August 01, 2006

What's in a Name?

by Alan Beatts

Horror is typically considered a genre of fiction in much the same way as science fiction or mystery.  At Borderlands Books we describe our stock as "science fiction, fantasy and horror," a decision that I made over nine years ago when the store opened.  It was based on the way that I perceived the position of horror relative to other fiction genres.

However, while considering the horror genre for this article I looked at some phenomena that caused me to question my definition of horror and its place relative to other fiction genres.  A common (and wildly inaccurate) way that we explain our sections at Borderlands is thus, "If the story takes place on a space ship, it's SF. If it's about a vampire, it's horror.  And if there's a vampire on a space ship, it's still horror."  But vampires are no longer the sole property of horror.  They appear in fantasy, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and other less defined genres and sub-genres.  Granted, some of these genres and sub-genres are merely the creation of marketing departments.  But, the fact remains that there are plenty of works that feature vampires but which really don't fall within what could even be loosely called "horror".
It would be reasonable at this point to define what "horror" means.  But, right now, those waters are too deep and far too full of bigger fish than I for the prospect of diving in to have any appeal.   However, I will define what I believe is not horror – fiction that lacks any attempt on the part of the writer to scare, disturb, or invoke fear in the reader and also fails to accomplish any of these things for the reader could safely be considered "not-horror".  Furthermore, there are works in which the main focus is not to invoke fear or horror, though they may do so in some or even many readers.  I would say these works, though perhaps failing to qualify as "not-horror", are still not in the same class as a work in which one of the primary goals is to frighten the reader.

If vampires (not to mention werewolves, ghosts, and all sorts of other supernatural beasties) can feature in fiction that is "not-horror" then they can't really be considered the sole property of the horror genre. And, conversely, the presence of a vampire is not a sure test of whether a piece of fiction is horror.  So, obviously I need to reconsider our shelving rules.  But, darn it, all the fiction with vampires in it really belongs in the same section, if for no other reason than because people who want to read about vampires will buy books which are meant to be scary as well as books that aren't.  Likewise, the books with werewolves and ghosts and things-under-the-bed all belong in the same place too because they appeal to the same group of readers; and that group is typically not interested in reading SF or fantasy.

But what is that section called, then, if "horror" really doesn't fit?

And, if horror only encompasses a fraction of the work in that section, then is horror really a genre on par with fantasy, westerns, science fiction, mystery, and so on?  I'm starting to think that it isn't.  Perhaps Horror is actually a sub-genre that appears within other, larger genres like SF (for example, Ellison's "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream"), mystery (Harris' Red Dragon), and fantasy (Gaiman's Sandman series)?

Furthermore, if one considers horror as a sub-genre it goes a long way towards explaining the boom-and-bust cycle in sales over the past 20 to 25 years.  Other fiction genres tend to have relatively stable sales.  There may be modest swings up and down or there may be slow ebbs and swells but the movements are either small or spread out over considerable time.  This is probably due to the range of material within the genres.  There may be popular trends (like "cyberpunk" in SF in the 80s or the current crop of "post-singularity" SF) that spend their time on top and then slide, sometimes quite quickly, into cliché but the genre overall is relatively stable due to its diversity.  Horror, however, has had an extreme cycle going from hugely popular and profitable in the 80s to profoundly impoverished in the 90s (so much so that it almost vanished except for best-selling authors and the small press) and now it seems to be making a comeback.  But if one takes a step back and considers all fiction that falls into the vampire, ghost, and demon genre, the sales and popularity are much more stable.

If horror is not a genre but a sub-genre, then to what genre do the vampires, ghosts, and demons belong?

We're in the process of changing the logo at Borderlands.  I'm very seriously considering changing our tag-line as well - "Welcome to Borderlands -- San Francisco's home for Science Fiction, Fantasy and the Supernatural."

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