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Horror is one of my favorite genres to read and write. But it is not something I would suggest someone else try writing without a bit of basic knowledge about the genre. A Horror 101.
I wouldn’t suggest writing a story without knowledge of the genre for Science Fiction or Fantasy either. It’s a recipe for disaster to write any genre without some basic knowledge of it. But when the genre relies on so heavily on human emotions, as in Horror, I feel like it’s a mistake on par with Vesuvius erupting.
What Is Horror?
Horror is a genre of writing in which the writer seeks to scare, disturb, and unsettle their readers. That’s it. That’s all it is.
It isn’t gore and I personally think gore isn’t scary. It isn’t the decrepit old building or the vampire. It’s stories involving those or anything else that set out to scare the reader.
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 Otranto and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 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.
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 and more.
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. And other like 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 have everything from modern Gothic Horror to stories filled with blood and guts to love stories gone wrong.
I once wrote short featuring a love story between two female serial killers because I wanted to write a Horror Romance with LGBT representation. It’s a flawed story for reasons not related to this. But I sook to turn something people normally think of as a good thing, love, and then turned it on its head and scare them with it. Which is the essence of a Horror story.
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.
I tossed around the idea of including a list of my top three Horror writing tips in this post and then it hit me. That not only would be the kind of overkill that belongs in a Splatterpunk novel like Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, it isn’t needed. A writer can write what scares them or invest in a good book about writing Horror, but they won’t get a true feel for the genre unless they’re reading Horror.
So, here are three books I would recommend anyone that wants to write Horror give a try:
More Gothic Fiction than straight up Horror, Elizabeth Kostova’s 2005 novel The Historian is an interesting take on the Dracula story. I admit the writing is a bit slow in places, particularly near the start. But it is the book I’ve picked up more and more lately when I want a good Gothic Fiction/Gothic Horror story.
Gothic Horror is a tricky genre to write, especially something so well-tread as the Dracula mythos, and Kostova did a wonderful job.
I love stories told from the point of view of the monster and short story anthology The Monster’s Corner: Stories Through Inhuman Eyes delivers just that.
Golden, who has edited several other anthologies, brought stories by a diverse group of writers together into a volume that I consider an excellent resource for anyone who wants to learn how to pace their short stories. Or, for that matter, a writer who wants to see a small sliver of the variety possible in a certain kind of Horror story.
I confess I don’t like this story. It’s Gothic Fiction and considered a prominent ancestor of both modern Horror and Science Fiction, which I usually love. Gothic Fiction a pretty awesome genre of writing, but the story in Frankenstein just didn’t grab me.
That said, I recommend reading it. Even if it is just for educational purposes. I didn’t like it, but I learned a lot and the Mary Shelley was a great writer. After all, we can’t always like what we read and our own personal exploration of Horror, our Horror 101 classes, should always take this into account
Besides, you may like Frankenstein far more than I did.
What advice do you have for new Horror writers? What did you wish you wish you had known during your own Horror 101 phase? Do you have a book you think all aspiring Horror writers should try?