I do not like to be scared. Seeking out media that is designed to be scary — books, films, TV shows, or, I don’t know, music videos? — is something I will never understand or choose to do. I also do not like gore. I can handle some violence in my books, if it serves a purpose, and sometimes I can get behind body horror. But blood and guts is not my thing. Please keep your graphic descriptions of murder to yourself.
Given these two facts, it makes sense that I’ve spent my entire reading life avoiding horror, right?
Horror is a tricky, slippery genre. Until recently, I treated horror (the genre) as a synonym for scary (the adjective). I assumed all horror books were scary, or gory, or both. I’ve been challenging myself to read outside my comfort zone over the past five years, and so I’ve tried mysteries and the (occasional) thriller, all sorts of nonfiction I never thought I’d love, and lots of weird speculative fiction. All of these forays into new-to-me genres have enriched my reading life in countless ways. But horror remained firmly on the no-go list. Risking boredom, or confusion, or simply not vibing with a book is one thing. Risking not being able to sleep for a week in the house where I live alone is something else entirely. I felt justified in my decision to write off horror as a genre. I do not want to be scared. Therefore, I do not read horror. Simple.
I can’t remember why I decided to pick up Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth. It’s queer, which, of course, made me want to read it. But it’s also categorized as horror. When you look it up on Goodreads, “horror” appears at the top of the genre list. Twice as many users have labeled it horror as have labeled it fiction or historical fiction. I was wary. I asked a book friend who reads a lot of horror how scary it was. “Not very,” she told me. I was still wary — a horror book! I had never read one! — but I decided to try it anyway.
Plain Bad Heroines is not my favorite book ever, but I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It’s a little creepy, certainly atmospheric, definitely dark. It’s a big, sprawling novel with about a hundred meandering side plots. There’s a lot going on, but the characters keep it grounded — it’s as much about their messy, complicated relationships with each other as it is about the sinister mystery that propels the story forward. It was nothing like what I had assumed horror novels were like. In fact, never in a million years would I have even called it a horror novel. It wasn’t scary. It wasn’t gory.
I started wondering if I’d been missing out on other amazing books because of the way I’d been lumping all of horror into one flat and stereotypical category. I’d been happily avoiding horror for as long as I could remember, but after reading Plain Bad Heroines, I began to understand that horror (the genre) is not at all what I thought it was. Assuming all horror books are scary is like assuming all science fiction books are set on spaceships, or all fantasy novels are about witches. “Set on a spaceship” is not the thing that makes a sci-fi book a sci-fi book. “Will give you nightmares” is not the thing that makes a horror book a horror book.
This all seems so obvious to me now, but I know my misguided assumptions about horror are shared by a lot of people. It’s not surprising, really. For starters, it’s hard not to associate horror (the word) with fear, terror, violence. “Fantasy” doesn’t immediately make me think of any particular kind of magic system or mythical creature, good or bad. “Science fiction” isn’t a phrase that evokes emotion — it’s just a descriptor. But “horror” is, well, a bad word. I mean: it’s a word that literally describes an unpleasant experience. The first definition in Merriam-Webster is “painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay.”
Then there’s the fact that lots of horror books are scary, and these are the ones that take up the most space in the cultural imagination. People seek out horror for all kinds of reasons, and one of those reasons, certainly, is to be scared. There’s something alluring in the intense suspense that horror can provide, in the sheer extremity of the situations and emotions it evokes. There’s something cathartic/intriguing/intoxicating about reading fiction that taps into feelings we try so hard to avoid in real life. These kinds of horror books — the scariest and most disturbing ones, the ones I can’t even read the publishing copy for — have a tendency to drown out all the other kinds of horror that exist.
Over the past year, I’ve continued to gently explore horror. I put off reading Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo for a while because it was categorized as horror. It’s not easy to get over my intuitive reaction to the genre (back away!) but I’m working on it, and it’s paying off. Summer Sons was one of my favorite books of 2022. I also enjoyed Patricia Wants to Cuddle by Samantha Allen (campy, satirical horror), and The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean (dark fantasy/horror). Two years ago I would have ignored both of these books. Slowly, I’m getting better at wading through the many, many kinds of horror to find the kind that I (gasp!) love: dark, challenging, atmospheric, a little upsetting.
But it’s still hard to navigate horror as someone who is completely uninterested in being scared. Some of this has to do with my own biases and assumptions about the genre, and some of it has to do with how the book world talks about and markets horror. It all needs to change, because the narrow and confining ideas about genre that so many of us have, and thus perpetuate, are likely keeping a lot of people like me from reading a lot of truly excellent books.