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  • Writer's pictureStuart Wakefield

A Closer Look at the Horror Genre


I still feel bad about missing horror from my last article's list of literary genres. Because of that, I'm making it the first in line for my closer looks at each literary genre.

(So don't come at me, okay?)

Many of us have grown up with a love for the horror genre, whether it's through movies, television, or books. Horror has the ability to captivate our imaginations and transport us to a world filled with thrills and chills. We’re drawn to the suspense and unknowns that await us either on the next frame or on the next page.

Horror in literature is defined as a genre of fiction that should scare, unsettle, or—you guessed it—horrify its readers. It often involves a protagonist who faces supernatural or frightening events, along with real-life situations that test their courage and knowledge. Horror novels often explore themes such as death, violence, the supernatural, and psychological terror. Fans of horror novels expect certain elements to be present, such as a protagonist who faces a dangerous situation, an antagonist with a sinister motivation, and a setting that amplifies that fear and suspense.

For centuries, authors have been exploring the horror genre in literature. From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Stephen King's The Shining, these books have become classics and have left an indelible mark on the literary world. Whether it's through the exploration of the unknown, or the unraveling of supernatural mysteries, horror can captivate us. It can take us on a journey of fear and fascination, as we follow along with a protagonist's journey through the darkness and what lies beyond.

In this article, I'll look at horror's history, horror's sub-genres, and my top 10 horror novels.

Settle in and get ready to explore the dark corners of... well... pretty much everything.

The History of Horror Fiction

The history of horror fiction is long and fascinating. The roots of the genre can be traced back to some of the earliest forms of literature, including folktales, myths, and legends from cultures around the world. These ancient tales often revolved around supernatural creatures such as ghosts, witches, and monsters, and featured elements of surprise and dread. One of the earliest known works of horror fiction is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian epic poem that dates back to at least 2000 BCE. The epic features multiple supernatural creatures and events, including a man-eating monster called Humbaba.

Horror fiction took a more recognisable form during the medieval period, when authors wrote about the terrors of hell and the supernatural forces of evil. One of the most influential authors of the period was Dante Alighieri, whose 14th century epic poem, The Divine Comedy, tells the story of a man’s journey through the nine circles of hell. It was during this period that horror fiction began to incorporate elements of the Gothic style, with its dark and eerie settings, its themes of death, and its focus on the macabre.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of horror as a distinct genre. Authors such as Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe popularised the genre with works such as Frankenstein and The Raven. During this period, horror fiction began to take on more of an existential focus, exploring themes such as the horrors of societal norms and the power of imagination. It was also during this period that the horror trope of the “monster” began to emerge, with characters such as vampires, werewolves, and ghosts becoming more common.

The 20th century saw a surge in the popularity of the horror genre. Writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King became household names and their works were widely read and inspired, or were adapted for, movies. This period also saw the emergence of the slasher sub-genre, which focused on the terror of characters being stalked and killed by an unstoppable killer. Movies such as Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street kick-started the genre, which has since become one of the most popular horror sub-genres.

In recent years, the horror genre has become increasingly diverse, with authors exploring new and unique ideas within the genre. One of the most popular contemporary horror genres is the “horror-comedy”, which combines elements of both horror and comedy (no surprises there, right?). Other popular contemporary horror genres include paranormal, psychological, body horror, and splatterpunk.

While the genre may have its roots in the macabre and the supernatural, contemporary horror fiction often goes beyond the traditional tropes and instead explores more modern themes and ideas. No matter what your preference, there’s something for everyone in the world of horror fiction.

Horror's Sub-Genres

On this list, I'm going to reference horror novels and movies. In my experience, there's more chance people will have seen, or be aware of, horror movies.

If you read these books, results may vary.

Gothic Horror

Gothic horror focuses on atmosphere and psychological elements, often involving supernatural elements and taking place in dark, foreboding settings such as old castles, graveyards and haunted mansions. Examples include The Castle of Otranto and Dracula.

Psychological Horror

Psychological horror focuses on psychological disturbances and the human mind, often involving elements of paranoia and insanity. Examples include The Shining and Silence of the Lambs.

Supernatural Horror

Supernatural horror relies on supernatural elements such as ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches and magic. Examples include The Conjuring and Poltergeist.

Slasher Horror

Slasher horror focuses on violent, often grisly, physical violence, usually featuring a serial killer as the antagonist. Examples include Halloween, Friday the 13th, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Survival Horror

Survival horror focuses on a protagonist in the face of danger and horror. Examples include The Hunger, The Ruins, and The Mist.

Splatter Horror

Splatter horror focuses on intense graphic violence, often featuring extreme gore and violence. Examples include Hostel, Saw, The Killing Kind, and Martyrs. (I've never actually finished Martyrs - it's too much for me.)

Monster Horror

Monster horror focuses on monstrous creatures and often involves elements of science fiction and fantasy. Examples include Alien, The Thing, and It.

Environmental Horror

Environmental horror focuses on the environment, the effects of humanity on the environment, and the consequences of humanity’s actions. Examples include The Day After Tomorrow, The Happening, and The Hungry Earth.

Body Horror

Body horror focuses on the body and its transformation, often featuring elements of physical mutation, disease and decay. Examples include The Fly, Society, and The Cipher.

Apocalyptic Horror

Apocalyptic horror focuses on the end of the world, often resulting from an event such as a zombie apocalypse or alien invasion. Examples include The Stand, I Am Legend, and Dawn of the Dead.

My Top 10 Horror Novels

1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who, in a fit of ambition, creates a creature out of dead body parts. The creature, his creation, soon reveals itself to be a "horrible monster", but if you look at it from the creature's point-of-view, it's not at all. Frankenstein is considered one of the earliest works of science fiction. It's also Gothic horror, a tragic romance and a parable, and its impact on the horror genre has been immense. It has inspired countless adaptations and retellings, cementing the creature's place in horror culture. Its two central tragedies—overreaching and the dangers of 'playing God', the other of parental abandonment and societal rejection—are as relevant today as ever.

2. Dracula by Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker's Dracula tells the story of the enigmatic Count Dracula and his bloodthirsty quest for immortality. Rich with folklore and superstition, Stoker's work inspired generations of writers with its atmosphere of dread and its themes of repressed sexuality. The novel’s influence on horror can be seen in everything from vampire fiction to the modern Gothic horror genre.

3. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist tells the story of a young girl possessed by a demonic force. The novel, which drew heavily on Catholic theology, was hugely successful and spawned a classic film adaptation in 1973. Blatty’s work set a new standard for horror, one that focused on a story of evil versus faith and tested traditional boundaries between good and evil, right and wrong.

4. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House is a classic ghost story by Shirley Jackson, and one I read every year. It tells the story of four people who stay a mysterious and supposedly haunted house. Jackson’s exploration of the psychological horror of the unknown made it one of the most influential works of horror literature, and its legacy can be seen in the countless adaptations and imitations it has inspired. This is my favourite horror novel, and I read it every year.

5. Psycho by Robert Bloch

Psycho is Robert Bloch's novel about the disturbed Norman Bates and his horrific relationship with his mother. Bloch drew inspiration from the real-life serial killer Ed Gein to create his iconic villain, and helped to shape the slasher genre. Psycho’s influence on horror can be seen in everything from Halloween to its numerous film adaptations.

6. The Shining by Stephen King

The Shining is Stephen King's novel about the Torrance family, who are driven to madness by the evil forces inhabiting the isolated Overlook Hotel. King's exploration of the supernatural, his ability to make the mundane seem terrifying, and his memorable characters all contributed to making The Shining one of the most beloved works of horror fiction.

7. Hell House by Richard Matheson

Hell House tells the story of a group of people who are invited to investigate the possibility of life after death - and all in one week. Matheson's exploration of fear and the supernatural, along with his unique atmosphere of dread, made Hell House one of the most influential works of horror fiction.

8. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Another one from Stephen King, Salem’s Lot tells the story of a small town overrun by a mysterious force. King's blend of horror and drama, along with his vivid characters and heart-pounding suspense, made it another influential works of horror fiction.

9. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Rosemary's Baby is Ira Levin's novel about a young couple who become involved in a dangerous supernatural plot. Levin's exploration of paranoia and the struggle between good and evil, as well as his iconic characters and vivid storytelling, made Rosemary's Baby one of the greats.

10. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson

The Amityville Horror is Jay Anson's classic novel about a family who moves into a house beset by a supernatural force. Anson's exploration of the power of fear and the encroachment of evil, as well as its unforgettable characters, made The Amityville Horror one of the most successful works of horror fiction.

These are just a few of my greatest horror novels of all time, and there are countless others that could be added to the list. However, these novels stand out as some of the most influential and important works in the horror genre, and they remain timeless classics that continue to thrill and terrify me to this day.

Final Thoughts

No matter the era, horror has been and will continue to be one of the most beloved and enduring genres of literature and film. It has given us some of the most memorable and unforgettable characters and stories of terror, suspense, and terror-filled suspense. It’s fascinating to see how horror has evolved over the centuries, from myths and folktales to modern day slasher films, supernatural horror, and psychological horror. Whether you’re a fan of classic horror or modern day horror, there’s no denying that horror has left its mark on our culture, and will continue to do so for years to come.

When it comes to horror novels (or films!) let me know your recommendations.


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