Genre 101|Horror


A piece of Horror Fiction is like a moonlit stroll in the woods during the dead of winter. It’s beautiful. At least, that is what I think. And one of my favorite genres to write.

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But a writer needs to be prepared, armed with the basic knowledge of the genre in order to successfully write a Horror story. And this is true when talking about a story of any length, or any of Horror’s many sub-genres. Splatterpunk or Ghost Story. Short story or epic novel on par with the later works of Stephen King.

What Is Horror?

Horror is a genre that plays on human emotions. A genre that aims to create feelings of horror, fear, and even disgust in those who choose to read it.

A Brief History Of Horror

Humanity is no stranger to the scary legend or myth. Every culture known to man has them, and this is especially true of the ancient cultures still surviving today. But if I was asked how Horror came to be as a genre, I would have to look to Gothic Fiction.

The fifty-four-year span between Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto1 and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein2 laid the foundation for many of the motifs and tropes that permeate various parts of the Horror genre. Motifs such as the decrepit, creepy settings and creepy people. A tragedy in the past giving rise to something monstrous that preys on people in the present etc. It’s also a time when women dominated the genre and most works were written with women as main characters.3

As the genre moved into the 19th century, female dominance in the genre waned. Mary Shelley and other pre-Victorian writers gave way to writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and the infamous Oscar Wilde. This is the period that gave stories like Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Stoker’s Dracula, and Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart.

Moving to the 20th and 21st centuries we get writers like Lovecraft, Stephen King, his son, Joe Hill, Anne Rice, and Tananarive Due. Each that contribute something to the genre. Lovecraft is obvious with his Cuthulu and other sinister creations. But novels such as Rice’s Interview With The Vampire brought back the vampire for the reading public, in my opinion. King, Hill, and Due played and continue to play with old tropes in new and interesting ways.

What Do Horror Writers Write About?

Anything we want.

No. Really. I know that isn’t very helpful, but Horror as a  genre has a vast array of subgenres. You’ve got modern Gothic Horror, the direct descendant of Gothic Fiction. Splatterpunk, a genre which aims to gross out and disgust its reader etc. You’ve got stories about evil children, ghosts, vampires. Even love stories that deal with descents into darkness and the loss of humanity. I once wrote a story about two female serial killers who fall in love. It was awesome and I still love that story despite its flaws.

I once wrote a story about two female serial killers who fall in love. It was awesome and I still love that story despite its flaws. The sky is the limit when it comes to what topics a Horror writer can deal with.

How Long Does A Horror Story Have To Be?

That depends on the story,  but generally, I like to go by a combination of the Nebula Awards, Hugo Awards, and Bram Stoker Awards with a dash of what I’ve been able to find about Flash Fiction thrown in.

Flash Fiction is under 1,000 words.

Short Stories are up to 7,499 words.

Novelettes are between 7,500 and 17,499 words.

Novellas are between  17,500 and 40,000 words.

Novels are more than 40,000 words.

It’s worth noting that most places will not take a 40,000 word novel. It will simply be too short for consideration from a first time writer. Novels of this length tend to be included in story collections for established writers instead of standalone as a well. Litrejections.com places the appropriate length for a Horror novel at 80,000 to 100,000 words long.

Top Three Tips For Writing Horror

This post is already getting to be the length of a mid-range flash fiction piece and I think I spotted blood on the carpet. Such is the fate of a Horror writer, I guess. So before we move on to venues and books I recommend people read, it is only fair that we take a brief stop to look at my top three tips for new Horror writers.

1) Read Horror stories.

Whether it is a short story, a novella, or a novella. A writer should be reading in the genre or subgenre that they write. It gives them an advantage over other writers and is a great way to find work you love. More than that though, reading Horror of the length you want to write helps with figuring out the general pace of the story.

A novel tends to allow for more setup than a short story or flash fiction piece.

2) Invest In A Good Horror Writing Book.

I’m a firm believer in continuing education and professional development for writers. I tune into an awesome podcast called Writing Excuses every Monday, and always am reading a book on grammar, writing Horror, poetry, or one of the other genres I write. And over the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed that my writing has improved.

3) Write what scares you.

I think this one needs no explanation. If you can scare yourself, you can scare a reader. This is especially true if you use your own fears as story fodder when first starting out. It’s more difficult, but the rewards are well worth it.

Venues To Start You Off

Finding venues to send Horror work to so I’ve devised a list of three I’ve submitted to in the past. Remember to always read a publication before sending your work out to them. They are, in no specific order:

1) Strange Horizons is a great place to send Horror poetry. Just don’t send them Horror fiction, their short stories are strictly Fantasy and Scifi.

2) Nightmare Magazine, which is really awesome for short fiction and has pretty good pay rates. I’ve yet to get anything accepted anywhere, but I dream of one day get work accepted at Nightmare.

3) Flash Fiction Online is a great place for flash pieces. They don’t take violent stuff like Splatterpunk, but non-violent stories are perfectly welcome. And you will want to

Recommended Reading 

The last thing I want to talk about is what books I recommend for those new to the genre. It goes back to the first and second tip in this post. I firmly believe that a writer should be reading both fiction and continuing education books. Speaking of which…

On Writing Horror, edited by Mort Castle and put out by the Horror Writers Association is, in my mind, the seminal book concerning writing Horror. More a collection of essays than an actual how-to manual, it will help those who read it have a firm grasp of the theory behind writing Horror. It features essays by many writers, including the Mistress of Gothic Fiction, Joyce Carol Oats.

The Monster’s Corner, edited by Christopher Golden, is an anthology of Horror stories from 2011. Each of the stories is told through the eyes of a monster or monster-like character. The stories themselves are hit or miss depending on the reader’s taste, but it’s a great book for those who want to get a feel for the genre. Tananarive Due’s “The Lake” alone is worth giving the book a try.

Which leaves us with the last book I’m going to recommend. Red Dragon, a novel by Thomas Harris, and part of the famous Hannibal Lecter series of books is iconic as far as Serial Killer Horror goes. It’s also one of my favorites and is the reason I love the films and the NBC series, aptly named, Hannibal.

What are your tips for new Horror writers?

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