Is there any such thing as Realist Horror?

The latest guest post here on comes from Niki Valentine, author of psychological horror and literary fiction under an alternative pen name. But where do we draw the line between supernatural and realist horror? Niki Valentine may be one of the few authors who really knows the answer. Check out her novels and other writing at: The Niki Valentine Amazon page

I’m always happy to feature guest posts from fellow writers and passionate readers. Find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

When I wrote my first Niki Valentine novel, I originally described it as a supernatural thriller. Sadly, this adjective has been rather hijacked in recent years by stories about sparkling vampires and friendly werewolves, so that my publisher was keen to avoid the word. Instead, we called it psychological horror and it went on to the shelf in time for Halloween. Personally, I think this label is spot on. If you look at The Turn of the Screw on Wikipedia, that’s how this classic ghost story was described. I was very inspired by the Henry James story and it was one of the reasons I wanted to write the kind of ghost story I did.

There are some issues with the ‘horror’ label. It evokes a certain set of expectations in the reader about blood and gore, about monsters and zombies. My novels, The Haunted and Possessed, don’t really work that way. There is very little blood and gore, something I don’t find especially frightening and I think can tend towards being cartoonish if overused. And, although there is a haunting and a possession, as the titles might imply, it is a very subtle affair. Like the haunting in the classic James story, there are many ways to view it. Nothing happens that is so overtly supernatural that we can be sure about. In both, we’re deep inside the head of our protagonist and never know for sure how much she’s imagining. I make no apologies for any of this; it was exactly the kind of story I wanted to write.

I saw a lot of slasher movies as a teenager in the 80s; they were in vogue. They made me feel sick from time to time but not scared. The most frightened and affected I ever felt was thanks to a Hitchcock film, screened on the BBC Tales of the Unexpected. A woman, determined to escape from prison, enlists the help of the prison undertaker. He agrees to bury her and dig her up later, telling her to climb into the coffin the next time the death bell tolls. She does so. She is buried. She waits and waits for her rescuer. Bored, she reaches for her matches and lights a flame. She sees the body beside her and it’s the man who was supposed to dig her up. The film ends with a view from above of the fresh mound of earth, her screams ringing out with no one to hear. It left me in a cold sweat and it took me weeks to get over. At a recent family barbeque my brother and I were discussing this. Neither of us had forgotten and we both agreed it was the most frightening film we’d ever seen.

The Hitchcock story left a lasting impression. It’s this kind of realist horror that I’m interested in as a writer, and a reader or viewer. In my novels, I like to allow the possibility of haunting and possession and other supernatural events but I also like to leave the reader unsure. For me, the title of the Henry James story sums up psychological horror as a genre. The screw turns until the protagonist can take so more. Depending on how you look at it, the metaphor can be about madness, or stress and pressure, or whatever other normal human experience you like, but it’s also about the way the supernatural manifests in reality. I’m not a complete sceptic and can’t decide myself if these manifestations are real but I do know they always leave us with room for doubt. So often people recounting these events say ‘I suppose I could have been imagining it.’

At a recent horror convention, I sat in on a panel about horror tropes. It was suggested during the discussion that stories like American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange were horror stories with alternative, realist tropes. I thought this was an interesting point. I write literary fiction in another name and my books have been compared to both of these novels, and more like it too. In fact, despite my earlier denial, my literary fiction is a real gore-fest at times. It was odd to realise this, and to understand that, in my own way, I’ve been writing realist horror from the very start.

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Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

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