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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Genre Talk: Cutting Up Horror Part 1

So since one of the things this blog is supposed to be about is writing, I figured I should write about it.  I'll start by saying that I'm only published in the very loosest sense of the word.  I won a contest in a magazine back in 2006 (I think) that wasn't for any money, just bragging rights, and not much of that either.  I had a few book reviews published in a literary magazine centered on the young-adult and middle-grade markets, but that was really only because the editor of the magazine was the professor of one of my classes.  I've also got some stuff up on Weaponizer if you care to check that out.  Weaponizer is a great e-zine, and there are some really talented writers on there, and the editor, Bram, seems really nice.

Anyway, that's just to establish that I'm not an authority on anything I'm about to talk about.  I've studied it, I enjoy it, but I'm not a master, and I don't have any professional chops to back up my opinions.  Which is ultimately all these are: opinions.  Writing is an art, and like any art, it's incredibly subjective, prone to the various viewpoints and interpretations people are capable of.  So if you like what I have to say on any given topic, cool.  If you don't, that's okay too (but then why are you reading this? Piss off.  Go read the lolcats blog or something).

Okay, let's begin!

What makes horror, horror?  What separates it from suspense, or thriller, or something like that?  Well, a lot of things.  But let's take a look at the most obvious thing that makes horror, horror.

NUMBER ONE: The Intent to Horrify
I know this seems a little bit "Herpy derp" but it's easy to overlook, and must be included if a work is going to count as horror.  If the intent of the creator isn't to scare people on some level, it cannot be horror.  Please note that this includes things that scare you, but were not created for the purpose of doing so.  Like something eerie that scared you as a child (Frikkin' CLOWNS).  One of my favorite websites,, has a term for this (as they seem to have for everything): Nightmare Fuel.  It's a very apt name and there are a lot of good examples on that page if you decide to check them out.

So let's look at a couple of books: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and the short story The Reaper's Image by Stephen King (who I will be referencing a LOT, because A) the dude writes a ton of horror and B) he's one of my literary heroes).

In Fellowship there is a lot of scary shit: Nazgul, cave trolls, a balrog, (arguably Tom Bombadill) and more.  The Nazgul I found to be especially eerie and scary.  However, as scary as the evil-serving former kings of men may be, I was never horrified by them.  They were meant to incite some fear, yes, and impart a sense of danger and the supernatural evil of Sauron, but their purpose was not to terrify the audience.  Frodo and the others, certainly, but not me, the reader.  Nor did Tolkien mean for them to outright terrify the audience.  The purpose of the Lord of the Rings is not to spook the reader, but to entertain them with an epic fantasy story of good overcoming evil (along with a lot of other more complicated things I'm not going to cover here).

Now look at King's Reaper's Image.  If you're not familiar with it, it involves an antique dealer going into a museum to buy an antique mirror that is rumored to occasionally display the image of the Grim Reaper to certain people, and those that see it always vanish mysteriously shortly thereafter.  The antique dealer notices a smudge or something in the mirror, and the museum caretaker informs him that he's seeing the Reaper himself, God help him.  The dealer scoffs at this, but feels some dread, and rushes up a flight of stairs to excuse himself.  He never returns.  He's just gone.

Now, I'm really cutting Reaper's Image off at the knees with my description, but it gets the basic point across: to scare you.  Whether it succeeds in unnerving you or creeping you out is beside the point.  King wrote it with the intent to give the reader the heebie jeebies.  He didn't need nine undying kings in black cloaks on devil horses, or a towering demon of fire and smoke wielding a giant flaming sword; he needed a dark shape, and his own desire to creep you out.  We don't know exactly what happened to the antique dealer, and that ties into another important aspect of horror I'll mention later.

So I'm going to wrap this up.  Things can be scary.  They can be creepy, and unnerving, and terrible, but unless they were created with the will and purpose of making you afraid, they aren't horror.

That's it for this round of Genre Talk (Ooooh I gave it a cheesy name!), join me next time for part 2 on Cutting Up Horror: Vulnerability.

EDIT: Oh yeah, and Happy New Year everybody. :]

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