What is the Horror Canon?


The controversy over this year’s Hugo Awards brought with it a debate about the science fiction canon, and whether or not such a concept is still relevant. That conversation seems to have faded away by now, with discussion moving on to newer happenings (hello, Ignyte Awards! Welcome back, Dragon Awards!) But I kept an eye on it while it was happening, and all the while I was wondering whether or not, and to what extent, the debate applied to horror.

That’s a question that’s been on my mind throughout a lot of the controversies happening in the science fiction community over the past few years, from the Sad Puppies onwards. Quite often, I’ve found that the disputes that hit SF and fantasy often don’t have counterparts in the horror scene – and the debate over the relevance of the science fiction canon was one of them. Nobody seemed to be talking about whether horror literature needs a canon.

Why is that? Well, I’d like to start my answer by imagining exactly what a horror canon would look like.

Picture a bookshelf, completely empty and ready to have a tidy set of volumes lined up on it. Now imagine that someone has decided to fill it with the canonical works of horror literature. What would they start with? Frankenstein and Dracula would be obvious choices. These may well be followed with reasonably-sized collections of Poe and Lovecraft stories. Next, let’s add the complete ghost stories of M. R. James.

Now pause for thought. That’s five books – and already we’ve covered a substantial chunk of the most influential horror fiction in the English language. Regardless of what else we put on the shelf – and it’s easy enough to think of further titles, from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to The Exorcist – it’s hard to deny that those above five books will cover a pretty big percentage of whatever horror canon we end up with.

Now try to imagine a bookshelf with the science fiction canon. It’s a taller order: off the top of my head, we’d have at least four books if we wanted to represent Isaac Asimov alone (I, Robot and the Foundation trilogy). When we factor in Verne, Wells, Heinlein, Clarke, Bester, Ellison, Le Guin… well, let’s just say we’re going to end up with more than five books.

So, the horror canon is smaller than the science fiction canon – or, to phrase that differently, more tightly-focused. Thinking about it, this makes sense. Horror is a genre where less is more – look at how many classics of horror fiction are short stories rather than novels, for one. And when I look back at our hypothetical bookshelf of canonical horror, I have to wonder if those books might be better described not as a horror canon, but as a set of horror archetypes.

If you think of a canonical horror story, chances are what you’re thinking of is a story that can be boiled down to a single core concept from which it derives fear. And, by the same token, if you think of an archetypical form of horror you can pair it up with a canonical text.

The potential of humanity to create monsters? Frankenstein. The monster we carry inside us? Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The monster as parasite or corrupter? Dracula. The universe itself as a source of horror? Pick the Lovecraft story of your choice. A story from the perspective of an unhinged killer? “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Hauntings? M. R. James has that covered. The wish-gone-wrong narrative? “The Monkey’s Paw”. Possession? The Exorcist. The monstrous pregnancy? Rosemary’s Baby. The horrors of adolescence? Carrie.

Science fiction is different in this respect. Yes, you can theoretically shake the genre down to a set of recurring themes: artificial intelligence, first contact with alien life, time travel, interplanetary empires, space armies and so on. But these aren’t primal, mythic concepts like the horror archetypes listed above; these are starting points for exploration and analysis, ideas designed to be elaborated and expanded upon. That’s why Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray have entered our lexicon in a way that Hari Seldon, Johnnie Rico and the ocean of Solaris could never dream of managing.

But what of diversity? After all, this was a major component of the debate over the SF canon: the fact that the canonical authors are largely white men. And, indeed, all of the horror writers mentioned above are – save for Mary Shelley – also white men.

All the more reason, then, to think in terms of archetypes rather than of people to put on pedestals. Archetypes transcend cultural context. For example, the films Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives and Get Out each draw upon the same basic set of horror themes but apply them to wildly different social issues – Cold War politics, sexism, racism.

The differences between science fiction and horror appear to have granted the genres two very different attitudes towards canon. Science fiction, with its emphasis on worldbuilding and experimentation, has led to the notion of canon as something to be carefully constructed and debated over. But horror works on a less cerebral level: it strives to dig into our gut emotions and instincts. Its canon, then, is less a thoughtfully-curated selection as a collection of widespread anxieties that manifest repeatedly throughout time and across cultures. Horror enthusiasts don’t really need to ask what the canon is – it’s something we all feel under our skin.

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