Saturday, October 30, 2010

Horror or Fantasy?

I'm having trouble discerning the difference between fantasy and horror.
If a man turns into a moth and is appalled by it, that's horror. If he likes the transformation and takes off happily into the night, that's fantasy? Or is it? Is his acceptance or enjoyment of it enough to plant the story in the fantasy camp. Is it necessary that the reader be scared to qualify as horror?
I ask this because I wrote what I thought was a horror story and sent it off to a venue publishing horror and was told my story was fantasy. I am putting a similar story on here tomorrow and I bet you will call it fantasy.
I always thought of fantasy as stories with dragons or supernatural themes.
How do you define the two?


Deb said...

I suppose the boundaries between genres are always blurry, but to me horror involves "normal" life into which something unexplainable happens--with terrible results. Fantasy takes place in a world where the supernatural is accepted and, regardless of the results, all elements can be, in one way or another, explained.

Speaking for myself, I am much more likely to pick up a book if it is marketed as "Horror"; I tend to leave "Fantasy" alone--which is probably my loss.

pattinase (abbott) said...

So if a story is completely normal until something abnormal happens, it's horror. That describes my story. I am confused.

Deb said...

Well, that's just the vague definition I have in my had. The person to whom you submitted your story may have had a different definition. As I said, I think the lines that separate genres tend to be blurry.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yean, he's probably 25 and I need to hack off some heads to place it.

Anonymous said...

Patti - There really is a fine line between different genres and sub-genres of books.

To me, fantasy means the book takes place in an alternate reality, so that we have to completely suspend our disbelief. Horror is dark, frightening, even evil, but it need not take place in a fantasy world. Or it can. Fantasy doesn't require horror (e.g. Some of J.R.R. Tolkein's books are not what I would call horror), but it can contain it.

Funny, it's easier for me to give you examples of fantasy or horror than it is to describe them..

Fred Zackel said...

Sue Grafton used to say Fantasy was the Great Equalizer, and by that she meant the writer (and the reader) feels vindicated at the end. If you can crawl across the Great Mosh Pit of Slimy Worms (i.e., faculty meetings) with your brains intact and exit on the other side, then that's a fantasy ... even if the event itself was Horror. So a story can be both.

Jerry House said...

Horror provides the reader a sense of unease. Fantasy (usually) provides a happy (or least, a resolved) ending.

Horror can evoke the supernatural. Fantasy invokes the imagined.

Bad horror can use graphic violence and sex as its centerpiece. Good horror can use them as a tool, rather than as the finished piece.

Fantasy, like the detective story, tends to find a balance between good and evil.

Horror uses atmosphere and fantasy uses place.

Horror is when what you think is your very best story is rejected. Fantasy is the wishful thinking you have about a story before you go through the hard work of writing it.

Paul D Brazill said...

I like Jerry's definitions.

I can't be doing with fantasy, as a rule (or sci -fi, for that matter) and I like my horror to be more down to earth .(Says the man who writes about a werfolf detective ...)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Well, these are great definitions. And it is really fun to think about. How much horror need there be? Can the horror just come at the end? Can it appear like something else until a final image?

Jerry House said...

You asked, can the horror just come at the end?

The first example that comes to mind is "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson.

To get a good view of what horror can do, try some of the classics by M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, E. F. Benson, H. R. Wakefield, or many of the others writers of that time. For a more modern twist, there's always Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Ramsey Campbell, Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, Charles L. Grant, and a zillion others.

George said...

For me, horror fiction is all about generating fear in the reader. Fantasy fiction deals with non-real elements: dragons, fairies, wizards. There can be some overlap: horror stories about vampires for example.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I would say the story I sent them was exactly like that. The horror was just in the final sentence. And there were no fairies--it may have been too whimsical though.
But I think the age or sensibilities of the reader might influence what is horror to them. Some readers don't need as much blood and gore perhaps. And maybe film has influenced horror too much.

Evan Lewis said...

In cases like yours, Patti, I'd say the difference is in the eye of the beholder. I wrote one recently with both fantasy and horror elements and I'm curious to see what editors will say.

Richard Robinson said...

The two once had well defined borders, but they have been blurred by readers, editors, and publishers who try to bend any label toward what they think will sell the best. Right now horror is the hot thing, so suddenly it's all horror, and even mystery fiction has a horror element to it, with the super twisted criminals in works like the SAW films and in books with similar themes.

As far as I'm concerned, Fantasy and Horror still should be two separate different genres, just as mystery and westerns are.

I have to disagree with Deb, I don't think the supernatural, ghosties and ghoulies, has any place in fantasy. Fantasy uses magic to achieve not physical-world events.

FANTASY: magic yes, supernatural no. Elves, dwarves, trolls, dragons, and such creatures yes, even demons.

If I walk into my bedroom and toss back the sheets to discover a hole from which swarm gore-covered spiders, that's horror. If I wake up in a strange land people by creatures I've not seen before and in which magic works, that's fantasy.

Margot - NONE of Tolkein's books are horror, they are all fantasy.

By Jerry's definition of horror as making the reader feel unease, then the writing of John Connolly, Val McDermid, Robert Heinlein, even Max Brand become horror? I don't think so. There is a huge difference between something including a horrifying event (a bad auto accident, say) in a story and a story being a horror story.

Charles Gramlich said...

It's one of those "know it when I see it" thing. Here's how I look at it though.

True horror, = the main character must shatter. The events of the story must essentially destroy the character, and either the character dies, or if he/she lives is irrevocably wounded.

Thriller = the main character comes close to shattering, but overcomes and survives. He/she is generally left haunted though, and may be brittle.

Fantasy = the main character comes close to shattering, but in the end becomes stronger. He/she has passed through the fire and been tempered.

Richard Robinson said...

I'll buy that, Charles.

pattinase (abbott) said...

You'll have to tell me what I wrote tomorrow. I am still not sure. I would say horror but it doesn't quite meet any of these definitions.

David Cranmer said...

"... stories with dragons or supernatural themes" is fantasy. Psycho is horror to me.

Dave Zeltserman said...

What Jerry House said. Horror and Fantasy can both have the same elements (dragons, monsters, etc.) but if the the purpose of the story if to create a sense of horror (or dread + unease), then it's horror! You can look at a lot of noir as horror. The image at the end of Double Indemnity pushes that into horror.

Yvette said...

I definitely don't think fantasy is strictly about dragons, fairies and wizards. To me, fantasy is any story in which something fantastic can happen in a world where 'fantasy' may or man not be accepable. That is CAN happen is the fantasy for me. But now isn't there a new genre called fantastic realism? Or something like that. China Mieville, I believe is one of the aurhors usualy mentioned.I made of list of my Favorite Fantasy Movies over on my blog and some of the titles were: Wizard of Oz, Babe, Topper and Big. I consider them all fantasies in varying degrees.

Horror for me is kind of a moot thing, because I no longer watch or read it. But I'd say that horror
often has a lot to do with the grotesque and always to do with death and the fear thereof.

Todd Mason said...

Horror fiction is fantasy fiction that deals with extinction directly. Just as suspense fiction is more or less realistic fiction that deals with extinction directly. They are both fiction about how not to die, but fully about how inevitable death is.

The characters are threatened with some degree of extinction (even if they are to be damned or to remain as ghosts indefinitely, in horror), or need and certainly are likely to try to avoid extinction. In adventure or fantasy fiction that is not horror nor suspense, such threats might be in place (almost certainly are, in many if not most examples) but are not nearly as central.

The rejecting editor might well have a very rigid definition of horror, and his(? was it?) publication will suffer for it. That, btw, is why you should submit to the non-semipro (at best) cranks and try fully professional editors such as Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF, or Ann VanderMeer at WEIRD TALES (if the latter wasn't so overstocked), don't get As Many out of hand dismissals out of ignorance, if any, or crochets.

I'll read the story at the next post and give you my assessment (makes an essment of us all).

Todd Mason said...

Or, rather, why you shouldn't submit first to the semipro (at best) cranks. You're wasting A Lot more time that way than by letting editors who know what they're doing take a look.