Because this is confusing and I need to make a list.
Hello, friends and foes! I wanted to compile a list of the six genres of horror with some examples. I think it’s so much easier to break into the horror game with some guidance – because it’s confusing out there, and there are a lot of great books to read.
What is horror, anyway? Quick and shameless self-promo: if you haven’t read my article Horror: Who Started It?, I recommend checking it out as a companion piece to this one. It touches on some of the big names and classics I might not get to here, but are still worth checking out. Horror in general is about fear (duh). These books create a dreadful atmosphere rife with startling twists, shocking turns, and repulsive imagery… most of the time, anyway. As I laid out in my earlier article, horror has its deepest roots in Ancient Greece, and more recent branches of the family tree include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Stephen King’s, well, everything. What I didn’t explore in my earlier article were the sub-genres of horror literature. Let’s break ’em down, in no particular order.
We’ll kick off the sub-genres with perhaps the most well known. Gothic horror focuses heavily on death and morality, and the existential nature of humankind. Early on, these stories were almost exclusively set in gothic castles and medieval ruins.
The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is considered to be the first horror novel in general, therefore serving as the first in the gothic sub-genre. It’s set in a medieval realm where death abounds and prophecies of doom and despair haunt the characters along with the ghosts.
The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James takes place on a country estate overrun with ghosts. It has a dreary atmosphere seeping with dread and creeping shadows. Bonus points for the creepy children.
Interview with a Vampire (1976) by Anne Rice deals with the existential struggles of immortal vampires through flowering and dramatic prose that is both terrifying and often described as “chillingly erotic”. Groovy.
My favorite sub-genre of horror in literature and film – ghost stories! Paranormal horror often includes ideas from fairy tales, folklore, and urban legends. Some horror buffs list paranormal and supernatural fiction as two different sub-genres, but for the purpose of this article, I’m lumping them together.
The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson is hailed as the greatest haunted house book ever written (The Wall Street Journal says so). It follows a group of individuals who stay in a presumably haunted house in an attempt to capture evidence of ghosts or paranormal activity.
Ghost Story (1979) by Peter Straub is about a group of five life-long friends that gather to tell each other ghost stories. They mysteriously start dying one by one, and they can’t help but wonder if the stories aren’t just stories, after all…
Pet Sematary (1983) by Stephen King is one of my favorite books ever. There’s a place you can bury your dead where they come back to life. But they come back… different. Supernatural and strange (much like
most all of King’s work), it’s a great example of paranormal and supernatural elements coexisting in one very creepy story.
This one’s all about rituals- specifically, rituals that aren’t considered scientific or religious (no established religion, anyway). Whether it’s spells or incantations or cults, occult horror encompasses everything, well, occult.
The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (1917-1935) published by Chartwell Books Classics collection in 2016 is obviously on this list. Lovecraft coined occult horror with his mysterious rituals summoning eldritch horrors, fantastical monsters of the deep, and fictitious ravings of those gone mad trying to summon and control limitless evils and supernatural powers.
The Damnation Game (1985) by Clive Barker is all about Faustian bargains (i.e. deals with the Devil) and how an ordinary man must stop the Devil from collecting his due. How do mortals compare to the limitless powers of the Devil? And why are mortals so obsessed with selling their souls when it’s really all they have?
Sorrowland (2021) by Rivers Solomon is the tale of a young woman who has escaped a commune (read: cult) and has given birth to twins in the wilderness. Though she escaped the commune, she is still being haunted by the rituals that took place there. This book also touches on the real life horrors of America’s history of violence against black bodies.
It’s kind of self-explanatory. The creepy crawly horror atmosphere married with fantastical and/or magical themes and settings.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) by Ray Bradbury is a classic dark fantasy tale about a mysterious carnival that rolls into a small town. Two teenage protagonists must learn how to face their fears and the creepy carnies. Book review coming soon!
Salem’s Lot (1975) by Stephen King is about a writer who returns to a small town in Maine (A small town in Maine? In a Stephen King book??) only to discover that the residents are turning into vampires! Fun Fact: King has twice been quoted as saying this is his favorite book he’s written.
Under the Pendulum Sun (2017) by Jeannette Ng is a Victorian fantasy about a girl who goes on a journey to rescue her brother from the land of the Fae, soon to discover the fairy folk are not the kind and gentle creatures they are thought to be.
The characters are being hunted and try desperately to survive despite the disparity of their situation. This category is particularly popular in horror films (think Saw, or any Eli Roth movie).
The Ruins (2006) by Scott Smith follows four American tourists who visit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, only to stumble across a Mayan village terrorized by killer vines. Survival horror is rife with body horror and gore, perhaps more than any other sub-genre, and this book does not disappoint on that front. It’s absolutely gnarly.
The Troop (2014) by Nick Cutter is about a scoutmaster who takes his troop into the Canadian wilderness on a typical camping trip. But they are soon met with an unexpected and terrifying intruder. They have to survive the elements, a bio-engineered infection, and whatever else lurks in the forest.
The Hunger (2018) by Alma Katsu is a retelling of the real-life horrors of the Donner party with an evil, witch-y twist. If you’re not familiar with the Donner party, they met their grisly fate in the Sierra Nevada mountains over the winter of 1846-1847. They took an untested “short cut”, got stuck in a blizzard, and ran out of food… well, kind of.
Another self-explanatory category, all about horrific imagery and tropes blended with tech and science.
Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley is hailed as the first science fiction horror book ever, and rightly so. It tells the tale of a young scientist (Frankenstein is the name of the SCIENTIST!!) who creates an almost-human creature with dead body parts and… science.
Carrion Comfort (1989) by Dan Simmons is an alternate history beginning in World War II. A man sent to the infamous Chelmno extermination camp in Poland embarks on a decades-long journey to reveal a secret society that is behind the world’s most violent events. Also, there are vampires… but not in the way you think.
Boneshaker (2009) by Cherie Priest is a Civil War era alternate history about a giant ice drill (Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine – say that five times fast) that malfunctions and unearths a gas that turns people into zombie-like creatures.
That concludes our dive into horror sub-genres. Do you have a favorite? Should I recreate this post but with horror film examples, instead? Let me know in the comments below!
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.
All other images are certified public domain.