Genre Confusion: Just what the heck is “Horror,” anyway, and how is it different from Dark Fantasy?

There is a ridiculous array of subgenre choices and mash-ups to choose from when trying to describe a work of fantasy fiction. Those of you who follow my blog know that I have done some heavy thinking about genres, the outcome of which was a special fantasy chart I made all by myself. Based on this useful chart, I might describe my novel Valknut: The Binding as a dark urban fantasy thriller.

Unfortunately, that category doesn’t seem to exist at Amazon. In fact, the only category available at Amazon that uses more than one of these descriptive words is “fiction > fantasy > urban life.”

What the heck is “urban life”? Do they mean, “urban fantasy”? If so, why didn’t Amazon just call it that? The term has been around since before Amazon was born. I hovered over “urban life” for a long time before selecting it, terrified that I might waste one of my precious choices (Amazon only allows the author two) on a totally inappropriate category. For all I knew, “fantasy > urban life” refers to stories like Sex in the City, and that’s not at all what I’ve written!

My genre confusion goes further than that. I still had to choose that second category. “Urban fantasy” doesn’t quite cover the darker aspects of my novel, nor does it hint at the fear I hope the reader feels on behalf on my protagonist. I looked for an Amazon fantasy category that might imply darker content. The only choice was “paranormal.”

Quick, ask the next ten people you meet what they think paranormal fantasy is all about.

Right.

I decided to look for a category outside of the fantasy genre altogether.  Maybe it was time to admit the Stephen King influences. Could I get away with labeling Valknut: The Binding as horror?

This possibility led to the question, “Just what is horror, anyway?”

In answer, I came up with this checklist of elements that I’ve found in my favorite horror and assessed whether I at least attempted to include them in my book. (The degree of my success is left to the reader to decide.)

1)   Creepy atmosphere. (Check)
2)   Suspenseful. (Check)
3)   Victims experience psychological trauma (i.e. they are aware and helpless). (Check)
4)   Inspires fear and/or dread in reader. (Check, check)

(Notice that violence and gore are not essential elements for me, though they are sometimes present in my favorite works of horror and are included in a couple of scenes of my book.)

By my own standards, Valknut: The Binding should qualify as horror. Yet I ultimately chose “fantasy > contemporary” as my second category.

Why did I do that? Because despite the dark nature of the book’s plot, it didn’t feel like horror to me. I can’t be more specific than that. All I know is that clicking on that horror category would feel like sneaking into a pub when you’re still a year shy of legal drinking age. It might make you feel all grown up (and you might get to buy a beer or two), but at some point you’re going to get busted.

I feel the same way about many of Stephen King’s books—they are works of dark fantasy, not horror. Of course, no one has busted him yet.

So where is the line drawn? I have no idea.

Since I am not even close to being an expert on horror, I asked my friends from TESSpecFic* to chime in with their views. Their responses to the question “What is Horror Fiction?” will be posted at their blogs over the next few days. I invite you to follow the discussion and join in through comments. If you wish to answer the question on your own blog, feel free. You can include the link to your article in the comments of any post in our discussion.

Here is the schedule:

Jaye Manus – Thursday, May 10
Paul Dail – Friday, May 11
Kim Koning – Saturday, May 12
Aniko Carmean – Sunday, May 13
Jonathan Allen – Monday, May 14
Penelope Crowe –Tuesday, May 15

I will be following their remarks with great interest. I hope you join me!

* The Emissaries of Strange: A Speculative Fiction Writer’s Collective is a group of writers whose fiction fits under the speculative fiction umbrella. Several of the members have a particular interest in horror, so I’m especially interested in their input.

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About Marie Loughin

I love reading, writing, and editing speculative fiction of all sorts. My current focus is on writing contemporary fantasy, where I get to play god with characters from myth and legend. My Norse-based urban fantasy, Valknut: The Binding, is available at Kindle Books and other e-book retailers. You can find me at my blog (marieloughin.com) and on Twitter (@mmloughin).
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32 Responses to Genre Confusion: Just what the heck is “Horror,” anyway, and how is it different from Dark Fantasy?

  1. Jaye says:

    Hey, Marie, interesting question and interesting answer. I have my own for you, but will share it tomorrow over on my blog (not that I’m long-winded or anything, right?).

  2. Wow. I’m sorry I can’t help. I was creeped out by Casper!

  3. Pingback: What Is Horror? The Answer is in the Question « Jaye's Love Affair With Genre Fiction

  4. Jaye says:

    Hi, Marie. My post is up if anyone is interested in my thoughts on the subject.
    http://mustlovefiction.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/what-is-horror-the-answer-is-in-the-question/

  5. Paul D. Dail says:

    Enjoyed this, Marie. I like your four elements. Like Jaye, I’ll save my thoughts (which actually add a few more elements… but not of my creation) for my post on Friday. Funny that you should take a “I don’t feel qualified to call it ‘horror'” stance. My take is essentially, “I’m not sure I want to call it ‘horror.'” 🙂

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  6. Pingback: Potential Perils of the Horror Label… or … The Difficulties of Defining a Genre | Paul D. Dail

  7. Char says:

    I wouldn’t call Valknut: The Binding “horror”. Of course, that’s based on horror movies I’m familiar with because I don’t read horror stories. Actually, I don’t like horror movies either! But Valknut is an excellent book! I would’ve gone back & forth about the ‘contemporary’ category, too. Does Amazon allow you to change the category? It seems odd that they don’t have an urban fantasy category. *sigh*

    • Amazon does allow you to change categories.

      And I do think that “fantasy > urban life” is probably the same as “fantasy > urban.” I just don’t know why they had to throw that little bit of confusion in there.

  8. Pingback: Shivers down my spine… | Wrestling the Muse

  9. last_lines says:

    I so understand what you are talking about Marie. I questioned myself time and time again on how to genre-alise my novel but at the end of the day Horror is how it needed to be named. I love that you asked this question and have really enjoyed everyone’s take on the subject so far. I think Horror and maybe Erotica are the two genres that scare most people and they end up shying away genre-alising their stories into these labels because it may unhinge their readers and “limit their market”. But at the end of the day, most readers I know (talking as a reader now, not a writer) don’t care how the author or publisher labels/markets that story. If the story hooks me in the blurb or the cover jumps out at me or the title makes me want to know more, than I am won over. After all…thinking of Shakespeare: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet.” At the end of the day Horror or Paranormal or Dark Fantasy are just labels. Labels change with times. The most important aspect is that you know you have written a great story – the readers will read it no matter how you choose to “label” it. – Kim 🙂

  10. Pingback: All Round the Table, “What is Horror?” « Aniko Carmean

  11. RobynC says:

    I am not a blogger, nor do I play one on the internet, so I’ll have to limit myself to a comment field. There are as many ways to describe a a genre as there are Chili recipes in Texas. (and I’ve lived there; there are MILLIONS) no two people are going to describe a story, or even a category; the same way. Your idea of “dark Fantasy” would probably make no sense to someone that expects that category to have zombies and vampires. I would Personally avoid a book labeled as “Horror” the same way I avoid haunted houses at Halloween; but I Loved Valknut Is it Paranormal? I don’t t hink so; maybe Supernormal, since we’re dealing with Gods– but to have both Paranormal AND Supernatural would certainly fry the circuits of some under-educated self-styled critics.
    I guess my point is that they can’t have Every Category anyone can come up with; so they’ve set up “X” number and you have to do the best you can with the menu you’re given unless you want to go into the kitchen and deal with an angry chef. 😉
    hugz,
    Robyn

    • Mythic fiction might fit, but didn’t seem to be an option. Not sure how many people are searching on mythic fiction, anyway.

      • RobynC says:

        According to the google search I did on the word “Valknut” after I finished reading the novel; there is a sizeable population that would object to the concept of Odin as “Myth”. 😛 You just can’t please everybody; as any mother cooking dinner can tell you.
        I like the concept that Neil G and Terry P play with.. where anything with enough Believers can come into existence…. The very idea makes we want to go buy a WARDROBE…. 😀

      • Oh, yeah. Good idea. Let’s start a new cult.

    • This is funny, Robyn! Maybe you should be blogging! Thanks, Cathy (Manhattan)

      • I keep telling her she should write…:)

      • RobynC says:

        Yes, Marie’s been saying that for years… ❤ I think I missed the Blogging Boat, though; and I don't have any Stories I want to tell badly enough to plod through the mire that Marie slogged through… Is there a job out there for "Professional Memo Writers"? According to the people at work, I write emails that they look forward to reading. 🙂 that's a nice compliment these days. 🙂

      • I’ve not heard that job description, Robyn. I guess you’ll have to settle for amatuer status 😉

  12. Pingback: What is Horror? Baby Don’t Hurt Me | Shaggin the Muse

  13. Jaye says:

    Your comment brings up a good option, at least as far as search terms go. List your book in the widest possible category, then use the tags to narrow the search. ie List the book under FANTASY, but in the tags put “mythology, norse, horror, urban fantasy, etc.” That way people who enjoy horror can find it, but people who are turned off by horror won’t overlook it.

    • Yes, the ability to use tags did ease my mind a bit. Amazon does limit the number of tags an author can add, but you can cover a lot of territory using both categories and tags.

  14. deasbooks says:

    Hi there ma’am!
    I must agree with you.
    Sometimes there is a fine line between what is horror and what is not, and to whom.
    Sometimes, like you say, it is purely a feeling.
    You nailed it.
    Just finished my post. Great idea fearless leader–and great fun 🙂
    Thanks. XO

    • Thanks, Penelope. The question has certainly led to some thoughtful points of view. Still no definitive answer, though 😉 But like you said in your post, over-analysis tends to sap the magic away.

  15. Thank you for posing this question to TESSpecFic, Marie. I think the responses have been fascinating, not to mention varied. It’s fun to see how differently we all approach the same question.

    I didn’t agonize over my Amazon categories. I think I picked horror as the first one, but I can’t remember what I picked for the second. Although my book is a strange little thing, I believe that people who do not like horror would be best served by avoiding it. In that sense, I think I used the horror category as much to guide horror fans to the book as to ward off those who wouldn’t be interested in the darker aspects of the story. It doesn’t seem to work well in real life. People who don’t read horror are buying it and reading it because they are curious about me (apparently?) – and then, wow!, the looks they give me when we pass in the halls at the office! It makes me start to wonder what is wrong with me! 😉

    Thanks again for kicking off our round table discussion!.

  16. Dear Robyn, Maybe you should start a new category…mini blog…5 sentences for people who need an uplift!

  17. Pingback: The #TESSpecFic Weekly: Your Regularly Scheduled Program | Shaggin the Muse

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