What Is Horror Fiction? Learn About the Horror Genre, Plus 7 Classic Horror Novels You Should Read

Written by MasterClass

Aug 15, 2019 • 5 min read

People read horror stories because they enjoy the thrill of being scared. But there’s more to writing a horror story than just the scary parts. What makes horror novels so appealing?



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What Is the Horror Genre?

Horror is a genre of literature, film, and television that is meant to scare, startle, shock, and even repulse audiences. The key focus of a horror novel, horror film, or horror TV show is to elicit a sense of dread in the reader through frightening images, themes, and situations.

In the horror genre, story and characters are just as important as mood and atmosphere. A horror story often shocks and provokes with its exploration of the unknown.

What Is the History of the Horror Genre in Literature?

The horror genre in literature dates back to Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, where horror stories explored themes related to death, demons, evil spirits, and the afterlife. Examples include the ancient Greek tragedy Hippolytus by Euripides, a gruesome story about how jealousy and a lack of empathy can lead to tragedy; and Parallel Lives by Plutarch, a series of biographies highlighting the many moral failures of man.

The gothic novel, a genre of horror that focuses specifically on death, originated in the eighteenth century and is exemplified by the author Edgar Allan Poe. Horror literature in the nineteenth century and twentieth centuries often focused on tales involving occult ideas, like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

Modern horror novels have expanded the genre to include new elements and contemporary themes, like serial killers and slasher stories—Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) is a perfect example—as well as genre mashups that combine horror with historical fantasy, and modern interpretations of fantastical creatures, like ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and witches.

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6 Sub-Genres of Horror Novels

The horror genre has several sub-genres, each with its own distinct characteristics.

  1. Gothic: horror novels that focus specifically on death.
  2. Paranormal: horror novels involving ghost stories or supernatural horror events that do not exist within the context of scientific explanation.
  3. Occult: horror novels about ritual practices that are not considered religion or science.
  4. Dark fantasy: horror novels that blend dark elements of fantasy.
  5. Survival: horror novels in which the main character is being hunted and trying to survive within their circumstances.
  6. Science fiction horror: horror novels that blend elements of science fiction.

8 Tips for Writing a Horror Novel

Whether it’s your first attempt at writing in the horror genre, or you’re simply trying to improve your horror-writing skills, there are a few things you should keep in mind as you write:

  1. Pull ideas from real life and your own experiences. Reach back into your childhood memories and recall things that used to scare you or think of things you love and put a creepy spin on them. (This always works for Stephen King.)
  2. Write the book title first. Most writers start with the idea for a story and figure out the title later. Try doing the opposite. Titles are great ways to quickly come up with a number of different ideas that can grow into an entire story.
  3. Write the ending first. It may not always be possible, but once you start writing it makes it easier to fool people from the very beginning of the story and skillfully direct their attention away from what they think the ending will be.
  4. Hook the reader right away. Start with a shocking first chapter to set the tone and quickly introduce the who, what, when, and where of the story. Putting the key elements into play early allows the rest of the plot to unfold.
  5. Use cliffhangers. Pique the reader’s interest in events to come and compel them to keep reading to see what happens next. Learn more about cliffhangers in our complete guide here.
  6. Add plot twists. Carrying the reader through the middle of a story is challenging, and there needs to be enough excitement to keep them reading to the end. An unexpected plot twist can help.
  7. Plant a false lead or throw in a red herring. Include details that purposefully mislead the reader and prevent them from predicting the outcome. Learn more about red herrings in our complete guide here.
  8. Borrow from your influences. You can generate a lot of ideas by absorbing story concepts from other authors. Watch horror movies and read other horror books to improve the quality of your writing. Find a horror writer you admire and study their body of work. How do they tackle things like surprises, twists, and cliffhangers? How do they set the mood and create suspense?


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8 Classic Horror Novels and Short Stories to Read

Think Like a Pro

The Goosebumps author teaches you how to generate ideas, outline a plot, and hook young readers from the first page.

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For further inspiration, track down these great horror stories:

  1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1823). A horror novel about a scientist who accidentally creates a monster when his experiment goes horribly wrong.
  2. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). A horror novel about a man who drinks a serum and transforms into his sinister alter ego, a wild, unpredictable killer.
  3. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). A gothic horror novel about a vampire who wants to spread the undead curse to as many people as possible.
  4. The Rats in the Walls by H. P. Lovecraft (1924). A classic example of Lovecraftian horror, a horror genre that emphasizes man versus nature short story about human cannibalism.
  5. Psycho by Robert Bloch (1959). A horror novel about the caretaker of a motel in the middle of nowhere who commits a series of gruesome murders.
  6. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971). A horror novel about a young girl who gets possessed by an evil demon.
  7. It by Stephen King (1986). A horror novel about a group of kids who are terrorized by an evil being that hunts them by transforming into what scares them.
  8. The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares (2011). A collection of spooky short stories by Joyce Carol Oates.

Whether you’re writing as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to craft a good horror story takes time and patience. Horror-writing legend and author of the Goosebumps and Fear Street series R.L. Stine has spent decades honing his craft. In his writing MasterClass, R.L. Stine explores how to conquer writer’s block, develop plots, and build nail-biting suspense that will thrill readers.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including R.L. Stine, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.