When I began working as a fiction editor at Strange Horizons, it seemed perfectly natural to me that our fiction guidelines stated that we weren't interested in horror stories. After all, I don't read horror, I don't like horror, and I don't have a huge amount of interest in getting involved with it. (While I can't speak officially for my co-editors, they seem to feel generally the same way.) It seemed fairly straightforward.
The question's gotten a little more complicated.
For one thing, it's not true that Strange Horizons as a magazine is uninterested in horror. We'll publish horror-themed poetry, reviews of horror books and movies, and interviews of horror authors. The fiction department sticks out a little, then, with the explicit exclusion of horror stories. Authors ask, from time to time, why we didn't want horror stories. That's a fairly easy one to answer -- because we don't like horror. More recently, authors have been asking what we mean by "horror," though, and that's a little harder to answer.
It didn't seem like a difficult question, the first time I was asked. "You know, horror. Blood, death, dismemberment." I tossed it off as if it were the obvious answer, while the author looked puzzled.
"Oh," she said. "That's not what I mean by horror."
But what else would she mean? I started asking around. What does it mean to you that a story is a horror story, I asked my friends. A lot of them agreed with me -- blood, death, and dismemberment. Serial killers. Drooling fanged dogs. Giant zombie fetuses. Rotting flesh. Pus, slime, or goo. Blood-spattered knives, or blood-spattered clothes, or blood-spattered children, or really blood-spattered anything. Entrails. Psychotic stalkers hiding behind the sofa. People or creatures "from beyond the grave." Bloodcurdling screams. Bashed-in skulls, insect-infested wounds, disfigured dwarves with evil-sounding laughs. Torture victims tied to chairs while begging for their lives. Severed heads, hands, or penises. Mean ghosts with vengeful urges. Oversized cockroaches, or even normal cockroaches if they're coming out of someone's mouth. Maybe normal cockroaches in any circumstances.
You know. Horror. Those of us who don't like it have a very clear idea of what it is.
The thing is, those of you who do like horror also have a clear idea of what it is, and it's a different idea. I ran my "blood, death, and dismemberment" idea past an author friend of mine who sometimes writes horror stories, and he laughed at me. "Yeah," he said, "some horror. But that's the lazy way to do it." To do what? To scare people, of course. That's the other way to look at horror. It's not about the blood-spattered flying knives and the goo-covered zombie fetuses, it's about the terror.
Horror stories, this line of thought goes, are stories meant to evoke fear. It's an interesting idea, that horror is a theme rather than a formula. It also makes perfect sense -- defining horror by the "talking severed head" stories is as unfair as defining fantasy by the "winged fairies and friendly unicorns" stories, or defining science fiction by the "square-jawed spaceman" stories. Horror is a vast and complex field, and one that I've been unfairly caricaturing all this time. You'd think I'd have caught on sooner -- some of the stories we've published at Strange Horizons are considered by their authors to be horror stories, and one or two have even been recommended for horror-specific writing awards.
Done well, a good horror story can do what any other good story can do -- it can make you reshape the way you see the world around you. It can make you see figures in the shadows, or expect strange faces in the mirror. It can make you jump at every rustling leaf noise or stare suspiciously at incoming clouds. More than that, it can make you like it.
Here's the thing, though. I still don't like horror. I'm pretty much not interested in stories that are designed to put terror in my heart, and I'm absolutely not interested in stories designed to shock or disgust me with the gory imagery I've traditionally associated with horror stories. I've done a lot of re-evaluating my definition of horror lately, but I don't think we're going to be seeking it out here at Strange Horizons. The fiction staff, we're pretty easygoing about genre definitions. We don't want to see horror stories in the same way that we don't want to see really tech-oriented hard-SF stories; if we do get one that really grabs us, we'll take it. We've certainly printed stories that appear to violate our own guidelines. Our no-horror policy doesn't reflect a blanket dismissal of the genre, just a warning to authors that fear-based stories are going to be a really difficult sell in this particular market.
Extremely gory stories are pretty close to an impossible sell in this particular market, by the way. I may have learned an Important Life Lesson about the dangers of narrow genre definitions, but that doesn't make me any happier about blood, death, and dismemberment.
Susan Marie Groppi is a Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons.