So, last night I was watching “The Dead Zone” on my beloved Netflix instant viewing and it got me thinking about a thing I’ve thought about before. Stephen King is (rightly) known as the King of Horror. However, a significant portion of his work is not necessarily, in my estimation, horror. Now as many of you know I have certain issues with the whole concept of genres, especially in their capacity as marketing tools. Horror is notoriously one of the most difficult in this regard because horror is an emotion, not really a genre. Any work may invoke horror or have elements that do so, and indeed many stories, books and movies have horror or horrible elements yet are not considered part of the Horror genre. So, largely for amusement but also as an exploration of horror and the concept of genre, let’s talk a little about some of Stephen Kings works and why I don’t necessarily consider them horror (or at least not all horror.)
The Dark Tower series: King’s magnum opus and also one that most will agree does not fall entirely within the confines of the genre of horror, especially not into its specific sub-genres. While containing many horror elements, the series also has strong content of the Fantasy and Western genres as well, and even a number of elements that could broadly be counted as Science Fiction. Most particularly, the story is in large part a Quest tale, a structure or story type not usually considered part of the Horror genre.
The Eyes of the Dragon: A relatively lesser known work, The Eyes of the Dragon is set in a medieval-esque world and is primarily a Fantasy novel with a strong “fairytale” style and and plotline. It shares very little in structure or tone with what most folks think of as Horror, despite the presence of King’s oft-used, many-named villain who in this story is known simply as Flagg.
The Dead Zone: Certainly more “horrible” in many ways than the last two, with a modern setting and with the relatively common, sometime-horror trope of psychic abilities, to me The Dead Zone is still not a story focused primarily on generating fear, terror or horror (though the sequences involving the Castle Rock Killer could be considered horror of the psychological/serial killer sub-genre.) I feel the term “supernatural thriller” would probably fit the story better. Really, the story has more political elements than horrific ones and could also, I feel, be viewed as a political thriller with a relatively light speculative element.
Firestarter: Like The Dead Zone, Firestarted is set in modern times (as is the norm for most works marketed under the Horror genre) and involves characters with mental/psychic powers. However also much like The Dead Zone there is little emphasis on creating fear, horror, or terror, though there are some scenes of such. Given the themes of government experimentation with drugs and the altering of people’s abilities it could, I feel, just as easily be classed as Science Fiction and/or Thriller as horror.
The Talisman(written with Peter Straub): Much like the Dark Tower series to which it is (even more so than most of King’s works) so strongly tied, The Talisman is, to me, more of a Fantasy Quest story than a Horror novel. While there are, as always, horrible occurrences and such, the book does not create a pervasive mood of dread or fear: the focus is rather on the achieving of the protagonists goals.
Rage: This hard to find short novel features absolutely no supernatural elements and, in my view, almost no horror elements; to me, it’s really more of a social drama.
I could add several more, but you get the picture. Now, before you say to me, “don’t you think anything he wrote was horror?” I’ll respond with a resounding, of course. IT is in my opinion the apotheosis (a word King himself loves) of the “Kids face horror on summer vacation” story. Pet Sematary is unremittingly disturbing and chilling. The Shining and ‘Salem’s Lot are masterful takes on classic horror tropes (The Haunted House and The Vampire, respectively.) Most of his short stories that I’ve read are also much more squarely in the Horror genre (which is, I have to feel, always the most closely wedded to the short form.) But the thing that is so interesting to me is, I believe pretty strongly that if the books I mention above had been written by someone other than Stephen King, they would likely have ended up in a different section of the bookstore. This to me is an indication that genre is at least as much about marketing as it is about anything else.
Genre is defined in different ways by different people; by content (the definition I find most useful and easiest to understand) by structure, by intent, by (strangely to me) “audience.” To me, the main use of genre names is as a shorthand to quickly and easily indicate to someone a few general bits of information about a book or movie or story. However, genres like Fantasy and Horror are so broad and contain so many permutations that their usefulness in this regard, alone, can be limited. If I tell you I am writing a Fantasy novel, all that really tells you more or less for sure is that there is probably magic of some kind in it. It could also have elves and dragons living in a world approximating the Dark Ages, but it could just as easily take place in near-future New York and feature punks with supernatural powers. So we have terms like High Fantasy, Modern Fantasy, Hard and Soft Science Fiction etc to help us communicate a little more specifically. However, trouble ensues when people try to set absolute limits on these concepts and end up still have miscommunication. Likewise some genres/labels, like Magic Realism or Slipstream are either so broad or so poorly defined and contentious as to create more problems than they solve.
This is why when asked what I write, I prefer to offer a sample, rather than trying to explain it in terms of genre, for each story is a mix of elements that no one word can describe.