Literary Horror discussion

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Discussion > What do you think "literary" horror means?

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message 1: by Randolph (new)

Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments Let's get something started. What makes a horror tale literary versus just a blockbuster supernatural thriller? Can something be both? Should we ignore bestsellers? Are bestsellers ever "literary?"


message 2: by Joseph (last edited May 18, 2017 08:45PM) (new)

Joseph | 2 comments Randolph wrote: "Let's get something started. What makes a horror tale literary versus just a blockbuster supernatural thriller? Can something be both? Should we ignore bestsellers? Are bestsellers ever "literary?"

This has confused me as well. Is something literary because it's been thoroughly vetted by those who consider themselves highbrow (or considered by others to be highbrow?)


message 3: by David (new)

David A. A. | 6 comments Quite difficult to define exactly. Take the books published by Tartarus Press - they would definitely be classed as literary horror. But would you put The Pan Book of Horror Stories series in the same category? Probably not. Stephen King? Some of his blockbuster novels could be defined as literary horror I think. But perhaps we do need to be careful with bestsellers... I don't think the highbrow "literary set" should be allowed to judge what's literary in horror, since they have for many years ignored or disparaged the genre. We devotees should be the judge.


message 4: by Scott (new)

Scott For me it has a lot to do with the quality or style of the writing, but I don't really have the words to describe what that is. Kind of a "you know it when you see it" thing.

I do think that popular novels can be literary. That's something else entirely.


message 5: by Bill (last edited May 19, 2017 05:56PM) (new)

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1139 comments Randolph wrote: "What makes a horror tale literary versus just a blockbuster supernatural thriller?
Well I would pick a few examples to discuss. I hate to overgeneralize.

"Are bestsellers ever "literary?""
Not horror, but Dhalgren sold over a million copies.


message 6: by Randolph (new)

Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments Did Dhalgren sell a million copies when it first came out or over time? Moby Dick, a horror novel if there ever was one, sold well over a million copies by now but not at first. Stephen King and James Patterson sell a million books in a day. Longevity (and high school required reading) will make many books a bestseller over decades.

Let's make things more concrete. Is The Shining literary? Fill in the title with your favorite bestseller choice.


message 7: by Dan (last edited May 19, 2017 08:57PM) (new)

Dan | 329 comments My definition of literary horror is a story written in the horror genre that is exceptionally well written from a craft standpoint designed to appeal most to mature and discerning readers. There should be levels of meaning to the story that make it ripe for discussion from more than one point of view.

A best seller can possibly meet the above definition and thus be literary. Many works of horror do not belong to the literary horror subgenre in my opinion. This is because most horror writers lack either the desire or lack the ability to write literary work. Not all literary horror is of much entertainment value either in my opinion. This too probably stems from either a lack of desire or lack of ability to be so by the author.

Melville as far as I know never wrote horror. I don't agree that Moby Dick qualifies. I also have not read any Hawthorne I would say was truly horror. Washington Irving, sure.

Stephen King's The Shining in my humble opinion does not meet the standard for being called literary. It has only one level. There's no meaningful symbolism or elevation in the writing style. King's Gunslinger series, The Stand, and Carrie (for his character portrayals and condensed, precise description) to my mind are works of his that I have read at least in part that come the closest to being literary.

James's Turn of the Screw is highly literary horror, but I question its value as entertainment.

Much of H. P. Lovecraft's work is highly literary horror in my opinion. They're also popular (now). I also find most of it highly entertaining. Some of Poe, Irving, Dunsany, and Angela Carter's short stories likewise qualify as entertaining literary horror, and all are popular. I have problems designating Tryon's Harvest Home literary horror. It's style was elevated at a few points, but I don't feel he adequately sustained it throughout his novel. I also have doubts regarding its entertainment value for most readers.

I've read a fair amount of horror, but not much of it to my mind qualifies as literary. My short list of five (six if you count King) authors are all that make my list as having written entertaining literary horror. Not Saul, Blatty, Levin, James, Herbert, Barker, James A. Moore, etc. although I certainly found most of their work to be entertaining. I want to read more entertaining literary horror and am grateful to Marie-Therese for her recommendations in that area. Now to find the time.


message 8: by Bill (new)

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1139 comments Randolph wrote: "Is The Shining literary?"
I have to say I never use "literary" as a descriptor. What does that mean anyway?

I've never read The Shining. But I really don't enjoy most of King's prose that I've read.

I may have been a Lovecraft fan when I was a teen. These days I just find his prose unbearable.


message 9: by Dan (last edited May 20, 2017 08:19AM) (new)

Dan | 329 comments Lovecraft does demand much from his readers. Come to think of it, most literary authors do. Perhaps that could be another component of the definition?


message 10: by Bill (new)

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1139 comments Dan wrote: "Lovecraft does demand much from his readers."
It depends on what you think Lovecraft "demands". I certainly had more tolerance for over-writing and overuse of "eldritch" when I was a teen. Not so much these days.


message 11: by Dan (last edited May 20, 2017 09:37AM) (new)

Dan | 329 comments Really? You've read Lovecraft and don't know what doing so "demands"? Here are his first two sentences from "The Wall of Sleep" (1919):

"I have often wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences - Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism - there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permit of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier."

If you are unable to appreciate the writing ability it takes to compose sentences like these, I can see why you might need a definition of literary.

I don't agree that the term "literary" is purely subjective. I can agree that defining such concepts as "literary" in objective terms requires more. But isn't that just what makes it more worthwhile to do so? If something comes easy, what is it really worth? Perhaps it is best to do as the majority and avoid such challenges by saying it's all subjective anyway. Taking such a position seldom fails to end any conversation concerning quality.


message 12: by Bill (last edited May 20, 2017 09:38AM) (new)

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1139 comments Dan wrote: "You've read Lovecraft and don't know what doing so "demands"? "
I do know. As I stated earlier, it demands a greater tolerance for what I consider overwriting. His work appealed to me as a teen, but less so now.


message 13: by Bill (new)

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1139 comments Dan wrote: "I don't agree that the term "literary" is purely subjective."
I can't follow all of Dan's tangents. But I'll tell one story: at my local genre fiction-oriented bookstore, with a more than healthy Lovecraft/Cthulhu section, I've been told more than once by the staff that the books I was asking for were too "literary".

I'm not arguing against trying to define the term "literary". All I said was I don't use the term "literary" as a descriptor.

"Perhaps it is best to do as the majority and avoid such challenges by saying it's all subjective anyway. Taking such a position seldom fails to end any conversation concerning quality. "

Again, I will attempt to steer toward specific examples. I like a fair selection of M.R. James, and the early Ramsey Campbell. Both are probably not "bestsellers", but have a fair-sized readership.


message 14: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 17, 2017 03:36PM) (new)

Literary to me is just something with a deeper meaning besides just a straight plot. A literary horror could be like the book I finished called The Collector by John Fowles which also consists of deaper philosophical and metaphysical feelings within it. A book like Ararat by Christopher Golden, even though is a fairly entertaining story, is more just the shock/slasher horror. Although I'm sure people can find some form of deeper meaning as well if they were inclined.


message 15: by J.S. (new)

J.S. Watts | 241 comments Like Midal, I would define literary as a well written work with depth of meaning and probably multi-layered. Something which digs below the surface of the story. The story can be a block-buster, or page-turner, call it what you will, but the book or story has to be more than the story to make it seem literary to me.


message 16: by Kendall (last edited Aug 07, 2017 10:03AM) (new)

Kendall Moore To me, literary horror fiction can be considered thusly;

Normal horror fiction is concerned purely about the story itself and creating scares based on the author's interpretation of traditional genre themes.

Literary Horror, by contrast, forces the reader into an uncomfortable zone of liminality whereby they're made to accept that the horrific unknown is real not just in the story but in real life. Cosmic horror and Theory fiction fall into this category for me.


message 17: by Joseph (new)

Joseph J. Wood (JosephJWood) | 4 comments I came here to say similar things to Kendell, J.S. and Holy Lord Kek. Horror as a genre piece, I think, is something exciting and entertaining. It uses fear for fun, I guess. Whereas in literary horror, the focus is more towards using language and story to translate the abstract sensation of horror.

I think that it can be explained as being two different types of catharsis.


Ps. I just read The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I think that's a good example of literary horror.


message 18: by Peter (new)

Peter W Blaisdell | 4 comments A rather literate discussion about the definition of literary horror; good insights.

Selling well needn't preclude a book from being literary though many (most) readers won't have the patience to deal with the thematic and stylistic stuff that an author trying to be literary will include in their story.

Horror, going way back to Wilkie Collins, may be one of the few genres that's more tolerant of an author trying to be both entertaining and high-concept.


message 19: by Samuel (new)

Samuel Moss (perfidiousscript) | 62 comments Literature demands something from the reader, the expenditure of some effort where genre works generally allow the reader to sit back and passively absorb the story with minimal expenditure of energy.

A work with some literary merit requires the reader to do something whether it is concrete, like look up the definition of a word, or more abstract, like take a leap of faith or hold some piece of information in memory for a few pages before an aspect of the work resolves.

Literary works are more willing to play with form and style. Genre works make a sort of agreement with the reader: 'you came here looking for plot elements A, B and C characters X, Y, Z and style F and I will provide those to you. Literary works (should) make the agreement: 'you came looking for something other than A, B, C and X, Y, Z and F so I will provide you with one or two of those things, but also K, the color purple, a 1972 Citroen and some black goo in an unmarked container.'

This should be no surprise to anyone here, but these two 'pieces' are at the root of why literary works are (often times) more rewarding: the expenditure of effort on the reader's part makes her feel as if she has accomplished something in reading the work, that she has had some personal part in finishing it, the deviations in form allow for moments of discovery and novelty.


message 20: by Randolph (new)

Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments That is profound and quite correct imho.


message 21: by Dan (last edited Oct 03, 2017 06:06PM) (new)

Dan | 329 comments Sam wrote: "A work with some literary merit requires the reader to do something whether it is concrete, like look up the definition of a word, or more abstract, like take a leap of faith or hold some piece of information in memory for a few pages before an aspect of the work resolves."

Are you saying then that for a work to have literary merit it requires of the reader
1) the looking up of a word, or
2) remembering a piece of information for at least a few pages?

Or are you saying something more general, such as that a literary work requires the reader to
1) do something concrete, or
2) do something abstract?

I ask because if it's the second, I am not sure how that elevates a work to the literary. Also, I would attribute different qualities to a work of literary merit and am confused how these particular ones confer that status.


message 22: by Dan (last edited Oct 03, 2017 06:23PM) (new)

Dan | 329 comments Maybe we can get at a definition of literary horror better by determining what it is not. To that end, I submit a few questions. If the answer is in the affirmative, can you provide an example please.

Can literary horror
1) be poorly written from a craft standpoint?
2) be of any length?
3) be written in any era?
4) be exciting but not at all frightening?
5) have nothing supernatural or psychological occur?
6) be non-fiction?
7) be a poem of any length (haiku, sonnet, epic like Paradise Lost)?
8) be a comic book?
9) be a picture book written for pre-readers?
10) have Papa Smurf, Tigger, or a teletubby as the protagonist?
11) be a film?
12) be a film script?


message 23: by Randolph (new)

Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments This appears to be a rhetorical waste of time. How can one define something by answering an incomplete list of yes or no, true or false trick questions? I think any reasonable person would agree that literary versus non would be writing which achieves something, either intentional or not, beyond mere entertainment, something intangible and undefinable at times yet lasting that somehow changes one in a way, however small. This usually involves some effort on the reader’s part but subversively not always. Never, always, must and like imperatives have little applicability in a conversation like this. Literary cannot be reduced to a handful of axioms like mathematics or chemistry can but general characteristics can be outlined where even the exceptions will prove the general rule.


message 24: by Neutrino (new)

Neutrino Increasing | 62 comments You really can't have some sort of weird platonic dialogue about true definition of "literary horror". IMO, this is ultimately subjective, much like the old confusion as to where regular old supernatural fiction ends and "weird fiction" begins.


message 25: by Dan (new)

Dan | 329 comments I agree, Randolph. Literary is like a politician's definition of "obscenity": we know it when we see it. I completely reject the argument that literary is subjective. If that were true, this group need only be called horror.


message 26: by Dan (last edited Oct 04, 2017 07:02PM) (new)

Dan | 329 comments I may have been attempting some humor in the questions I posed above, but I was serious too. One question has me thinking further. That is, "can literary horror be non-fiction?" I would argue that indeed it can. My candidate book to prove the point is Howard Phillips Lovecraft's masterpiece, Supernatural Horror in Literature. Originally published in 1927 and revised in 1933-34, it's the book I go to again and again for intelligent opinions and good read leads on early horror.

There is a wikipedia page about the book: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superna...

And the book is in the public domain:
http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/t... The actual book, not expensive since it's a Dover edition, has an index, which I find invaluable.

Even if all this is old news to you, perhaps these maps that treat of Lovecraft's subject matter at a glance are not. I enjoyed them and realized I wanted to read further in his chapter on American horror: http://www.literatur-der-angst.de/Map...


message 27: by Randolph (new)

Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments My comment was.probably a bit too spirited. I would vote for Ordeal by Hunger about the Donner emigrants as non-Fiction horror.


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