Is horror horrid?

Don’t worry, it’s only ketchup

I’m going to start this post with the disclaimer that, as I have mentioned before, horror has, up until recently, not been a genre that I’ve been a particular fan of. I thought I’d seen enough to know that it is not something I would ever enjoy.

Then I read M. J. Wesolowski’s The Black Land and, from that, got recommended Dathan Aurbach’s Penpal. I enjoyed them both and, as I have always known that whereas I never have particularly enjoyed out-and-out horror, I have always liked the dark, the weird, something a little nasty going on in my fiction, I got to thinking about why I don’t like horror.

Thus I mused. I turned the Analytical Eye upon it (that gift and curse that many writers develop that leads you to examine the whys and wherefores of everything you do and don’t enjoy) and discovered, as I often do, that there is a lot to be learned from studying the reasons behind your expectations being thwarted.

I thought at first that maybe I just didn’t like violence. But that’s not true. Well, maybe ‘like’ is the wrong word. I wouldn’t want to say I actively enjoy violence, don’t go clicking away wondering what sort of psychopath you’ve stumbled across, but violence on the sort of level of 300 or The Raid I can watch easily. I am actually a big fan of both these movies. The violence is comic book style, over the top, so obviously not real that it doesn’t rake its fingernails down your bones. This, I can handle. It adds to the spectacle and it’s part of the story and the look. It’s there for a reason and therefore I can absorb it along with the rest of the narrative.

What I do actively like in a narrative, however, is a little darkness is tossed into the mix, a la Black Swan, The Woman in Black or In Bruges. A lot of my short fiction contains violence or darkness on these sorts of levels.

So what is it that I don’t like? Why have I had such beef with horror if I’m happy to write fiction about people’s bones splintering through their skin, or getting their faces caved in with pokers, or dismembering animals just to see what they look like on the inside?

I’ve decided there has to be reason. Not a reason. Reason. There has to be weight, depth, i.e. a story well handled and well executed (if you’ll pardon the word choice).

Essentially, less is more, show don’t tell and there has to be an answer to why. All of which are already established storytelling maxims.

It’s all about reason.

This subject has come to the forefront of my attention because I am currently working on a submission for Spectral Press who have recently put out a call for pieces for an anthology of ‘industrial horror’. They describe what they are after as  ‘the entwining of flesh and stark machinery, techno-industrial dystopias, twisted conceptions of body and enhanced beauty, Cronenbergian nightmares, Kafkaesque metamorphoses, posthuman realities, the decay of body, mind, spirit and reason, innumerable sexualities.’ Details here.

It was just crawling with potential and I felt I couldn’t pass up the chance at having a go.

But it is horror, there is no two ways about it. That’s what they’re after. So it can’t just be creepy, or a little unsettling or thought provoking. There needs to be horror in there.

And so I’m having a go, hoping to bring to my attemptwhat I enjoy when I do enjoy horror: an edge of despair, violence and darkness, but with reason. Real but not gratuitous. Scary but not blatant. Unsettling but not…disturbing.

Whether I will pull this off is yet to be seen, but it will be fun to try, not in the least because it will be a good chance once again to try and hone my narrative skills. Writing a story within particular parameters but still remain realistic and engaging as what it’s always all about after all.

I’ll let you know how I do, but for now here is just a teaser so you can see if I’m managing so far:


They say you’ve been there too long when you can no longer smell it. It’s the sharp, smokey smell, like hot copper, that gives bloodgrease its name. That and the fact that it turns a thick, dark red before the final filter.

Not, as the kids in my youth unit tried to convince me, because it is refined from litres and litres of human blood. It’s not nearly as dramatic as all that. Though it’s claimed lives before and looked like it was ready to take the rest of mine.

‘I promised myself I wouldn’t be here this long,’ I muttered, wiping sweat off my forehead with the back of my glove.

Ely snorted as he heaved a lump of ore into the grinder. ‘We all promised ourselves that, Wyatt,’ he shouted over the pounding of splintering rock. ‘And we all knew better.’

I opened my mouth to reply when there was a screech somewhere overhead in the crane heads and sparks flew. People shouted and my heart pounded as I scrambled for the nearest fire blanket. Ely helped me fling it over the nearest barrels and then I held it down and prayed. There was a moment of aching silence but when nothing exploded the noise began to rise again. The bent and grimed workers re-stowed fire blankets and went back to their belts and machines. I rubbed my face, watching the colours dance in from of my eyes as my pulse calmed.

A dull chill rose in the place of the heat of panic. The heat, like a solid thing around me, was the same as always. The clamour filling the air like the internal workings of some mechanical beast was as constant as ever. I still had the dull ache in my lungs from the fumes leaking in around my mask and the physical weariness that went down to my bones…but I could not longer smell the bloodgrease.

‘I’m serious Ely,’ I muttered. ‘I’m going to apply for transfer.’

This made Ely pause and I saw the smudged dirt that passed as his face shift as he raised his eyebrows. ‘You’re kidding.’

I shook my head. ‘I can’t smell it any more. My hearing’s going too. Bruce was coughing again this morning so much he couldn’t get upright.’ I shook my head. ‘I don’t care about the credit any more. Or the security. I’m getting out of here whilst I still have fingers left.’

Ely’s jaw worked. ‘There’s nothing out there to go to’

‘I’d find something…’

‘You reckon?’

I opened my mouth to reply when a presence at my elbow made me freeze.

‘Having a break?’

‘Sorry, foreman,’ Ely muttered.

‘You want to eat tonight get the fuck to work.’

‘Sorry sir,’ I mumbled. I let out a breath as the foreman paced away to lean over the belt growl at the pickers.


A chill went over my skin despite the blistering heat of the water in the showers after my shift when the smell of the disinfectant didn’t filter through to me. I tried rubbing my nose and my fingers came away bloody.

I stared at the blood until the water shut off and we were all heading into the driers. The workers who could still hear gestured to those that couldn’t to signal when it was time to move out of the washroom and back to the dorms.

The next shift shuffled by us as we took the bunks they had left. I left my tray of food untouched next to my bunk, turning a rag I was trying to use to stem the bleeding over and over in my hands.

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26 Responses to Is horror horrid?

  1. Helena Hann-Basquiat says:

    That is so sensual — you manage to evoke so many images, sounds and smells to create a really unsettling atmosphere. If you can manage to keep your reader feeling uncomfortable, I think you’ve got a good start atmosphere-wise.

    • Thanks muchly, Helena. I really wanted to create a sense to the oppression of the refinery almost being solid thing. I think there’s still a redraft or two to be done but so glad I seem to be getting there 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  2. jabe842 says:

    An interesting post … We differ on our fondness for the Horror genre, but I think we are very much on the same wavelength that if it’s to work, and to have artistic value as fiction, then yes, it needs reason, and i would also venture, plenty of heart as well. It’s easy to describe a murder, beat for beat, but the trick of course is in making the reader CARE about the victim (and maybe the killer, or perhaps that’s just me).
    I really like the teaser for your submission to Spectral Press – a really vivid hook into the narrative, and a great sense of character and place. Good luck with it, I really hope to read more.

    • Some great points there Jabe, thanks very much for reading & contributing. I completely agree and love the way you’ve put that: it needs heart. You have to care. Excellent point. And thanks very much! Even this first re-read has revealed to me I still have a few re-writes and a way to go with this one, but glad to know I’m off to a decent start 🙂

      Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by, read & comment too

      • jabe842 says:

        No problem. Do you mind if I reblog the piece to my own WordPress? It’s a great article/excerpt, and I think you make some points that run intriguingly parallel to a piece on Horror I posted a little while ago. Feel free to say no 🙂

      • Not at all, of course, feel free! Reblog away! I am immensely flattered. Do you mind if I at some point use your expression of fiction needing ‘heart’ to be real? It’s really struck me and it’s exactly right. I will, of course, credit you for it

      • jabe842 says:

        Yes, of course 🙂 I’d be honoured! There’s a piece on mine called “Oh … The Horror” where a lot of our viewpoints converge, and I would be very interested in your thoughts on that, maybe? Thanks for letting me Reblog, it’s my first time so wish me luck 😉

      • Thanks again 😀 and yes of course, i already intended to have a read of your fiction, I had a quick skim earlier. Looking forward to it 🙂

      • jabe842 says:

        Thank you! Love the Predator pumpkin on Twitter btw haha! Stay in touch 🙂

      • HA! Thanks, I love that pumpkin 😀 and yes I shall! Good luck with the blog 🙂

  3. jabe842 says:

    Reblogged this on An Ark Hive and commented:
    An interesting perspective on Horror Fiction from J.S Collyer …

  4. So THIS is what you’ve been up to!

    Great point about “reason” in horror, and I agree completely. When it’s phony or gratuitous, you know it’s just all about grossing us out.

    And “Grist” is very promising. A nice set-up that makes me wonder where it’s going to go next…

  5. D. James Fortescue says:

    You are very correct. Reason and logic has to be applied to every genre, even horror. Horror for the sake of horror is a bad reason to use it.

    Very promising story, with the words and imagery conveying an industrial-scale forge atmosphere =)

  6. Never heard of The Raid, so thanks for popping that into my TBW queue. Grist looks like it’s off to a good start, BTW. Good luck with it and if you’d like someone to give it a critique when you’re ready, I’d love to take a look.

    I already have a great playlist in my head for editing some “industrial horror”!

    • The Raid is brilliant 😀 it’s Indonesian but directed by some Welsh dude. It’s not a million miles removed from Dredd. I really love it 🙂

      Thanks very much Philip, I may very well take you up on that offer, I’m hoping to get the draft done next week!

  7. 1WriteWay says:

    I so enjoyed this post. I enjoy writing and reading horror but, like you, I don’t enjoy it if it’s gratuitous, without reason. As I read your post, I thought of my years of watching horror films, how sometimes the ones with the least amount of violence are the most horrifying because they allow my imagination to work overtime. The Grist is off to a great start! I felt chills reading it, wondering what would happen to Wyatt, what is this god-forsaken place where he is (apparently) forced to work. It also reminded of me of Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, a novella she wrote in 1861. The story is in the public domain ( Like her story, The Grist captures very well the dehumanizing nature of industrialism, a kind of horror we continue to live with.

  8. Pingback: #FlashForFriday – ‘The End’ | The Path – J. S. Collyer's Writing Blog

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