Dec 6 2013 2:22pm

Emotional Response: The Intersection of Horror and Romance

Legend of the Highland Dragon by Isabel CooperToday we're joined by author Isabel Cooper, whose Legend of the Highland Dragon combines Victorian England with dragons, intrigue, and plenty of romance. It's a natural, then, that Isabel would look for connections between disparate genres, and today she talks about what the horror and romance genres have in common. Thanks, Isabel!

Horror and romance have a lot in common.

Seriously. For one thing, they’re the only two fiction genres traditionally defined by emotion: you can’t walk into a bookstore and find a shelf of Books That Will Make You Cry. For another, they’re the two genres of fiction that get the most crap from people outside said genres—maybe because of that. Horror will corrupt our children and romance will corrupt our women and, y’know, they’re not Real Literature Really. They’re too visceral to be nice. That’s a third thing they share. Horror and romance both hit you where you live, if they’re done right.

And they bleed into each other a lot. Obviously there’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight and a whole bunch of fiction, these days, which is explicitly romance featuring vampires or werewolves or other things that would traditionally be trying to kill you. (And much of this fiction is awesome: I spent way more time crying over Season 2 of Buffy than I will ever admit.) Even in the more traditional books, though, the “pure” examples of one genre or another, there’s often a little crossover.

Jane EyreJane Eyre, for example. It’s pretty much romance—there’s yearning and conflict and banter and yearning—and then HOLY CRAP Bertha Rochester is a BLOATED PURPLE (I am not kidding, the textual description makes her sound like a Resident Evil end boss) ARSONIST who goes around BITING PEOPLE. And nobody gets to see her, so the first part of the book involves a lot of mysterious fires (and biting) and insane laughter, and it is freaky as hell, to use a technical literary term.

Or let’s hit the old-school vampire action. Everyone and their English TA knows that Dracula is all about the repressed Victorian sexuality and the danger of sinister foreigners making our women have orgasms. We get that. But there’s actually quite a lot of actual romance in there too: Mina nursing Jonathan back to health when he’s traumatized, him defending her after Dracula gets to her, poor doomed Lucy’s suitors all trying vainly (pun…not intended) to save her and then doing her the last favor they can.

There’s a lot of bleed. It doesn’t happen in every book—Austen wasn’t big on horror, and Lovecraft’s two romance plots had a serious case of Not Okay—but enough goes back and forth, and the more I think about it, the more I think that’s because horror and romance have a very similar conflict at heart.

You’re going about your life as normal. It’s an okay life: some ups, some downs, nothing huge. Maybe you feel good about it, maybe not, but it’s a life you know. You have, so to speak, read the rulebook.

Now here’s this thing. Maybe you went looking for it, maybe you didn’t, but it’s not what you expected, and all of a sudden it’s right there, in the middle of your life, and oh my God it does not follow the rules at all. Just by being there, this thing is totally screwing up your whole previous arrangement—hell, it’s screwing up the way you think. Do you accept that? Do you try and get rid of it? And either way, how?

I might have just described Pride and Prejudice from Mr. Darcy’s point of view. I might have just described Poltergeist from the family’s point of view.

To go all English Major for a second—hey, I’m still paying off the student loans, so I have to use the skills somehow—horror and romance are both about the fundamental and complete disruption of an existing order. In horror, the disruption is negative, and the goal is to get rid of it; in romance, the disruption is ultimately positive, and the goal is to embrace it and adapt to it.

Except even there, there’s a little bit of crossover. The monsters in horror almost never go away completely, and I’m not just talking about the endless sequels where Jason gets struck by psychic lightning and comes back. Even if you kill the vampire or banish the Great Old One, you’re still living in a world where those things can exist. You still have to adapt to that.

And in romance? Well, even the most mundane, welcome relationship—not the sort we usually write about—involves a struggle. Adaptation isn’t always, or even often, easy. You’re going to have to fight to keep your own identity, to balance who you are and what you need with the identity and needs of the other person. Sometimes that’s choosing to become a vampire, or not; sometimes, that’s, in my mom’s terms, “Realizing that I married the man who knows the One True Way to load a dishwasher.”

The horror.

Learn more or order a copy of Legend of the Highland Dragon by Isabel Cooper, out now:

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Isabel Cooper lives in Boston with two thriving houseplants. During the day, she maintains her guise as a mild-mannered project manager working in legal publishing. None of the houses she's lived in has been haunted, although one of her former roommates might have dated a zombie. For more visit

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
You know, I frequently consider myself a leitmotif type of reader, but I have never thought about this:
horror and romance are both about the fundamental and complete disruption of an existing order
And it's right! Thank you! Such a fun post. Especially the part about Mrs. Rochester, poor purple thing.
Kiersten Hallie Krum
2. Kiersten
My pain over Season 2 of Buffy was, at the time, too deep an eviseration for tears...

Great post!
Isabel C.
3. Isabel C.
@Megan: Thanks!
And I know, right? I read Jane Eyre for the first time when I was around ten or eleven, and I was like...okay, what kind of insanity manifests itself as Technicolor? (I'm guessing burst blood vessels, now, but the DSM definitely does not cover this.)
@Kiersten: Dude, SERIOUSLY. "Full of Grace" and oh my God, KILLING ME. Especially fifteen-year-old me, who had not really encountered that sort of thing in TV shows before.
Isabel C.
4. Kahintenn
I just finished reading Isabel's "No Proper Lady"...WOW!! Just ordered "Lessons After Dark" for my Nook and I can't wait to read LOTHD! Thanks Isabel!
Jamie Brenner
6. jamieloganbrenner
Great post and very true. This explains why as a teen I went back and forth between John Saul and Victoria Holt. Also explains the enduring appeal of Flowers in the Attic.
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