So, what is horror literature, anyway? The Encarta Online Encyclopedia lists four definitions of the term “horror”:
1. Intense fear or shock;
2. Intense dislike or dismay;
3. Something causing horror;
4. Something unpleasant.
Literature can be defined as any type of writing that holds artistic value. So, hypothetically, if your spouse was away on a trip to his or her parents’ house and suddenly wrote you a wonderful little letter or poem on the unpleasant subject of your in-laws, you might consider this a small piece of horror literature. Then again, your neighbor could probably care less on the subject of your in-laws. Your neighbor likely has not had the unpleasant experience of dealing with them; maybe he has his own, and gets along with them just fine. He might consider your letter "cute" or insignificant in the great scheme of his own life.
The ironic aspect of defining horror literature sits with the individual perceptions of each reader. One reader may be terrified of clowns. The slightest suggestion of a circus could elicit a certain amount of fear to that individual, regardless of the genre of the book in question. A book intended for the enjoyment of children with even the slightest mention of clowns might result in disturbing nightmares. The point is that horror literature can vary with each reader and is determined on aspects regarding perception of character, situation, environment, and a host of other factors. There are many things to consider in defining horror literature in regards to the individual, a few of which can be listed here: past or traumatic experience, opinion and perception, phobias, and the subconscious are all things to consider when defining the genre. This leaves a wide open universe of possibility (and some difficulty) in exploring horror literature. What is scary to you might not be scary to someone else.
We should not trivialize the success of many authors of the genre. The authors who remain a prominent force in the world of horror literature have many insights into the collective fears of a certain society. Stories based on the end of the world as we know it (from Stephen King’s epic “The Stand” to Ray Bradbury’s small masterpiece “There Will Come Soft Rains”) tend to hit the psychological nerve of a larger-scale audience, as do the subjects of unexplained phenomenon, murder, isolation, and death (to name a very small few). Yet there are many who are undisturbed by such things, and while they might consider these stories entertaining, find nothing really scary or “horror”-ble about them. In theory, most all of us have a fear of some sort, and the landscape of up-and-coming horror literature is wide open to the author who can unbury these hidden frights.