Horror fiction is, broadly, fiction intended to scare, unsettle or horrify the reader. Although a good deal of it is about the supernatural, any fiction with a morbid, gruesome, surreal, suspenseful or frightening theme may be termed "horror"; conversely, many stories of the supernatural are not horror. Horror fiction often overlaps with science fiction and fantasy, all of which form the umbrella category speculative fiction. See also supernatural fiction.
Early horror fiction
Fictional characters have found themselves in horrifying situations from the earliest recorded tales. Many myths and legends feature scenarios and archetypes used by later horror writers. Tales collected by the Grimm Brothers are often quite horrific.
Probably the first works of modern horror fiction were gothic novels, typified by Bram Stoker's Dracula and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. Another early work of horror fiction is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein. Frankenstein has also been considered science fiction or a philosophical novel by some literary historians. Early horror works used mood and subtlety to deliver an eerie and otherworldly flavor, but usually eschewed extensive explicit violence.
Other early exponents of the horror form number such luminaries as H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, who were considered to be masters of the art. Among the writers of classic English ghost stories, M.R. James is often cited as the finest. His stories avoid shock effects and often involve an Oxford antiquarian as their hero. Algernon Blackwood's The Willows and Oliver Onions's The Beckoning Fair One have been called the best ghost stories. Lovecraft and Sheridan le Fanu called some of their writing weird fiction or weird stories.
Some stories in highbrow literature could arguably be regarded as horror fiction: examples include Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) and In the Penal Colony (In der Strafkolonie).
Contemporary horror fiction
Modern practitioners of the genre have often resorted to--or used-- progressively greater extremes of violence, often recalling grand guignol theatre. (See splatterpunk) This has given horror fiction a stigma as base entertainment devoid of literary merit. Other writers, such as Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti are cited as rejecting such violence in favor of more subtle writing.
Nevertheless, contemporary writers such as Clive Barker in The Books of Blood and Stephen King in his more considered work, such as Misery, are capable of bringing off the horror effect without excessive violence which characterises much of the current mainstream of this genre.
The rise of the Internet has allowed horror authors and fans to create new subsets of the genre. Numerous web based fanzines have provided a market for both amateur and professional writers which is (for better or for worse) unfettered by the tastes and judgments of the professional publishing houses.