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Horror Novel

The horror novel is perhaps one of the most iconic types of genre fiction. Dating back to Ancient Greece, there are many types of this novel, including horror mystery novels, ghost horror novels, and gothic horror novels. In the twenty-first century, other subgenres have emerged, including horror graphic novels, and comedy horror novels.

Horror Novels: history

A Horror Novel - a piece of prose fiction of variable length that shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing. (J. A Cudden, The Penguin Book of Horror Stories)

The origins of the horror novel are found in ancient folklore and mythology. Stories about ghosts, vampires, and werewolves can be found in many different ancient cultures. However, the main point of origin for most horror novels can be traced back to Ancient Greece, where elements of horror fiction can be found in works such as Oedipus Rex, which ends with the King removing his own eyes after witnessing a horror.

One of the earliest Greek horror stories was by Pliny the Younger, who wrote about a philosopher who bought a house haunted by ghosts.

Following the decline of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, the development of the horror novel slowed considerably. Throughout Europe, during the middle ages, literacy levels were low, with monks being among the most literate. This meant that many of the works being produced during this time period mainly centred around religious ideas. There were small developments in the genre, such as the monsters Grendel and Grendel's Mother in Beowulf (c. 1025).

The modern horror novel began to take shape during the 18th and 19th centuries, following the rise of the Gothic literary movement. One of the earliest iterations of the modern horror novel is the 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story by Horace Walpole. This novel is set in a haunted castle and is credited for how it established key features of the genre.

During the 19th century, other major horror novels were produced, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), which blended horror with science fiction. The vampire horror novel was also developed during this period, following the publishing of Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897).

Did You Know? The two authors credited for inventing the modern vampire in literature, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, are Irish.

The 20th century saw an explosion in the popularity of horror novels. During this century, horror novels grew to become a reflection of contemporary fears of the public. The Trial (1925) by Franza Kafka, moved away from the traditional horror novel to portray a different horror of government.

In 1927, H.P. Lovecraft released his horror novel The Call of Cthullu (1927). This novel introduced the idea of cosmic horrors and developed as a subgenre of the horror novel, as well as creating the term Lovecraftian. During this period, short horror stories also gained popularity, such as Shirley Jackson's The Lottery (1948).

Lovecraftian - Sometimes referred to as 'cosmic horror', Lovecraftian works are reminiscent of the literature by writer H.P. Lovecraft. This literature will depict monsters from another dimension or universe that are incomprehensible to human beings. Lovecraftian literature includes Laird Barron's The Croning (2012) and Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986) by Thomas Ligotti.

Arguably the best-known horror novelist of the late 20th century is the author Stephen King. During the 1970s and onwards, King wrote multiple horror novels that gained popularity across America and the wider world. These included Carrie (1974), The Shining (1977), It (1986), and Misery (1987).

King's horror novels covered a range of themes including coming of age, ostracization, and death. The figure of the vampire was also further developed in this period, due to the publishing and popularity of Anne Rice's novel, Interview with the Vampire (1976).

The horror novel was further developed in the 21st century, as more subgenres of the novel emerged. This period saw the beginnings of postmodern horror, with the most notable works including Mark L. Danielewsky's House of Leaves (2000), a novel that mixes, text, letters, journals, and footnotes to tell its story.

The 2000s also saw the development of comedy horror novels, with books such as My Best Friend's Exorcism (2016) by Grady Hendrix, providing a meta and self-referential look at the horror novel.

Horror Novels: key features

The horror novel is a type of speculative fiction, so it has specific features that are recognisable in the genre.

Speculative Fiction - A genre of fiction where the setting is not the real world. Speculative fiction will explore other possible versions of our world. It can involve elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Main categories

According to the literary critic, Tzvetan Todorov, there are three main categories that horror novels can be divided into:

1. The uncanny

While the plot of the uncanny can include elements of the supernatural, the explanation for the events of the novel tends to be more grounded. The events that occur in these horror novels will appear irrational or impossible, however, they will follow rational laws (despite the action being horrifying). The ending of this category of horror novel will be left open, with the reader being able to draw their own conclusions from the novel.

Key Works: Misery (1987) - Stephen King, The Explorer (2012) - James Smythe.

2. The marvellous

The marvellous is arguably the opposite of the uncanny. In this category, the reader accepts the supernatural aspect of the novel's world as the explanation for the action of the story. Here, the incomprehensible events of the novel may be explained by creatures such as ghosts, vampires, or werewolves.

Key Works: Dracula (1897) - Bram Stoker, Haunting of Hill House (1959) - Shirley Jackson

3. The fantastic

The final category, the fantastic, is a mix of the two previous types of horror novels. Here, there is no one clear answer to the events of the novel, but instead the reader is allowed to draw their own ideas from what has been presented in the story. The reader can decide if the protagonist is imagining the events of the novel or if the supernatural truly exists within the book.

Key Works: Gerald's Game (1992) - Stephen King, Shining (1980) - Stephen King.

Plot

The plot of a horror novel centres around the idea of discovery. In all horror novels, there is a contrast between what is known and what is unknown and from this, the main action of the novel emerges. Literary critic Noel Caroll used this idea to divide all horror novel plots into two categories.

1. The complex discovery plot

The complex discovery plot involves four key points. These must be presented from 1 to 4, however, sometimes the first point (the event) can be omitted and the plot can begin in medias res.

In medias res - A narrative device where the story opens in the midst of the plot.

Plot

1. Event - The horrific event occurs.

2. Discovery - The event is discovered (possibly by the protagonist).

3. Confirmation - The cause of the event is confirmed.

4. Confrontation - The protagonist confronts the cause of the event, leading to either victory or defeat.

Within this, there are two subcategories of complex discovery plots. The first is the discovery plot, where the confirmation is omitted. The second type of complex discovery plot is the confirmation plot, which does not include a confrontation.

Key Works: Dracula (1897) - Bram Stoker, Let the Right One In (2004) - John Ajvide Lindqvist.

2. The over-reacher plot

The over-reacher plot specifically follows the work of a scientist or another academic who is looking to discover forbidden knowledge. This knowledge will have a detrimental impact on the life of the scientist and others. This is most famously seen in the plot of Frankenstein (1818), where the protagonist (Victor Frankenstein) tries to create life.

Plot

1. Preparation for the experiment - The protagonist will make practical preparations (gathering equipment and supplies) and philosophical preparations (an explanation of the moral reasons for the experiment).

2. Experiment is conducted - The experiment will initially fail. However, when it succeeds, it will unleash a dangerous force that will cause horror to unfold. Here, the scientist will either commit to destroying the experiment or embrace its consequences.

3. Confrontation - The protagonist will confront the experiment, leading to a battle between the two.

Key Works: Frankenstein (1818) - Mary Shelley, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) - Robert Louis Stevenson.

Setting

Typical images of a horror novel's setting include haunted houses, graveyards, medieval castles, or forests. However, the setting of a horror novel can be wherever the author chooses. For example, an author may set their horror novel in the woods to discuss the isolation of nature, or it could be set in a supermarket to parallel themes about consumerism and capitalism. Can you think of why a horror novel may be set in outer space?

Did You Know? Grady Hendrix's 2014 novel, Horrorstör, is set in a haunted furniture store!

The protagonist

The protagonist of the horror novel is the main character that the narrative follows. This figure is active in the story, with goals that are identifiable to the reader. The protagonist must be trapped in an inescapable situation of either their own making or beyond their control. This is done to create a claustrophobic feeling in the novel. There must also be a clear division in power between the monster and the protagonist.

In Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), the protagonist Jonathon is trapped at Dracula's castle for a considerable time.

Horror Novels: literary devices

Certain literary devices can be found throughout horror novels. These devices are used to build tension and suspense throughout the novel.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing - A literary device that is used as a warning or indication of a future event in a story.

Foreshadowing is frequently used in horror novels to create a sense of impending doom throughout the story. By using this device, the author creates tension in the novel, as the reader slowly becomes aware of the fate of the story's characters.

Metaphor

Metaphor - A figure of speech where a word is used to describe something as if it was something else, for example, 'the friends were two peas in a pod'.

Metaphors are used in horror novels to help build the world the story is set in. Metaphors such as 'a wave of terror washed over him' can be used to create sensory images for the reader. This is done to enhance the visual and sensory depiction of the plot of the novel. Metaphors are used to create mood in the horror novel.

Pathetic fallacy

Pathetic fallacy - A literary device used when human emotions are represented in weather.

Perhaps one of the most iconic literary devices found in horror novels, pathetic fallacy is used to develop the setting and mood of the piece. The pathetic fallacy can use thunderstorms, rain, or snow to represent the fear, isolation, or anger of the protagonist, while the sun could be employed at the end to signify hope following the defeat of the monster. Pathetic fallacy is used to create an atmosphere throughout horror novels.

Establishing mood

These literary devices are used to create mood in the horror novel. The mood adds to the atmosphere in these novels. The atmosphere is important to consider when writing a horror novel, as it separates the story from any other type of tale. In a sense, the atmosphere is what makes the horror novel scary.

Task: Try and use the three literary devices to create an introduction to a horror story.

Horror novels: key themes

While horror novels can centre around anything, there are certain themes that are prevalent among these types of novels.

Fear

The theme of fear is at the centre of every horror novel. The purpose of the horror is primarily to provoke fear in the reader. This may be fear of death or something the reader perceives as being worse than death. This theme is at the core of every horror novel and can be seen in two different forms: prescriptive tales and cautionary tales.

Prescriptive tales

In prescriptive tales, the protagonist overcomes the monster of the story and survives the novel. These tales are usually used to convey a positive message about overcoming fear.

Cautionary tales

Cautionary tales are more negative. In these stories, the protagonist fails to beat the monster and suffers death (or worse) because of it.

The unknown

Alongside fear, the unknown is another core theme in horror novels. The horror novelist H.P Lovecraft stated, 'The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.' The fear of the unknown is the central idea of many horror novels, as it is the discovery of this unknown being or force that creates the main plot of the story.

Horror novels: sub-genres

The umbrella genre of horror is divided into many subgenres, some of which are discussed below. It is important to note that this is not an exhaustive list of horror novel subgenres, as there are other types such as cosmic horror, rural horror, and occult horror novels, for example.

Gothic horror novels

Gothic - This is a type of literature that uses dark visual scenery, melodramatic narrative devices, and an atmosphere of fear and dread.

The gothic is perhaps one of the most recognisable subgenres of horror novels. The gothic emerged as a literary movement in the 19th century and was popularised by Romantic authors such as Mary Shelley. The gothic genre developed throughout the 19th century, with notable works being produced in both the poetic form as well as novels. Many of the famous settings and features of a horror novel can be traced back to this subgenre including, haunted castles, the supernatural, pathetic fallacy, and an atmosphere of suspense.

The gothic vs horror.

While the words 'gothic' and 'horror' are sometimes used interchangeably, it is important to know that there are differences between the two!

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) is a well known gothic novel, however, it is not a horror novel.

The gothic is tied to the Romantic literary movement, and so there are tropes such as haunted castles and overwhelming emotions, present in these texts that may or may not occur in horror novels. Gothic novels include Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier and Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë. The horror novel also has its own unique tropes including apocalyptic worlds and an active protagonist. Examples of horror novels include the Bloody Chamber (1979) by Anglea Carter and The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James.However, as the gothic influenced the development of the horror novel, there are features such as a damsel in distress and an abandoned setting (think an old, isolated mansion or castle) that are present in both genres. An example of gothic horror novels includes books such as Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde.

Key Works: Flowers in the Attic (1979) - Virginia C. Andrews, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) - Oscar Wilde.

Supernatural horror novels

Supernatural horror novels are stories that involve the presence of otherworldly creatures such as vampires, werewolves, zombies, or ghosts. This is sometimes also referred to as a paranormal horror novel. Its plot includes things that cannot rationally be explained. These novels tend to fall into the category of the marvellous as their monsters are typically other-worldly rather than human.

There are many different categories that exist here including the vampire horror novel and the ghost horror novel. There is also overlap between the supernatural horror novel and others, such as the gothic horror novel or the cosmic horror novel.

Key Works: Carmilla (1872) - Sheridan Le Fanu, The Haunting of Hill House (1959) - Shirley Jackson, IT (1986) - Stephen King

Comedy horror novels

Comedy horror novels are a fairly recent subgenre of the horror novel. This type of horror novel blends terror with humour through its use of self-referential humour. Many successful comedy-horror novels will parody other aspects of the horror novel. This is seen in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) by Seth Graeme-Smith (and Jane Austen), which is a novel that parodies the supernatural horror novel.

Key Works: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) - Seth Graeme-Smith, My Best Friend's Exorcism (2016) - Grady Hendrix.

Mystery horror novels

Sometimes called a thriller, a mystery horror novel will spend the majority of its story focusing on unravelling the unknown horror at the centre of the story. Mystery horror novels are written as complex discovery plots as much of the story occurs between the discovery and the confirmation. These stories tend to fall into the uncanny or fantastic category, with many of them having open endings that allow the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Key Works: Sharp Objects (2006) - Gillian Flynn, Mexican Gothic (2020) - Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Silence of the Lambs (1988) - Thomas Harris

Graphic horror novels

Also known as horror comic books, these are visual novels that use artwork and images to tell a story. Graphic horror novels became popular in the 1990s, following the release of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series (1990). Horror that is written as graphic novels can be part of any other subgenre of horror. For example, Locke and Key (2008) by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez centre around Lovecraftian or cosmic horrors.

Key Works: Locke and Key (2008) - Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, Sandman (1990) Neil Gaiman

Horror Novel - Key takeaways

  • The horror novel can be traced back to Ancient Greek folklore.
  • There are three main categories of horror novels, the uncanny, the marvellous, and the fantastic.
  • There are two main types of plots in horror novels, the complex discovery plot and the over-reacher plot.
  • Horror novels use literary techniques such as foreshadowing, metaphors, and pathetic fallacy to establish an atmosphere.
  • There are many different types of horror novels including the supernatural horror novel, the gothic horror novel, and the mystery horror novel.

Frequently Asked Questions about Horror Novel

To write a horror novel you need to have a setting, protagonist, antagonist and conflict. Many horror novels centre around the protagonist confronting or confirming a horror. A lot of horror novels use literary devices such as foreshadowing, metaphors, and pathetic fallacy.  

The literary critic J. A Cudden defines horror novels as 'pieces of fiction in prose of variable length that shocks, or even frightens the reader or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing.'

A good horror novel will have a clear theme and conflict. There will be a division of power between a monster and the protagonist. The protagonist will take an active role in trying to defeat the monster in the novel. 

There can be any number of characters in a horror novel. However, it is important to include a protagonist and an antagonist (typically a monstrous human, creature or force).

Examples of horror novels includes Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872), H.P Lovecraft's The Call of Cthullu (1927), and  Mark L. Danielewsky's House of Leaves (2000) 

Final Horror Novel Quiz

Question

What is a horror novel?

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Answer

A horror novel is a piece of fiction in prose of variable length that shocks, or even frightens the reader or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing. (J. A Cudden, The Penguin Book of Horror Stories) 

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Where do critics think horror novels originated from?

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Ancient Greece

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What literary movement helped create the modern horror novel?

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Answer

Gothicism 

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Question

Cosmic horror is associated with which author?

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H.P Lovecraft

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What type of fiction is the horror novel?

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Answer

The horror novel is a type of speculative fiction.

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What is speculative fiction?

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Answer

It is a genre of fiction where the setting is not the real world. Often this involves elements of the supernatural, or something futuristic.

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How many categories can horror novels be divided into?

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3

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Question

In horror novels, what is the uncanny category?

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In the uncanny, the events that occur will appear irrational or impossible, however, they will follow rational laws (despite the action being horrifying). 

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What occurs in horror novels categorised as marvellous?

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In this category, the reader accepts the supernatural aspect of the novel's world as the explanation for the action of the story. This explanation may be vampires, ghosts or zombies. 

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What events occur in horror novels categorised as the fantastic?

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Answer

In this category, the reader can decide for themselves if the events of the novel are real (and supernatural) or if they have been imagined by the protagonist. 

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What are the two main plot types of the horror novel?

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Answer

The complex discovery plot

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Question

What is the complex discovery plot?

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This plot involves four key points, a horrifying event occurring, this event being discovered, and the cause of the event is confirmed before the protagonist finally confronts it. 

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What is the over-reacher plot?

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The over-reacher plot typically follows a scientist, who conducts an experiment that goes wrong, unleashing horror on the world. These plots conclude with the scientist confronting the monster. 

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Should a horror novel's protagonist be active or passive in the story?

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Active - They should be fighting the monster.

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Which literary device is not frequently found in horror novels?

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Biblical allusions

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What are two key themes in horror novels?

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Fear

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What is a prescriptive tale?

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In prescriptive tales, the protagonist overcomes the monster of the story and survives the novel. These tales are usually used to convey a positive message about overcoming fear.

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What is a cautionary tale?

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Answer

Cautionary tales are more negative. In these stories, the protagonist fails to beat the monster and suffers death (or worse) because of it. 

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True or False - All gothic novels are also horror novels.

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Answer

False - Not all gothic novels are also horror novels.

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Question

Which of these would not be the main monster of a supernatural horror novel?

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Answer

A human killer

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