Essay–The Problem With Horror

Genres. If you go to any book store, online or brick and mortar, or, Garaaga forbid, even a library, you’ll find shelves (virtual or real) marked with “Science Fiction,” “Fantasy,” “Thriller,” “Romance,” “Literature,” “Drama,” “Classics” and tons of others. And I’m just talking about the fiction sections. Notice what’s missing? That’s right. “Horror.”

Well, it’s not really missing so much as it is hidden amongst the stacks of more “popular” genres. Last time I darkened the doors of a Barnes and Noble, the so-called “horror” section was a single fucking bookcase filled with only the best known authors. None others need apply. Is this all there is when it comes to horror? Hell, no. So where are the horror stories written by the not so famous?

As I said: hidden. They’re in suspense, thriller, fantasy, or, in rare cases, science fiction. In other words, the genre is so “unpopular” that they’ve turned it into a non-genre. How the hell did this happen?

Back in the olden days, we had shelves and shelves of books in the horror genre. Authors like James Herbert, Straub, King, and many others you’ve never heard of, graced the store in a single place. That time is long past.

For instance, I just went to Amazon.com and tried to find the horror section. Here’s where I had to go:

Books : Literature & Fiction : Genre Fiction : Horror

By way of comparison, finding Science Fiction or Fantasy is easy:

Books: Science Fiction
Books: Fantasy

Okay, so what does that say? Pretty obvious: horror isn’t popular. Or is it? When you go to the horror listing on Amazon, you’ll see something similar to this:

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 3.48.22 PMWhy in the holy fuck is The Martian, which is a dramatic, near-future science fiction story included in the Garaaga-damned results for the horror genre? Good Garaaga-damned question.

There are two possibilities here that go hand-in-hand with the popularity problem. One is that no one really knows what the hell “horror” even means anymore. The other possibility is that all these stories have “elements” of horror and therefore they are cross-listed in the databases that way. In actuality, both of these are absolutely correct.

Horror isn’t a genre. It really isn’t. Neither is suspense, if you think about it. It’s not difficult to find a romance tale that has suspense, or a thriller that has elements of romance, horror, and science fiction all at the same time. The so-called “genre mashup” that has become the rage all these days is more of a marketing ploy than anything else. In actuality, the mashup is a means of making it clear to the prospective reader what they’re in for. Again, it’s marketing. Nothing more.

In addition to being a difficult genre to pin down, horror also has a lot of baggage. My fellow Dead Robots’ Society co-host, Terry Mixon, who happens to be a very fine writer and who is kicking serious ass in the Science Fiction genre, says he always thinks of movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween when he hears the word “horror.” For him, books in the genre must be chock full of psychopathic maniacs wielding machetes hacking hanging teenagers by their genitals. That’s not much of a genre is it?

Horror has been polluted by what we’ve been told to think it is, not what it is. We’ve been told it’s tales that include vampires, zombies, ghosts, werewolves, serial killers, and the like. To be honest, most stories in those categories have nothing to do with horror. Think about Twilight, for instance. You can find it in the horror section. No, I’m not kidding. Why? Because it has vampires. Regardless of your personal thoughts about the series, this is utterly ridiculous. Yet that’s how the system works.

What prompted this particular missive was an article comparing the relative sales information between the horror genre and the science fiction genre. One writer complained that you might as well not write horror anymore if you want to make money. Me? I disagree completely. What you have to do is learn how to market what you’re writing.

If you’ve followed my career at all, and if, Garaaga forbid, you’re an avid reader of my work, you know what I write. I invented a god and plumbed the depths of ancient history. I’ve written about serial killers, child-eating creatures, an oil monster, muppets gone insane, and that’s not even really going into some of my crazier ideas. Bottom line? I’m all over the place. But regardless of the supposed “genre” these books are published in, they all, yes, even The Street, include elements of horror.

My most popular series, The Black, is not published by me. It’s published by Severed Press. And Severed Press is a freakin’ marketing genius. Rather than cast the series as horror tales about an oil monster, they chose to market the entire series as “Deep Sea Thriller.” What the hell is that? Good question.

Just as there are readers who will buy any zombie or vampire tale that catches their eye, there are readers who are insanely devoted to books that take place on or beneath the sea. And the further below the ocean you get, the more interest they have. When the first book in the series dropped in that category, it immediately caught fire. After that? It suddenly started appearing on the horror and thriller charts. And it stayed in those larger categories for quite some time. That’s marketing. Plain and simple. And it works.

So what’s the problem with horror? Absolutely nothing. It’s just as alive and well as it always has been. But there are some strategies we artists have to employ to get it in the hands of readers who will enjoy it, regardless of the trappings and baggage that may come along for the ride. And one of those strategies is savvy marketing.

For those artists that are continuing to explore the elements of horror and adding it to their stories? I salute you. To those of you that aren’t certain it’s what you should be writing just because it may not sell? Don’t let the market tell you what to write. Write what you love and worry about selling it later. And if that means your story contains elements of horror, then rock on.

Posted in Essays

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