Home > Books, Fiction, Writing, Writing Career > Horror: Fiction’s Dirty Little Secret

Horror: Fiction’s Dirty Little Secret

So when did horror become fiction’s dirty little secret and tawdry, poorly written romance become acceptable?

I remember going to the used bookstore with my mother and bringing home a paper grocery bag of books in preparation for summer vacation and almost eve one of them featuring some leering skull, fierce claws, some lurid, embossed splash of blood speared by a gruesome knife, or some promise of some dark doings scrawled across the bottom of the cover. There were great stacks of books, whole bookcases of them in the store, and it would take me forever to pick which ones were coming with me. I imagine the shop owner would give my mom some strange looks when I checked out with a huge bag of horror fiction, but I don’t remember if that actually happened.

The bookstores in our area were all independent, and before the big chains moved in, they all had proud horror sections rife with thick books brandishing scary titles like scars and covers that would give you chills just to consider what lay between them. They beckoned with long, shining claws and charming grins of gleaming teeth.

Today? To call the horror section in the big box bookstore across the street “thin” would be generous. To say it exists at all in the only other bookstore in the area would be a lie. Horror gets shelved under science fiction or fantasy or shuffled in with all the other fiction. Romance, on the other hand, has a 16+/- foot section.

W. T. F.?

When did horror become such a dirty little secret? Why is a well written horror novel by one of the masters (Richard Matheson, Stephen King, HP Lovecraft) less socially acceptable than the poorly written “romance” clogging up the shelves? Yes, I understand the marketing aspect of it – you give space to what sells, but let’s be honest…the American consumer will buy what you put in front of them. Make it shiny, make it distracting and make it “cool,” and whatever it is you’re pushing will fly off the shelves.

I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why hacks like Nicholas Sparks make millions while much more eloquent and well-written authors get shoved aside because they’re writing about something scary. If it’s acceptable to be scared out of your wits in a movie theater, why is it not acceptable to read about the same thing in a book?

Even talking about horror fiction gets a strange response from many people. As many a writer knows, the first question flung back at you after you confess to writing is “What do you write?” When I admit to scribbling horror, the first thing I usually see is the wrinkling of my conversant’s lips into a sour half-smile, as if they’re trying to ignore the fact they just stepped in poo. Then it generally goes something like:

Them: “You mean like Stephen King?”

Me: “Yup. H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Dean Koontz, even Anne Rice before her ‘Jesus’ book days. You know, scary stuff.” (Big grin) “Fun stuff.”

Them (grimace of something akin to pain): “You write about blood and killing and all that too?”

Me: “When it’s appropriate, but you rarely need to slash and splash to scare someone. You can create monsters, never show them and have people jumping at shadows.”

Them (after a long contemplative pause): “Oh, ok. Have you ever read (insert flavor-of-the-month-writer/book here…ie: Nicholas Sparks, Twilight, etc)?”

Me (grimacing in a mixture of pain and disgust): “Yes, and let me tell you why XXX sucks….”

Maybe I’m just weird because I prefer to play in the shadows with the monsters who live there. That probably is part of it, and when you consider the “normal” people of the world, I can understand. Really. Life is scary enough and the monsters are everywhere you turn, so why would you want to face them when you finally have the time to be alone? Besides, there’s something terribly dangerous about dabbling with the forbidden…

…but it’s also incredibly thrilling. It’s fun to delve that deeply into the human psyche or into taboo subjects that make people uncomfortable, and it’s energizing to challenge them to think about something in a different way.

Granted, not all horror is good. Over the years I’ve read some some that weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. I know I don’t always get a reader to that thinking point with my writing, but that’s my ultimate goal. I believe that any writer in any genre could get there with enough skill and desire to do so and it’s a shame that what is popularized and pushed is relatively brainless and lacking in quality.

I am not maligning all romance, nor am I defending all the other genres; I just feel like picking on the swooning, pouting maidens and the overly muscled heroes flashing The Smolder splashed across the four-foot section of my grocery store, drug store and occupying too much precious space in the bookstore. I’ll even admit to having a couple of torrid romance novels stashed in my bookcase, but they aren’t conventional bodice-rippers that find excuses for rape or the denigration/subjugation of the female lead, either. I know not all romance is crap, but it seems like the label is used to defend against the use of one-dimensional characters, the lack of innovative twists to the story line, or to just slap some poorly written pages of melodrama between two covers and charge $8 a book for it. And they sell. That’s what scares the hell out of me.

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  1. December 8, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    It’s odd. I never really considered Dean Koontz as horror, more paranormal but I suppose that category doesn’t exist in a bookstore.

    …oh and don’t forget one name for bad romance writing: Sherrilyn Kenyon.

    • December 13, 2010 at 10:27 am

      He gets lumped in there more often than not. Depending on the definition used to outline the horror playground, paranormal and such (which scares the bejesus out of a lot of people) is included within the fence line.

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