Trying to define just what the genre of Horror Fiction encompasses is a rather difficult task. The problem is that horror is based on the emotion of fear, and fear is a basic part of the human experience. It would be akin to trying to lump all tales, stories, myths, and novels that have any element of anger in them under a genre called Mad Fiction. The emotion of fear and elements of horror are an integral part of a good tale. Even before the invention of the written word, tales involved elements of fear and horror. One could very well imagine early man sitting around a campfire listening to a storyteller recount some myth or legend with everyone cringing at a part where the hero faced some horrifying event. But over the years tales that were specifically designed to delve into the fears of humans have evolved into a complete genre of fiction. Trying to classify all tales of horror into their well-organized sub-genres is a really difficult task and is most likely impossible. However, I would like to try and throw out many of the sub-genres that are in existence and give an archetypical description of that sub-genre.
Dark Fiction is many times seen as a term that is synonymous with Horror. Unfortunately, the term just hasn’t caught on as well as Horror and will probably never usurp the throne. It sounds like a more dignified term but people are used to the word Horror.
Dark Fantasy sounds similar to Dark Fiction but it is usually used to describe Fantasy stories that are set in an ominous or dark atmosphere – sort of a merging of Fantasy with Horror. When I think of Dark Fantasy I usually think of the Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock. Elric’s world is a world of sword and sorcery but the tone of the tales are dark and horrific in nature.
Supernatural Horror is used to describe horror stories that host creatures that are classically considered to be supernatural creatures. The typical list would include ghosts, spirits, demons, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. There have also been many sub-genres sprung out of these specific creatures – most notably are Vampire Horror, Ghost Stories, and Zombie Horror. Supernatural Horror doesn’t necessarily have to use creatures of myth and legend. There are also Supernatural Horror stories where there is an unknown or unnamed presence or force that produces the supernatural element needed for the classification. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood is a good example of a Supernatural Horror story that uses an unknown supernatural force to produce a quite effective sense of fear. Stories about haunted places also fall under the canopy of supernatural.
Weird Tales and Weird Fiction are two terms popularized by the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Although the magazine tried to publish stories that crossed many genres or couldn’t be categorized due to the fact that the tales were just too weird to fit a category, the terms have been hijacked by horror writers influenced by H.P. Lovecraft or who were influences to Lovecraft. Other sub-genres that have evolved that are akin to Weird Tales are Lovecraftian Horror, Lovecraft Mythos, and Cthulhu Mythos. These sub-genres are largely Lovecraft pastiches and/or writers who influenced or expounded on Lovecraft’s style or subject matter. Incidentally, I haven’t seen the word pastiche used so much as in connection with H.P. Lovecraft. I think it is a right of passage to write a Lovecraftian Horror pastiche at some point in a horror writer’s life.
Gothic Horror is another of the larger sub-genres of Horror Fiction. Gothic Horror describes the formative styles of horror elements in eighteenth-century English literature. Typically, the stories have oppressive, dark atmospheres and are set in large, brooding castles or locales. It was this type of literature that influenced the early horror writers of the short story format in both England and the United States. When I think of the quintessential Gothic Horror story I think of The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Alan Poe.
Dark Suspense and Thriller are two categories used to denote a sub-genre that is a mixture of Horror and Mystery in the former and Horror and Adventure in the later. Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories are good examples of Dark Suspense and Robert E. Howard wrote many horror stories that have his typical flare for adventure in them.
Psychological Horror is used to denote horror that is designed to affect the reader by building tension and fear within the psyche. Usually, this type of horror is more subtle in its presentation and doesn’t use external forces to explain the horror. It is common for Psychological Horror to present an altered or warped sense of reality. When I think of Psychological Horror the first short story that comes to mind is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Contemporary Horror is the name given to the modern style of short horror writing that emerged around the 1960’s and 70’s. This style of writing abandoned the Gothic Horror style and dispensed with verbosity of writing, ancient settings, and a reliance on subtler storytelling to achieve the intended effect on the reader. Contemporary Horror typically uses modern settings and tends to be more graphic in nature. Sub-genres that have emerged from Contemporary Horror are Erotic Horror, Noir, and Splatterpunk, which push the limits of what is acceptable in the mainstream by using blatantly graphic sex and violence and is usually set in an urban environment.