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.
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:
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.