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Literary Horror

I was asked by a reader to define literary horror. She had seen the term used on a few agency Web sites and was asking what makes something literary horror as opposed to just horror. I’ll be honest with you, we weren’t quite sure what the answer to this was. Since we don’t represent a lot of horror we certainly aren’t experts in that area, but after a little research here’s what we came up with. . . .

The most obvious definition is that the writing has to be very literate and beautiful, a general explanation whenever the word “literary” is used. Authors that came up when talking literary horror are Chuck Palahniuk, Tom Piccirilli, or Kafka (and keep in mind I’ve never read any of these). I think, though, that ultimately agents are using this term to try and weed out authors who submit books that only contain slashers, and other gruesome events. They are alerting authors to the fact that they are looking for an amazingly written book first, horror second. In other words, blood and guts don’t make horror, it’s an emotional reaction that’s created by the author.

I hope that helps.


Category: Blog



  1. Thanks for this definition. I have a book where a woman is one of the few soul survivors on earth and although it is driven by a child who can talk to the Virgin Mary it does have some “horror” issues. But I don’t see it as a horror book. I never knew what to do with it, how to classify it.

  2. Henry James’ THE TURN OF THE SCREW (sentimental favorite of mine), and what about good old Shirley Jackson? God that woman could do a curly-cue inside my brain! brr!

  3. The best literary horror author I’ve ever read is Clive Barker. I’m not talking about his Books of Blood (too gory for me), but his more lyrical and beautiful horror that he classifies as “fantastique.” If you’ve never read Imajica,go out and buy it right now! Talk about transporting fiction. It’s fabulous, and was my first introduction to Barker’s unforgettable fiction.

  4. Thank you for answering this question – both for the definition and the likely reason some agents use the term. It was very helpful.

  5. I read a book by Michael Slade called “Slob.” Real catchy title. I guess the friend who gave it to me thought it was a funny joke. I read it, and I was stunned. It was the first time had ever read a novel about a serial killer that so developed his background and what made him what he was, that I actually found myself in sympathy and rooting for him.

  6. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is a winner, as is Hell House by Richard Matheson. Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber jr gave me bad dreams. Leiber told me that what I described to him was like something out of De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater.

  7. Any serious Horror fan should read:
    Cormac McCarty – Blood Meridian
    Jerzy Kosinski – The Painted Bird
    Bret Easton Ellis – American Psycho
    Patrick Suskind – Perfume

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