What is horror? A few thoughts from someone new to reading horror.

Although there are many articles that answer the question, ‘What is horror?’ (this post by Brian J. Showers is particularly insightful), I thought I’d add my thoughts to the mix since it wasn’t all that long ago I was saying I didn’t like horror. So what made me change my mind?

Being a highly sensitive person, and one who has an image-rich imagination, I’ve always been scared by horror films. Stuff that I see has a habit of sticking in my brain and popping out when I least expect it to. (This may be because of my tendency to OCD – worries and anxieties can easily ‘stick’ and compulsions to ease the anxiety can end up repeating on loop.) Thankfully, I became aware of this quite early on in life and somehow managed to steer clear of seeing films that I’m sure would’ve greatly disturbed me. But at university I ended up watching a few and genuinely regretted it. Since then, horror films have simply not been a part of my life.

So I made the assumption that horror fiction wouldn’t be for me either. But something happened that I didn’t expect. The more short stories in the science fiction, fantasy and fairy tale genres I read and wrote, the more writers I came to know in these fields. And I began to notice that many of my favourite writers were also being published in horror magazines and anthologies. (The fantastic authors, Alison Moore, Tim Major and Jenn Ashworth instantly spring to mind.) With a certain amount of trepidation, I began to read these horror stories. And was pleasantly (or is that chillingly?) surprised. You see, I’d assumed that rather like many horror films, these stories would be full of blood and guts and perhaps an evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil villain. But of course I’d been wrong to make this assumption. Yes, they were dark tales, many with a hint of uncanniness, but they were also beautifully written and subtle in nuance and texture. And I soon grew to understand that what I was most interested in was called psychological horror. (Though I’ve since discovered that I’m also a fan of paranormal and gothic horror as well as weird fiction.) But whatever the labels, I discovered new stories, books and writers that both widened and deepened my reading experience, and hence my life.

Later, when Steve J. Shaw of Black Shuck Books asked me to contribute a story to Great British Horror 6 I was thrilled. But also a little surprised, because I wasn’t sure that what I was writing was horror. But looking back at some of the darker stories I’d written I’d realized that some of my stories could, in fact, be categorized as horror. So I gave it a go, and ‘Our Lady of Flies’ in GBH6 was the result.

Interestingly, in this review of Great British Horror 6 the author, Christopher Fowler, reflected that perhaps the anthology had too many tales with domestic settings. Which, to my mind, goes to show how horror is so many different things to different people. I like stories with a well-drawn domestic setting. What creeps me out is weirdness in the everyday; strange, dark things happening in the midst of (seemingly safe and dull) suburbia. But of course that’s not to everyone’s taste. Some readers prefer other, perhaps more fantastical or colourful, settings. And I think that’s one of the strengths of horror – it isn’t solely defined by a certain milieu or time (though, of course, creepy old houses in the middle of nowhere will most likely always be a staple of the genre!). Horror can also accommodate many of the tropes of other genres, such as science fiction, crime and thriller, to name a few.

As usual, when starting to read in a new area I’ve been mightily impressed by the small presses who publish in this genre, and I’ve enjoyed reading titles published by the likes of Black Shuck Books, Sinister Horror Company, Undertow Publications, Unsung Stories, Swan River Press, Tartarus Press, Demain Publishing, Hersham Horror, Dead Ink and Nightjar Press (the latter produces strikingly good-looking single short story pamphlets). Also, Luna Press Publishing, Newcon Press and PS Publishing are other well-respected publishers for horror (though the former two publish in other genres too). Not forgetting the magazines, The Ghastling, The Shadow Booth, Occult Detective Magazine and Ginger Nuts of Horror that have further widened my reading and brought new and brilliant authors to my attention.

I’ve particularly been drawn to works by women authors, and have been mightily impressed by Penny Jones’s Matryoshka, Georgina Bruce’s This House of Wounds, Tracy Fahey’s collection I Spit Myself Out, and Touch Me With Your Cold Hard Fingers by Elizabeth Stott, along with several Black Shuck Shadows short collections – by Penny Jones (Suffer Little Children), Charlotte Bond (The Watcher in the Woods) and Thana Niveau (Unquiet Waters). (And I do want to add that Dan Coxon’s Green Fingers and Phil Sloman’s Broken on the Inside of the Shadows series are fantastic reads too.) Aliya Whitely, Angela Slatter and Rosalie Parker continue to impress me with their writing. I’ve also just now started to read Priya Sharma’s All The Fabulous Beasts and hope to get to Lucie McKnight Hardy’s Water Shall Refuse Them very soon, having been gifted it recently. Lastly, Catriona Ward’s, Last House on Needless Street and Alison Moore’s The Retreat both kept me gripped (and mightily unsettled) until the very last page. And still… there are so many books by writers in the genre that I want to read. Oh for more time!

However, being the eclectic reader that I am, I know that horror won’t be the only genre I read – but it is a genre that I now read and appreciate, proof that with a little open-mindedness one can try a new genre and enjoy it. A genre that, as Brian Showers describes, produces a “range of emotions” in the reader; from being unsettled or discomforted to being downright disturbed (or grossed-out).

If however, you think I’ve side-stepped the question of ‘What is Horror?’ (I probably have, haven’t I?), I will leave you two more attempts at an answer. First, an aural and visual answer to what is horror by Imagine Dragons, and second, details about a deliciously unsettling book I’m giving away that features one of my short stories. Enjoy!


Every month I send some goodies to one of my newsletter subscribers. So if you’d like the chance to win the below book, Dreamland: other stories, edited by Sophie Essex, simply add your name and email address to the box right at the bottom of this post. Thanks for reading!

4 thoughts on “What is horror? A few thoughts from someone new to reading horror.”

    1. Teika Marija Smits

      Oh yes, of course! I know you’re a subscriber to my newsletter so I’ll definitely put your name in the hat. Thanks for your interest. 🙂

  1. Interesting. I struggle with horror movies, too. Not so much with the blood and gore and more with the psychological. Especially when people are seeing something (threatening) that others can’t see, and thus can’t help with.
    Through workshop(s) by Alex Davis I started a reading a bit into the genre, though. I don’t quite dare going anywhere beyond short stories, and at a slow pace, but found some really interesting gems, too. Especially where there is magic involved, too. – I might give your book a try. I don’t mind paying for it, though, so I’ll just head to Black Shucks Books and see where it takes me 🙂
    The Imagine dragons is an interesting video indeed, thanks for sharing. Where things are almost human, I think, that’s where it’s getting spooky, at least for me. The scarecrow, that guy with too long legs and joints in arms where they shouldn’t be. And that’s where maybe the crossover with science fiction lies? Aliens that are almost human, and yet would never be confused with one would be frightening I suppose. Or, to say it with words like Lovecraft: when the angles and the geometry is all wrong, but in a way that’s hard to put a finger on. That’s where it’s getting uncanny…

    1. Teika Marija Smits

      It’s certainly interesting to me how different people find different things scary. And I do hope you buy a copy of ‘Dreamland’ – I think you would enjoy it, because the stories are all different in texture and tone. As you said, reading short stories are a great way to learn about a genre, and a well-crafted one can be particularly memorable.

      I’m glad you watched the video, it’s such a quick and visually effective way of introducing the many tropes of the genre – from the scarecrow and house to the maggots on the rotting food and the masked children. All elements of the genre. And thanks for reading!

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