Horror as a Genre (Part I)

September 10, 2022

One of the three main categories of speculative fiction, horror is a traditional genre of literature and film designed to produce a sense of dread or fear in the audience. Rooted in folk literature, horror stories can feature supernatural elements such as ghosts, witches, demons, ghouls, and monsters. However, horror can also be written in the style of realism (i.e., set in the real world) with shock value coming from atrocities committed by humankind or terrors associated with the natural world.

Origins in Western Literature

The literary cultivation of terror for its own sake has a long history, but it finally took a recognizable shape with the emergence of the Gothic novel in the late 1700s. Popularized by the work of Ann Radcliffe, Gothic literature retained its appeal to readers well into the next century. This tradition inspired numerous literary works including Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Today, Shelley’s iconic tale is acknowledged as the first modern horror novel.

The influence of Gothic sensibilities continued to evolve the genre throughout the Victorian era and can be seen in such classic works as Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820), Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (1897), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

Weird Tales

At the turn of the century, improved printing press techniques and access to cheap paper led to the rise of “the pulps.” In 1923, Weird Tales became the first magazine exclusively dedicated to stories of the strange and the uncanny. This popular publication featured a wide range of writers including Robert Bloch, M. R. James, and Allison V. Harding. However, the most renowned author to emerge from the Weird Tales era was H. P. Lovecraft, the creator of cosmic fiction and the Cthulhu mythos. As Lovecraft’s work resides in the public domain, it serves as inspiration for writers of the weird to this day.

Contemporary Horror

Horror continued to develop and change throughout the twentieth century. In the 1950s and 1960s, Shirley Jackson delved into domestic horror with such pivotal works as The Haunting of Hill House* (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). In the 1970s, the public’s fascination with true crime led to the development of the slasher, popularizing such characters as Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Ghostface. As a result, by the 1980s, graphic violence and gore dominated the genre in both fiction and on film. Popular horror authors of this period include Anne Rice, V.C. Andrews, Steven King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Graham Masterton, and Peter Straub. But, as with all booms, the craze for blood-soaked horror finally went bust and the genre fell out of favor.

The 1990s ushered in a time of dramatic change, as displaced and disaffected youth reacted against mainstream culture. This new generation of writers stepped away from the monsters and madmen of the past, turning instead to depictions of gritty realism in psychological horror that reflected in the world around them. This trend continued for the first decade of the twenty-first century until horror once again hit its stride. Current work in the genre ranges the gamut, bleeding into numerous subgenres ranging from literary to splatterpunk. Paired with the push for diverse voices, contemporary horror has firmly secured its place as one of the great storytelling traditions of all time.

*The Haunting of Hill House is currently in public domain in Canada but is still protected by copyright in the United States.