Well, since I’m reading a modern horror novel (“The Deep” by Nick Cutter) at the moment and have read both older 1980s horror novels and more modern ones (like Edgar Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” and Sarah Lotz’s “Day Four“) recently, I thought that I’d offer a few general observations about how modern horror novels differ from 1980s horror novels.
1) Psychological horror: The popular horror fiction of the 1980s (in Britain at least), mostly consists of ultra-gory splatterpunk fiction, grisly stories about giant animals/monsters etc.. This type of horror fiction is really dramatic, wonderfully cheesy and just generally fun to read, but it often isn’t really that scary. In a lot of ways, this is actually a good thing, since it makes the reader feel more courageous/tough than they actually are.
However, with the exception of the zombie genre (which is the last remnant of classic-style splatterpunk fiction 🙂 ), modern horror fiction has moved away from stylised, fantastical ultra-gruesome tales of the macabre. Yes, modern horror novels do still have grisly moments when required, but the focus often tends to be more on psychological horror.
This is mostly because this type of horror tends to be considerably scarier due to it’s realism. After all, we all have worries, uncertainties etc..
Although this is also something of a move back to the classic traditions of horror fiction (eg: mysterious ghost stories, H.P.Lovecraft etc…), it often tends to have a more irreverent, quirky and/or “realistic” tone to it these days. This lends modern horror novels a level of chilling relatability that more stylised 1980s novels may not have.
This focus on psychological horror also extends to stories about monsters too. For example, both Edgar Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” and Nick Cutter’s “The Deep” both include some kind of mysteriously malevolent antagonist. However, more emphasis is often placed on how the presence of this affects the characters psychologically rather than just on “Boo! A scary monster!“.
Likewise, a lot of the horror in Sarah Lotz’s “Day Four” and Nick Cutter’s “The Deep” comes from the bleak and desolate nature of the settings. In both stories, the characters are cut off from the rest of the world by the sea and this is used to create a lot of realistic suspense and tension. Yes, isolated settings are a traditional feature of the horror genre (and turn up in 1980s novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and “The Skull“), but the focus on how this isolation affects the characters is slightly more prominent in modern horror fiction.
So, modern horror fiction often tends to focus more on psychological horror than 1980s horror fiction does.
2) Nostalgia: Although 1980s horror novels are wonderfully “retro” when read these days, they contain considerably less nostalgia than modern horror fiction does.
In 1980s horror fiction, the world of the novel is often just the “ordinary” world of the 1980s. Although some ’80s horror novels do contain historical flashbacks (eg: Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger” and James Herbert’s “The Jonah“), the tone of these segments is often anything but nostalgic.
On the other hand, modern horror fiction tends to focus a lot more on nostalgia. For example, Robert Brockway’s “The Unnoticeables” has lots of atmospheric segments about 1970s New York. Likewise, Edgar Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” is not only set in a vaguely “Twin Peaks”-like version of the early 1990s, but it is also a bit of a homage to the 1960s TV show “Scooby Doo” too.
There are a lot of possible reasons for this. First of all, contrasting the nostalgic warmth of the past with horrific stuff is one way to unsettle readers. Secondly, the past was a less technologically sophisticated time (allowing for the use of classic pre-internet/mobile phone horror tropes).
Thirdly, readers are likely to either have their own nostalgic memories of the 20th century or be curious about this part of history. Fourthly, it’s often a bit of a homage to the historical heyday of the horror genre. Fifthly, it’s kind of fun to see writers doing new things with established horror tropes.
3) Complex protagonists: Whilst the horror fiction of the 1980s did sometimes feature morally-ambiguous, complex and/or flawed protagonists (Strieber’s “The Hunger”, Clive Barker’s “Cabal” and Nancy A. Collins’ “Sunglasses After Dark” spring to mind), they weren’t really as common as they are these days. Often, the main character would just be an ordinary person who heroically stops the world from being overtaken by evil forces (or at least tries to do this).
Following up with my earlier point about psychological horror, modern horror protagonists tend to be a lot more complex, “realistic” and flawed. For example, the main character of Cutter’s “The Deep” is haunted by a terrifying past. The main characters in Sarah Lotz’s “Day Four” are a realistically complex and/or flawed assortment of people. Likewise, the main characters in Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” are a group of misfits whose lives have been ruined by one terrifying week during their youth.
But, why? Simply put, by making the protagonist a bit more conflicted, uncertain or vulnerable, the audience is less likely to assume that they are going to win or survive. It instantly adds extra suspense to a story. Likewise, making the protagonist less “authoritative” or confident also adds an unsettling element of unreliability to the story too.
It’s kind of like the difference between, say, “Resident Evil 3” and “Silent Hill 3“. In one of these horror videogames, your character is a confident and well-armed ex-police officer. In the other, your character is a frightened teenager. One of these games is considerably scarier than the other…
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂