On too much horror

Go into any book store and you may notice just how small the horror section is compared to the past.

There has been much discussion in recent years about the apparent demise of the horror genre in storytelling, but a clear disparity between the wants of the readers and the ambitions of the writers.

Much of the reduction in horror might be explained by the surge in recent years of soft-horror, a re-classification of anything but the hardest-core horror into other categories – supernatural, paranormal romance, you know them. (I can remember walking into my – then – local Waterstones a few years ago to see an entire set of shelves labelled “Vampire section”. Oh, the humanity.)

Not enough readers

Clearly, readers are swinging away from the dark, grit, and viscera, to the slightly-dim, mildly-grubby, not-really-horrible. Demons and monsters of years gone by are being transformed into desirable creatures. I have read that even in the hallowed circles of science fiction, a reader-rebellion is building against the darker tales. What this indicates for our society is an altogether different discussion.

Writers, on the other hand, are spewing horror stories, in short and long forms, like there’s no tomorrow. Look through any online e-book store (particularly Amazon) and you’ll see an army of would-be horror writers spilling their words into the genre. Horror anthologies, magazines, and story collections about.

Many of these self-published horror stories are anything but horror. They may be underpinned by a chilling premise, but poorly paced or written. Or may be an attempt at dark and edgy with no distinct genre in which to categorise itself.

As a result, the horror genre as we know it from the past, has become diluted, bland, and poisoned by seeping mediocrity. (Is that the new horror?)

Horror is easy – all King’s fault

Take a look at Stephen King’s horror work. Anything but literary, always straightforward language, few complex sentences and rarely a deep and meaningful premise. His work demonstrates what most I-can-do-that-too writers fail to realise: the illusion of simplicity.

Writers such as King demonstrate skilled pacing, characterisation, and a sense of reality that binds the reader to the story. Guess what, folks: such things are tough to do well.

I was scared

I remember as a teenager being scared by horror stories so I could not get to sleep. I remember scenes lingering on the mind for days, weeks, after reading them. I remember having opinions changed and issues resolved through the counter-perspectives of a well-written, horror-filled situation.

As we get older, perhaps, we realise the the day-to-day horror potential of real life is far worse than the cataclysmic horrors of the tale-tellers. Look back to the peak of horror literature in the 19th century, and dark matters lie around every corner and down every shadowed alley. 19th century horror tales suggest dark times breed dark stories, but that notion does not seem to be the case today.

Horrors are no longer imagined. Now the horrors are real and about us, we want to escape them into a softer, mundane world of desirable demons, hell-bent on romance, not humanity’s destruction. Our horrors have faces – real, apparently friendly, neighbourly.

Are we done?

Have we simply run out of genuinely chilling horrors? Have our audiences become tired with derivative ideas? Or have readers become disillusioned by the surging trend in weak, fluffy, mildly unnerving tales that do not scare them?

I believe horror focused on people, real, believable people who may or may not survive their horrific trial, will always be relevant. There are always new horrors, writers just need to find them, then write them with genuine passion.

A darker future?

I return to the inexplicable fact that writers want to write horror. Whether they write well, or whether their story would be incapable of triggering a mild shiver in the most nervous dormouse, is irrelevant: the drive is there to write.

So I say, keep writing horror, folks. Write with passion and care and the will to scare. Keep writing until you find how to raise the heart rate of your reader, until that reader cannot sleep with the light out, until they are grateful that their mundane life is spared the terrors leaping out of your words to tear at their throats.


  1. Bob
    February 6, 2012

    I don’t even look in the horror section in bookshops any more. I became sick of seeing the entire section filled with two or three authors names all of whom were peddling teenage vampire angst that I couldn’t face it any more. The same happens in other areas but to a much lesser extent. Looking at the Sci-fi in our local WH Smiths, there’s actually a decent selection.

    • Neil Dixon
      February 6, 2012

      I got the same way in bookstores, completely disillusioned by the band-wagon writers (and publishers) pushing the soft spook-romance. Then on the other hand, what little real horror I found was gore-fixated (which I don’t find scary). I think this has to be an element in the declining interest in horror – if it’s tough to find the real stuff, you’ll move along to a genre that you can trust to pay-off.

      Of course, the indie publishing space is even more saturated with un-horror horror, which doesn’t help.

      The new Hammer movie is getting good responses, so let’s hope that starts to lift things a little. If horror movies gain interest again, then proper horror books might benefit.

  2. Bob
    February 6, 2012

    I hope so. I’ve found similar with the film industry. Trying to find a horror film which is scary, not a weak vampire/werewolf flick and not focused entirely on women being tortured and abused in an unpleasant manner is a challenge. There is stuff out there but it takes time to find.

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