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Has traditional horror lost its identity?

I’ve been writing horror for more than thirty years now and I still don’t know what the hell it is.

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Shaun believes that books like Thomas Harris's 1988 novel have helped kill traditional horror.

I’m not sure how to define it.  What some call horror others call dark fantasy.  What I have defined as horror some of my readers have called thriller.  And the parameters of horror are changing so much it’s becoming even more difficult to define the genre these days.  If I’m perfectly honest I think that the horror genre as everyone knew and loved it is effectively dead, killed by the rise of novels like The Silence of the Lambs and now swamped completely with publishers indifference towards horror itself and their devotion to kids books, crime, chick-lit and fantasy (I’d include the Twilight saga, God help us, in the latter category because not by any stretch of anyone’s imagination is it horror although maybe it should be in with chick-lit.).  And I don’t think horror will ever rise again because it won’t be allowed to.  The indifference of publishers has killed it as surely as a stake through the heart or a silver bullet!

Horror has lost its balls or rather it’s been gelded by publishers who seem intent on ignoring the hundreds of thousands of people out there who want to read ‘traditional’ horror.  As I’ve said before never has such a profitable trend at the cinema been so blatantly disregarded by the book business.

Film trends usually spill over into literature but despite the fact that horror films seem to be filling most multiplexes up and down the country, horror in its written form is still being largely ignored by publishers.  How many bookshops actually have a horror section these days?  And if they do what’s in it other than Stephen King, Dean Koontz, a few Richard Laymon, one or two of mine (if I’m lucky), a couple of Lovecraft anthologies, a collection of ghost stories and maybe a handful of James Herbert?  The shelves are stuffed with ‘vampire’ or ‘werewolf’ novels (usually along the same lines as Twilight and probably set in a girls boarding school in the States) there might be some zombie novels (because they’re trendy) and there will probably be some mixed genre offerings (i.e. the detective is already dead/is a vampire/is a ghost hunter/ exorcist etc. etc.).

Stop trying to be edgy

Where are all the monsters?  Where are the things in the attic?  What became of the beasts in cellars?  No one wants to touch this kind of horror these days for fear of being called unoriginal or clichéd.  Everyone likes to think that they are being ‘edgy’ (God I hate that word).  Well fuck that, why did any of us ever buy horror?  To have the shit scared out of us if I remember rightly and if the best way to induce that loosening of the bowels or that contraction of the stomach is to use a ‘monster’ then so what?  But no, publishers want the ‘different’ approach that they’ve seen be so successful with the sanitised and trendy crap being presented to us now.  They don’t want tradition.  They don’t even want the things that made the horror genre (at one time) the strongest in the book business.  Horror was always the poor relation as far as the book business was concerned (despite the fact that it made the business lots of money it was always something of an embarrassment) and that seems to be even more the case these days.

Now admittedly when you’re writing a novel you have to find a different angle when you’re telling a story, a different and new way (if possible) of coming at well used themes but that doesn’t mean that you have to ignore all the tradition of the classic horror novel.  I’m not saying that all the heroes and villains should be noticeably different, in fact if you can blur the lines between the two then that’s even better.  It’s true that many of my main characters are even more flawed and fucked up than the villains they face but then that’s more a reflection of their lives rather than trying to make them self-consciously different.  People’s marriages break up, they drink, they smoke, they have affairs etc. etc.  Why should this be reserved for characters perceived to be the ‘bad guys’?

I write about a universe where everyone is equally fucked up regardless of which side of the law they’re on!  Flawed characters are more interesting.  It’s also easier to create sympathy for a leading character if they’ve got more ‘baggage’.  Readers will look more kindly on a character that’s just lost their child/spouse/mind than they will on someone with a perfect life who breezes through every day as if it’s a carnival.

Edward Cullen Twilight Vampire

If Bram Stoker were writing today, would Dracula look more like Twilight's vampires and less like the inhuman phenomena of 1897?

Blurring the line between good and evil is always advisable too.  Evil is always more effective and more terrifying if it’s attractive.  Dracula is a classic example of this although if Bram Stoker had written it nowadays he’d probably have had publishers telling him to make the Count more likeable.  Maybe they’d have got him to put Renfield on a diet of Haribo instead of insects too!  Doctor Van Helsing would have tried to reason with Dracula about his addiction to blood and offered him two weeks in rehab instead of trying to drive a stake through his heart.

Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein would probably have ended up working in an NHS hospital and Dr Jekyll would have probably moved to private practice as there was more money in it.

Yes, you have to look at stories from different angles and yes you have to try and do something that’s never been done before (well, if you’ve got any pride about you as a writer you do) but that doesn’t mean you have to forsake the mythology of horror.  So, to hammer home my point once again, I don’t think that traditional horror has lost its identity; I think that it’s been robbed of it.  It’s wearing a mask just like the Phantom of the Opera used to.  Remember him?  You might not in ten years’ time.


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  1. Well said Shaun, thank you.

  2. The first horror novel I read and that it still haunts me was William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist”. It blew my mind and drew me into horror from the first genre reading I had. Maybe subconsciously I still wish to read horror as Blatty’s novel and I am still searching for equal thrills. But I am not disappointed in the new rising horror. I do not talk here of sexy vampires, desirable werewolves or the omnipresent zombies. I am talking about the psychological terror, about the horror that touches strongly on the human condition. I know that the characters you talked about match this category I love and I wonder if not horror didn’t evolve somehow, blending the traditional with the new.
    Still, it would be excellent to see a horror section in bookshops (if these would not be extinct too) free of sexy girls and boys on the covers and tiresome zombies.

  3. Excellent post. I gave a talk to a bunch of sixth form students about writing horror earlier this week, and was reassured by a). their apparent hatred for Twilight and b). their obvious love of ‘real’ horror. There is hope!

  4. as a blogger I have seen authors shy away from the horror label and embrace the thriller/suspense one. I cut my literary teeth on horror (and yes, I am talking Stephen King , but the old stuff like The Mangler! that gave me nightmares). Part of the problem might be people are just so desensitized by monsters because of all the visual examples. Being able to see it on the screen is easier for today’s youth than reading it. I miss the old school horror book that would leave you with disturbing thoughts and make you wish you could unread it (but not really ). thanks for the great post:)

  5. Shaun, thanks for indulging me again: great answer as always.

    Sharon, I totally agree: I struggle these days to find the type of book you’re talking about from ‘contemporary writers’ (wanky term, I know), hence my ongoing pillage of 70s, 80s and early 90s horror. My worry is that many of today’s horror writers (and dare I say publishers?) seem frightened of tired and tested shocks and scares, in favour of something more subtle and literary. Horror was never meant to be subtle. Suspenseful, of course, but never subtle. Horror is horror: the clue is in the word itself 🙂

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