What’s in a name?

Hey folks — I’m a new blogger in this group (you can find out more about me under Authors or Books, above), and I’m thinking about just why I’m here.

My first novel, The Well of Sacrifice, was historical fiction. I then wrote several other (unpublished) historical and contemporary fiction novels, without a hint of fantasy in them. I also did some work for hire nonfiction and fictionalized biographies. My first nine published books have no fantasy, science fiction or alternate reality elements. And yet, here I am on a blog about “speculative fiction.”

True, my Haunted series involves a girl who can see ghosts. Technically, the book is a fantasy, or even horror. Yet I never even noticed that I was changing genres, and the editor who acquired it claims he doesn’t like fantasy. I guess we both saw it as more of an action series, which happened to include ghosts.

In 2008, I wrote an article for Children’s Writer on horror and ghost stories. In an interview, Delacorte Editor Krista Marino said, “There really hasn’t been much true horror done for YA, but there’s definitely been a rise in the popularity of thrillers, ghost stories, and stories based on the paranormal.” What defines horror, then?

Agent Ashley Grayson said, “My definition of a horror novel is one where a group of ‘good’ people encounter a malignant entity, whither a ghost, werewolf or psychotic killer. The novel of terror can include the quite different type of story where simple acts of malice by the protagonist or her circle of friends avalanche into worse acts. Fortunately or not, classic monsters like vampires are the new buddies of romantic interests for teens.” So is Twilight a horror novel, because it involves vampires, or a romance? Or a romantic horror?

Scholastic Editor Joshua Glazer noted, “Scary stories are always popular, but not everybody self-identifies as a horror fan. I often encounter people who say ‘I don’t like horror,’ but ask them if they’ve read The Stand or seen The Exorcist, and they’ll answer with an enthusiastic ‘yes.’ Horror also hides in unlikely places. If Beowulf debuted in stores today, it would probably be shelved in the horror section, and the recent mega-properties like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter all contain horrific elements.”

I would say I don’t like horror. I haven’t even read The Stand or seen The Exorcist. And yet, I’m a fan of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, and Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs involves a scary ghost possession. I have even called the Haunted series “horror light,” though it never occurred to me to use the word “horror” as an Amazon tag word. Instead I stuck with terms such as ghost stories, action and spooky.

When you read a novel with ghosts, vampires or werewolves, do you think of it as a horror novel?

Or do you prefer the term paranormal (defined as supernatural or not in accordance with scientific laws, including phenomena such as ghosts, telepathy, UFOs and Bigfoot), or speculative fiction (dealing with a world outside normal life, and generally considered to include science fiction, fantasy, alternate histories and horror)?

On the one hand, maybe it doesn’t matter. Someone can like ghost stories or vampire romances without needing to define them further. But finding the right language could be key in helping readers find the right books. For example, kids who enjoy Goosebumps might look for other “horror” books. And they might enjoy the Haunted series …. So I guess I need to go back and add “horror” to my Amazon tag words, and embrace my status as a horror author!

Chris Eboch with Haunted books

Chris Eboch thinks feeling horrific might not be so bad.

7 Comments

Filed under Chris Eboch

7 responses to “What’s in a name?

  1. Parker Peevyhouse

    I always laugh when people label Twlight as horror simply because it involves vampires. True, there are some gruesome scenes, but the overall feel of the novel is much lighter than horror. Maybe paranormal is a better label.

    And it’s funny to talk about horror for kids, because the phrase conjures images of seven-year-olds watching Stephen King movies. I think that’s why I like the terms “ghost stories” or “scary stories”–but not all “kid horror” involves ghosts.

    So… it’s a tough call whether to label a kids’ book “horror.” I guess I’m not very helpful!

  2. Interesting questions, Chris, especially (to me) since I have a WIP that I think sorta qualifies as YA horror.

    To me, horror has more to do with how the “bad stuff” is treated — tone, premise, even theme — than it does story elements such as ghosts, monsters, etc. And for that reason, I would say what we typically call paranormal and horror are nearly, if not quite, mutually exclusive. Because “paranormal” is almost always accompanied by another, broader adjective — romance, mystery, adventure, even comedy (Ghostbusters?) — that is the more dominant category or genre. I can’t think of a book I’d call “paranormal,” particularly one for kids, that isn’t solidly optimistic and hopeful, whereas I think “horror” labels a much darker view, even if that view ultimately has a spark, or several sparks, of hope (as King’s work does). Or maybe it’s a matter of balance — paranormal is a cup half-full, while horror is a cup half empty?

    The Chocolate War — which has no fantasy element at all — is the children’s book I’ve read that comes to mind first when I consider horror for kids. But then, I don’t think fantasy or paranormal is a requirement for horror at all — I think psychological horror is the worst (best) kind.

  3. Chris Eboch

    Interesting point about horror referring to tone rather than content, Joni.

    I checked Amazon, and they have a category Children’s Books > Series > Horror, which lists Fear Street and Goosebumps. Take out the Series designation, and The Graveyard Book comes up as number one! (Followed mostly by R.L. Stine books.) So some children’s books are being labeled as horror, even though they may be lighter and more optimistic than adult horror.

    How about the movie Gremlins? The main character was a boy, and it is considered basically a kids’ movie, but definitely scary (for its time) and gets the horror label on Internet Movie Database.

    • Hmm, Gremlins. Yeah, would have to say horror, although pretty light/comedic horror.

      I was thinking more about this and I think paranormal is about possibilities (which I perceive as positive, even if the thing or creature or force we’re considering a possibility is a baddie), while horror is about pain and fear and ultimately death — the end of possibilities — and our struggles coming to terms with them. And that seems true to me even if the good guys win in the end in the timeframe of the story, because part of the subtext of horror is that death really does always await just beyond “the end.”

  4. What a great post! I’ve been struggling with this myself as my wip has more horror elements in it than normal (for me). Whereas I enjoy all those books you mention I normally categorize my preferences as “paranormal” Mainly because its the fantasy element that draws me in.

  5. When I was a kid/teen, that’s all I read — Horror. And they were creepy, scary stories. When I think of paranormal, I do think of things like ghosts, ESP, vampires, etc. but they’re not actually creepy — they just have some supernatural elements. So that’s the difference to me.

    But I would love to see more really creepy, dark scary “horror” books in YA.

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