A serial killer is on the loose.
And their story is one that could be told as horror, or as humor, or as procedural, or as thriller, or fantasy, or as science-fiction, or as any other number of genres and genre combinations. How you tell a story is more fundamental than what you are talking about. Old news, really. But a good jumping off point for me.
The three things that I think usually distinguish horror from everything else are:
* always a masterful use of tone that dominates and drives and powers the story;
* often a great many things suggested but never explicitly said or seen;
* and frequently an injection of irrationality into a section of life where irrationality should not be able to flourish.
What distinguishes a thriller from horror is that, in a thriller, the irrationality is eventually ejected.
Agatha Christie loves this, by the way, and she can be fantastic at the slow brooding horrific build. The first chapter of Sleeping Murder is absolute horror by supernatural. And some highly memorable moments in Ten Little Racists are horror by atmosphere. Most of Curtain is horror by atmosphere too, and also by claustrophobia. But at the end of the day Christie writes mysteries and thrillers, not horror, so there is always an explanation, a summoning of sunlight into the dark cellar to banish the ghosts. The supposed supernatural has a natural cause; the atmosphere is penetrated with words.
In horror the sunlight never comes because that sunlight does not exist. That’s how you know it’s horror.
And speaking of irrationality: you can have a character sitting alone in their kitchen at two in the morning, and their unplugged television can turn on and somehow expel an undead girl from its screen.
So, is magic behind this? And if it is, is there a community of magic-users and magical creatures out there? This can’t just be the single magical anomaly in the entire history of the world, right?
Or is it science, with the television co-opted and turned into a teleportation screen? Are aliens trying to contact us but doing a weird job of it? Maybe it’s our own selves from the YA dystopian future?
It’s neither, because it’s horror, and the reason for things to happen in horror is not to world-build by fact, but to world-build by atmospheric pressure. We are world-building not to answer questions, but to create (piece by piece) a distinctive taste and smell. We are creating coherency, but a different rule of coherency is at work. The reason for why things are happening is so obviously different in horror that, when an undead girl crawls out of a television screen, we understand that it is unnerving and terrifying in a way that gets us to our gut, and because we know the conditions of this genre, we do not sit up and scream “now wait a minute, how is she doing that? Is she a wizard? Is this some Harry Potter shit right here?!”
Though – there is a deep conventionality to horror. After all, for all the things left unsaid, you always know what’s really at the story’s core. I mean, there is no surprise when you watch everything spiraling around this massive and slowly revealed shape of claustrophobia and anxiety and crumbling sanity and irrational reality and sudden possibilities of cruel and unusual death. We know what’s coming, even if the characters don’t. We always know what’s going to end up at the core.
If you displace that core with something else – but otherwise keep all these techniques intact – what do you get?
You get something that unnerves certain conventional readers more than usual. They’re not sure what they’re reading anymore. They’re not terrified (which funnily enough terrifies them) – and now there’s other, more complicated emotions in the telling too – and they don’t know what to make of that.
Of course this is a structural thing. Not a details thing. Not a vampire-murder-chainsaw-haunting thing, though you can certainly use the details of horror but still be writing un-horror if the core of the story is something else – like a ten-year-old’s grieving process, as in The Specialist’s Hat. But a story doesn’t need to contain a single ounce of typical horror wallpaper to be read as a form of un-horror.
The Girl Detective can easily be looked at through the lens of un-horror, and its wallpaper is fairy tales and Nancy Drew.
Not to say, of course, that Kelly Link always works in an un-horror mode. Obviously she doesn’t, and equally obviously, this is my own peculiar way of grappling with some of her fiction and emphatically not in any way connected to how she writes or thinks about her writing. (That is Kelly Link’s business, not mine.) And even if you can look at many of her first dozen or so stories as un-horror (and a few, like The Donner Party, are more horror than not) – even then, quite a few don’t fit into that mold at all.
And in fact I think that the gestures of un-horror have become an increasingly rare approach for her in the past decade or so. She is busy trying out other things and having fun in the process.
But I remember a summer afternoon four years ago when a friend and I were discussing Kelly Link and trying to contextualize her roots – he was thinking aloud, “where did her first collection of stories come from?” – and of course, the moment we phrased our answer to that question, it was obvious: a lot of it came out of the structure, and form, of horror.
It’s just – this was a more useful term than “surreal” or “fabulist” or whatever-the-hell because it felt significantly more on the nose.
And it was a term that added another way to engage with her fiction, without canceling or replacing previous readings.
I think the toolbox of un-horror remains at Kelly Link’s elbows, even when it’s not in active use, and I think she is fond of it for a reason – namely, because she is very, very good at it.
After all, the three things you can almost always find in a Kelly Link story (and always done very well) are:
* a masterful use of tone that dominates and drives and powers the story;
* a great many things suggested but never explicitly said or seen;
* and an injection of irrationality into a section of life where irrationality should not be able to flourish.
 The couple of recent stories on my mind which do not have an injection of irrationality tend to be the science-fictional ones – I’m thinking in particular of The Surfer, and Valley of the Girls, and Secret Identity, all of which I love. They are very distinctly Kelly Link (which would make sense, duh, since she wrote them) but while they’ve got that formidable control of tone and the many-things-heavily-suggested-but-left-unsaid element that builds around a quiet core, there is nothing implicitly supernatural or surreal in them – at least, not within the rules of their individual realities.