Content, when it comes to genre taxonomy, is king: we categorize stories based on the conventions they employ and the devices that show up within their texts. Spaceships, time travel, aliens? Let’s call it science fiction. Magic and knights? Let’s go with fantasy. A five-act structure centered around mutual attraction and misunderstanding? Romance. A crime that needs to be explained? Mystery. (Yes, I know this is a gross over-simplification – but that doesn’t make it wrong.) These devices, the objects and tropes of most genres, can easily be slapped on a cover to communicate the story’s category to booksellers and readers.
But then we come to horror. Peter Straub is right (hat tip to Robert Jackson Bennett for pointing this essay out) when he says that horror is the only genre whose defining characteristic is absent from the text: horror gets categorized as horror because of the reaction it produces in the reader, not because of the devices it employs (although those devices do contribute to the reaction). The ephemeral nature of horror’s defining characteristic is both a strength and a weakness for the genre.
The Strength and Freedom of Ephemera
Creatively, Straub is exactly right when he writes:
…this absence of specificity is not at all a limitation but the reverse, a great enhancement. That no situational templates are built into horror grants it an inherent boundarilessness, a boundlessness, an inexhaustible unlimitedness. If the “horror” part is not stressed all that overtly and the author spares us zombies, vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, hideous things in bandages, etc., what results is fiction indistinguishable, except in one element alone, from literary fiction.
Horror lacks the constraints that more solidified genre conventions impose. We can write a horror story – like Shirley Jackson’s classic “Flower Garden” – without a single element of the supernatural or the inexplicable. But even such a “mundane” story can still evoke a sense of horror similar to The Haunting of Hill House.
This freedom means that – in order to be effective – horror must sneak past the reader’s natural defenses, must directly speak to the reader’s perceptions, values, and fears. This is the kind of deep-seated, emotional and perceptual communication that the literary fiction genre has traditionally claimed for itself. But where literary fiction uses such emotional and philosophical intimacy to explore comfortably distanced morality, horror uses a highly sensitized point-of-view to get as close to the nerve as possible, to map even the most painful experiences from the inside.
When a horror story fails to achieve this effect, when it fails to develop such a reaction, it fails to be a horror story. There is a reason why vampires and werewolves and zombies now fill shelves of urban fantasy and paranormal romance: fictional devices that once terrified, now no longer do so. And herein lies the weakness of ephemeral genre definition.
Content is (un)Dead
What is the taste of blue? That is the same kind of unanswerable question as “how can you tell a horror story from its cover?”
There was a time – not all that long ago – when vampires were horrific. Their stories evoked the frisson of terror and repulsion that characterizes the horror genre, and so slapping a vampire on the cover sent a message to the reader that said “This book will horrify you.”
But over time, and in paticular over the last thirty years, we have become acclimated to vampires. They stopped horrifying us, and so have oozed into science fiction (e.g. Peter Watts’ Blindsight or Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series), romance (e.g. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stories, etc.), fantasy (Jasper Kent’s Danilov Quintet), and so on. When we see a vampire on a cover today, we are more likely to think of these genres than of horror.
This dissolution of the communicative value of fictional devices is a normal part of the creative cycle, and it affects every genre (and is particularly accelerated in YA). But because horror is defined by the reaction it produces, the genre is more exposed to this danger, and its covers (and sales) are disproportionately affected by it.
The Future of Horror?
I think the future of horror will be much like its past: subject to boom-and-bust cycles closely tied to society’s fluency with and acclimatization to the devices which evoke the reactions that define the genre.
For designers and publishers in the field, I think that the challenge is to disentagle cover design from the devices used in the content. Thrillers and (to a lesser extent, mystery) have both broadly succeeded in doing so: their covers tend towards the iconic, rather than the representational. It is worth noting that cover designs for horror perennials like Stephen King and Peter Straub seem to employ this exact strategy, and I suspect that it helps to smooth the genre’s traditional boom-and-bust cycles.
For authors in the field, I think that the trick to continued artistic success will be to focus on that reaction, on the emotional and perceptual effects which define the genre. Essentially, to stick to our knitting. Those who manage to evoke that sensation of visceral repulsion or terror will continue to sell, will continue to have readership, because the darker facets of human nature have and will always fascinate.
And with that being said, I have to wonder: how does reader reaction and the diffusion of genre markers extend or impact on other genres, like science fiction and fantasy?