An Australian author living in Norway

Darkness versus horror

But it’s this kind of duplicity that is the hallmark of modern dark fiction. When the protagonist of a story is capable of otherwise ignoble deeds in order to prevail, we are offered a more complex, and in some ways more realistic, character. A hero or heroine who has a chequered past, or has survived a horrific childhood, is likely to be a less wholesome character, and yet is infinitely more realistic than one who is squeaky-clean and righteous. Not to mention the element of danger such characters add to a story, in that we never know exactly what this character will do, or how far he or she will go.

Take a look at the 2012 bestseller, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. One could argue that the characters in this novel are so twisted there is no real hero. But is that necessarily a bad thing? It certainly made for a grimly fascinating novel that got people talking. The same is true of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. What I found so compelling about these books is partly that the characters have this psychological volatility that keeps us on edge, but also that the stories themselves explore horrific subject matter in a raw and honest way, without ever resorting to gratuitously horrific descriptions. And this is not because the writer shies away from their subject (far from it, in fact), but because the writers understand how much more disturbing a story can be when restraint and subtlety is employed.


  1. Vanessa McCloud

    i tend to agree Zoe as I feel that some books i have read are more scary by the intent to inflict some kind of eerie feeling on you than describing an act that shows viciousness and blood .
    You would know also that Shakespeare would not have actors perform fights scenes on the stage, rather they would be off stage making the audience use their imagination which intensified the play, not saying that they were dark scenes .

    • Zoë

      Good example, Vanessa. This is also the case in The House of Bernada Alba where one of the most horrific moments (a woman being killed for having a baby out of wedlock) is never shown on-stage, but is all the more disturbing for hearing her anguished screams off-stage.

  2. Julie Sondra Decker

    Interesting thoughts, and I agree. I like disturbing stuff, to some degree, but I am a much bigger fan of moral dilemmas and psychological frustration than I am of blood and gore. I really don’t read horror, but I like some dark fiction, and I like characters who are interesting enough to do things they might not be proud of. And YES, you’re very right that fairy tales are full of Disturbing with a capital D. Some of the stuff that happened to Sleeping Beauty in the oldest versions is horrifying, since it includes rape, murder, and cannibalism all in the same story. Maybe that’s part of why I like fairy tale retellings. We can resurrect those creepy roots and show the underside of happily ever after.

    • Zoë

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Julie. I’m all about the creepy roots. (For any Australians reading this comment, I know you’re giggling. Stop it.)

  3. Annie Neugebauer

    I agree with you that the implication of horror is often scarier than the actual horror itself, and that gore is often misused, but I have to disagree about the classification of it. I think everything you’re describing here *is* horror – just different types of it. The problem with taking the disturbing, complex, and psychological “dark tales” out of the genre of “horror” is that it detracts from the power of the genre as a whole. One of horror’s strengths is in its diversity, and like so many genres, it has a history of being discriminated against. Horror isn’t defined by its gore; that’s just one subgenre that scares off many readers (no pun intended 😉 ). Horror is defined by fear. If it’s scary, disturbing, or unsettling as the root driving emotion of the story, that’s horror! So much of today’s “dark fiction” actually is horror masquerading as something else – perhaps because many readers are uncomfortable with the label. There’s nothing wrong with liking some types of horror and not others, but I think it’s a disservice to the genre to take some types of horror out of the label just because people are uncomfortable with the label itself. Sorry if that sounded ranty! Obviously, this is something I’m very passionate about. 🙂

    • Zoë

      Thanks for your comments, Annie. The problem I have with classifying psychologically disturbing literature alongside graphic gore is that either type may then be passed over by readers who may enjoy the stories of one and not the other. I, personally, cannot stomach gore and avoid getting myself interested in books (or movies, or TV series, for that matter) so that I don’t become compelled to expose myself to images that will give me nightmares when or if I can’t extricate myself from a great plot. If books were only classified as horror, I might miss out on many books that leave more to the imagination because .

      Classification of books into genres is to make reading selection easy for the readers/buyers; surely drilling down can’t be a bad thing?

      However, perhaps you are right that these two types belong under a common “super-genre”, and you are most likely right in calling this super-genre “horror”. Now, how do we go about changing the perception…? 😉

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