Horror vs. Thriller: A Study in Stephen King

A young girl struggles to control her psychic powers. Her surviving parent forbids her from using them. Eventually, she reaches a breaking point and unleashes her powers in a deadly confrontation. Are we talking about Carrie? Perhaps, though this also applies to Firestarter, another novel by Stephen King. While Carrie is widely considered a horror novel, Firestarter is better understood as a paranormal thriller––a similar, but not identical, genre. Why? How does Firestarter––with its psychic protagonist, its gruesome fiery deaths, its sense of encroaching and omnipresent menace––differ from Carrie?

Or are they so different? Michael Jackson’s greatest hit isn’t called “Horror,” after all. Thrills & Chills magazine featured few, if any, of the tropes we associate with the thriller genre. Words change meaning, and genres change over time. Although they’re similar, something separates horror stories and thrillers, even when paranormal elements are present in both. I’ll try to tease out what separates them.

This post contains spoilers for both Carrie and Firestarter.

What is horror?

A man alone at night under a yellow streetlight. Photo by Gabriel from Unsplash.
Photo by Gabriel from Unsplash.

Horror stories focus on scaring or unnerving the reader. They often showcase the pain and fear of their characters. Grotesque and uncanny imagery are mainstays of horror stories. Characters may also behave in strange and unsettling ways, or observe things that defy rational explanation.

Some horror stories slowly build, over hundreds of pages, to a dramatic conclusion. In others, nothing outright terrifying happens, but there’s a permeating feeling of unease that suffuses the story. In others, the action starts early and never lets up until the end.

Horror does not necessarily mean supernatural. Misery, Flowers in the AtticBlood Meridian, American Psycho––all horror, none supernatural. My favorite horror movie, The Wicker Man, is preoccupied by supernatural questions––the film’s heart is the clash between the starchy Anglican Sergeant Howie, and the sinister pagan Lord Summerisle––but it features no obvious supernatural events.

Horror stories are more likely to feature characters whose behavior and reasoning is far outside normal human experience. Carrie White has completely understandable reasons for snapping (if I had telekinesis in school…), but when she snaps, her thinking is literally paranormal––separate from normality. Here’s a glimpse into her psyche, just after killing her mother:

Carrie went out the back door, staggered across the lawn, and rested (where’s my momma) against a tree. There was something she was supposed to do. Something about (roadhouses parking lots) the Angel with the Sword. The Fiery Sword. Never mind. It would come to her. She crossed by back yards to Willow Street and then crawled up the embankment to Route 6. It was 1:15 A.M.

“Plug it up!”

The cover for Stephen King's Carrie, showing a young woman with blood dripping over her face.Carrie begins with a locker room hazing, where girls throw tampons at Carrie White and chant “plug it up!” while she cowers, naked, in a stall. The scene focuses on Carrie’s emotions, the cruelty of the other girls, and the blood running down Carrie’s thigh and onto the tiles.

The opening scene sets the emotional tone for the book. Carrie White is a “frog among swans…a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her wet hair completely without color.” She’s an outsider, a grotesque, and the other girls won’t let her forget it. Especially not when they see blood running down her leg.

We can feel it all as it happens: Carrie’s pain and incomprehension, the shrieks and laughter of the other girls, the “first dark drops of menstrual blood [striking] the tile in dime-sized drops,” the tampons thrown at Carrie and hitting her in the chest. It’s visceral, disturbing, and disgusting. We’re already in a horror story.

What’s a thriller?

The term “thriller” refers to a book with an exciting story, often involving espionage, crime, or an insider’s view of a particular profession, such as medicine, law, law enforcement, or the military. In many thrillers, the main character enters a mysterious and dangerous situation, survives attempts on his or her life (or body, sanity, etc.), and must find a way to solve the central mystery and neutralize the threat.

Does this sound a lot like the plot to many famous horror stories, such as Halloween? It’s true, there are a lot of similarities, but the emotions evoked are different. While horror stories rely on evoking fear, terror, and dread, thrillers rely on anxious tension, i.e. excitement and suspense, to keep the story going. That means lots of action, reaction, and revelations to keep the reader interested. Grotesque or terrifying things may happen, but they exist to ramp up the tension and make the stakes clear, not to horrify the audience.

In thrillers, the evil characters have coherent motivations, even if their actions are horrifying. Their thought process is not outside the bounds of normal human experience; people have been greedy, ruthless, self-serving, etc. since the beginning of time. Thriller antagonists usually lack that uncanny factor that’s present in so many horror stories.

Captain Hollister (from Firestarter) might be ruthless, but his reasoning is easy to follow. When Charlie McGee grows up, she may have the power to detonate nuclear-bomb-sized explosions with her mind. One slip-up could mean millions, even tens of millions of deaths. Brainwashing her, canalizing her talents, can save all those lives. If that doesn’t work, there’s only one way to keep the world safe. Would you really leave the fate of the world up in the air like that?

There are thrillers with paranormal elements: psychics, ghosts, vampires, witches, et cetera. These may offer an “insider’s view” on a lifestyle (or afterlifestyle) that doesn’t actually exist. Many paranormal thrillers use otherworldly elements to raise the stakes. Can Jack Protagonist rescue his pregnant wife from the warlock holding her captive? How can he be sure that she’s under a spell? And can he save their baby from the warlock, before he sacrifices it to the Dark Gods? All these questions add to the suspense, and keep the reader engaged in the story.

Some novels and films fit into both genres. Silence of the Lambs is a classic example. The story follows Federal Agent Clarice Starling on the hunt for a serial killer, with help from the charming and murderous Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Both Lecter and Buffalo Bill are grotesques straight out of a horror story, and the book contains plenty of gorey and disturbing imagery, yet the plot structure is more typical of a crime thriller.

“Daddy, I’m tired.”

The cover of Stephen King's Firestarter, showing a young girl backlit by flames.Firestarter starts with the two lead characters, Andy and Charlie McGee, running from government agents through downtown Manhattan. Andy flags a cab; the agents follow. While en route, Andy uses his psychic powers of persuasion to make the cabby “see” and accept an imaginary five-hundred dollar bill, to ditch their tail and head out of Manhattan towards the airport.

The scene shows us Andy’s anguish as he tries to protect his daughter, literally (if caught, they’ll be killed) and spiritually (if she understands too much, she won’t be an innocent kid anymore). We also see Andy’s agony as he uses his powers; every time he gives someone a “push,” it hurts him more, but he has to do it or they’ll die. The McGees can’t rest until they’re either safe, or dead. We’re in a thriller.

Charlie and Andy’s psychic powers might as well be specialized weapons, top-secret documents, an ounce of Unobtanium––anything dangerous that the government will kill to get. This cat-and-mouse game continues, in different forms, for over a hundred pages; Andy and Charlie, gifted but outnumbered and outmatched, must still find ways to evade the government and stay alive.

The Monster

Most horror stories and thrillers contain at least one monster. I’m using “monster” in the most catholic sense, to include all supernatural and strange-but-natural creatures in a story. These can include, but aren’t limited to: ghosts, vampires, serial killers, serial killer killers, cult leaders, mob bosses, aliens, Presidents, Presidents who are secretly aliens, et cetera.

Most monsters have special powers, natural or otherwise. A killer might be dumb as a diaper and half as charming, but he’ll be strong, semi-impervious to bullets, and lucky. Or he’ll be seductive, with twisted but compelling logic for his actions.

In horror stories, the monster’s powers have a destructive bent, whether or not they’re intended that way. Their powers usually drive the course of the plot. The mad scientist’s creation destroys its creator; the ghosts reenact their own deaths, powerless to change the past; the videotape kills whoever watches it, seven days later. This power is often central to the story, as a source of strength and a fatal flaw.

In thrillers, the monster’s powers are more likely to be sidelined by a larger conspiracy, which uses or wants to use them for its own ends. Although Charlie McGee’s power is destructive, the U.S. Government is far more powerful and destructive than her. She and her father keep the government at bay for a long time, but even they can’t hide forever.

Marketing Terms

Horror and thriller readers have different tastes, desires, and expectations. Generally speaking, horror readers want to be frightened or disturbed, and expect sinister imagery, memorable villains, and unsettling scenarios. Thriller readers, in contrast, expect a fast-paced plot, shadowy conspiracies, and outmatched protagonists beating the odds. You can have all these elements in a single book––there’s no bright dividing line between horror and thriller––but marketing will want to focus on one genre or the other, even if your book features elements of both.

Different subgenres and sub-subgenres carry different expectations. A cosmic horror anthology contains different imagery and subject matter from a legal thriller. You might enjoy both cosmic horror and legal thrillers, but the average reader is going to be upset if she opens the latest John Grisham and gets a story about a verbose diarist exploring a lost city in the astral plane. Likewise, if you pick up a book called “Outskirts of Carcosa,” you might be upset if it’s a straightforward legal drama, without even a single cultist, worm god, or page-long paragraph.

You can tell the difference between a horror and a thriller novel just by glancing at the cover. Look, for example, at these two premade covers by Damonza. Which one is a horror novel and which one is a thriller?

No brainer, right? The first one screams “Warning: Contains a poorly-lit mansion, a backlit psychotic woman, and blood motifs,” while the second one says, “This book is about a woman going back to her hometown to investigate some mysterious disappearances, and is currently on an endcap display in your local Target.” If you like blood motifs, you’re more likely to pick up the first one; if you like Target thrillers, the second. In theory, these covers could be for the same book, but they’d be marketed very differently, even if the contents were exactly the same.

As Grady Hendrix points out, a lot of Stephen King’s books are marketed as horror even though they don’t fit in that genre. Firestarter might sell better as a horror novel than as a thriller. And if it feels more like a horror novel to the average reader, even if it technically meets the criteria for a thriller, then it belongs in the horror section anyway. Hence the very horror-ific cover art on Firestarter’s audiobook.

Rules of Thumb

If you’re dealing with a higher level of government than the local police, maybe the County Sheriff at the highest, you’re in a thriller.

If there’s more than five pints of blood, it’s a horror story.

If someone used bleach to clean up that blood, it’s a thriller.

Feature photo by Marten Newhall on Unsplash.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Cover of My Best Friend's Exorcism by Grady Hendrix.This book follows a friendship from its inception, at a middle school roller-rink party, until its end. Abby, the book’s protagonist, is a scholarship student with working poor parents in Creekside, South Carolina. Abby’s best friend, Gretchen, is from a well-heeled Reagan Republican family in Old Village, “the la-di-da part of Mt. Pleasant where all the houses were dignified and either overlooked the water or had enormous yards, and if anyone saw a black person walking down the street who wasn’t Mr. Little, they would pull their Volvo over and ask if he was lost.”

One night, some ordinary high school debauchery goes very wrong, and Gretchen disappears––only to reemerge literally “not herself.” It’s up to Abby to figure out what’s wrong, because nobody else seems to notice, or care, that her friend is changing in new and alarming ways.

This book’s plot progression reminds me of The Witch. As Abby tries to help Gretchen, she’s alienated from all her friends, her friend’s parents, her teachers, her principal, even her own family. This progression is more horrific than the gross and supernatural events that accompany Gretchen’s possession.

I read this book over a couple of days, foregoing work and sleep to finish it. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in horror novels, or anyone who wants to surf the wave of 80s nostalgia. If any of this appeals to you, give this book a try. Hendrix is a gifted writer, and I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

Endless Holiday

“Young, dumb, spiritually numb,” the sallow man laughed. “That’s me. That’s you, too.”

“No,” I said, turning away. His eyes were black pits. If I looked at them too long, I knew I’d fall in. Don’t ask me how I knew, because I can’t tell you.

“You’ll see,” he said, and laughed. His laugh turned into a hacking cough. I examined the ice at the bottom of my drink. God, I thought, if only there was some way out of here. Of course there wasn’t, not really.

We were sitting at the bar on the ninth floor. No alcohol served after dark––and it was always after dark. I watched two men stumble across the dance floor, arms entwined, faces slack with boredom. The pianist plowed through a joylessly jaunty tune, the musical equivalent of a man dancing at gunpoint. My drinking companion grinned.

“Want to hear a joke?” he said. I didn’t, but oh well.

“What’s eternity minus ten minutes?…Eternity. What’s eternity minus ten days?…Eternity. What’s eternity minus ten years?…Give up?”

“That’s not funny.”

“It will be.”

I got up, leaving my drink at the bar. That was the one good thing about this place: you could come and go as you liked. I didn’t look at the man with black pits for eyes.

“Where you going?” he said. “Off on urgent business?”

“Something like that.”

The doorman handed me a coat, not mine, and disappeared. It was too big, ripped to bits at the back. At least it wasn’t a woman’s coat.

The muggy air in the hallway sucked up every thought in my head. I stood at the threshold, jaunty music tinkling away behind me. The wallpaper was always flaking off up here, but someone had ripped a great big piece off the wall, revealing yet another garish pattern underneath.

“Looking for your room?” a woman said, and laughed, as she passed by. She wore a faded ballgown, probably not hers either. I smiled, not really meaning it.

There’s a window by the elevator on this floor. I don’t look out. I used to, but there’s literally nothing to see. The hotel is surrounded by a void, the void, and you can go out its front door and get swallowed up, forever, no appointment necessary. Only no one does.

Why not? I don’t know. Maybe they do, and the void spits them out again. Maybe no one notices when they disappear. I wouldn’t.

The elevator clanged open. The attendant snarled at me, like a gangster in an old movie.

“Lobby,” he said as I got on. I didn’t argue.

Twenty people boarded at the sixth floor. One man glared at me as he squeezed in. Fiftyish, in a faded old suit, hair slick against his skull. Two boys laughed as the doors closed.

“This holiday will end,” another man, fat, said to the girl under his arm. “And when it does, they’ll see what a good girl you’ve been.”

“I haven’t been good,” she said, to titters from the crowd. The fat man pulled her close.

“No?” he said. The boys elbowed each other, eyeing the girl.

“I don’t care if this holiday never ends,” she said, looking vaguely into the middle distance.

“No?” said the fat man, a bit more uncertainly.

“No,” she said. “I just want to find my room.” Murmured laughter filled the air.

The doors opened on the lobby: a crush of bodies by the bar, dirty, dizzy-making carpet, bells ringing and voices shouting without end. More music. The smell of smoke.

In the restaurant, men with cigars coughed over empty plates. Girls sat with them, scanning the crowd or studying their nail beds. People wandered through the restaurant, peeking into the empty kitchen, leaning on tables or hiding in one of the corner booths. Near me, two men leaned close together, trying to talk. The knot of young people shrieking by the pool door made that impossible.

“He’s in there, he’s in there!” several hoarse voices cried out, serving as counterpoint to insane laughter. Hands banged on the pool door. No one was in there; the pool was closed, due to reopen in a morning that would never come. The door never gave, not even an inch.

I got up and left the restaurant. The two men followed me out.

“…lines of communication are open,” the older man was saying.

“Of course,” said the younger. “You’d be a fool not to demand verification. I — ”

“ — They can see us, of course,” the older man blurted. “That’s why there are those holes in the walls — so they can look inside— ”

“––Quite,” the young man said, with a glance to the side. “If you’ll excuse me.” With a short bow, he walked away and melted into the crowd.

“I bet there’s nobody up there,” a woman said behind us. The older man, who was still standing where the younger one had left him, looked at me. He’d heard her, too.

“It’s just the hotel, and that’s it,” she said. Boredom was written into every line on her face.

“No,” the man said. “Everyone knows that — ”

“ — Everyone’s wrong,” the woman insisted. “This is all there is.”

The man’s face fell. I looked to the woman, expecting to see a triumphant smirk. If anything, she looked more bored than ever.

The three of us walked together, not talking. The crowd thinned out around the entrance; it always did. I stopped to look. The revolving doorway turned slowly, lazily, although there was no one and nothing to turn it. Beyond the doorway, utter and complete darkness. Not even a curb or a walkway.

“You ever seen anyone go out there?” the woman asked. The old man didn’t answer.

I didn’t realize I was walking until my shoe scuffed the linoleum. If I reached out, I could now touch the door as it passed. Behind me, someone gasped.

A hush had fallen over the lobby. I turned back; an endless, silent sea of faces stared back at me. The woman and the older man drew back, eyes wide.

Someone in the crowd laughed. It was my old drinking companion, his black-pit eyes dancing with mirth.

“Bet you won’t!” he called out.

I turned back to the door. I was inside the arc of its revolution now; it was coming closer, slowly. I could see the crowd’s reflection in its glass, faces like little pale stones.

“Bet you won’t!” the black-eyed man called out . The glass door came closer and closer. Maybe I was backing away from it, maybe I wasn’t. You learned not to trust anything down here, least of all your own body.

“Bet you won’t!” the black-eyed man shouted, his voice breaking. Well, what if I did? Either I’d end up back here, or I’d dissolve into nothing, or––joke of jokes––wind up at an even worse hotel, one with no bars, no doors and no windows. Maybe I’d even wake up in my own room. Who knows?

The door came closer and closer. I couldn’t hear anything now, even the hush of the lobby. I wanted to find out what came next. I had to.

I closed my eyes.

This story was originally published on Twitter, as a response to a prompt by @horrorprompt.

Hotel Durant

I’m writing a new story on Twitter. Current title is “Hotel Durant” though that may change. It’s in response to a prompt by @horrorprompt to write a story based on the words “spiritually numb.”

You can read it starting here.