Can Horror be Literary?

I was hesitant at first to write a Halloween-related blog post because it feels a little trite. Visit almost any type of blog—food, music, film—and you’ll likely encounter a Halloween-related post. A Guide to Candy Corn Decorated Jack-O-Lanterns. Creepiest Songs of the Past Decade. 10 Classic Horror Movies You Need to Watch This Halloween. But then I went back to our blog archives and noticed that the Halloween Blog Post, as far as I can tell, has never appeared on the Snopes Blog.

So at the risk of being too conventional, I’ll venture into Season-Themed Blog Land, for the first time for the sake of considering a Halloween-appropriate genre that is typically disdained in the world of high literature: horror.

From a young age, I was exposed to horror as a genre in its various forms—particularly through books and film. As a child, I was fascinated and petrified by haunted houses, both the seasonal ones and the historic ones like the Winchester House in San Jose. For my thirteenth birthday party, my parents surprised me by renting the box at the local movie theater and inviting my friends for a showing of The Grudge 2. In high school, I carried around my dad’s collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories for months, reading and rereading stories like “The Dunwich Horror” and “Pickman’s Model.”Unknown

Now that I’m older and hopefully wiser, these things have begun to feel almost immature, for lack of a more suitable term. If I were to carry my Lovecraft collection through the English department now, I would expect a few students and professors to look askance at it, simply because works by authors who could be classified as horror writers are not usually considered “literary” or “good writing.”

That doesn’t, however, mean they aren’t worth reading or don’t have merit as works of literature. Sometimes, you just want to read a scary story, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s stylistically inventive or particularly sharp in its diction. The primary qualification for a good horror story is that it be structured in such a way that it is appropriately frightening. Constructing a story in this way requires skill, and writers of horror vary in their degrees of ability.images

But what if you are, say, a student of literature who wants to read horror with complex metaphors, classical allusions, big words, and all the other trappings of “literary” literature? Where do you turn for a more scholarly version of the Stephen King stories that you drag along to the beach?

I’m not sure that I have read any works of fiction that fit neatly into the horror genre while still being considered “literary,” but I also have not looked very hard for a book that matches this description. Perhaps as fiction becomes more sophisticated, horror elements become subtler, with fewer garish frights and more original plotlines. Maybe as we terror-seekers venture deeper into the academic side of literature, we just have to look a little harder to get our fear fix. The horrors we encounter become less fantastic and more real—Addie’s rotting corpse in As I Lay Dying, or more abstract monsters like the specter of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Are there any horror novels that you find are particularly well written? Do you have any favorite books or poems that have strong elements of horror? I’d love to know. –Isabella Martin

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5 Responses to Can Horror be Literary?

  1. Annie says:

    I enjoy horror stories too, and I agree that elements of horror appear in classic novels that aren’t considered speculative. The first example that comes to my mind is Jane Eyre and the character of Bertha Mason. It’s also good to know that I’m not the only one who got excited about the Grudge 2!

  2. R.T. Smith says:

    I’d nominate Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, but what about BELOVED, THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM? And I’ll stand by DRACULA and six or seven stories by the loveable Mssrs. Poe and Bierce.

  3. Iva says:

    I’m a big fan of Gothic literature which, while traditionally not horrific, is still intended to incite terror in the reader. Frankenstein is a particular favorite of mine! And as you say, it often seems like most “literary horror” comes in bits and pieces within novels, rather than entire works.

  4. Taylor McPherson says:

    I might as well mention my Anne Rice phase . . . yes, I read Twilight first and then clearly wanted to get into some more gore and I was not disappointed. I think she is definitely a writer who uses some elements of horror, but for the most part if I really want to be scared, I’ll turn on The Grudge or the Ring. Mostly because I’m scared to try anything other than Anne Rice because I like her so much. But still.

    • Rod Smith says:

      What about her Jesus books? Did you read those? I tried one, but then I remembered trying Mailer’s Jesus book and that I’d resolved then not to pursue that impulse. I guess when Jesus rises, he sets the type all vampire stories work in contrast to — he sacrifices, Drac & Co. want the rest of us to, J is the lamb, Drac is the minion of the Devil, whose totem is the goat (and Pan and so on). What never works for me is the vampire story without theological machinery. Maybe that’s a sign of some unacknowledged yearning. And then there’s Stoker himself, both Irish and a great writer of other people’s letters.

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