Horror Season

My kids love the concept of Halloween, so right now we’ve been talking about it a lot at my house. I didn’t celebrate it, growing up – wrong religion – but they have been trick-or-treating since they were wee bairns, and enjoy it as a time of costumes and candy. Transformation into favorite characters, or creating their own characters through dressing up. The Junior Mad Scientist started working on a paper mache Pumpkinhead more than a month before the event. For the kids, it’s a time to delve into the stories around them in a transformative way.

For me as an adult, I get messages from my reading and listening material that this is the spooky season. Part of this is marketing, part is, of course, what led to the genesis of a day of the dead. The season of life, light, and warmth is drawing to a close in this hemisphere. It’s time to contemplate winter’s drawing death. 

Which is likely why we create works in the horror genre. Contemplation of mortality and the presence of evil in the world. At least, that’s what I think. Because the modern horror genre, what I have seen of it, tends to be a lot of squick and gore. Rather than a taut psychological game, they are aiming for the grossest possible themes. And it’s not a genre I read if I know what I’m getting into…

At work I listen to a lot of podcasts. My predilections being what they are, I have added a few (coff several) to my playlist. Some of them are bringing out Halloween episodes, and I’m reminded that no matter how dark our imaginations are, reality can always be darker. I have to wonder, listening to some of the more modern cases, if some of them were influenced by the modern horror genre.

I don’t think I write horror. Readers have informed me otherwise from time to time. Works where I was extrapolating on consequences, come across as situations beyond the character’s control, and that reads as horror. It’s the helplessness. Not that the character didn’t want a different outcome, but that they could not, within the confines of the universe I postulated, change what was happening. For me, I was writing realism. For readers, it was horror.

This morning I’m sitting in the warm dark on the front porch. The songs of birds and insects make the darkness musical. It’s the furthest thing from horror, if life were fiction. But I’m asking my First Reader and the JMS for their input into this… The FR tells me the original Frankenstein’s Monster was horror. You never saw what happens to the little girl who went into the lake. The JMS said she’s afraid of clowns, so she thought of IT (note: she’s not read the book). The FR points out that hack ‘em up movies are not horror, they are just disgusting. JMS came back explaining that she doesn’t watch horror, she can’t take the jump scares.

But how would you define horror? I asked.

JMS says she considers jump scares part of horror. That, and psychological horror. She hasn’t watched those, but she thinks those mess with your brain. Jump scares bother her a lot.

Have you ever read any horror?

I have not, she says. Wait, she says, I might have read  technically children’s horror. I remember one of them, this dude had a wife who always wore a ribbon around her neck. One day she dies, and he took the ribbon off, and her head fell off.

So FR, how would you define horror?

Horror as a genre covers everything from jump scares to twisted mental torture. I don’t care for it. Most of it is very black. Some is typical hero stories where the hero defeats the ooobiegoobie. Steven King and the Amityville Horror were good at scarring you spotless – at least early King. Salems’s Lot, not Christine. Slasher movies are not horror.


I define horror as fiction having a strong element of helplessness: the main character set is completely unable to control the events. Death, darkness, and lack of hope… Although horror can have a happy ending, it’s usually at a greater cost than any other genre. And horror leaves scars.

So why do people read horror? I can’t say, exactly. I know from this unusual conversation with my family that we don’t, mostly. Sometimes by accident. I think that it’s a choice of people who want to feel better about their own lives – I find it depressing. I’ve been in situations where I had no control, no ability to make good choices, and it sucks hard. I’d rather not have that in  my fiction as a consequence. I also realize that I am hardly a representative member of the reading public, too!

Which brings me back to something: why did I write horror? I didn’t set out to, I will point out. With Memories of the Abyss, I was writing near autobiography – at the very least, my nightmare from a specific period of my life. Sarah Hoyt encouraged me to ‘bleed on the page’ to add verisimilitude to my work. When she read that novella some time later she responded with ‘Good Lord, Cedar, I didn’t mean for you to open a vein!’ With Sugar Skull, it’s not proper horror at all, it’s Monster fiction. Mindflow is a story of mother-love, but my First Reader has a visceral horrified reaction to it. Snow in Her Eyes is simply a tale of death and family, certainly influenced by my listening to true crime recently (I’ll note it’s not a genre I read, I find the books mostly boring, as they delve into a lot of fluff to fill out the length). That’s not horror, it’s reality.

But I’ll leave it up to you all. I’ve made my ‘horror’ stories free for the season, one a week until Halloween, and I’m planning to release Lab Gremlins on Halloween! Sugar Skull is a wry little story about a young woman who works in a morgue. It’s just a job, and she can handle it. But her boss…





  1. To me Horror is where the danger is from outside the world view of the main characters. Part of the “terror” is “those things don’t exist”.

    Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” was Horror because the Main Characters Knew That Vampires Are Fictional.

    When Harry Dresden faced Vampires, they were a known danger for him.

    1. Even if you know they exist, coming into contact with them is going to scare the bejeezus out of you.

      1. True. Terrifying things can happen in non-horror (by my definition) fiction but it’s a different sort of terror when you thought “those things weren’t real”.

  2. I don’t like jump scares, either! Nor Stephen King, nor bloody slasher movies, nor….For me, there’s enough bad stuff in the world, I don’t want to be deliberately scared. It’s not a good feeling. And I want good endings to stories — On the Beach almost qualifies as horror for me, because it’s got a totally hopeless ending.

    And you and Maranatha DID trick-or-treat once (when we were staying with your dad’s parents and they insisted). You made the cutest little Geisha girl with a black yarn wig, and she made an adorable Raggedy Ann — I think her costume came off of a big doll.

  3. Saying slasher movies aren’t horror is like saying Star Wars isn’t sci-fi. It is an identical ‘splitting hairs’ type of argument.

  4. I don’t mind horror, but modern horror often leaves me cold. The people struggle against the monster . . . and it wins, ensuring endless sequels. I suppose that’s easier than in the old days when they’d kill off the monster, only to have it return. Van Helsing would stake Dracula at dawn for the fifth time but a few years later someone would get a nosebleed on Dracula’s grave and pretty soon the local busty virgin is getting a midnight visitor.

    1. Nod. Too many Horror movies have fallen into the trap of “Oh the heroes may have won this time but the Monster isn’t really dead”.

  5. I don’t read or watch pure horror anything, but I like horror elements in my fiction. The undead thieves and moredhel in Feists Silverthorn were very scary in the confines of the brithel and sewer but just another monster when they became a known quantity later in that book and in the sequel.

    I like Dresden and Anita Blake could have been good.

  6. I don’t read straight-up horror; frankly, it bores me. And I get tired of more-monster-than-thou in a hurry. However, one of the most spooky things I’ve ever read was _Chindi_ by Jack McDevitt. A great deal of nothing happens, all the while breathing softly on the back of your neck.

    1. The original “Alien” was that way. Which made it very intense the first time I saw it, and meh the second.

  7. I would define Horror as “entertainment which relies primarily on invoking fear to create an emotional impact.” Kind of a broad definition, I realize, but Horror is a pretty wide designation, with lots of sub-genres and crossovers.

    It’s possible–even common–to include horror tropes in a work that doesn’t fit this definition. The TV show Supernatural, for example, very seldom has moments that frighten me, it’s much more of an Action/Adventure (and in the later seasons, Comedy) series that works with Horror cliches.

    It’s also possible to have a really terrifying work that contains no supernatural elements at all–there is a whole subset of Psychological Horror where the monsters are all perfectly human.

    For me the essence of what makes Horror work is the feeling of uncertainty. It’s not knowing what is going on or what will happen next that scares me.

    1. Uncertainty and an underlying depth—there are things the characters don’t know, and probably shouldn’t know. I think that’s where Lovecraft, ahem, shines, even in relatively mild stories like “The Windigo.” And why I don’t read much horror. My imagination is far too good for my own good, thank you.

    2. As has been said above, while I love spooky stuff, I don’t like jump scares and a lot of other modern horror – monsters and blood have their place, but I prefer things that go further, that hint at deeper unknowns, and touch on ethics and virtue. “A Christmas Carol” is quite scary, and that’s one of the most beloved stories of all time. The Victorians had a tradition of the Christmas Eve ghost story, and those are a lot of fun, too. There are modern books that follow in that tradition that are great fun – heck, one of the scariest writers I know is John Bellairs, with his childrens’ book “The House With the Clock in its Walls” or “The Face in the Frost” which are sort of scary Harry Potter. Things with the crossroads of life and death, or battles between supernatural good and evil. Is that horror? If not, what is it?

  8. A little OT: As a child of a mother raised hardshell Southern Protestant, I had no idea that Halloween < Hallowe'en (the way spelled in my elementary school) < All Hallows Eve (Even). I learned only later that Halloween is the night before All Saints (Hallows) Day, as Christmas Eve (Even) is the night before Christmas Day, Note that some Protestant groups, hold more tightly to the idea that all Christians constitute "the saints on Earth", as opposed to privilege of designating saints being within the authority of Rome.

    1. The whole point of All Saints’ Day is to remind us all that many saints went to their reward even though their names are utterly unknown to those of us still working out our salvation in fear and trembling.

  9. Speaking of Halloween. In this part of Europe, Halloween became big as a deliberate push by vendors. We had something called the day of all saints, but it was very introspective, as protestants we usually went and lit a candle on the graves of our parents, but nothing more. Of course, a chance for the kids to be obnoxious black-mailers was too good to pass up.

    1. I’ve always gotten the sense that it is more of an Anglo-Irish thing than mainland Europe. Walpurgisnacht*, St. John’s Eve, and other days had the “uncanny” aspect that in the British Isles and US came with the Eve of All Hallows.

      * St. Walburga must shake her head and wonder what on earth people are thinking. On the other paw, since she saw what St. Bonifice and his associates were dealing with, she might not be that surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised.

      1. The U.S. trick-or-treating thing was actually a fairly brilliant piece of social engineering. Halloween used to be a party night, pretty exclusively, and there was another side to it called “Mischief Night.” (Which you can see showing up in media set in the early years of the 20th century, like “Meet Me in St. Louis.”) Knocking over outhouses, egging places, things like that. Unfortunately, Mischief Night eventually became cover for some pretty nasty business, including stuff by the KKK of the 20s and 30s, and various civil groups (like the Boy Scouts) took a door-to-door begging thing from an entirely different holiday (spring or summer; I don’t remember which one) and decided to use it to flood the streets with people, under the idea that people who wanted to go mess up somebody’s house wouldn’t do that if there were kids and their shepherds watching.

        If you watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” you can see them referring to “tricks or treats.” The verbiage hadn’t settled down by that point, obviously.

        (I did some research at one point when I came across the arguments about the origins of Halloween being directly from pagan sources, especially the trick-or-treating. It didn’t make sense, so…)

  10. I really don’t do horror – I prefer not to be scared. So if a story is presented as horror I need to have a good reason not to skip it. That said, I enjoy the Monster Hunters International series, but that’s about the only recently-written stuff that might be considered horror that I’ve read. Before that, the only one that stands out is Arthur C. Clarke’s “A Walk in the Dark”. That one, of course, is pure psychological horror with no gore, jump scares, or supernatural elements.

  11. I define horror as a subset of “stuff I don’t read.”

    Though I had some complaints from an online readers’ group that I filed stories under “Fantasy” rather than “Horror.” It was always a retold fairy tale. . . .

    (Not vice versa. Not all retold fairy tales garnered horror complaints.)

  12. I actually like horror, but I don’t like some of the things common in the genre.

    My pet peeves are explaining the monster, the twisted fantasy of power, and splatterschtick. (Mostly. Done as psychological horror, or humor, or a combination of the Evil Dead 2… Splatterschtick can work. But most of the time it’s gratuitous freaking of the danes.)

    The emotion of fear, of uncertainty, is great.
    The disproportionate punishment of moral order violations is a classic trope for a reason.
    The sense that the seeming randomness of life are signs of a deeper hidden truth is compelling.

    But if you’re sympathizing with the monster, or experiencing a vicarious fantasy of power through the monster… No. Just no.
    And *please* make your story hang together somewhat logically. If your ghost was created by white men torturing a black man to death with bees, don’t have the ghost terrorizing an inner city project and having mirrors as its major motif.

    1. I like my horror thoroughly implausible, TYVM. The BBC show Torchwood had a series (season) called Children of Earth that I’m never watching again. It was very well-written, and very well-acted, and while the brutal ending was part of the issue, the part that really bothered me was the UK government chasing down a group of kids—specifically poor kids—to send them off to a Fate Worse Than Death because “nobody would miss them.” Way too plausible to have kids taken for convenience by one group or another.

      Give me a freaky space alien cultivating a town as a private feeding ground any day. Get the scary story in without making it realistic.

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