by Brandon Cornett
Do you enjoy reading horror stories and novels? Want to broaden your horizons and try something new? I’ve got just the thing. Below, I’ve dissected the horror genre into seven main subgenres, with some recommended reading for each one.
Classifying a Genre: It’s Like Herding Cats
Categorizing the 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!
Below, I’ve broken it down into seven categories or subgenres. These categories account for the majority of horror fiction available today, while also harkening back to the origin of the genre.
Seven 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 Black Company, by Glen Cook. Daughter of Blood, by Anne Bishop.
Gothic: Gothic horror goes way, way back. In fact, it’s the literary predecessor to the horror genre we know and love today. So, whether you read gothic fiction or not, you owe it some respect. 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. The Devil’s Elixirs, by E.T.A. Hoffmann. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. 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 suspense on the side. As Mary Kay McBrayer described it on BookRiot.com, these stories “inspire fear through suggestion, paranoia, and implication, rather than through violence, pursuit, or even gore itself.” Well said! 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 vampires, werewolves, and other things that defy the laws of nature. Recommended reading: Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King. The Hunger, by Alma Katsu.
Cosmic Horror: The cosmic horror genre is rooted in the existential crisis one endeavors when they realize how small and insignificant they are within the world. Generally in a horrifying and often psychosis induced way of course. The great expanse of space, aimlessly adrift in the ocean, the pitch-black pit of demons, losing yourself in your own mind. The sense of no real control and dread that comes with the ineffable size of the universe or even the capabilities of the human mind. 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). A few short stories are “The Rats in the Walls” (1924) and “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928). The genre continues to grow with excellent new titles such as “The Shape Of Water” by Guillermo Del Toro or “The Imago Sequence and Other Stories” 2009 by Laird Barron.
So there you have them, the popular subgenres of horror with some representative works to keep you up at night.
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.