still be entertaining. Very rigorous stuff. Not so, horror. Reproducing that emotional experience at the core of horror—dread, fear, a sense of the uncanny—is hard. A second experience of the uncanny, that which is both familiar and strange, is difficult simply because a thing becomes less strange upon repeated exposures. Reading similar fantasies lets a reader believe that there is something universal about the quest/heroic experience. Reading similar horror tales simply dulls the sense. Horror is extremely easy to write poorly, as the 1980s showed. Plenty of the hacks of the horror era didn't end up bankrupt or homeless after the boom collapsed, but instead moved seamlessly into writing other stuff—non-fiction titles, press releases and speeches, category romances, whatever. They were writers who earned their publications simply by being able to make deadlines. Horror was just another gig, good while it lasted. Neither emotion nor a knowledge of the tradition was needed to crank out tales of possessed little girls or big-ass animals with more teeth than usual, and it showed.

So while Tolkienesque fantasy could be reproduced nearly endlessly at the minimal level of quality to keep readers coming back, horror necessarily burned out. Winter was correct when he declared horror an emotion, and Lovecraft was correct as well when he demonstrated that horror was a literary tradition with a number of pre-modern antecedents. However, that tradition cannot fuel a marketing category of the size needed to keep the shelves filled and mass audiences happy.

Horror was also a victim of its greatest successes—King and Koontz. Of course, the two authors demonstrate that horror is an emotion in that most of their books are actually thrillers, or domestic dramas, or mysteries, or science fiction that attempt to horrify; however, these two are incredibly popular bestselling authors. A bestselling book is nothing less than the type of book purchased by individuals who do not normally purchase books. Even the average reader in the US buys two books a year. Of those average readers who enjoy horror, well, King puts out at least a book a year, and so does Koontz. That's their two. The mildly more adventurous average reader with a taste for the dark stuff, the one who buys three books a year? That's why John Saul exists; that's why V.C. Andrews can keep writing from beyond the grave. If Tolkien had lived to poop out a trilogy every three years between 1960 and 1990, there wouldn't necessarily be much fantasy on the shelves other than his stuff either.

As far as publishers are concerned, there is simply no need for a horror midlist. People who like horror can get it from King and Koontz, and be satisfied. People who love horror can read the bloodier police procedurals, or Joyce Carol Oates, or science fiction in which everybody dies, or true stories about serial killers and rape-happy priests in the newspapers. Ultimately, I would argue that to best understand horror we shouldn't think of it as a poor relation, or an emotion, or a tradition, or the real core of fantasy, but as something rather like the weather. The weather is everywhere and is always on. (Back when I worked in a small basement-dwelling publishing house in New York, I'd come into the office and the intern would ask me if there was any weather outside. I'd always say, "Yes," and she'd dig for her emergency umbrella before marching out into another sunny day.) Also, there's nothing one can do about the weather, except of course to talk about it, as I just did.


  1. Douglas Winter, "The Pathos of Genre." Speech delivered at Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards Banquet: June 6, 1998. Online: < Retrieved September 22, 2008.
  2. Howard Phillips Lovecraft. "VII. Edgar Allan Poe." Supernatural Horror in Literature. 1927, 1933-1935. Online: Retrieved 22 September 2008.
  3. Robert Barbour Johnson, "Can We Live Without 'Fantasy' Fiction?" New Frontiers 1959, Online: Retrieved September 22, 2008.

Copyright © 2008, Nick Mamatas. All Rights Reserved.


Oct 7, 05:30 by IROSF
Opinions on this left out genre? Express them here.

Article is here.
Oct 7, 18:36 by Philip Kaldon
Nice discussion, Nick. But I had to laugh at the image of Tolkien pooping out a trilogy every three years from 1960 to 1990. If there were a dozen Tolkien trilogies, I'd imagine the fervor regarding J.R.R. would be diluted. I know many people who read the one trilogy every year -- I used to, too. But while I wouldn't know the dozen individually as well as I know the one, I see your point that the dozen would crowd out the multitude in today's fantasy shelves.

Ultimately the problem is that bookstores cannot deal with the concept that one work can be labeled as more than one genre. You're either horror or SF or fantasy. Me personally, I guess I like my horror buried in SF -- delighted when I find it. But I probably wouldn't think to look at the horror shelf first.

Dr. Phil
Oct 7, 18:47 by Gwen Curnow
...I really have nothing to add to this other than the image of Tolkien pooping out trilogies is absolutely hilarious. If a little disturbing.
Oct 7, 20:45 by Nick Mamatas
I know many people who read the one trilogy every year -- I used to, too.

Indeed, it is similar in horror. Many people read The Stand annually, but few other books in King's bibliography as are loved. Given the Poop Scenario, we could expect the Big Red Book to be reread frequently and the others to mostly take up space on the shelf and sell very well as backlist titles without sparking a cult phenomenon.
Oct 7, 23:35 by Jim Frenkel
Horror . . . dark fantasy . . . supernatural terror thriller . . .

What's the difference? Marketing labels. YA horror lives, now and again. So does horror in the mainstream and in genre. It's not the halcyon days of the early 1980s (which make the later 80s and the '90s pale), but it's, as Mulder would say, out there. It'll never entirely go away, and I bet it'll come back one of these years. Maybe wwaring a different label . . . gee, what's all this "urban fantasy"?

Oct 28, 02:54 by Christie Skipper Ritchotte
This was a really great article. Life is horror, precioussss.
Jun 26, 12:56 by
Good to know things like that. Thanks


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