Is Horror Literature?

Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg

Written by Glen Hirshberg

When I first saw the question, I read it wrong.

The question came to me from writer-editors Chris Shearer and Tim Waggoner, who had invited me to contribute to a critical work they’re assembling called The Dark Now, due out from Post Mortem Books in 2015. They sent me a set of provocative queries, including this one:

“Horror seems to be gaining a certain amount of literary respectability… What do you think of that trend? Does it make horror a less rebellious genre?”

But what I read, and immediately started to answer, was a related but very different question, one I have been asked a thousand times before: by my teachers; by graduate school workshop peers; by vaguely concerned Faculty Search Committees (I mean, he seems pleasant enough, but have you read his stuff?) when I interviewed for jobs; even by readers. And that question goes something like this:

“Can horror even be literature?”

Or, “Why would a real writer ever want or need to write that?”

The implications of those questions have dogged my career ever since my waggish brother mocked up a book jacket for my first novel, The Snowman’s Children, complete with an imaginary blurb from Stephen King proclaiming (a little too accurately), “It’s like To Kill a Mockingbird meets Silence of the Lambs.”

Then I read Chris and Tim’s question again.

And once more.

And I burst out laughing.

In a way, the query itself says a lot about the health and dynamism of the field right now. If horror has reached (or returned to) its Nirvana—meaning, the moment where it has erupted so forcefully into the mainstream that its practitioners perceive a danger of becoming mainstream—then maybe we really have left the much-maligned Dark(er) Ages of slasher films and black-spined paperbacks behind us.

But with the exception of the above era, stretching, say, from the death of Shirley Jackson in 1965 to wherever you pinpoint the emergence of the New Wave Fabuwhatevers sometime in the 2000s, horror has always been literature, always been a shadowy corner of the mainstream.

Virtually every human civilization that has ever told itself stories has told itself ghost stories. In this country, one could certainly make the case that more of our literary giants have written supernatural fiction than have not (starting with Charles Brockden Brown and Washington Irving and continuing right on through Hawthorne, Chesnutt, Poe, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, William Faulkner). Meanwhile, the leading lights of horror— from M.R. James and Arthur Machen to Theodore Sturgeon, Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, Lucius Shepard (Goddamnit)—have all eventually been recognized for the dazzling, and literary, writers they are.

This détente has been the norm, not the exception, so much so that even the afore-mentioned black-spine era is now being reassessed; witness the recent and frequent welcoming of Stephen King—belatedly, and with more than occasional traces of condescension—into the pages of that august organ of the Academy, The New York Times Book Review.

The only danger to horror or literature, it seems to me, is the assumption that they are separate or opposing things. That literature can’t be rebellious. That dark fiction can’t be gorgeous and hurtful and heartfelt and life-affirming.

In January, in The New York Times, Russell Banks caused predictable feather-flapping in the spectral fiction community when he declared that he avoids reading “Anything described by the author or publisher as fantasy, which says to me, ‘Don’t worry, Reader, Death will be absent here.’” If I had a dog—or a gigantic hound—in this fight, I’d be tempted to respond that I avoid anything proclaiming itself Literature, which says to me, ‘Don’t worry, Reader, Life will be absent here.’”

But I don’t (have a dog, or avoid literature). Because the truest and only response I’ve got, to all these questions, is this: actual human experience, whatever that turns out to be, is so bound up in and suffused by our expectations for the experience beforehand and the memories and meanings we attach afterward that we are, as a species, incapable of telling the difference between reality and the way we experience reality. There is no reality without imagination, in living or in art. And there is no imagination without a reality to trigger it.

We are so much more—and less—than the stuff dreams are made on. We are dreams, walking.

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From the Tor/Forge May 19th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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15 thoughts on “Is Horror Literature?

  1. The question is at its heart, an academic mind-boink. There are as many kinds of stories as there have been writers. Some of them are frightening, some are sanguine, but if they are written well-enough to attract readers, hold their attention and have word-of-mouth benefits towards additional sales, then it’s a successful piece of writing. In the final reckoning, it doesn’t matter what the Literature majors have to say when they dissect and probe it. It only matters if it touched a reader in some powerful way. Back in the day, when pulp fiction flourished, there was a lot of eye-rolling in academic circles when it came to horror writing. Some of it was pretty cheesey, but Lovecraft endures, doesn’t he? Despite the cheese factor.

  2. “[A]ctual human experience, whatever that turns out to be, is so bound up in and suffused by our expectations for the experience beforehand and the memories and meanings we attach afterward that we are, as a species, incapable of telling the difference between reality and the way we experience reality. There is no reality without imagination, in living or in art. And there is no imagination without a reality to trigger it.”

    Awesome.

  3. Is horror literature? It depends on the horror – it needs to have qualities and themes that can not only support multiple readings, lenses and critiques but can survive a strict analysis. This doesn’t apply to all horror literature/texts. I wouldn’t say that something by Clive Barker, the Great and Secret Show or Imajica for instance, could hold up to severe analysis the way Stephen King’s The Stand or Dark Tower series could; I’m also not saying that one is better than the other, because as far as I am concerned both works fall into a horror-pulp category.

    This is a topic I’m interested in, as my literacy thesis for my masters is about using genre fiction to create social justice. So, I am interested in horror’s ability to stand up to a critical lens, and the application of that lens into the classroom.

    1. An interesting point – since you bring up Clive Barker, I’d say that Weaveworld definitely would qualify. To me it has been a classic, which I’ve reread several times. Each time, I come away with something different. And given that you’re looking at horror in terms of social justice, Barker’s fantasy was so effective because of how it portrayed LIverpool in the early 1980s, just after the Toxteth riots of 1981. To me it was about the world of the imagination vs the world of Thatcherism, which certainly packs a punch now.

  4. Another way you might look at horror as a genre in literature is to ask if there are identifiable subgenres, and to that I would have to say “yes”, having spent the last 8 years developing a book on the biohorror subgenre. As a subgenre, you expect literature and even movies of which there are many in this subgenre. Moreover, you find repeated archetypes and symbols typical of the subgenre. This is not genetic engineering, or the chronic disease, but rather the plot with a horrific disease or bioweapon dilemma. The biohorror subgenre is the live end of the wire of nonconformity of horror, and I expect other subgenres to continue to emerge. http://www.reelbiohorror.com

  5. Could we heap more ridicule on the intellectual laziness that produced that question? Is Bram Stoker literature? What about Lovecraft? Bradbury? King? Hill (son of King)? What about Mary Shelly, Poe, Stevenson, Straub, and Wilde (Oscar – you’ve heard of him, I am sure)?

    Horror has always been literature. Some of has been much better than others, but then again a lot of straight drama shouldn’t count as literature as it is is better bird cage liner or cat litter.

  6. I love this article. As with any genre, everything depends on the quality. But there is nothing so powerful as a good horror writer’s ability to make someone look up from their work and cautiously check over a shoulder or start imagining strange noises in their house. To experience the written word so completely that your body responds with a racing heart is a phenomenon we love to hate. How can something that is written well enough to create such a visceral response be so consistently dismissed?

  7. I am pleased with, and entirely in agreement with, Glen’s response. See The Dark Descent.

  8. I love horror stories and stories about the supernatural and possesions. these have always been my favorite reading. I read a lot, and lots of different stuff but horror is my all time favorite. always has been always will be I love it!!! sincerely mrs Geraldine brown!!!

  9. Asking if horror is literature, is more of a question of what parameters/criteria one has “literature”? And that can quickly become a slippery slope of what or what doesn’t constitute “high art”? And if you even subscribe to the (snobbish) concept of high art?
    If, one can argue, the object of art is to elicit an emotional response, then horror certain fits the bill.

  10. When the academics of literature discuss “horror”, they call it names like “grotesque” and “alternative speculation”. I know because I have my grad work in the Grotesque. I studied German and English Romanticism where vampires (Lilith) and the undead (Frankenstein) were born. I have been advocating for “horror” to have its own category of literature for years (since 1983, anyway) and still meet hostility. So I still use “grotesque” to describe horror, but I’ve begun to use the works of my writer friends on Facebook to exemplify modern “horror” in my academic writing, as well as my blog (under my pseudonym, Anthony Servante), rather than the standard “safe” names like Stephen King to appease my fellow critics at the university. Is Horror Literature? No, not yet, but I’m fighting the good fight to make it so.

  11. The category of horror, or any genre, is simply there for the convenience of the publisher and bookseller. Prior to the rise of pulp fiction publishers did not discriminate based on subject, merely on quality. Dime novels and serials were the equivalent of today’s paperback and many books now considered literature were published as serials in magazines and newspapers. If critics allow themselves to be blinded to quality by applying an arbitrary label, then I immediately dismiss the critique as flawed. The inconsistencies of booksellers to adhere to genre categories should also clearly indicate how arbitrary categories are. I will go to three different stores, sometimes stores in the same chain, and find the book I am looking for in Horror, or Science Fiction/Fantasy, or mainstream fiction. Sometimes it is the size of the store, others the choice of the manager.

    Having drifted a bit to make a point about the question, literature is literature regardless of subject, as well pointed out by the comments above. Genres are merely marketing and pigeonholing for those advertising people who need to be pointed at an audience before they can sell to it.

  12. I am reminded of an interview many years ago with the legendary Big Bill Broonzy. He was asked by a reporter if he considered his music (Blues) to be folk music. After an awkward pause he responded: “All music is folk music because dogs can’t sing.”

    The “debate” ( more accurately described as a pissing contest between tweed-jacket wearing academics) over what is considered literature has been raging for a very long time with, unfortunately, no end in sight. Fortunately, those of us who simply like to read good writing are able to drown out those who believe that only certain types of writing deserve our attention. This is what happens when people’s education far surpasses their intellectual abilities!

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