I told a co-worker about seeing The Woman in Black. I admitted that I’d deliberately seen a matinee, but wound up putting on extra lights at night because I was still freaked out come nightfall.
She laughed. “Why did you go see it if you scare so easily?”
“I thought it would be scary like Skeleton Key.”
Pause. “I saw that. That wasn’t scary.”
“Yeah it was. For me.”
“Wait,” she said. “Wasn’t that story you got published last spring about someone being buried alive?”
Yes. Yes it was.
Horror, like its next-door neighbour science fiction, has invaded the mainstream cultural consciousness to such an extent that it can be hard to tell where the genre ends and the mainstream begins. It can be difficult for the reader, but difficult for the writer, too. It isn’t necessarily horror just because it’s scary, and it isn’t necessarily horror because it has supernatural elements and/or gore in it either.
On both the reading and writing sides of stories, there’s a tendency to feel around what a story is with syllogisms: “X recommended this to me, and I liked the last thing X recommended to me, so I will try and read this (or try to write more like that)”. Or simply, “Everything I ever like to read in this bookshop winds up being from this section, so this must be the genre I like the best.”
It gets tricky when the fit is less than perfect. Horror means gory much of the time, and if you can’t handle a lot of gore (I can’t), it means there’s a lot of perfectly good and scary books and movies that you can’t experience. It also means that it can be difficult to see yourself as a horror writer (or just as someone who wrote a horror story) if you associate the genre with things you can’t handle, rather than the stories you enjoy.
A few years ago I wrote a short story based on a passing remark a horror-fan friend of mine made. Since I quoted what he said in the story, I passed a polished draft to him to get approval for using the quote.
When we discussed the story, he gave the names of some magazines to submit the story to for publication.
“But those are all horror,” I said.
“It’s a first-person account of someone reanimating after being dead for days,” he said. “That counts as horror.”
And maybe that’s the problem with the idea of genre in general: too much overlap, too much activity at the border areas, too much debate about what is “core” and what isn’t. Just because someone likes near-future thrillers doesn’t mean they like space opera. Just because someone enjoys zombie films doesn’t mean they enjoy serial-killer slashers or torture porn.
Maybe the accidental horror writer is a sign that it’s time for the genres to be redefined.
You can find out more about Katherine Hajer at http://the-eyrea.blogspot.com/