"Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion."
-- Douglas Winter, 1982
As a literary genre, "horror" can be loosely defined as any work that creates as atmosphere of fear or dread and provokes those reactions in the reader.
Many people associate horror with spooky tales of the supernatural: ghosts, demons, vampires and the like. Such stories are often the modern-day equivalent of old tales about the unknown dangers that lie in the shadows beyond the comforting light cast by the campfire.
But in this modern age, we have lit virtually the entire planet, and so the midnight world has lost much of its mystery and fear. So others insist they couldn't be frightened by a story unless it dealt with a scenario that could really happen: being stalked by a serial killer, being trapped in a basement with hungry rats, etc.
And still others insist they can't be spooked at all by a story ... but they can be plenty grossed out by one. These people associate horror fiction with the sense of revulsion that gory descriptions of decay and mayhem can create.
Thus, to a certain extent, horror is in the eye of the beholder; it can be quiet or over-the-top, fabulist, surreal, or mundane. Horror sends its tentacles into virtually every other genre: mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, romance, erotica, etc.
The basic qualities of a good horror tale are ideally the same as for any other story: a compelling plot and sympathetic and interesting characters. There should be plenty of atmosphere and suspense; if a good horror story can't make jaded ol' you want to sleep with the lights on, it should at least give you a delicious shiver now and then.
Horror became hugely popular in the 1980s due to the burgeoning popularity of authors such as Stephen King in the mid-to-late 70s. Publishing companies were eager to cash in on the trend, and by the late 80s, bookstore shelves were absolutely flooded with hastily-commissioned, poorly-written novels. The good stuff was lost in a sea of crap, and disenchanted readers naturally stopped looking to horror for entertainment.
The horror market crashed, and throughout the 1990s major publishers shied away from horror novels from beginning writers. King and other authors such as Anne Rice continued to sell very well, but the industry as a whole treated horror as a dead genre. Good novels continued to find publication, of course, but they were most often marketed as thrillers or as dark fantasy. Unestablished writers of works that could be marketed as nothing but horror had to seek publication in the small press.
The commercial prospects for horror started to improve in the late 1990s, but the re-emergence of horror as a popular genre has been slowed by real-life horrors such as the Columbine school shootings and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Horror is a bit like science fiction: it's popular as long as the real thing isn't readily available in the Real World. Just as many people lost interest in science fiction movies when the space program was going full steam, many people lose their taste for horror when the evening news is full of it.
A few subgenres
- Apocalyptic: horror stories that deal with the end of the world, or the threat of it if the protagonist fails. Stephen King's The Stand and Robert McCammon's Swan Song are examples.
- Splatterpunk: this term was coined by David J Schow at the World Fantasy Convention in Providence in the mid-80s to describe really extremely visceral graphic horror. Think of the literary equivalent of Dead Alive without the goofy humor. Some argue that this subgenre is outdated, and doesn't exist anymore because of the backlash against horror towards the end of the 80s. However, there are still plenty of people who want to see plenty of blood and guts and extreme violence in their stories.
- Supernatural: ghosts, goblins, exorcisms, vampires, zombies, and other elements of the occult populate supernatural horror stories. Parts of The Bible even fall under this umbrella, and the ghost story and haunted house story are well-established in mainstream literature.
- Gothic: creepy stories of romance and romantic suspense, set in a backdrop of cursed families, crumbling castles and decaying Southern plantations. Not to be confused with stories about goths.
- Lovecraftian: stories which are written in the style of H.P. Lovecraft or which use elements from the Cthulhu mythos he created. Look for references to Elder Gods, tentacled horrors, cults, and general doom for mankind.
- Quiet: the quiet horror story goes about its creepy business without much mayhem or blood. Such stories may very well be otherwise classed as mainstream stories; consider Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery", for instance.
- Psychological: tales of disturbed human minds. These stories can deal with psychotic killers, but they can also warp the mind of the reader, leaving him or her wondering what's real and what isn't.
- Erotic: this type of horror fiction puts plenty of sex in the mix. The idea here is that the sex and desire are integral to the plot of the story, and the reader gets creeped out as much as he or she gets turned on. If you've seen the NC-17 version of David Cronenberg's movie Crash, you know exactly what I'm talking about.