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October, 2009 : Feature:

At the Mountains of Misperception

Dead Air 1

Hello, and welcome to the inaugural edition of "Dead Air," the Internet Review of Science Fiction's first column dedicated to science fiction and fantasy's sister genre in speculative fiction: horror. I hope you like the title—I thought "Dead Air" might make a nice companion to the name of Kristine Kathryn Rusch's science fiction column, "Signals."

I also thought "Dead Air" was a better choice than the title suggested by my thirteen-year-old cousin with no small amount of excitement a few weeks ago: "Jigsaw's Trap." I bit my tongue and resisted the urge to tell him there was no way I was going to name my column after the increasingly ludicrous, and inexplicably popular, Saw franchise—though I did sigh rather heavily. Oh, horror, you have such a mountain of misperceptions to overcome before everyone will take you seriously.

In a way, that's what this column is about. "Dead Air" is partly a continuation of my previous monthly column, "The State of the Genre," in which I routinely discussed, dissected, and opined about topics and issues arising from the movies, television shows, and books of the horror genre (archives of those columns are available at Fear Zone). Now, after Editor-in-Chief Stacey Janssen's kind invitation to join the IROSF family, I plan on doing much the same here. And what better time to begin than October, the month of my favorite holiday ever, that one day of the year when everyone loves horror?

If "Dead Air" is a continuation of my previous column, which was geared toward a crowd already interested in and knowledgeable about the horror genre, then this new incarnation also serves another purpose: to introduce it to some of you who may not know much about it. I can hardly blame anyone for being unsure what horror is or wondering why anyone would be interested in it. After all, a decades-long avalanche of crappy movies and unreadable novels has buried it beneath the aforementioned mountain of misperceptions.

With "Dead Air," I hope to rectify that situation and show you that horror can be more than the misogynistic slashers or lovingly described gore scenes that so many immediately identify with the genre. Much, much more.

So what is horror? How does one define it as a genre? Ay, there's the rub, as the Danish prince said in one of Shakespeare's best known ghost stories. (I know there's a great deal more to Hamlet than a ghost story, but hey, I'm the horror guy. Maybe that's also why Macbeth is my favorite of the Bard's plays.) The problem with defining horror as a genre is that the term "horror" itself is far more emotion-based than the terms "science fiction" and "fantasy."

In fact, horror (like thriller and romance) is a genre named after an emotional state, so the nearest I can come to a definition is a comparison on an emotional level. In science fiction and fantasy, the revelation of the unknown is greeted with a sense of wonder—the limitless potential of the vast expanse of space; the beauty of a magical realm hidden behind the door of a seemingly ordinary wardrobe. (Overly simplistic, I know, but bear with me.)

By contrast, the revelation of the unknown in horror is greeted with a sense not of wonder, but of terror—"Holy smokes, that giant, tentacled thing that just came out of the basement is going to eat me!" or, "Cripes, there's a stranger coming toward me with what looks like an axe and my car won't start!" The second example is where definitions get really sticky. While the horror genre centers on the fear of the unknown—often in the form of the fear of death—it doesn't always involve the supernatural. As a form of speculative fiction not necessarily required to include a speculative element, horror makes itself even more difficult to define.

Clearly I needed help in this endeavor, and to that end I asked one of the preeminent literary critics in the field, Jack M. Haringa, co-editor with S.T. Joshi of the International Horror Guild Award-nominated horror review journal Dead Reckonings, to define the genre for us and take us through some of its nuances.

Almost ten years ago, I wrote a lengthy (20-odd pages) academic article attempting to define horror as a genre of literature, so looking at a question like this is a little daunting, but I'll attempt brevity. Horror has at its core a violation of reality, an abnormality, that through the characters or narrative style is signified to the reader as inherently wrong. This can be the wrongness of the haunted house, the psychotic killer, the monstrous mutation, what have you.

Generally speaking, horror stories work under the assumption that the rules of empirical reality (both physical norms and psychological norms) in the text are essentially the same as those outside the text, in the reader's world. When a transgression of those norms or rules occurs, it is met by characters and readers alike as terrible. This is a very simplified version of the definition that leaves out a number of other elements, but I think it strikes to the core of the genre.

But how, I asked, does horror differ from science fiction or fantasy—or even thrillers—when such vast gray areas seem to exist between these genres?

[Horror] is significantly different from fantasy, where the breaking of 'real-world' norms is acceptable, sometimes welcome, sometimes an inherent part of the 'reality' of the story. Rather than viewed as aberrant or horrible, these events often provoke wonder. Science fiction and fantasy can certainly incorporate horror, but it doesn't seem to me that they strive for the same effect. However, I'd argue that science fiction and horror, because they have different core definitions, can co-exist more effectively: horror may erupt in a science-fictional setting, and a horror story can integrate elements of science fiction such as extrapolated social or technological trends.

The thriller is more difficult to differentiate from the horror story, in no small part because the former is even more a publishing category rather than a genre than the latter. As publishers have moved away from marketing books as 'horror' novels, they've frequently chosen to put the word 'thriller' on the spine. I think in the broad public perception, a thriller usually doesn't involve the supernatural, seeks and finds a rational explanation—and solution—for the threat to the characters (or the world) in the novel. Thrillers also tend to be characterized by eventful plots and rely less on atmosphere constructed from setting and mood. But certainly atmospheric horror novels—Sarah Langan's marvelous The Keeper or Michael Marshall's recent Bad Things, for example—are marketed as thrillers. So the line is very blurry for the bookstore browser.

Yet if there's one thing Haringa loves about the horror genre, it's the very fact that it's so tremendously expansive that it can't be easily classified.

Its forms can be used to address a limitless number of themes, from enormous questions of man's cosmic significance to intimate concerns of family and relationships. The metaphors of horror are endlessly malleable, and writers have a long, varied, and rich tradition from which to draw inspiration. I would argue, too, that the best writers of horror right now are as good as anyone writing outside the genre today. While horror still remains at the fringe of critical respectability, due in large part to the memory of so many awful books published during the glut years and to the persistent influence of bad film and television on the genre's perception, it also continues to hold a fascination for writers that attracts the skilled and the subtle to work with (and play with) its conventions and concepts.

And that, he says, is exactly what some of the best writers in the field are doing right now, authors he feels may not be widely known outside of the core horror audience yet, but deserve to be.

There are a lot of terrific voices in contemporary horror. If readers of IROSF are also readers of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, they've likely encountered stories by John Langan and Laird Barron, two of the strongest writers to emerge in the last few years. Both have released collections, and Langan's first novel, House of Windows, just came out from Night Shade Books. ChiZine Publications recently published Horror Story and Other Horror Stories by Robert Boyczuk, which impressed me. Not quite as new but possibly flying just as far beneath the radar is Glen Hirshberg, the author of one novel and two collections thus far.

A number of talented authors [emerging internationally] are making their way onto U.S. bookshelves of late. From the U.K., Conrad Williams, Simon Bestwick, and Nicholas Royle, all of whom have at one point or another been published by Peter Crowther's excellent PS Publishing. From Australia, there's Margo Lanagan and Terry Dowling, two very different but effective writers, particularly in the short form. And I'd also point to Yoko Ogawa's The Diving Pool and Otsuichi's Zoo, both collections, from Japan. This is really just scratching the surface—there's so much good new work being produced, it almost makes me forget about the genre's failings.

My conversation with Jack M. Haringa covers quite a bit of ground and continues in next month's column, where we discuss trends in horror, those genre failings mentioned above, and where the two intersect.

Until then, here's wishing you and yours a safe and happy—and spooky—Halloween!

Copyright © 2009, Nicholas Kaufmann. All Rights Reserved.

About Nicholas Kaufmann

Nicholas Kaufmann is an author, reviewer, interviewer and columnist living in Brooklyn, NY. His novella General Slocum's Gold was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, and his most recent book, Chasing the Dragon, will be available in paperback from ChiZine Publications in March. For more regular doses of Kaufmannia, visit his blog at or his website at


Oct 8, 07:06 by IROSF
Comment below!
Oct 8, 14:49 by Daniel M. Kimmel
Interesting. As someone teaches film genre I know the line between SF and horror can get blurry, as with David Cronenberg's masterpiece "The Fly." I'm not a big reader in the genre but will follow favored authors (Dan Simmons, John Shirley) into it. I look forward to you casting a spotlight on the field.
Oct 8, 15:04 by Nicholas Kaufmann
Thanks, Daniel! The line between horror and many genres is pretty blurry. I like to point to the film adaptation of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS as a good example of this. On the surface it's clearly a police procedural, but the atmosphere of dread and the chills it provokes (in me, at least) give me no qualms about labeling it a horror movie too. (The novel is a different matter for me. It reads much more like a procedural and doesn't evoke the kind of chills that the film does. Interestingly, the opposite happens with Harris' previous novel RED DRAGON. The film--MANHUNTER--plays like a straight up procedural, but the novel is terrifying!)
Oct 8, 15:39 by Nick Mamatas
I would say that horror is sufficiently capacious that the question of a line is often immaterial. The Fly is SF and it is horror in a way, that say, the extremely terrifying Nineteen Eighty-Four isn't. Sometimes it's a matter of sensibility.
Oct 8, 16:54 by Nicholas Kaufmann
Absolutely, Nick. That's an excellent point.
Oct 8, 16:55 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I am excited to see a regular column on horror. After the 'boom' of the late seventies and eighties, horror seemed to be defined by a handful of authors (King, Rice, Koontz) when the astute reader knew there was so much more. I am glad that there will be an opportunity for the wider spec-fic audience to become more familiar with horror.

On a side note, Simmons' The Terror is probably the finest horror novel I have read in years and Conrad William's The Unblemished (which I am currently reading) is giving me more chills than King et al ever did.

Again, three hurrays for Dead Air!
Oct 8, 17:17 by Nicholas Kaufmann
Dafydd, can you believe I haven't read THE TERROR or THE UNBLEMISHED yet? I'm entering a shame spiral even as I type this! I have copies of both, though, and hope to get to them soon.

Anyway, thanks for weighing in, and I hope you will enjoy Dead Air!
Oct 8, 18:12 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
The Terror has a special place in my heart; growing up in Canada, the Franklin Expedition was unavoidable and it remains one of the great mysteries (even though we know that they all died). It is itself full of horror (the HMS Terror floated for several years through the Arctic completely without crew!) and makes a perfect setting for Simmons' particular brand of horror (and if Tim Powers wrote horror, I have no doubt that he would have made great use of it). Having seen much of the Canadian High Arctic I can tell you that either Simmons toured the region extensively or he has the world's best imagination for landscape for he has captured the vistas of the north in perfection. This is a must read, and barring my reading of Drood I would say that it is his best novel; even better than The Hyperion Cantos.

The Unblemished is horrible, really, really, really horrible; by which I mean it is magnificent. I am reading it slowly, savouring the blend of unreality, gritty urbanism and out-right awfulness. If you like horror (and I mean really like it) you simply must read The Unblemished. The prologue alone might just give you nightmares.

I am certain that I will love your new column and I expect to spill lots of pixels on the forums.
Oct 10, 23:44 by Lois Tilton
This is an oversimplification, but if genres defined by their subject matter, such as fantasy and its subset SF, are on a vertical axis, horror can be seen as lying on a horizontal axis, that of affect or emotion.

So that some works of fantasy intersect the horrific axis, others the weird axis, others the wondrous axis of affect.

Likewise, some works on the horrific axis intersect the fantastic subject matter, others the mundane, others the action/adventure.

Or so I see it.

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