Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are like love and good sex. Most of us assume we know what these terms mean, but when we try to formulate mutually acceptable definitions and reach a shared understanding, we are likely to find ourselves hopelessly divided. Many authorities in these fields even argue that there are no completely acceptable definitions, and that even the best ones will be somewhat inaccurate or misleading.
Within literature and the arts, such a situation is fairly common. For example, there are scholars who contend that even the best definitions of Romanticism and Classicism will be somewhat wrong. Closer home, we may not even be able to agree on a label for a work that most of us love. Consider the movie The Wizard of Oz, in which a girl is knocked unconscious and transported in a dream to a wondrous land in which a scarecrow longs for a brain and a tin man pines for a heart. Most of us might classify this classic as escapist fantasy, but think again. If we consider Dorothy’s nightmarish encounters with a wicked witch, flying monkeys, and all those imaginary “lions and tigers and bears,” can’t a case be made that the movie is actually dark fantasy or horror, at least when seen through a child’s eyes? Or what if Dorothy boarded a spaceship and flew to Oz (located on a planet beyond the Milky Way) and returned the same way? Would the movie then be science fiction or a mixture such as
What I am suggesting is that some of the art we love may be hybrids, as heterogeneous and ultimately unclassifiable as the complex people we know. Still, human beings crave the comfort, even illusory, of consensus, and they insist on defining their terms. In that spirit, I will try to define briefly what science fiction, fantasy, and horror are, as long as it’s understood that any definition, even the best, will be somewhat deficient.
To do so, I will talk about the ignition switch on my car. For months, it’s been giving me fits, for it has been difficult and at times even impossible to turn it off. I’ve taken the damned thing into the shop half a dozen times and spent a small fortune getting it repaired. Yet after driving home today, I still had to spend five minutes turning it off, and it appears that more costly trips to the shop await me.
Now, if I were to write about this problem as a mainstream, “traditional” writer would, my treatment of the subject would reflect a realistic world we all recognize. Perhaps a thingamajig or a #9 widget in the steering column caused the problem, or the man who sold me the car in the first place knew my car was a lemon, and simply didn’t tell me. Whatever the case, there would be a prosaic, everyday explanation for my woes, one very much in keeping with what we know and accept as reality.
But let’s look at my ignition switch from the standpoint of fantasy, which is perhaps the oldest art form there is. Long ago, when cavemen looked up at the dark, thunderous sky, they probably imagined fearsome giants warring against each other. Such an explanation for the unknown fits in well with The American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of literary fantasy as “Fiction characterized by fanciful or supernatural elements.” Fearsome, warring giants are certainly fanciful or supernatural, and if my explanation for my ignition problems was fantastic in nature, I might invent all sorts of fanciful or supernatural causes. Perhaps my ignition didn’t turn because of those ubiquitous gremlins we always hear about. Or some wizard or sorcerer cast a spell on my machinery. Who knows, if I’m paranoid or deranged enough, perhaps I’ll conclude that my car is alive and simply doesn’t like me or misses its former owner. Either way, my explanation won’t be a “realistic” one, though it had better have a realistic consistency and internal logic of its own. For example, if I say the ignition switch acts the way it does because it doesn’t like me, I can’t suddenly show it being nice to me and working well without a valid reason.
Next, let’s look at my ignition sorrows from the viewpoint of horror.But first, a warning: strictly speaking, horror may not even be a genre, for it is primarily an emotion that one finds universally in everything from Hamlet to “Hansel and Gretel.” Our friend, the dictionary (at least the one I use), doesn’t even provide a literary definition of it. For practical purposes, let us define horror as art whose major effect is to frighten and terrify, using everything from subtle, creepy mood and atmosphere to gore, vomit, and assorted gross-out effects. In keeping with this definition, I may sense an eerie, intangible presence in the front seat that interferes with the ignition switch’s proper function. Perhaps that presence slowly grows in haunting, ghostlike fashion and one night, I even feel phantom fingers lightly brush the back of my neck. Or, if I want to describe my ignition switch in such a way as to fill you with gut-wrenching horror, I might have blood or a long, slimy tongue ooze out of it, just before I insert the key.
On the other hand, I could approach this situation from the standpoint of psychological horror – that is, horror that reveals, in Poe-like fashion, my psychic sickness, the deranged and demented recesses of my diseased mind. If so, I might conclude that my ignition switch was tampered with by one of my Muse friends because he – or she – has always hated me and delighted in causing me trouble. Indeed, perhaps that Muse friend is someone I talked to just recently, and I know who it is. The only question is, should I seek my revenge with poison, an axe, or through some more diabolical means?
Here’s one last horrific possibility: it’s late at night and I’m stranded on a back road way out in the boondocks because, for a change, my ignition switch won’t turn on. Perhaps the situation makes me feel like Pip in Moby-Dick. Like him, I feel all alone in the universe, which is completely indifferent to my fate. As the wind howls, I realize I could die and rot out here and never be discovered. The world itself would proceed just as before and wouldn’t even miss me. Certainly that is scary, isn’t it? Certainly that is horror. Now imagine I receive a visitor, one of the “Old Ones” from H.P. Lovecraft’s Chthulu mythos. The creature is from another planet, and it belongs to a mysterious race far older and more intelligent than our own, and with far greater powers. What’s more, it is so strange and hideous in appearance as to have a Medusa-like effect upon the beholder. Merely to look at it, is to be driven absolutely and irrevocably insane.
We’d all agree, I believe, that this last situation certainly qualifies as horror. But note that I described the creature who comes to keep me company on that lonely road as being “from another planet.” Doesn’t his extraterrestrial nature and origin make the scene belong more to science-fiction, or, to mention a new hybrid, to science-fiction horror? Again, if I give that creature a more supernatural, fantastic twist, perhaps we should opt for the label of “dark fantasy.” As I mentioned before, sometimes these terms can be slippery. Who knows? If the creature’s funny or humorous, the whole thing might even be comic fantasy or comic horror, along the lines of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Last, let’s consider my faulty ignition switch from the standpoint of science fiction, which the dictionary defines as “A literary or cinematic genre in which the plot is typically based on speculative scientific discoveries, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets.”
Instead of Lovecraftian Old Ones from another realm, perhaps my ignition switch is recalcitrant because a nearby wrecked (but undiscovered) spaceship from a distant galaxy is trying to contact me on the car radio, which I have yet to turn on because I don’t like either news or music. Another possibility is that the malfunction is caused by local environmental changes that are caused in turn by global warming that presages a worldwide catastrophe, and my defective ignition switch is simply the very first symptom of humanity’s looming fate.
Here I would like to make a statement that may sound extreme but that I think is important. Because science fiction is so “speculative,” so concerned with infinite possibilities and alternate realities, it possesses a conceptual richness or potential that transcends what we find in all other literature, including that which has been traditionally taught in classrooms. The scope of science fiction is so vast and limitless that it embraces not only this world and universe but others; not just this time period but the distant past and the remote future; not just outer space but the inner space of the human body or a drop of water, which may be inhabited by microscopic beings much like ourselves. There is African science fiction, Jewish science fiction, feminist science fiction, humorous science fiction, and science fiction for juveniles and children. Moreover, science fiction may be “soft” and so nontechnical that anyone can read it. Or it may be what’s called “hard” and based so much on current science and scientific extrapolation that you almost have to be a scientist to understand it.
Indeed, science fiction embraces so much, that I might not even have an ignition problem at all. The switch I’ve been complaining about may actually belong not to me but to another John B. Rosenman on a parallel or alternate Earth. Back here, in this Virginia Beach, Virginia, my car works fine and has never required even one repair.
Oh well, it doesn’t hurt to dream.
In closing, I hope I have helped to clarify what science fiction, fantasy, and horror are, and shown how they sometimes intermarry and have very interesting children. Considered together, these three art forms offer endless possibilities for the creative imagination, which I believe is amply demonstrated by the books MuseItUp publishes.
John, a retired English professor from Norfolk State University, has published over three hundred stories in The Speed of Dark, Weird Tales, Whitley Strieber's Aliens, Galaxy, The Age of Wonders, and elsewhere. He has also published twenty books, including SF novels such as Speaker of the Shakk and Beyond Those Distant Stars, winner of AllBooks Review Editor’s Choice Award (Mundania Press), and Alien Dreams, A Senseless Act of Beauty, and (YA) The Merry-Go-Round Man (Crossroad Press). MuseItUp Publishing has published four SF novels. They are Dark Wizard; Dax Rigby, War Correspondent, and three in the Inspector of the Cross series: Inspector of the Cross, Kingdom of the Jax. and Defender of the Flame. MuseItUp has also published The Blue of Her Hair, the Gold of Her Eyes (winner of Preditor’s and Editor’s 2011 Annual Readers Poll), More Stately Mansions, and the dark erotic thrillers Steam Heat and Wet Dreams. Musa Publishing gave his time travel story “Killers” their 2013 Editor’s Top Pick award. Some of John’s books are available as audio books from Audible.com.
Two of John’s major themes are the endless, mind-stretching wonders of the universe and the limitless possibilities of transformation—sexual, cosmic, and otherwise. He is the former Chairman of the Board of the Horror Writers Association and the previous editor of Horror Magazine.