Horror and Speculative Fiction

Fredric Brown, an American Science Fiction author, is credited with one of the shortest horror stories ever written, titled “Knock:”

“The last man on Earth sat alone in his room. There is a knock at the door.”

Those two simple sentences convey much about why we as readers and writers pursue horror as a genre. It is because horror has the power to emotionally move us. True, they can provoke feelings of revulsion, shock, and anger. Yet they also possess the power to call into question our assumptions, attitudes, prejudices, and perhaps our very place in the cosmos. Horror stories thrill and excite, but also instruct. They have been with us since humanity first peered out of the cave into a hostile night, and will be waiting for us when we one day cross the airless void to other worlds.  Horror stories give names to our fears, allowing us to rob them of their powers.

Fear, Terror, and Suspense

Anne Radcliffe, a horror author from the Gothic Era, in her essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry” (1828), ascribed to horror two main emotional states, fear and terror. Fear encompasses the dread and anticipation of waiting for something to happen. Terror on the other hand occurs when that fear is realized, and one confronts the aftermath of that sense of dread. Fear is the going into the basement of the old dark house when one hears a mysterious skittering sound echoing up stairs. Terror is when that skittering sound reveals itself to be a scorpion the size of a large dog, and it happens to be sitting on a pile of eggs. We can add a third element to this triad:  Suspense.  Suspense describes the momentum events assume as they pile up on top of each in the course of a story.  Proper use of suspense serves to heighten the sense fear and terror in the reader.

The Other and the Sublime

Two additional concepts play an important role in horror fiction. The first of these is the “Other.”  That is, something outside a person’s experience. Most horror fiction defines itself by placing the protagonists in conflict with the “Other.” The “Other” can be many things; cruel and capricious nature, a nameless horror from timeless eons, another person with insidious plots, or even something that strikes from deep within one’s own psyche.

The second is the concept of the sublime. The sublime is a term borrowed from the discipline of Aesthetics, which conveys the sense that something is too big or great, beyond the average person’s sense of calculation or comprehension.  The sublime can either truly beautiful or truly terrible. Many horror works focus on a confrontation with the sublime, that either breaks the protagonist, dooming them to their fate, or triggers a change that empowers them to overcome and survive the forces that have been arrayed against them.

So Why Read Horror? 

The academic answer:  Horror fiction allows us a chance to explore the problems and fears of society and work out possible solutions.  It forces us to drag into the light and confront those things that prevent humanity from making forward progress. It allows the reader to hold up a mirror and ponder what dark and buried lurk in their heart, as well as what can be done to fix, or perhaps further bury those secrets.

The entertaining answer:  It’s fun to be scared. Horror stories send the reader on an emotional ride that lets them escape from the mundane, or see the mundane in a new and disturbing light.
In coming posts this column will take a look at horror form a number of different perspectives. Most columns will be part commentary on aspects of the horror genre while also offering suggestions and guides to helping your library build a horror collection. Also keep an eye on the review section for more detailed looks at individual works of horror.


Brown, Fredric.  “Knock”.  From These Ashes:  The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown. NESFA Press (2001);

Radcliffe, Anne.  “On the Supernatural in Poetry”.  The New Monthly Magazine (7)1826:  142-152.

“What is the sublime?”, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/what-is-the-sublime-r1109449, accessed 18 February 2014.

Foundations of the Gothic Horror

Below are a number of works that formed the basis of the horror genre.  Many of these works introduce creatures, locations, and trappings, which either have informed later horror novels, or become clichés some authors have attempted to subvert.

The Castle of Otranto (1797) by Horace Walpole

Often considered the first horror novel in English, Walpole set many conventions f the horror novel including the haunted castle, and the family laboring under a curse.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1823) by Mary Shelly

This is of course, the tragic story of Victor Frankenstein’s scientific exploration into secrets that humankind was not meant know.

The Vampyre (1819) by John Polidori

Polidori was a physician, and a friend of Mary Shelly.  His work depicts an ancient vampire modeled on one of his other friends, the romantic poet Lord Byron.

Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker

This novel launched the vampire from folklore into pop culture, and created the image of the vampire that still stalks the horror genre today.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson

Tells the tale of a good man at war with the darkness within himself; a common source of conflict in horror fiction.

The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James

This is a story of possession, ghosts, and madness, that requires the reader to decide if events are truly supernatural, or merely the delusion of a repressed mind.

The House of the Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne

A foundation of American horror, it builds upon the Salem Witch trials, and family curses to tell a narrative of downfall and destruction driven either by the forces of the past, or the unconscious desires of its protagonist.



  1. kgailm says:

    It’s hard to beat the classics! Dracula is still astonishingly readable, and RLS never gets old. Don’t you think it’s interesting that the Victorians set up so many of the horror tropes still in use today?

  2. […] is the genre that explores our imaginations and takes us on glorious adventures. In a similar vein, horror flirts with the darker nature of humanity and gives rise to those things that go bump in the night. […]

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