Supernatural Suspense vs. Horror


Function: noun

Etymology: French, from Middle French, kind, gender — more at gender

Date: 1770

1 : a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content

When I start to think about where my work falls in the world of dark fiction, it gives me a bit of a headache. The reason that it makes me feel kind of like this is that agents and editors can see it so clearly, but I have such a hard time making the distinctions. I read pretty widely in my genre and I'm starting to branch out with what I write (to include a bit more science fiction and fantasy).

But what about the stuff that straddles a couple of genres? I've read that a lot of agents and editors prefer authors to avoid the "slash syndrome." You know: My novel is steampunk/bizarro/western romance heavily geared toward left-handed redheads.

Makes sense.

But how would you draw a line between horror and supernatural suspense? Here's what I'm thinking.
  • Indicator One: level, type and depiction of gore and violence. I think of a novel like Brian Keene's Ghoul as straight horror, while I see Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby as closer to supernatural suspense. Ghoul features a ghastly, rotting monster that rapes women with his monster equipment and plucks the heads of unassuming ten-year-old boys. The violence here is off the charts and features rape, decapitation and violence against children. Rosemary's Baby features a rape (unveiled in a surreal dream sequence) and a conspiracy to create the spawn of Satan. Neither are particularly uplifting premices and both are downright scary books. But the "off-camera" depiction of violence, to use a film phrase, in Levin's work creates a distinction between the two, I think.
  • Indicator Two: What's at stake? The pacing of a supernatural suspense is, well, more suspenseful than in a piece like, say, Gerald's Game, by Stephen King. Gerald's Game and The Nightrunners, by Joe Lansdale, are a couple of good-old-fashioned ghost stories with horrific ghosts. This is not the Whoopi-Goldberg-dancing-with-Demi-Moore kind of ghost. These stories exist to glorify the haunting, whereas most works of supernatural suspense feature a character racing against time, fate or a specific nemesis to reach a suitable climax. I think King's Bag of Bones does a nice job of this as Mike Noonan has to put together the puzzle that is created by the ghost in order to save the small girl before she is victimized by the evil grandfather.
  • Indicator Three: Romance. This is perhaps the greatest element used to differntiate the two genres. Koontz has made his career writing novels that feature a love interest at the heart of some preternatural mystery. A reader is more compelled toward the conclusion because of the love interest in lots of supernatural suspense stories, whereas the soul purpose of lots of horror stories is to induce a more physiological response. A response to terror on a gut level. An "ewwww---gross!" moment or two.

Ray Garton is a solid writer. I read "The Folks" and was shocked by the deformed products of incest that haunted that kid in the story. Flat-out gross, but a compelling read. I'm reading Scissors right now, and it's much tamer in terms of the imagery, but the pacing and romantic angle at the center of the story (Amelia's faith in Stuart and her willingness to help him) makes this SS, in my opinion. Both are worth your time, and I think they speak to my point here.

I hope this makes some sense. Thinking about genre can make your head spin...

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