Potential Perils of the Horror Label… or … The Difficulties of Defining a Genre

What’s news for horror writer Paul D. Dail?

I was pleased this last week to find out that my #luckyseven post & review of The Cabin in the Woods was picked up by The Nurture Your BOOKS Daily e-paper.  This is a fun electronic periodical that you can find by clicking here.

What does the future hold?

Next Friday, I’ll be posting a review of Jonathan D. Allen’s Corridors of the Dead.  Speaking of genres that I’m not necessarily sure I understand, Allen’s book is Urban Fantasy.  But perhaps what surprised me most was when I saw he was also working the “Lesbian Fiction” market at Amazon.

Curious?  I was.  Hope you’ll check back next Friday.

But without further ado…

This post will be my contribution to a series of posts started by TESSpecFic group mate Marie Loughin on the nature of “Horror.”

(TESSpecFic: The Emissaries of Strange Speculative Fiction is a collective of writers whose fiction fits under the speculative fiction umbrella. Several of the members have a particular interest in horror, myself obviously included.)

I will link to Marie’s post at the “What do I want from you?” section, but what I found particularly interesting was that she didn’t feel that her work fit the horror genre for a couple of reasons, one of which I just have to quote for you to get the idea.

“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.”

Awesome.  However, I’m taking a little different approach with my post.

So NOW without further ado…

According to AgentQuery.com, the horror genre is defined as:

“Horror fiction has one inelucable goal: to scare its readers. Its chilling pendulum swings with a broad arc, and uses a wide range of techniques to terrify and titillate its audience. . . . The problem is not defining horror, but defining the manner in which it engenders fear in the hearts and minds of its readers. Subgenres include dark fiction, dark fantasy, cutting edge, erotic, extreme, occult, vampire, gothic, psychological, supernatural, paranormal, pulp—the list goes on, illustrating the innumerable and imaginative ways that horror explores the unspeakable.”

So that’s how the industry sees horror.

Here is what I’m pretty sure the general public thinks about when they hear “horror”:

And herein lies the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I am familiar with everything in this picture (and loved most of it).  But that’s not necessarily what I write.  I don’t write slasher stories, and while my novel The Imaginings may have a demon, the real monsters come in human form (this holds true for many of my short stories as well).  In my opinion, this “broad arc” that AgentQuery mentions can be somewhat limiting when readers only envision horror as being blood and gore.  As a result, many horror writers are then left to rely on sub-genres.

I’ve done my own pendulum swinging with it came to my definition of the genre of The Imaginings.  When I first started writing it many years ago, I was calling it “horror,” but when I finished it, I thought, Well, it’s not really “horrific.”

Following the leader.

At least not in my opinion.  Of course, I wrote it, so perhaps that’s why I wouldn’t be scared (kind of like how you can’t tickle yourself).  About this time, I heard that Stephen King was referring to his writing (or at least whatever he was writing at the time) as a “supernatural thriller.”

Perfect!  I decided that I had written a supernatural thriller, not a horror novel.  The problem was that I was working under my own assumptions that, A- “horror” could really only be equated with that picture up above, and B- “supernatural thriller” was an acceptable genre.

When my agent continued to call it a horror novel, I would agree with her, but still, whenever someone asked me what type of novel The Imaginings was, I told them, “Well, my agent is calling it horror, but I think of it more as a supernatural thriller.”

As of late, I’ve come to pretty comfortable terms with the “broad arc” of the genre, and when people ask me, I tell them I’m a horror writer (and usually I don’t even feel the need to qualify it anymore).  I think this is largely in part to reading the above industry definition (a definition largely supported by Amazon and Barnes and Noble categorizations).

Or maybe it’s in part a result of what I’ve heard from others who read The Imaginings.  Okay, maybe it is a little horrific.

But I know that each reader/viewer’s experiences largely dictate at what point on that arc they will put me when I say I’m a horror writer.  And I can usually tell by the look on their face and their slow, cautious backstepping when their experience has been primarily “a bloody mess on a 20 ft screen”  (to again quote Marie Loughin and bring this whole thing full circle).

And again, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I have met some great people who write that style of visceral terror and do it well.  But when I lose a potential reader because of a misconception, then we have an issue.

What do I want from you?

Probably obvious, but what are your thoughts on this matter?

Thanks to Marie for getting this started.  Here are the links to the posts both previous and following mine.  If horror is your things, I hope you will follow along with these other posts.  TESSpecFic is a small group, but we have some great writers.

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

Jaye Manus: What is Horror? The Answer is in the Question

Kim Koning: Saturday, May 12

Aniko Carmean: Sunday, May 13

Jonathan D. Allen: Monday, May 14

Penelope Crowe: Tuesday, May 15

And speaking of Jonathan D. Allen, don’t forget to check back next Friday for my review of his novel, The Corridors of the Dead.

Please subscribe to this blog to receive posts via email or RSS feed (on the right hand column).  NO SPAM, I promise.

39 thoughts on “Potential Perils of the Horror Label… or … The Difficulties of Defining a Genre

  1. I hear what you are saying, Paul – and I resist it.

    Ordinarily I am the most practical of people when it comes to marketing and selling my work.

    “So long as they push that BUY NOW button” is my motto in this business.

    However – I’ve had a long-standing bone to pick with that whole “It’s not horror, it’s not really horror” slogan that gets bandied about the bookstores these.

    I know it isn’t your fault and I don’t think poorly of you for bending that way. Shit, you are a smart man for figuring out a politically correct label for your work. I mean – what does it really matter. The words are still there. The story is still there.

    But I hate to call my horror anything else but horror.

    Who says old farts need to evolve???

    Good blog entry though. I enjoyed reading it.

    1. Hey Steve, thanks for stopping by. I don’t know if it is politically correct so much as just not wanting someone to turn away from my novel because they only think of horror as blood and gore.

      But as I’ve said, I’m pretty comfortable with the term now. It’s pretty amusing actually to see the reactions some people get when I say that’s what I write.

      Thanks again, and I hope you have a good weekend.

  2. Nice post, Paul. I found the list of subgenres of horror interesting. You find dark fantasy and paranormal under fantasy, as well, and vampires fall under paranormal fantasy. I guess it’s all in how it’s written. Which is why I find the process, even the vey idea, of trying to categorize fiction ludicrous. Especially when Amazon only gives the indie writer two opportunities to choose a category.

    1. Hey Marie, I think there is probably considerable crossover with many of the main genres. I’m trying to think about books like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Can you imagine trying to market that? 🙂

      And I liked your question in your post about asking the next ten people what they envision when they hear “paranormal fantasy.” I’m sure it varies almost as much as just the big genre of “Horror.”

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Great post! Don’t want to give away too much of what I might be saying in my own post (being near the end I have the advantage of seeing what some of you are saying. I will say, however, that I had not heard that industry definition of horror. That’s made me feel a little less like a pretender when I say I’m a horror writer. I’m still not sure if Corridors qualifies, but I feel that my works currently in the pipeline definitely do. Genre has always been really difficult for me; I feel like a genre writer without a genre.

    Oh, and also nervous and excited to see the review.

    1. Yeah, I don’t think I would call Corridors horror, either. I think it definitely fits more under Fantasy. Maybe even Science Fiction to an extent. Again, there are moments of horror, but overall I don’t think I’d call it that. However, I know that you are putting some energies in that genre’s direction recently. As to being a genre writer without a genre, according to Jaye’s post, you’re in good company with Mr. King 🙂

  4. Your dealings with the agent points out how very important genre is on the marketing side of the house, but how dangerous it can be to writers and readers.

    I love supernatural thrillers.

    1. Very true. Honestly, I found this site when I was considering finding another agent, and it was kind of a surprise. Actually, it got me started on this whole line of thought in the first place. And eye opening when I went to WHC to talk to potential publishers.

      Thanks for the comments.

  5. I suppose I’ll just say that accurate labeling is important — to make sure that the subgenre or type of horror is known. It’s all a matter of getting the right book into the right hands.

    1. Hey Michelle,

      I would agree. It’s almost like we have to label ourselves one way when it comes to industry-folk (using the main genre) and another way when we’re talking to a reader (using sub-genres). Definitely a matter of getting the book into the right hands. Honestly, one thing I struggled with was whether or not to include the word “demon” in my book description because I feared it would conjure up images that don’t necessarily represent the novel. I finally settled on “supernatural being,” but then wondered if people would be turned off when they found out it was a demon. Sheesh. This is why I need a professional doing this for me 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by.

      1. What a disconnect between publishers/agents and the readership if you have to apply different labels when you approach industry people versus approaching readers. Shouldn’t be that way.

  6. Very well explained and there are many different ways a reader can be scared.
    I personally do not enjoy reading books that scared me and the last Horror I read was THE EXORCIST …yes I am THAT old.
    I can enjoy supernatural thriller movies , I find that my mind makes the well written far scarier than any movie I have agreed to see ever has.
    I like Murder mysteries, but I don’t like to feel the chill of the killer as a predator.
    I think criminal minds is along the lines of horror and I do not like it or watch it, but CSI shows that focus more on forensic evidence I find interesting.
    It is a genre with such a vast following, that there must be a global thrill in reading what scares.

    1. Hey Catalina, great comments. I love that you have listed and distinguished what you appreciate. I’m not as familiar with Criminal Minds, but now I want to watch it to see how it would be more horror than say, CSI.

      I’d be curious to know what you might consider a “supernatural thriller.” Something like “The Sixth Sense” perhaps? I’ve often thought that my next project (or maybe my 3rd… still haven’t decided what order I’m going to focus on) would make a great M. Night Shyamalan project. Seems like many of his movies fit the genre I consider myself to write in.

      Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have a good weekend.

      1. The Sixth Sense found fascinating , (but I have chosen not to see many of his more disturbing ones) SS is so clever at the end.
        I just saw a movie Dream House? An interesting premise with the James Bond guy and Rachael Wiez….that’s a psychological thriller. Some if I am curious and have the freedom to walk away i.e. DVD.
        I love Sci Fi and really enjoyed War of the Worlds, but my niece said it was scary.

        1. Ooh, I thought War of the Worlds was pretty scary at parts, but definitely sci-fi. Again with the crossover of genres, right?

          And let’s see, as a Shymalan fan (and I might take some grief for this), I also enjoyed Signs for the characterization and The Village for concept. I even liked Unbreakable (for a reason I can’t go into until you’ve seen it). None of which I thought were too disturbing. But yes, he clearly took advantage of his first “R” rating when he did The Happening.

  7. Jonathon d allan might want to be careful about the lesbian fiction market. There’s a Thai lesbian book reviewer out there named acrackedmoon who will rip you a new one if your book isn’t as homonormative as she likes.

    As for King – well, you have to remember that Our Fearless Leader happens to be a Dickens-level storyteller who likes scaring people. Just tell a good story and don’t worry too much about labelling, I guess.

    1. Interesting. I know Jonathan (or at least through the blogosphere for the past several months), and I think he’d probably have thick enough skin to submit it to this person. It definitely is a gamble writing from that POV. I thought it worked okay, but I’m not a lesbian… just a man who likes woman, but I know that’s not the same thing 🙂

      And I like your comparison of King to Dickens. And even Dickens liked to scare people. Thanks for stopping by, Mac. Just heading over to your blog as we speak.

    2. It’s interesting you mention Dickens in relation to King, because over here in UK he is often being compared to Dickens by the broadsheets in particular. Interesting post, I broadly agree with the idea that ‘labelling’ of fiction is difficult. Partly it exists to differentiate books in the bookstore for shoppers, but partly, I think, it is pushed upon us by the publishing world and the big chain booksellers.
      I too find it difficult to label my fiction. Some of it falls under the title of Horror, but also adventure, YA, drama… I don’t know, I hate labelling my work. 😦

      1. Hey Ken, thanks for stopping by. And thanks for the insight into life on your side of the pond regarding Dickens and King. I thought that was an interesting comparison as well.

        As to labeling our fiction, I guess we just go with the broadest stroke and hope the rest fits in somewhere. And with any luck, we will write something that will work for that genre, but will hopefully get spread around to people who don’t necessarily read just in that genre.

        Saw that you have a new blog (http://www.kenpreston.co.uk/). I look forward to checking it out.

  8. Reblogged this on M. R. Czarnowski and commented:
    What do you think of when you hear the word “horror”? Here’s a great post from Friday by horror author Paul D. Dail about defining the genre. Read the whole article by clicking the link or visiting pauldail.com. Thanks for the insight, Paul!

    1. M.R., thanks for commenting and posting at your blog as well. I’ll have to go check it out. Hope you had a good weekend.

  9. The lable horror does get kicked around like a red headed step child, which is a shame. Like you, I labeled my book a supernatural or paranormal thriller to some store managers, which made them happy to get the book, whereas when I said horror, they would say, “Oh, we don’t really stock horror.” Strange world.
    That being said, Forest of Shadows is a horror book, I am a horror writer, and I love the horror genre, no matter what sub-labels we put on it.

    1. Right on, brother! Say it loud, say it proud!

      And great comment. You have perfectly illustrated my point. Surprising that there would be store owners who don’t follow the “industry standards.” Good information to know if I continue in the self-pubbed route.

    2. What doesn’t get treated like a red headed stepchild in at least some circles, though? Your experience is interesting — that a different label that happens to mean pretty much the same thing gets a better response.

      1. You are so right about that. Poor red heads without real parens.

        1. ha ha. It must be hard to have red hair.

  10. Great thoughts on the horror genre. I know reader expectation has to play a part but it seems a little sad to me that some things are rammed into thier pigeonholes so tightly that some of the more interesting/novel parts might be broken off as they just wont fit while they are attached.

    As far as my own stuff goes, I seem to like writing stuff with unhappy endings, which could be another subgenre on its own merit in my opinion, if it doesnt exist already.

    1. Good points, Casey. I agree that certain things get broken off by editors or publishers who only have their eye on that pigeon hole. I think this is one of the strengths of self-publishing… it gives more liberties to the authors. Of course, if we put it on Amazon, we still have to find those “closest fit” categories.

      And as to your writing, so long as you don’t have monsters or magic or spaceships, I think you have what I would call “literary fiction.” But I like the idea of throwing in unhappy endings in any genre. After all, life doesn’t always have happy endings (unless you pay for them :)), so it’s kind of cheating a reader by putting in a happy ending that wasn’t deserved by the rest of the story.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Hope you had a good weekend.

  11. I like supernatural thriller as a new sub-catagory or genre.
    We need more of them right?
    I understand how you feel about catagorizing your book–I feel and felt the same way 100 Unfortunate Days.
    I felt it did not anywhere properly…and one of the last places I would have placed it was horror–yet people seem truly scared by it.
    You say The Imaginings has a demon, and I would assume the demon would scare the hell out of me, because devils are one of the scariest things to me, but I have not gotten to that part of the book yet. (Soon–sorry for the endless delay)
    But things are changing, and maybe all demons aren’t scary anymore. And things that I did not think were scary in the past now scare the hell out of me–like the thought of Big Brother from 1984.
    I’m babbling a bit here…
    Liked your post a lot Paul 🙂
    Thanks again.

    1. Hey Penelope, thanks for your comments. I can really see a difficulty with defining 100 Unfortunate Days, especially with so many different reader interpretations. I think that is perhaps where it is helpful to have people tag our works on Amazon. We can determine search terms, but I think it is interesting to see what terms other would use to define it.

      And interesting comment you made regarding The Imaginings. Again, perhaps I’m too close to it, but I never really thought of my demon character as terrifying. It’s more what he brings out in others, I think. But I’ll be very curious to hear your thoughts. And please, don’t apologize. We are all busy and we all have a list of good people waiting anxiously to hear our thoughts on their creative endeavors. If nothing else, as writers we should be good (or at least practiced) at being patient.

  12. When I realized I was writing a horror novel, I was … horrified. Everything I read said that ‘horror’ was dead, that it wasn’t selling. When I calmed down enough to look past the kicking-of-the-red-headed-step-child that was the lambasting of horror, I realized horror is selling. It’s just called something else. A commenter on my ‘What is Horror?’ post pointed out that Revolutionary Road would never be labeled “HORROR” yet it is, in fact, a book chock full o’horror. I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know how to bridge the gap between agents and readers when it comes to labeling. I also hadn’t realized how fraught with peril it was to pick my Amazon labels. Multiple readers have commented that my book is tough to categorize, but I never saw it that way. I saw it – see it – as horror. It’s a broad term that gives a general idea of content, but if one word could actually tell the whole story, we wouldn’t need to bother with novels anymore, would we?

    Thanks for this perspective, Paul!! I love TESSpecFic because we all take such different views of… everything!

    1. Hey Aniko, I heard the same thing about horror from my agent a couple of years back when she told me that she wasn’t really having success in the market and would no longer be representing it. But perhaps the industry difficulty lies in their own limitations? Maybe the horror that is selling (and I can’t necessarily count myself among those ranks at this point :)) breaks out of the mold that agents and publishers have tried to push stories into. Maybe there is some of the freedom of self/indie publishing again. Interesting.

      And I love your last comment. No, I don’t suppose we would need a whole novel if we could tell a story in one word.

      Oh, and I just commented at your post on this topic, especially regarding the Revolutionary Road comment.

  13. Funny about labels, Paul. My old agent had previously worked for Redbook, the womens magazine, and to him, I wrote horror. He was easily frightened, though, so he wasn’t a true test of the measure of the word. That being said, some of my novels were blood and guts horror, and others were horror of the mind. Same result, different methods. I’m at the stage now where I write whatever comes to mind and follow the flow. Terms mean nothing to me.

    Case in point: I sat down intending to write a zombie short the other day and it came out being a ghost tale, complete with Lambada, and set in Brazil. Don’t know where that came from, but I like the story, and while there’s more erotic illusion in it than horror, there remains the mystique of what the . . .

    Labels, schmables! Lambada, anyone?


    1. Actually, Blaze, I had you in mind in my last comments about knowing some folks that do a good job with the more visceral side of horror. But I know that’s not all that you do.

      I kind of agree on writing whatever comes to mind. My next project has nothing supernatural in it at all. Well, maybe. And I have no idea how to label the project after that one. Some supernatural stuff going on, but it’s very subtle. And it’s almost more cosmic forces type of thing, so I dunno.

      Finally, while I appreciate the invitation to Lambada, I’ll save that for my wife 🙂

      Thanks as always for your comments.

      1. I have one super-duper experimental thing I’m working on now with some other great authors, but I can’t say anything about it yet. My head refuses to stop.

        The Lambada is the dance of love, you know! Again, I don’t wish to be your partner, but maybe it could generate a few sparkies.


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