Most people think about fear and monsters when horror fiction comes up. Mention horror and you’ll conjure images of haunted houses, creepy woods covered in fog, and blood stains in various surfaces in most people. Yes, it’s true that vampires, zombies, ghosts, demons, and werewolves are, along with the aforementioned images, horror staples, but the genre has always been smarter and better written than most readers think and it has lots to offer. Nowadays, horror is a genre that can go head-to-head against any other in terms of quality of prose and engaging narratives. Horror is constantly evolving and improving, and its Golden Age is happening right now. For writers looking to improve their writing, horror is the perfect place to look because it brings together some of the most crucial elements in fiction regardless of genre.
Let’s start with one of the most important elements in fiction: empathy. Without empathy, horror fails. Readers need to feel a connection with the characters they’re reading about, and that connection can’t happen in an empathy vacuum. Horror tends to get that right. I read a lot of Richard Laymon, Brian Keene, and Bentley Little in my early teens. In their books, normal people got caught, or thrown into, abnormal circumstances. Laymon, Keene, and Little showed me that my own fiction had to make readers feel like they were watching a friend get in trouble. A woman being devoured by a beast in the woods is a bummer. Your sister getting devoured by a beast in the woods is a life-changing nightmare. That’s how empathy works. Writers in all genres can learn from horror authors how best to do this. Take Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, which became a viral phenomenon in 2019. The post-apocalyptic setting wasn’t new, but Malorie was a superb, multilayered character that a lot of people connected with. Similarly, all of Paul Tremblay’s work, but especially A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and The Cabin at the End of the World, are stories about regular, likable families who suffer through horrible, confusing, scary events. Tremblay is one of the biggest names in contemporary horror, and part of this success comes from the smart, innovative ways in which he reminds us all about the importance of empathy.
If empathy is present, you’re already on your way to a successful narrative. However, there’s more you need to do, and great horror fiction is also the place to turn to learn how to do those things well. Pacing, for example, is another element that’s usually more noticeable in horror than in other genres. By nature, horror stories need to start, accelerate, scare you, explode, and then end. While this format is also followed by other kinds of narratives, horror is known for doing it well without wasting time. There are more relaxed subgenres like Southern Gothic that slow things down a bit, but horror rarely stops to smell the flowers unless they’re covered in blood or some other unholy liquid. Demons rarely sit around and killers don’t slowly stab their victims. In fact, there is no such thing as a slow jump scare. Good horror moves forward at breakneck speed, and reading horror can help writers in all genres understand how to keep their narratives moving. Read Kathe Koja, Gemma Files, Jeremy Robert Johnson, and Lucy A. Snyder; their work will be the equivalent of acquiring an MFA in fast-paced horror.
The next element might surprise a few of you: research. As an MFA instructor, I spend a week of my Creating Fiction I course discussing the importance of research. While I’ve met authors who write medical thrillers who research medical advances and crime writers who obsessively research guns, the amount of research most horror authors do to write about things like body horror, psychology, and demons, to name a few, is commendable. The important thing to remember is that horror fiction is about made up things, so one could argue that research isn’t necessary. However, successful horror, like all successful fiction, demands a profound understanding of everything it deals with, and that often includes human nature, biology, geography, mythology, psychology, etc. Horror ignores the “write what you know” rule and instead researches what it doesn’t know. All writers would benefit from doing the same.
Lastly, while there are plenty more elements that merit discussion, I want to talk about the boldness with which horror pulls from other genres to strengthen itself. While toothy monsters and haunted houses usually come to mind, horror is everywhere. Horror knows no bounds in terms of space, geography, or time. Horror takes ignoring reality seriously and focuses on building worlds that allow suspension of disbelief to settle in and stay there until the last page regardless of what happens in between. There is great horror in suburban homes, churches, creepy basements, tropical islands, spaceships, and other planets. There is horror full of drugs and guns that almost looks like crime. There is horror that talks seriously about mental health, conservationism, pandemics, and the end of the world. There is horror mixed with fantasy and romance. There is horror that dresses up like science fiction and horror that, like Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, plays around with history to bring us a different version of an event. Horror borrows from crime, romance, historical fiction, science fiction, and even literary fiction (read Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It to see what a great literary fiction novel about a haunted house looks like). To take a class in mixing genres into new horror narratives, read Stephen Graham Jones, Lauren Beukes, and Brian Evenson. The work of these authors will show you the trick to successful mixing: horror never ceases to be horror after the borrowing. Instead, it consumes elements of other genres and morphs into a new, unique monster. Reading a lot of different horror novels from a plethora of subgenres is a great way of internalizing this process and learning how to ensure that the core of your narrative remains the same despite the various elements you can use to build it.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about horror fiction is that we can discuss how other genres can learn from the way it uses empathy, pacing, research, and mixing genre elements and the discussion will barely scratch the surface. Horror masters like Joe Lansdale and Stephen King have said before, and I will say it again here: reading is crucial to being a writer, and the more you read, the better you write. Now go read a few horror novels and then get back to the page with your new tools.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, editor, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He is the author of COYOTE SONGS, ZERO SAINTS (both from Broken River Books), and GUTMOUTH (Eraserhead Press). He is the book reviews editor at PANK Magazine, the TV/film editor at Entropy Magazine, and a columnist for LitReactor and CLASH Media. His nonfiction has appeared in places like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the LA Times, El Nuevo Día, and other venues. The stuff that’s made up has been published in places like Red Fez, Flash Fiction Offensive, Drunk Monkeys, Bizarro Central, Paragraph Line, Divergent Magazine, Cease, Cows, and many horror, crime, surrealist, and bizarro anthologies. When not writing or reading, he has worked as a dog whisperer, witty communications professor, and ballerina assassin. His reviews are published in places like NPR, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Criminal Element, The Rumpus, Heavy Feather Review, Atticus Review, Entropy, HorrorTalk, Necessary Fiction, Crimespree, and other print and online venues. He teaches at SNHU’s MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.