Thinking about horror, II

The other thing about definitions of horror that bothers me (and this goes for my own definition in BNW), is that I have this inkling that something is being left out. I get the sense, based largely on visits to bookstores and libraries, and to a lesser extent, book reviews, that “horror” is applied to works of fiction that merely partake of the furniture of horror (vampires, ghosts, werewolves, elder gods, the word “eldritch”, etc.), but which are not particularly evocative of the emotion of horror (fear, shock, dread, etc.). And I mean that they are not evocative of these feelings by authorial choice, as opposed to, say, bad writing. For example, the Laurel K. Hamilton “Anita Blake” series of books, which is about a vampire-hunter, and includes all kinds of were-beasts and whatnot, is primarily (at least in the later installments) erotic in nature, and not particularly fear-inducing. But her books are almost invariably shelved in the horror sections of book stores.

Wikipedia’s entry for horror fiction includes this sentence: “Since the 1960s, any work of fiction with a morbid, gruesome, surreal, or exceptionally suspenseful or frightening theme has come to be called ‘horror’.” This could possibly be interpreted as supporting my hypothesis, in that works that are merely “morbid,” “gruesome,” or “surreal” are not necessarily written to induce feelings of horror. But that’s the closest I can come to finding a citation that supports my inkling. Reviews are not especially useful for this sort of defining, since, unless one has actually read the work under review, it’s hard to know which sense the reviewer intends; in the absence of evidence, the standard definition is safest to apply, although, as I said, I’ve seen reviews that give me the impression that the use of “horror” might be broadening. (And unfortunately, I didn’t save any, and don’t even recall what works were under review, so it’s entirely possible that I’m imagining novel uses in my spare time. But I don’t think I am.) Time will tell, I suppose.

2 Responses to “Thinking about horror, II”

  1. Thad Guidry says:

    I once asked an LOC librarian the same thing once, Jeff. Why ISN’T the use of horror as a classifying word used more liberally ? She answered that movies during the ’30s and ’40s had a lot to do with that. Namely, the word “horror” was seen with dripping blood, grotesque pics, etc on movie posters. When books also began running alongside them, the word was picked up as the genre classification. Prior to that, the genre classification didn’t really exist and was in fact, “mystery” with “thrilling” sometimes connected, and now we have “thriller”. If you go through some really old archives of “mystery” books prior to 1930, you’ll notice they’re not that “bloody”, but perhaps just “fearful” or “spooky”. Two that come to mind are, “The legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. With regard to the later, by Robert Louis Stevenson, I’ve always wanted to visit Edinburgh and scroll though those archives to take a peek at Stevensons’ notes and diaries and see if the word “horror” was ever used by him. I guess my point would be that to most librarians, the gothic use of the word “horror” is forever stuck with ideas of monsters and blood and guts, while “thriller” in the case of book genre has romanced itself away from that use?

  2. Thad Guidry says:

    UPDATE: Just got an email back from a librarian friend who states that prior to that the books were classified and referred to as Fables or Tales sometimes in the title or spine and with many producing fear or horror in small children to teach moral lessons. Horror (Lat) does show an origin of use that “raised hair”.

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