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Dirty little secrets

Those of you not in the horror-book biz (which I suspect is most of you) may be surprised to learn that February is Women in Horror Month, in an attempt to boost awareness of all the kickass women who are writing dark fiction. Not because they’re women, but because they write great, eerie books, books that are oftentimes overlooked because the authors don’t have the same equipment as a certain Mr. King.

But, that being said, this isn’t a post to beat you over the head with pleas for equality and justice. I suspect you get enough of that already. It’s just that I keep hearing the same misconceptions about horror, so I thought it was time to let you in on a few closely guarded secrets.

Gone Girl is a horror novel

Yes, it is–don’t argue with me. All the critical elements are there, including the blood, for those who think horror must include blood (not true, by the way). Have you read this book? Dark, dark, dark, all the way to the hopeless ending. “But J.H., it’s a thriller! It says so right here.” Of course it does. That’s because it was marketed as a thriller. You know why? In spite of the success of Stranger Things, Get Out, and Hereditary, the publishing industry continues to believe horror doesn’t sell (unless your last name is King). But trust me, that bitch is horror, all the way. And Karin Slaughter’s books? Holy horror, Batman! A rose by any other name is still a rose.

I was at a writers’ conference with medical thriller writer Tess Gerritsen recently, and she started describing one of her books. As she talked about this mysterious piece of violin music the protagonist purchased from a creepy antique store in Venice, and how, when played, the music made children go mad, kill animals, and attack their mothers, I knew exactly what rose I was smelling. I went up to her later: “A lot of your books sound like horror,” I said. She smiled and admitted there were quite a few commonalities, but they “aren’t marketed that way.” So, to all of you “I don’t like horror” folks, you probably do. You’re probably already reading it. It’s just not marketed that way.

Horror does not equal blood

Horror explores the darkness of the human psyche. The potential future consequences of our thoughtless actions. The longing for something that can never be. It’s not a trashy romp through blood and gore, but thanks to the slasher flicks of the ’80s, the torture porn of the early 2000s, and those horrible, cheesy covers with blood-dripping letters and glowing red eyes, horror is often synonymous with gore. And trash. Trashy gore. To be fair, some of it is trashy gore. But a lot of it is insightful, powerful stuff. Bird Box. Rebecca. The Woman in Black. The Road. By painting the entire genre with the same gory brush, you’re missing out on a lot of awesome books.

Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson do not need your endorsement

Sure, Shelley and Jackson were awesome. You know what? They’re also dead. So celebrating women in horror in February (or any time of year) by saying you love Frankenstein or The Haunting of Hill House isn’t doing anybody any favours. Shelley and Jackson are not going to benefit from your signal boost. You know who will? Living writers, like Catherine Cavendish, Somer Canon, Lee Murray, Caryn Larrinaga, Theresa Braun, and Tamara Jones. Never hear of ’em? That’s because people won’t stop talking about Shelley and Jackson.

My vagina does not write books

While talented, that’s not a trick it’s managed to master. So if you enjoy my writing, why qualify it with the word female? Trust me, my genitalia had nothing to do it. I don’t have to be your “favourite female horror author,” “a great female suspense writer,” or even “one of the best female authors” you’ve read. Just call me an author, please–of any genre. Otherwise, it sounds like I couldn’t live up to the exalted dudes and needed a lesser category all my own.

I hope I’ve managed to clear up a few misconceptions about the horror genre. True crime, thrillers, certain mysteries, supernatural suspense–they’re all sides of the same dark, twisted coin. If you’d like to clear up some misconceptions of your own, or–better yet–give a shout out to your favourite author of dark fiction (who just happens to have different equipment than Mr. King), please do.

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39 Comments

  1. Avatar

    That last one made me chuckle.
    Horror is all about suspense, so many thrillers qualify. That’s why they are thrilling.

    Reply
    • JH

      True, Alex. I just wish more people realized horror doesn’t have to be about blood and gore. It doesn’t even have to be thrilling. There is such a thing as “quiet horror,” which is a slower build.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    I feel like I’ve been missing out as I’ve never read Gone Girl. Interesting how books are marketed as something other than horror.

    Reply
    • JH

      A lot of the big thriller successes are horror, and will be continued to be marketed as thrillers until the tide shifts.

      Love it or hate it, Gone Girl blazed a new trail. It’s well worth a read.

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    My son gave me Gone Girl for Christmas last year because it was a book he couldn’t put down. You are so right on all accounts! I didn’t think I was a horror reader until I started following you. Now, I know better. Great post!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks Mary, but most of my books are suspense rather than horror. Every time I read a review where someone complains that the book didn’t terrify them, I roll my eyes. It wasn’t supposed to.

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    Thank you for the mention, J.H. Interestingly, I have been having similar conversations with fellow horror writers who happen to be female as well as those who happen to be male. The consensus is that there are plenty of writers out there whose work isn’t marketed as horror but whose stories contain all – or at least most – of the elements that define a horror novel. You won’t find their novels on the ‘Horror’ shelf in the bookstores though. They will be under ‘Crime’, ‘Historical fiction’, ‘Thrillers’, Literary fiction’ et al. So, I totally agree. It’s all about the way they are marketed.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, there’s still a strong perception that horror doesn’t sell. I hope that changes.

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    I enjoyed your article, especially the bit about how a lot of books out there are in fact horror novels, just not marketed that way. For Women in Horror Month, I’ve mentioned several times the novel Bailey’s Cafe, by Gloria Naylor. Sadly, she has passed on, but I’ve long felt Bailey’s Cafe should be listed and promoted as one of the finest horror novels of the Twentieth Century. It’s dark, bloody in places (though not gory), and filled with intertwining stories of people whose lives are tragic and tinged with real horror. But of course, it’s not fashionable to class a piece of ‘literature’ as horror, and the powers that be would probably cringe at my regarding Bailey’s Cafe as a horror novel. But it should be.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for the insightful comment, S.D., and welcome! While Bailey’s Cafe sounds familiar, I’ve never read it. Your endorsement has definitely made me curious. I’ll check it out.

      Reply
  6. Avatar

    I have so many favorite authors who happen to be females, and some of them you have gotten me hooked on! Great is great, no matter the gender! Do you know what I read your works before I had ever read Gillian Flynn or Karin Slaughter? You mentioning them is what actually made me pick up some of their books and I’m so glad I did! I heard about Gone Girl as a movie before I even knew it was a book so I was totally skeptical, but you are right, that is a DARK piece of work. I buy so many of my books from book sales and I never even look to see whether the author is male or female when picking books. An interesting story that is well-written is what I’m looking for and women are just as capable of writing those as men.

    It’s funny what you said about how the books are marketed. I’ve noticed that with my favorite author, Dean Koontz. Some market his books as horror (which I feel they are) and others just as thrillers. His aren’t as graphic as other horror authors but, to me, they deal with subjects that are truly horrific. Koontz almost always ends with some hope and that is huge for me. The more subtle forms of horror stick with me much longer and I feel the same way about my horror movies. =)

    So happy to have you on my list of favorite authors, AND favorite people!

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks Nikki. I’m happy I was able to introduce you to Slaughter and Flynn. It’s been ages since I’ve read a Koontz book, though I have a few in my TBR pile. In your honour, I’ll read one of his next.

      Reply
  7. Avatar

    I am a female horror writer (although I don’t feel the need to add my gender in there when someone asks what I do) and I had no idea February is women in horror month.
    I would say at least half of the thrillers I read (and I read a lot of them) are horror books – just because there’s not a slasher or a demon, they still qualify.
    I must admit I’m tempted to just roll with it and start calling some of my books thrillers as it seems to be the latest trend. I’m saying that tongue in cheek, but I do have to wonder how the sales would differ just for changing the genre category.
    Debbie

    Reply
    • JH

      Well, let’s just say all of the major publishing houses probably aren’t wrong.There is something about the word “horror” that paints a specific picture in a lot of people’s minds, a picture that is easy to reject.

      Reply
  8. Avatar

    I can only handle so much “Darkness” in what I read. So I don’t feel qualified to talk about horror. I like mystery. I didn’t know that about February!

    Reply
    • JH

      Ah, but a lot of mystery has dark elements, unless you’re talking cozy. Two sides of the same twisted coin.

      Reply
  9. Avatar

    Brilliant.

    Reply
  10. Avatar

    I’m not a huge fan of blood and gore – a little goes a long way for me. I prefer the creep factor, the psychological suspense, etc. in my reading, my watching and my writing. 🙂

    I LOVED Bird Box when I read it years ago, back when it first came out. And I was a fan of Flynn’s long before Gone Girl, having read her earlier works.

    Reply
    • JH

      I’m the same, Madeline. Anything that makes me hide my eyes isn’t something I overly enjoy. I’m all about the suspense.

      Reply
  11. Avatar

    Well said JH 😉
    Wishing you all the best.

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks Everett! It’s always great to hear from you.

      Reply
  12. Avatar

    Thank you. One of the best things about reading (a lot, wide variety, a lot) is – that I finally find the words that I’ve been looking for. “Horror explores the dark side of the human psyche.” I
    That’s why I read “horror” books. I love the diversity of the human psyche, even its dark side.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, KF, and welcome to the blog. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Hope to “see” you here again.

      Reply
  13. Avatar

    It’s funny, my book is full of blood and gore, and I’ve had several people argue it’s NOT horror, but it IS a thriller. Go figure.

    Also, I think being able to write a book with your vagina would be an incredible talent and should be nurtured and possibly commercialized. It could be your gimmick, like part of your brand and marketing!

    Reply
    • JH

      If only I were that skilled, CD. I probably wouldn’t have to write!

      Reply
  14. Avatar

    I do love Shelley and Jackson, of course, but I also love Nicole Givens Kurtz and Lauren Beukes. It’s good to have a yearly reminder to seek out the talented women writing horror.

    Reply
  15. Avatar

    Just so we are clear – Almost All books, regardless of genre, are better with blood. And while I’ve had my ups and downs with Stephen King, he is still my all time favorite horror, thriller, and yes Womens Fiction author. Ya know, cuz he doesn’t skimp on the blood and psychological intrigue. I like Dean Koontz and Ramsey Campbell and several others too.

    Got you riled up? Well don’t be. I’m just that kind of bloody reader. But I agree that Women are under represented in the horror genre; and mostly because it is masked in other subgenre’s. Anne Rice is the best vampire author, and while she is listed in Urban Fantasy, its still horror to me. I frequently will read thrillers and mysteries simply because the book blurb reads as a horror to me.

    Of course, lately HORROR is more about how many teenagers can be killed while having sex, so no wonder new, serious horror authors are masking their writings under other genre’s. I’m hoping soon the YA vibe (read young, angsty, overdramatic) will fall out of favor and some serious horror, thriller, mystery, and fantasy novels become readable again.

    I am looking for fresh horror JH. And I would love to read your books. But with all the time on the road, audible is the only way I get any “reading” time. Offer me something in an audio book and I’ll buy it. Seriously!

    Reply
    • JH

      I had no idea you were a horror fan, Dolorah. All my books are available in audio format, either from Amazon or Beacon Audiobooks.

      Reply
  16. Avatar

    Very interesting how books are marketed JH thank you! Books that explore the dark side of the psyche are not only fascinating but give a nod to fact being stranger than fiction. Give me a good thriller anytime mixed in with horror and I’m away with the fairies –

    Reply
    • JH

      Done, and done, Susan. Seven times. 😉

      Reply
  17. Avatar

    One of DLP’s best-selling titles is Bloodwalker, a paranormal-thriller-horror. I’l admit, we played the angle of the first two genres more than the horror.

    Reply
    • JH

      Is that because horror doesn’t sell, Diane?

      Reply
  18. Avatar

    Yes. Horror does have a bad name. Just like sharks do in the animal world. Who created these misconceptions? The media? The few bad examples that then seem to be generalized? I have to be honest, horror has a bad connotation to it for me as well, as I think about blood and, well, horrifying things.

    Yet, I love your writing and your mystery stories and so on and on. So, I assume that means I love horror, right? 🙂 I do understand why those books are marketed as thrillers. But, how to change the general consensus? By having one horror writer after the other point out the misconceptions like you’re doing!

    Gone Girl is one of the few paper books I have on our shelf here in the camper. I’ve seen the movie and I’ve been wanting to read the story for years. One day. Hopefully soon.

    Reply
    • JH

      I’m more along the mystery/suspense side of things, or at best, “quiet horror.” The few exceptions are Monsters in Our Wake, The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave, and Return to Dyatlov Pass. But Monsters was marketed as a sea story, and readers refer to it as sci-fi or fantasy, so what do I know?

      Hopefully your mind is set at ease that it’s not all about blood. A lot of horror has no blood at all.

      Reply
  19. Avatar

    My vagina doesn’t write books! Lmao. I loved it and I love your books. Thank you.

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks so much, Donna. You made my week!

      Reply
  20. Avatar

    Good to know you aren’t squatting over your keyboard to write. XDXDXD

    I’d have to say some of the best horrors don’t have blood in them. The psychological ones can really do a number on people.

    Reply
    • JH

      Ewww to the first part, Patricia! 😀

      Second, agreed. It’s psychological horror I like best–to write, to read, and to watch.

      Reply

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