Breaking the Rules in Horror


L. Marie Wood

Challenging the norm is required to create a fresh, breakout creative work. This, of course, is just my opinion, but the proof is shown to be in the proverbial pudding time and time again. Consider Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its epistolary approach; Faulkner’s stream of consciousness work; King’s mastery of horror in the mundane. Each of these examples illustrates boundary-challenging that changed the way people think about fiction and, in turn, contributed to the literary cannon.

I am a fan of breaking the rules.

This is reflected in my personal work and even, I believe, in my genre preference. Stay with me – I will explain. Being a horror fiction author goes against my personal trope (read stereotype); I am an African American woman. The “trope”, as it were, says that people like me (African American women? Women? African Americans? I don’t know which distinction makes more sense here!) don’t write horror fiction. I am better suited to write contemporary fiction – to put a finer point on it, African American fiction. Even though my genre had many powerhouse women in place at its inception (Ann Radcliff and Mary Shelley, just to name a few), and still boasts many formidable female authors (Tananarive Due, Anne Rice, I could go on), most people only think of male authors when the genre comes to mind. Finally, people don’t think that women even read horror fiction. I defy the trope purely by being.

Because my chosen genre is horror fiction. It is a dying genre, as has been illustrated by its unceremonious inclusion under the Speculative Fiction umbrella. Losing its own distinction means that the multiple sub-genres therein have been flattened out, muted; nearly expunged, with only the “loudest” of the bunch surviving to swivel their heads around and survey the new landscape. These squeaky wheels change our PR, helping and harming the genre at the same time. Visceral horror and all the blood and gore that comes with it is not representative of the psychological horror that I write, but if that is the only thing that readers envision when they think of horror, my sub-genre is lumped into the same bag, for better or worse. This creates its own set of problems and ensuing trends that attempt to remedy them.

Horror authors find themselves in a unique predicament when trying to market their work these days. In the early 2000s, there were countless markets boasting horror fiction titles on the current and upcoming rosters. New writers could find online and print venues that would pay for their work with relative ease. It wasn’t unheard of for self-published book to garner enough sales to be re-released by one of the top five publishers. Now, while authors can still find markets online and in print, they are few and far between. The last five years have seen once prominent markets fold or shift perspective. Horror authors are increasingly asked to blend their genre with others. While cross-genre work is nothing new to horror authors (we are a flexible bunch by nature), the tropes that go along with those mash-ups can be confining. But here’s the worst part. More and more frequently, authors feel compelled to avoid the label of horror fiction for fear of the connotation it carries.

Horror authors are forced, now, to be more critical about their positioning. That means that some stick to obscure sub-genres (for example, bizarro) and write for a niche market. That can also mean that horror authors become full-fledged speculative fiction authors, or paranormal romance authors, or (insert your favorite spec fic genre here) authors, effectively reducing the amount of horror they infuse in their writing to a more mainstream-palatable amount in the hopes that this shift will make their work more marketable. For horror authors like me, who remember how old they were when they read their first scary story, this watering down brings about an intense mourning of the organic.

I had an agent once. He asked me to do what I illustrated above – create a blend of my quiet, psychological horror with suspense so that my novel would have a better chance at being sold. While I worked on that, the market shifted again. He then wanted me to add comedy to my decidedly not funny tale because that is what the market was leaning toward at the time. We could not keep up with the trends. I tried writing for the market and found that my work suffered. I found that I was slower at completing it, that I was forcing the storyline, that my characters all but screamed “Stop! You’re killing us!” from the page. I made mistakes along the way that I never make when writing comfortably in my genre/sub-genre of choice. In short, it was much harder to do. There is a reason for that. At heart, I am a horror author. I enjoy cross-genre work and pull from other ends of the spectrum often, but in the end, the work that I write – my best work - is dark.

It can be difficult to make creative decisions such as the one I mentioned. Sticking to my genre has been difficult. All that is true – heck, writing can be difficult at times, any author will tell you that. But what’s even harder is making peace with what that might mean from a career perspective. Breaking the rules and following what your true self tells you may mean working with niche markets for the entirety of your career. You have to be ok with that. (The other side of the coin is that you might be so unconventional that your novel is considered experimental. You could self-publish, branding yourself in a unique way. That could be a blast, but I digress…). Writing about ghosts and vampires and werewolves (oh my!) may mean that you never see your book on big box bookstore shelves (Bookstore? What bookstore…? Alas, that is a discussion for another time). Again, you have to be ok with that. If mainstream success is something you strive for, you have to understand that a shift in genre and/or writing style may be required. If you are ok with that, fantastic. If you want to break all the rules and chart your own course, do it. Know that someone will be there to cheer you on either way. I certainly will. There’s no rule that says I can’t, is there? If there is, it’s time for that rule to be broken.