By Brandon Cornett and Nick Torres
Are you a die-hard horror fan? Are you someone looking to expand your horizons, and find just the right kind of horror for you? Well, we’ve got just the thing. We’ve dissected the horror into the nine main subgenres of horror with some recommended reading for each category.
Classifying a Genre: It’s Like Herding Cats
Categorizing the subgenres of horror genre is harder than you might think. We’re not talking about the periodic table of elements here. It gets murky. There’s a lot of overlap, a lot of genre-bending and crossover. If you asked ten popular horror writers to make a list of subgenres within the main genre, you’d get ten different lists.
But let’s tackle it anyway!
We’ve broken horror down into nine categories or subgenres. These subgenres of horror account for the majority of horror fiction available today, while also harkening back to the origin of the genre.
Nine Popular Subgenres of Horror
Without further fanfare, let’s explore the most popular subgenres of horror fiction, with some sterling examples of each category.
Dark Fantasy: These novels give readers the best of both worlds. They contain fantasy elements like magic, strange creatures, etc. They also add a dark layer of terror and suspense, just to keep things interesting. Recommended reading: The Citadel of Fear, by Gertrude Barrows. The Girl From The Other Side , by Nagabe. Beautiful Darkness, by Fabien Vehlmann & Marrie Pommepuy.
Gothic: Gothic horror goes way, way back. In fact, it’s the literary predecessor to the horror genre we know and love today. So in terms of cultural education, this subgenre warrants some attention. These dark, brooding stories often blend romance and horror, with a side dish of death. They’re usually atmospheric stories, where the setting itself becomes a kind of character. Recommended reading: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Dracula (The Graphic Novel), by Bram Stoker and Jason Cobley. Gotham by Gaslight, by Brian Augustyn. The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill.
Lovecraftian: H.P. Lovecraft often described his own work as “weird tales.” But they contain horror elements as well. He created his own subgenre that many writers still emulate today. Lovecraftian fiction often focuses on cosmic elements that are beyond human understanding. Thus, it’s also referred to as “cosmic horror.” These stories can make us humans feel small and insignificant, in the grand scheme of things. Recommended reading: At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft. Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, by Thomas Ligotti. The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle.
Paranormal: Merriam-Webster defines paranormal as something that is “not scientifically explainable.” That’s a broad definition. When it comes to horror fiction, the term “paranormal” usually refers to ghosts, hauntings, demons and possession. And there is some truly frightening fiction that falls into this subgenre. Recommended reading: The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. The Shining, by Stephen King. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (it fits here, as well).
Post-apocalyptic: The world as we know it has ended, and something terrible has risen in its place. Post-apocalyptic fiction challenges us to envision a world beyond our own, a doomsday scenario that takes us into uncharted and often terrifying territory. Not all post-apocalyptic fiction uses horror elements. Some of it falls into the dystopian category. But there are plenty of good stories out there that paint the end of the world in horrifying hues. Recommended reading: Swan Song, by Robert McCammon. Monument 14, by Emmy Laybourne. Feed, by Mira Grant. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.
Psychological: Put the ghosts, monsters and slashers aside for a moment. Psychological horror fiction uses intense human emotions like fear and dread to grip the reader, with a healthy dose of anxiety and suspense on the side. These internal Recommended reading: Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin. Come Closer, by Sara Gran. Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris.
Supernatural: The supernatural subgenre of horror overlaps with the paranormal category. Again, we’re dealing with things that “appear to transcend the laws of nature,” according to Merriam-Webster. I’ve broken this out into a separate category to distinguish it from the ghostly and haunting world of the paranormal. Here, we’re talking about werewolves, witches, and other things that defy the laws of nature. Recommended reading: Wytches, by Scott Snyder. Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King. The Hunger, by Alma Katsu. B.P.R.D., by Mike Mignola.
Cosmic Horror: The cosmic horror genre is both personally existential, and darkly expansive. The darkest corners of space, the pitch-black pits of demons, the sense of no real control and dread that comes with the ineffable size of the universe. This genre is strongly tied to H.P. Lovecraft who brought it to life with novellas such as At the Mountains of Madness (1936), The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936), and The Shadow Out of Time (1936). “The Shape Of Water” by Guillermo Del Toro or “The Imago Sequence and Other Stories” 2009 by Laird Barron are other strong modern works of cosmic horror. Space itself and extraterrestrial adventures also play a preeminent role in the genre, with standout comics like Nameless, by Chris Burnham & Grant Morrison, and Southern Cross, by Becky Cloonan and Andy Belager.
Avant Garde: For this subgenre, we’re getting a little weird. Avant Garde is as social a movement as it is an artistic one, with artists standing at the forefront of our preconceived notions of acceptable art and ideas. In horror literature, this takes the shape of mind-bending twists and impossible odds. In comics, it is the same incredible evil with terrifying and spine-tingling art. Recommended reading: Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. Uzumaki, by Junji Ito. Sleep of Reason, by Spike Trotman.
So there you have them, the popular subgenres of horror with some representative works to keep you up at night. For more literature, Puzzle Box has original literature as well as features on Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker. For comics and graphic novels, we have Best Of lists for Cosmic, Supernatural, Avant Garde, and Gothic horror for more thrills and chills.
Brandon Cornett is a longtime writer whose stories have appeared in the Mississippi Review and other journals. His first novel, Purgatory, is a horror-based thriller with a reality TV tie-in, available now on Amazon. His next novel will appear on Wattpad in the summer of 2020. Brandon also blogs about speculative fiction at https://www.cornettfiction.com.