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The H Word: Reviewing Horror

In speculative fiction, what defines genre is often boiled down to plot elements—spaceships or magic, technology or mysticism. Right or wrong, it makes pointing to what makes a story speculative somewhat easier. With horror, though, the line between what is “definitely horror” and what is “definitely not horror” is a bit more . . . vague? Further, those who seek to define horror based on other media often seem to fall into the trap of thinking of it only in terms of slasher films and jump scares. Which I feel is why you will find many speculative fiction readers and reviewers struggle with and avoid horror whenever they can—a great disservice not just to themselves, but to speculative fiction as a field, and to horror enthusiasts in particular.

So what makes horror distinct and recognizable? How can one begin to appreciate and examine the intersection of speculative fiction and horror? And how does one attempt to engage with and review horror stories in a way that can be personally rewarding and (hopefully) interesting to a wider audience?

To me, horror is about fear. It’s about feeling. Which I think is why a lot of readers and reviewers shy away from looking at stories that are labeled as horror. Because fear is intense, and intensely personal, so what one person finds frightening another person will likely find . . . boring. And if a reviewer decides to judge horror stories solely on how well the stories scare them personally, they’ll likely find a lot of horror to be unsuccessful. But to me there’s so much more to horror than just the ability to make us afraid. They can complicate how we think about fear, and they can open the door for our empathy to better understand the experiences and fears of others.

As a reader and reviewer, trying to judge whether or not a story has been successful for me, whether or not it has been valuable, means engaging with it, figuring out what it was trying to do and seeing how well I think it did. With horror, this task can be uniquely challenging because, well, because horror is so rarely fun. It’s about horrific things, about fear and what makes us afraid. As such, it’s rare to find a horror story that’s very fun to read, because most horror stories require a certain amount of discomfort in order to work—they seek to make our skin crawl, to make us look over our shoulders at the slightest noise, to make us see something terrifying that has otherwise passed unnoticed. It’s rarely pleasant, though I do feel horror is often optimistic and triumphant, showing people overcoming fear in order to reach for justice and healing.

Engaging with horror, then, requires an openness and level of trust that the story isn’t going to use horrifying and unpleasant elements simply to be gratuitous or to pander to those who might enjoy seeing the pain of others. This isn’t a small amount to require, especially for those already asked to accept their own erasure, exploitation, or abuse for the good of entertainment on a regular basis. There are few worse experiences as a reader than to open yourself to a piece and feel betrayed by it, to find your willingness to engage turned into a weapon against you. For readers, this might be reason enough to avoid the often-fraught themes, tropes, and traditions of horror stories. For reviewers, though, I feel there is an obligation to try, to remain open in hopes of acting as a sort of minesweeper, pointing out areas that require more caution or might be best avoided.

Horror has a lot to offer, after all, that makes such effort, such mapping, incredibly rewarding. Though often unpleasant, I find that horror, more than any other genre, really helps to build empathy, by showing readers fears they might not otherwise experience. By revealing darkness and pitfalls, predators and nightmares, the stories can educate, affirm, warn, and inspire. Educate by teaching how others fear and what they fear. Affirm by showing us that we are not alone in our fears, that they do not make us outcasts or unworthy of compassion. Warn by showing us how to avoid contributing to people’s terror and abuse. And inspire by showing that it’s possible to overcome fear, to push through darkness, and to emerge in a place where, together, we can banish and defeat our demons.

How I approach horror as a reviewer is to try and judge how well a story does any or all of these things—how it engages with fear in order to create meaning. And, with speculative horror, how it uses its speculative elements to enhance that meaning. It’s something that’s not always been easy for me, as I began reviewing speculative short fiction largely ignoring horror-specific venues, in part because so much of the discussion around short speculative fiction treated speculative horror as if it was part of some entirely different field and history. But from monster stories to dystopic narratives, fear and horror are very much woven into a lot of what makes speculative fiction powerful. For me, learning to approach horror stories openly, to get over my own fear (heh) of feeling uncomfortable or afraid when reading, has allowed me to find the beauty that is often present in horror, and the subtlety that many writers can bring to showing how foundational fear is in our lives and our world.

For me, judging how effective horror is goes far beyond detailing how scared I feel when I’m reading. It’s not about how often I jump, or even how desperate I am to read with the lights on, without the lengthening shadows to send shivers up my spine. Those are all tools, yes, that horror excels at utilizing, but the goal is not just to provoke a fear response. The goal, as with (I think) all literature, is to provoke thought, introspection, and action. Pretending that horror is only about making the reader feel afraid is, to me, overlooking so much that horror is capable of. As a reviewer, it’s with that in mind that I try to engage with horror stories and articulate my own opinions about them. And, so far, I haven’t regretted it.

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Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of all things speculative. His fiction and poetry have appeared at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, The Book Smugglers, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. You can find him gushing about short fiction (and occasionally his cats) on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.