Genre Fluid

Genre Fluid

by Alethea Lyons

I have a long-running debate with a friend. She insists I write horror. I staunchly deny this (as a complete wuss) and say I write very dark SFF.

My first published short story is about a brainwashed child forced to commit murder.

Read as a standalone, it seems like horror and it is in a horror anthology. However, it’s based on backstory for a book that is firmly science-fantasy.

Where is the line between dark fantasy and horror?

My usual measure is based on the primary aim of the book. Is it a story about magic or other fantastical things that uses horror elements, like a creepy atmosphere or twisted psychological motivations? Or is it a story written specifically to disturb the reader and evoke a sense of fear that uses fantastical elements like supernatural creatures?

Regardless of the author’s overall intention, certain words put our minds straight into one genre or the other. If someone says ‘zombies’ or ‘vampires’ my brain immediately defaults to horror, despite both of these being fantastical creatures. If we start talking about straight-up magic or more stereotypical SFF creatures like dwarves, my mind goes to fantasy. The word ‘necromancer’ certainly sounds like horror, but Gideon the Ninth is a bit of everything. Elves in folklore can be nasty pieces of work and songs like Seven Hundred Elves describe them as ‘foul and grim’ and that they intend to ‘make [the farmer] rue the day he was born and taste of shame and pain’ which certainly sounds like it’s straying into horror to me, especially combined with the fact that they’re banished by a religious symbol.

Horror and dark fantasy both explore something that is beyond the day-to-day knowledge of humans. They both investigate things that scare us. Sometimes they try to put a name to that with words like ‘ghost’ or ‘bean sidhe’ or ‘changeling’. Sometimes it’s more internal.

I would argue that horror often has less clear outcome than dark fantasy. In much of the horror I’ve read, there are no neat answers. Is it in the protagonist’s mind or is it really magic? Was the victim killed because of a witch’s curse or were they killed by a freak accident or human rage? Most fantasy will show that there is a supernatural element at work, often as a commonly known, accepted part of the worldbuilding.

‘The more unsettling a story, the more it leans towards horror,’ but that’s extremely subjective.

‘Horror more often has a deeper psychological meaning than fantasy,’ also depends on the reader.

‘There’s more blood and gore in horror than fantasy,’ is another difference I’ve heard cited.

All of these measure are ‘sometimes’ or even ‘often’ but none of it is definitive. There isn’t a strict list to apply and say, ‘Book X is dark fantasy and book Y is horror.’

The novella Your Blood and Bones has people gradually shapeshifting into feathered monsters, which sounds pretty fantastical, but it is dark and gets in your head the way a horror story does. As someone who is primarily a fantasy reader and writer, I classified it as dark fantasy when I read it. Another friend who primarily reads horror classified it as that.

Where is the line?

I guess my cop-out answer is, ‘Why do we have to clarify?’

Often, publishers like to put books neatly on a shelf with a title of the genre. They like to see something be Science-Fiction or Fantasy or Horror. None of these genres are standalone. There’s nothing in the descriptions that excludes something from being both or all of them.

Give me witches summoning arcane horrors in space, please.

Why not make it a mystery or thriller too by making them unknown witches and throwing in a detective.

I write firmly in the crossover space: horror-fantasy (witches and spirits in chilling, gothic settings with sentient mist), or science-fantasy (cyberfae and magitech). Genre is very much in the mind of the reader or publisher. It’s based on their expectations, likes, and where they see the emphasis.

Write what you enjoy, explore the possibilities offered by crossover genres, submit to publishers of both horror and dark fantasy if that works for your story.

Be genre fluid.


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