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Crossing Horror: Using Horror in Other Genres

By G. W. Thomas


Horror, unlike other genres, can often be found in any story. One of my favorite horror scenes is in the children's novel Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. David Balfour has come to live with his miserly uncle, Ebenezer. His relative sends him to the bedroom up in the tower. Balfour has no light as he makes his way up the crumbling staircase. A chance flash of lightning illuminates the scene, reveling that the staircase ends suddenly, presenting the opportunity for a nasty fall. The magic of that scene for the horror writer is two-fold. First there is the obvious physical danger. A few more inches and Balfour would have died horribly. The second thrill in that chapter is realizing how dastardly his uncle is, a villain worthy of such horrific intent. You will find horror tidbits in most genres. There is only one exception, stories for very young children. (Despite this, I often marvel at the horror story construction of Robert Munsch's The Mud Puddle.)


The mystery tale often contains horror elements. Edgar Allan Poe was the master who invented one and revolutionized the other. The first mystery was Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), which appeared to be a supernatural killing but turned out to have a more down-to-earth cause. The early Gothic stories before Poe were a bizarre mixture of both horror and mystery, since their purpose was to create an emotional response. Poe found a way to capture that same feel without the ludicrous plotlines.


The classic Hound of the Baskervilles is a good example of a detective story that is a mystery but sprinkled with horror bits. This tale and others continued Poe's tradition of the mystery-horror hybrid, the "fake monster" story, which has degenerated into "Scooby Doo" in recent years. A modern offshoot is the serial killer novel, which remains within the realms of reality but provides thrills with the seemingly super-powered lunatics.


Mystery works well with horror because both use the unknown. The unknown can be either intriguing (you feel no threat but are curious) or frightening (a threat unseen looms over you). The mystery uses the unknown in locked room mysteries, for instance. The reader goes, "Hey, that's impossible." The writer then proves it is not. The horror writer uses the unknown to create mental images that frighten. He or she is under no requirement to explain how it is possible; in fact, doing so will usually ruin the effect. This was a major failing of the Gothic school under Ann Radcliffe. An explanation of the mysterious noises or ghostly shapes would come at the end no matter how ridiculous the explanation.


A true horror-mystery is possible. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For the very first readers the story was both mystery ("Who is Mr. Hyde?") and horror tale ("Oh, Dr. Jekyll is Mr. Hyde!"). Today the revelation is so well known that it is enjoyed as a horror tale alone. Like an M. Night Shyamalan film, you'd rather not know before you begin. The mysterious elements are part of the package.


Science fiction has plenty of horror too, especially in the movies. The very successful "Alien" series wed the two genres for four films. In fiction, the best example is perhaps John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" filmed as "The Thing," in which a group of men uncover a shape-shifting alien in the Antarctic ice. The monster's ability to copy anyone builds paranoia and fear into the story. This same sense of jeopardy can be found in The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney.


Science fiction is filled with new and unusual creatures. Some are aliens, other robots or androids. These creatures can produce a number of responses. If they are harmless, they may be interesting. If they are dangerous, they may create suspense in an adventure story sense. If they are insidious, with evil intentions, they can then create horror. Aliens invading Earth is an old theme, but different writers have handled it in different ways. Wells did it first with his Martians in The War of the Worlds. Their superior technology is frightening but it is the scene where the Martians are taking human blood and injecting it directly into their veins that is most creepy.


The weird western is older than some think. Weird Tales published "A Werewolf Western" in September 1942. DC Comics brought the sub-genre to comics with the character of Jonah Hex in 1972. Most recently, horror writers like Joe R. Lansdale and Stephen King have brought the horror western up to modern standards. Unlike many other cross-genre tales, the weird western uses both elements but with very little loss of distinction. The western setting is decidedly "western" and the horror elements are obviously "horror." It would be possible to do a horror tale set in 1940s Texas or 1876 Mexico and still call it a "weird western." An adventure tale set in the Amazon jungle could be a horror tale but it would not be a weird western simply because it lacks the "western" genre staples like the gunfighter, the sheriff, cattle barons, etc. The weird western is a horror tale with a specific historical context, making it unlike all the other crosses discussed here.


Horror-fantasy was created by Robert E. Howard when he married sword-swinging adventure to the evil background of the Cthulhu Mythos in 1928. His later stories feature the famous Conan the Cimmerian, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger on film. The resulting synthesis was termed sword and sorcery by Fritz Leiber, who went on to pen some great stories too. It is easier to see the fantasy-horror mixture when looking at the film version of The Lord of the Rings, fantasy's greatest epic. Since the trilogy contained so many horror elements, Peter Jackson, a horror director, was chosen for the job.


There are a few fantasy tales that sit in both genres without taking Robert E. Howard's approach. These include stories like Arthur Machen's "The White People," which shows a weird landscape but ends like traditional horror. "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" by Lord Dunsany is almost more of a nasty parody of vanilla fantasy, a style of fantasy featuring nice unicorns and pretty princesses. The Dreamlands tales by H. P. Lovecraft also blend the two genres as per Dunsany. Lovecraft's masterwork is The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, a journey across the Dreamlands that includes battles between ghouls and ghasts, the terrifying gugs, and the final search for Kadath, home of the Mythos gods.


The horror-romance, better known as paranormal romance, is a tale of romantic involvement between two people either of a supernatural or paranormal nature, or those under attack by such. I'd like to say this is a new genre but it has existed from the beginning of the horror genre as literature. The Gothic tales of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe were romances in the melodramatic mold. Romance was present in Dracula, both in the machinations of the Count to acquire Mina Harker and in the relationship of Jonathan and his wife. It's a supernatural love triangle. Modern best-selling versions of these kinds of tales include the suspense/horror of Dean R. Koontz.


This piece has not discussed mainstream fiction. As with my opening example, it is possible to add a scene of horror to a non-genre book. If the writer is doing a story that involves political unrest, the drug scene or other violent situations, much horror may be part and parcel of the setting. These horrific images do not change the genre to which the work belongs. Horror fiction is not just mainstream fiction with scary bits. Horror fiction serves another purpose, to frighten you in an enjoyable way. As Lovecraft pointed out in his essay "The Supernatural Horror in Literature," if horror fiction doesn't do this then it has failed, no matter how well-drawn the characters or background or how exciting the plot. Horror must give you that pleasurable little chill down your spine.


Some considerations for the writer of cross-genre tales include the following:


1.      Will the combination of genres add something to the story?


The combined genres should be greater than a horror piece without the additional material. The second genre should allow the writer to explore some new territory not possible with only one genre. The Hound of the Baskervilles could have been done without the phantom hound but it is much moodier (and fun to read) with its eldritch elements. Wuthering Heights could have been a straight romantic tale but the dark features build the tension in a way that is the reverse of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, where those same elements are satirized.


2.      Can the author blend the two genres in a sustainable way?


A splatterpunk fantasy tale may not work beyond a short, satiric sketch. If the author spends all his time describing the intestines of slaughtered orcs and elves, the reader may not be able to keep the imagined fantasy world in focus. The over-the-top gore (the point of some horror fiction) disturbs the reader's willing-suspension of disbelief necessary to make the fantasy elements work. A serial killer wandering through a Tolkienesque landscape has very few places to go. While some characters might be hinted to be doing acts of terrible evil, the reader may not want to see these cataloged.


Tolkien is careful to focus on the good characters that offer hope in a world that is becoming increasingly dire. We can vaguely imagine the tortures that Gollum is put to in the Dark Tower, but who would want to read chapter after chapter about it? It is the plot that is interesting, not the violence and sadness. Horror needs likeable characters to resonant inside us. Serial killers, evil lords, and madmen lack our sympathy.


3.      Which genre will take preference if a balance is not possible?


The Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney is first and foremost a horror tale. The science fiction in it is used as a buttress to make the aliens plausible. The story could work without science. The body snatchers could be demons or ghosts. This same novel done as a straight science fiction tale would tell about the aliens' life on their planet and how they traveled to Earth before assimilating the indigenous life forms (us!) Such a tale might not frighten but show an alien creature in a naturalistic way.


4.      Is the mixed genre story marketable?


Sometimes the combined power of two genres makes for instant classics such as Frederick Pohl's "Day Million" which is both a weird science fiction story and a love story. The combined energy of the mixture can allow the reader to approach a genre he does not care for in a new way. This can allow the writer to sell the story to a magazine that would not normally publish that type of story. For instance Kim Newman has written a vampire series about Johnny Alucard but unlike horror tales in which the undead frighten, these stories read more like fantasy. "Castle in the Desert: Anno Dracula 1977" appeared on the science fiction website Scifi.com.


Some cross-genre combinations will be a hard sell. Not because they aren't exciting or well written but because no publications exist for that type of story. Anthologies can offer more opportunities. The enterprising author can usually find a home for stories if he's diligent and patient. If the author sells enough stories in his own cross-genre style it may create a new sub-genre of fiction, such as when William Gibson married the hard-boiled detective to science fiction, spawning the cyberpunk movement of science fiction.



G. W. Thomas has sold to more than 350 different publications including The Writer ("Jump-starting Your Creativity"), Writer's Digest ("Writing Role-Playing Games") and Black October Magazine ("The Ghostbreakers"). His website is www.gwthomas.org.




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