In “Dark Wisdom,” we seek writing and/or publishing advice from the horror fiction masters making up Denver Horror Collective’s Advisory Council.
For this installment, we harass Sam W. Anderson, author of over forty published short stories and collaborative novels, and two short-story collections.
What’s the difference between horror and thriller fiction?
SAM W. ANDERSON: This is a question that I could answer in two words or a twenty-page doctoral thesis. I’ll circle back to the two-word answer in a bit…after my shortened thesis.
First, to the question, though. A guideline, so general that “guideline” stretches the credulity of the term, is that horror has the bad guy chasing the good guy (until the inevitable turn where they confront each other). The climax occurs with the evil being defeated or faced. Also, the more supernatural elements introduced tends to push a story more toward the horror side of the ledger.
In a thriller the good guy pursues the bad(der) guy. The climax tends to be the evil being unveiled. The more psychological the plot, the likelier it’s to fall under the thriller column.
There are probably more similarities between the two genres than differences. Both are designed to illicit an emotion–fear or excitement. Both rely heavily on escalating suspense. Both tend to have a similar structure: Act one – protagonist becomes aware of the threat. Act two – protagonist narrowly escapes (horror) or misses catching (thriller) the evil. Act three – the protagonist confronts the threat.
But one must remember that genre is a construct of marketing–for both good and ill. A new reader might take a chance on you if you’re writing in their lane–genre helps here. It associates stories with similar work that readers may have enjoyed. Still, genre is considered ghetto somehow. Dickey’s “Deliverance,” Atwood’s “The Handmaids Tale” and Morrison’s “Beloved” are all horror novels at their hearts. Still, if they’d have been marketed as horror, I doubt they’d have reached the level of cultural relevance and commercial success they had.
Which leads me to my two-word answer. It sounds rude, so give me some space to explain. The answer is, “Who cares?”
As a writer, that’s where I land in the writing process. I’m only interested in finding the best story and have no interest in tying myself to limits. Occasionally, there’s a specific market to target, but I avoid that more often than not. I’ve found I might have written a great story, but it’s so specific, I’m stuck in case of rejection, and that rejection might not even be on the merits of the story. A big-name writer can bump you from an anthology. Having a similar theme to another accepted story can doom you. Submitting the best story, but it doesn’t fit in with the others being accepted will lead to rejections. There’s an infamous anthology that folded in the early 2000s before coming out, and there was a glut of vampire cockroach stories flooding every submission call as a result. It almost became a joke to include “no vampire cockroach stories” in submission guidelines at the time.
I learned from that.
To answer “Who cares,” though, is a pretty important step. People who sell books or magazines really freaking care. Marketing is important to them–imagine that. So, after finishing the story where I don’t give a flying fornication about the genre, when it comes time to submit, I damn-well better pick the right markets for it. Otherwise, I could be stuck with it just like a vampire cockroach story. And nobody wants that.
Sam W. Anderson lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife, two kids and the most expensive rescue mutt in history. He’s the author of over forty published short stories and collaborative novels, and two short-story collections