The result is that I define horror as "a story in which the author manipulates the reader’s emotions by introducing situations in which unexplainable phenomena and unearthly creatures threaten the protagonists and provoke terror in the reader."
By using this definition, I have automatically disqualified many books that some readers call horror. For example, stories with serial killers cannot truly be considered horror because the monsters which threaten the protagonist in these novels are entirely human. Also, books like the Sookie Stackhouse series are not horror because the unearthly creatures are not all there to provoke terror; many are the friends and love interests of the protagonist.
But just because I draw a box around what is and isn't horror, that does not mean that your readers only read within those lines. I am a perfect example of this myself. Although horror has a special place in my heart, if I had to pick one genre as my absolute favorite it would be psychological suspense. This term refers to books that, like horror, put the uneasy atmosphere in the forefront. The difference here is the absence of the supernatural element. The monsters in psychological suspense are flesh-and-blood individuals who are frighteningly real, not unearthly in any sense. These are books filled with serial killers, stalkers, and evil masterminds. They play with the psyches of their victims and their readers. Tension in these novels builds, the atmosphere is nightmarish, the chills do not let up, and the plot resolutions are disturbing and unclear. These are fairly literary novels filled with darkness, plot twists, and obsession. The experience of reading a psychological suspense novel is one of confusion, unsettledness, and anxiety—all a perfect fit for horror readers.
Some of my favorite recent psychological suspense novels include, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, and The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell. All of the links here go back to reviews I have written about each novel. For more on their specific appeal, click on the titles.
The new book, Chapter 13, "Moving Beyond the Haunted House: Whole Collection Options for Horror Readers," goes into psychological suspense and other genres which horror readers may find appealing in greater detail. I outline many genres and formats (such as graphic novels and movies), stress where their appeal overlaps with horror's appeal, and provide my list of 10 sure bet options for readers in each category.
Here on the blog, I have also begun running a feature I call, "Not Quite Horror," in which I highlight authors or titles which do not fit my strict definition of horror, but would nonetheless appeal to horror readers. You can click here to see the archive for this feature. I also tag any post which address the "not quite horror" issue with a clear label.
I am not the only one noticing this trend. There is a wonderful resource, Dark Scribe Magazine, an online magazine about "the books that keep you up at night." It contains reviews, interviews, articles, and essays all dealing with "dark fiction." They chronicles the books and authors who "keep you up at night," and give out The Black Quill awards that "honor works of dark genre literature – horror, suspense, and thrillers – from both mainstream and small press publishers."
There are also the Shirley Jackson Awards which honor, "outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic."
So, even the biggest horror fans cannot deny the appeal of these not quite horror options. As you work with horror readers this Halloween season, consider the whole collection and offer as many options as possible.