What Is Speculative Horror?
by B.K. Bass
Since we announced our horror imprint Kyanite Crypt, I’ve been asked many times, “What kind of horror do you publish?”
The answer in its simplest form is, “speculative horror.” I’ve been told speculative horror is an elusive concept, so I thought it would be helpful to spend a little time discussing exactly what it means.
To begin with, it would be best to break down what each word in the term implies as it relates to the literary crafts.
Exploring the Terminology
Speculative, as it is used in relation to speculative fiction, refers to presenting a situation based on conjecture rather than knowledge. The conjecture – or speculation – in speculative fiction can vary greatly as evidenced by the bounty of different sub-genres that exist. At its core, speculative fiction contains elements of the fantastic, futuristic, or supernatural.
Horror fiction can be found in nearly as many varieties as speculative fiction, ranging from slasher fiction to suspenseful tales of the macabre. The essence of what makes a story ‘horror’ is a sense of suspense, moments of fear, or scenes of morbidity. Essentially, horror fiction seeks to instill suspense, provoke fear, or invoke horrifying imagery.
Both speculative fiction and horror fiction are umbrella terms that include a broad range of sub-genres. They are not mutually exclusive of each other, nor mutually inclusive. The same could be said for each and every sub-genre under both of these terms. One could easily take a fairy tale from speculative fiction and inject a sense of horror by making the threats to the main character more terrifying than they already are, and setting an atmosphere that instills a sense of suspense. Consider the story of Hansel and Gretel for a moment. Two children lost in the forest are kidnapped by a witch who very much intends to eat them. This is already a horrifying thought, and the tone of the story is all that sets the impression of it as a fairy tale rather than a horror story. However, objectively speaking, it could be considered both.
Learning From Our Past
There is arguably no example of the fusion of speculative fiction and horror more recognizable than Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1823). Compared to the contemporary literary environment at the time of publication, Frankenstein was a work of Gothic fiction: recognized for infusing contemporary fiction with themes revolving around death and elements of Romanticism (the artistic movement, not to be confused with modern romance.)
Gothic fiction had been pioneered by Horace Walpole in his novel The Castle of Otranto in 1764, but merely six decades later Shelley – along with contemporaries such as Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, and Lord Byron – was changing the literary landscape once again.
We can easily see the influence Gothic fiction had on modern horror, and this novel is widely recognized as a classic in horror literature. What is less recognized by many is that it is also one of the first science fiction novels, and some argue it is the first; as the experiments of Victor Von Frankenstein were the first in science fiction literature to eschew elements of the fantastic in favor of remaining grounded in the scientific method.
As we can see from our example above, Shelley manages to incorporate elements that would be considered today to be both horror fiction and speculative fiction. The novel builds suspenseful situations and delivers moments of fright, soundly cementing it within the bounds of horror. At the same time, there are elements of speculation in regards to the technology involved in the experiments of Doctor Frankenstein.
There are many other ways that the two forms of literature can be blended together. Among the most popular of these is the genre of dark fantasy. This is another form with a long history, and Gertrude Barrows Bennett (a.k.a. Francis Stevens) is regarded as the “mother of dark fantasy” both for her work published in various pulp magazines and for her five novels; all published between 1917 and 1923. Dark fantasy is considered any work that seeks to incorporate elements of horror within the bounds of a fantasy story, or any sort of horror story set in a secondary world.
Putting Them Together
There are arguably no limits to how one can merge the two camps of literature, and our goal of defining what speculative horror actually is must be answered in the way we began: with the definitions of each word in the phrase. We have established that the ‘speculative’ in speculative fiction refers to elements of the fantastic, futuristic, or supernatural while ‘horror’ includes those works that create suspense, invoke fear, or present scenes depicting horrific imagery.
Thusly our definition of speculative horror is:
Stories with elements of the fantastic, futuristic, or supernatural that seek to create suspense, invoke fear, or present scenes of the horrific.
About the Author
B.K. Bass is the Editor-in-Chief of the Kyanite Press and Managing Editor of the Kyanite Crypt, the horror imprint of Kyanite Publishing. He is also the author – among other works – of The Ravencrest Chronicles, a series of dark fantasy novellas and short fiction; and Beyond the Veil, an upcoming series of alternative history supernatural horror novellas.
Books by B.K. Bass, published by Kyanite Publishing