Can Horror Be Literary?

Can Horror Be Literary?

By: Meg Hafdahl

My love for stories surpasses any one genre. As a child I was just as invested in Matilda’s journey in Roald Dahl’s novel as I was about the twin sisters in the Sweet Valley High series. Goosebumps and The Babysitter’s Club shared the same shelf beside my bed. As I got older I became more intrigued by classic literature; Frankenstein, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Gone With the Wind. Learning how to deconstruct short stories by Herman Melville, how to understand the nuance of Ray Bradbury, it all thrilled me in a way that only true book nerds understand. Choosing to study literature in college was a no-brainer, as I loved to read; and I loved to write about what I read. 

Once there, it became obvious that some of my fellow classmates had a not-so favorable view of horror. It wasn’t “literary”. Despite the strides made by Mary Shelley, or even the gothic king himself, Edgar Allan Poe, contemporary horror was seen in literary circles as less than desirable. 

I was torn. I had a desire to write something that mattered. Dark literature called to me as a topic of examination. I wrote essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson, Poe. Even on “The Pomegranate Seed”  a ghost story by Edith Wharton who is more well known for her society dramas. As I dug deeper, I came to find that gothic literature said everything I wanted to say and much more. And while the familiar trappings of Victorian hauntings cause a shiver, think Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, horror had changed with modern times. But that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. 

I struggled with how to bridge this gap of gothic literature and contemporary horror. 

It took me years to discover that I could write stories and books that were both scary and heavy with purpose. Yet, not so heavy that they crumbled under the weight of their own construction. I wanted fun horror! Blood, guts, razor-sharp claws. I wanted psychological suspense that made the reader question the narrator’s sanity. I wanted to thrill and scare and excite. 

Finally, and slowly, I took steps to tell stories about motherhood, guilt, sex, self-loathing, and, more, through horror. The only difference was that it wasn’t with the Victorian idea of what was scary (wisps of ghosts in the night) but with the full experience of horror that we, as those living in 2022, have come to understand. That’s all the monsters, human and beast, that we can explore. 

When my publisher at Inklings Publishing, Fern Brady, called my work “literary horror” my blackened, horror-heart sung at that description. It had been an unnameable desire, something I strove for but didn’t know how to describe. 

My journey to build upon this genre that I certainly didn’t invent, but work to be a part of, began with my book Twisted Reveries: Thirteen Tales of Macabre in 2015. A collection of stories led by women ranging in topic from abuse, chronic illness, loneliness, to desperation, was my first foray in connecting such dire subject matter with what I hoped was eerie, pulse-pounding, and downright terrifying. As I began to construct the world of Willoughby, Minnesota, a fictional town in which my novel series takes place, I wanted to evoke the rural gothic subgenre that I had come to learn about in college. This was explored in depth in Twisted Reveries II: Tales From Willoughby in which every story became a building block of what Willoughby had become. I delved into the past, able to play with the Victorian ghosts I had come to know so well, and also thread through contemporary horror that lives in technology and our more thorough understanding of psychology. 

My third book of short stories, which came out most recently, Twisted Reveries III: More Macabre Tales, is a re-visit to the moving geography of the first book, and the infusion of history of the second. It was my hope to speak through a number of different women from different classes, races, and ideologies, to encompass a sort of horrific telling of women’s history. While these women deal with the patriarchy through the ages they also have to fight the toothy, blood hungry ones! It’s my way of infusing what I love (scares and screams!) with what I know makes writing vital; telling stories of the human experience that we can recognize as a reflection of us and of those around us. 

So, is horror literary? While I’m sure there are some literature majors who I went to school with who would say no, I for one, say YES. Just like any genre it contemplates those big life questions.And here’s something I’ve come to learn along the way. If a story is entertaining and full of complex characters, lovable or villainous, then it has value. Maybe it won’t be studied with a proverbial microscope of literary deconstruction, but if it made a reader feel something, if it made the writer feel something, then it achieved its purpose. Because, you know what, I can’t help it, no matter what I’m writing, it’s just so fun to add more blood. 

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