Subgenres of Horror in Audiobooks
By Emily De Vogele, Cameron Phillips and Sarunicka Satkuruparan
Halloween is right around the corner, and with the days getting darker, spooky season is officially upon us. Horror has been a popular genre for decades, centuries even, with certain literary critics citing the earliest horror novel as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1765. Since its inception, the genre has evolved over time, with several subgenres growing as a result.
Paranormal horror is one of the more prevalent subgenres, emerging in recent years due to the general public's interest in ghosts, myths and legends. While certain paranormal novels date back to the 19th and 20th century, including Dracula and The Haunting of Hill House, there are also several notable recent releases including The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix and White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson.
These books tend to rely on classic literary tricks to keep readers on the edge of their seats, or in our case, listeners on the edge of their seats, by building atmospheres that feel so real and eerie the listener is scared solely by the words used. There are other subgenres that rely on other tactics, such as violence and gore, to scare the readers. Audiobook readers will also know that the stories that fall into this subgenre of horror sometimes rely on unique audiobook features, such as music and style of narration, to further the experience of the reader.
Psychological horror is another distinctive subgenre. The appeal of horror has largely always been in its ability to allow people to probe the fears which we naturally have, within the relative safety of fiction. Psychological horror somewhat toys with this safety – often eliciting a deeper and more unsettling sense of fear in readers as it intrudes into the human psyche, digging into the actual internal human conflicts that exist within us. Shirley Jackson and Stephen King are hallmarks of this subgenre with their works We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Carrie and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordan, becoming renowned for their contributions to psychological horror.
This subgenre has become a mode of telling stories that not only unsettle and invade but also act as social commentary and complex metaphors. Modern authors writing in this space include resident authors V.C. Andrews and Nick Cutter as well as works such as LaTanya McQueen’s When the Reckoning Comes and Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing but Blackened Teeth.
Psychological horror is another subgenre which utilises the unique characteristics of audiobooks to their fullest. It’s no secret that narration holds the key to capturing the reader in our format. The unreliable narrator being a consistent feature of the subgenre provides an opportunity to get into the minds of readers and evoke a fear beyond what simply reading or watching could do. When experiencing a psychological horror, audiobook listeners are put in a chilling position of being in the heads of characters and witnessing the layers of torment each character is experiencing or thinking they’re experiencing. The unreliability in narration combines with the audio medium’s unique characteristics of music and tone to take the reader's experience of questioning reality, to a whole other level.
On the whole, horror is one of the few genres of the storytelling medium that is able to hold on to its originality. Yes, there may be similar themes and tropes across different horror franchises, but these can be told in various ways. There is a reason why the slasher genre persisted for a decade after 1978, or why psychological horror has been and continues to be at its very best in the last twelve years. Horror works on so many levels because it taps into the things humans want to suppress the most: our fears. This is not fear of disappointment or failure, but absolute, cold-hearted fear.
One of the pioneers of the modern genre of horror, someone who was totally original and for me personally (Cameron) has never been topped in terms of his originality and achievements in the literary genre, said in his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” We fear what we don’t know and what we don’t like. I think audiobooks tap into this more than film can because when we listen to a work of horror, we have to imagine and paint the scene being told, and being human beings, we tend to lean towards the negative in every aspect, because it affects us more. Everything is scarier if it is in our own head after all.