So many readers love romance books. I know I do. It took me a long time to admit that I liked romance, because the genre is so pooh-poohed. It’s too girly, it’s trite, it’s cliche, etc., etc.
For a very long time, I didn’t want anything to do with romance books. Yet that was always the kind of story I gravitated to, especially when I was reading fanfic. I wanted to see my two favorite characters shack up, in a hundred thousand different ways.
Yet one thing I find romance readers often don’t recognize is how quickly and easily “romance” can veer into horror. In fact, I think there’s a very thin line separating the two genres. A lot of what we point out as being “romantic” is actually more suited to a horror novel.
Let’s Slag on November 9
I know for fact Colleen Hoover is not alone in writing “romances” that feel like horror stories. But I think November 9 really represents what I’m talking about here, though.
Basic plot summary: a girl who is horrifically scarred after a house fire begins “dating” a dude she encounters at a diner. Because she’s going to college, though, they only meet up once per year, on November 9.
This goes on for a few years. The guy shacks up with his sister-in-law after his brother dies tragically. Our heroine tries to end the relationship and “get over” this dude. He resorts to effectually stalking her, resulting in a rather violent confrontation in a nightclub. She, once again, tries to break it off.
He, somehow knowing her home address, drops off a manuscript he’s been working on, which tells his back story. Turns out he’s the one who set fire to her house. He was trying to get back at her father. Our intrepid romance hero believed her father had an affair with his mother, who then committed suicide.
Turns out he was wrong about that. Also, he committed arson and horrifically injured this girl. Then he tracked her down and manipulated her into a relationship with him. Then he hunted her down again when she tried to (reasonably) break up with him.
At this point in the story, I’m cheering for our main character to get in a car and get away from this deranged criminal as fast as she fucking can.
How Is This Romantic?
As I said, Hoover’s not the only one to conflate some seriously troubling behavior—especially from guys—with “romantic.” A somewhat milder version appears in Twilight for example. Edward effectually stalks Bella.
If you have ever been stalked or know someone who was stalked, you know it is far from a “romantic” experience. It is terrifying.
Stalking isn’t the only “horror” behavior that’s romanticized in our trashy love story genre, though. Controlling, isolating, and other abusive behavior is often glorified too.
Men who physically assault others or even the heroine are often portrayed as being “romantic.” Abuse comes in many forms, of course. We might also see the hero lying to the heroine “for her own good” or withholding information from her. Another classic is the hero raping the heroine, because he (and her body) “knows what she wants.”
Confinement is another big one. Heroes often imprison their love interests. Sometimes this is physical. Sometimes it’s more of an emotional imprisonment, where they say things like, “If you leave me, I’ll kill myself.”
In another classic, we have the ultra-possessive man who is so jealous, he growls if another man so much as looks at “his woman.” This often leads to physicality, such as the man picking the woman up and hauling her away or dragging her out of a restaurant, party, or club. He might throw her around sometimes.
The big question for us, then, is why do we see this as romantic behavior? If you were in this situation in real life, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t find it “romantic” at all. In fact, you’d likely be scared of the growly dude who’s glaring at all and sundry, then yanking you off your feet and dragging you out of the bar, even as you protest.
It’s Actually Not Romantic at All (But Thanks for Playing, Patriarchy)
A lot of these tropes are positioned as “romantic” because they glorify male power over “helpless” females. Patriarchy likes these narratives, because they show men urged on by primal instincts and a tendency to anger and violence. It also shows women as damsels in distress who need male protection—in the form of jealous violence. It normalizes male control over women and glorifies male dominion.
And it also tells women that they simply do not know what they want—but men do. Women are not to trust their heads or their hearts. If their “bodies react” to a man, they must want him. And he knows her resistance is merely a ruse—“no” does not mean “no” in Romancelandia.
So we have the glorification of rape, abuse, and male violence, both toward other men and toward women.
This is all horrifying if we actually stop to think about it for more than a hot minute. Yet we’re repeatedly told we should find all of this behavior incredibly desirable. Men get the message they should be angry, violent, and jealous. Women get the message that they should be flattered if men act like this around them.
Thus, we take something that should be objectively horrifying and turn it into something “romantic.”
How Horror and Romance Bleed Together
This is where I come back to the idea that there is a very thin line between something being romantic and truly terrifying. For many people, the thought of having a lover who is so possessive of them is intriguing, because it validates them. If their lover were to lose all higher reasoning and revert to “caveman” behavior, it would make them feel valued. Maybe even precious or special.
Yet that same behavior, when overplayed, becomes suffocating and abusive. Suddenly, what may have seemed romantic at the outset tumbles across the line into “horrifying.”
Power dynamics are very much a part of both romance and horror. In romance, we may see a power imbalance, but it is usually corrected in some way. As much as our “manly hero” is manhandling his woman, she maintains some sort of power over him. Usually, she can tell him to stop or bring him back to his senses. (This is another patriarchal fantasy, that women are a “civilizing” force on brutish cavemen. Women “tame” or “domesticate” their otherwise animalistic men.)
Why November 9 Isn’t a Horror Novel
In horror, this power dynamic does not exist. The “woman” or feminized victim is completely at the mercy of whatever force is holding them captive or stalking them or otherwise abusing them. If Hoover’s November 9 were truly a horror, we’d see our “hero” break into the heroine’s apartment. He’d leave her notes, stuff her voicemail, run up hundreds of missed calls. He’d find her at work, on transit, on social media. And he’d turn up in a park across from her BFF’s apartment. He would not leave her alone, and she would begin to feel as though she could not escape him. He’s everywhere and she never knows when or where he’s going to turn up next.
He would also be more threatening, in some ways. The reason November 9 doesn’t devolve into full-blown horror is that our hero drops off his manuscript and leaves the heroine alone. This is meant to seem sad and pathetic, even though he admits to some pretty heinous things in his manuscript—things she probably should refer him to the police or a therapist for, not forgive him for.
But that means this character is “redeemable.” If he were truly “bad,” then we’d move into “horror” territory, with threats and B&Es and such.
The difference between horror and romance, then, is the behavior of the romance hero. That line between the two might be fine, but it holds him back, keeps him in check. He, at some level, realizes how creepy his behavior could be, so he doesn’t go full-bore.
Playing with Horror in Romance
As I indicated at the outset, a lot of romance readers and even romance writers don’t seem to realize how close these two genres are. So many stories inadvertently veer into horror without really trying.
Yet there are stories that intentionally blend the two, toeing or even walking that very fine line between horror and romance.
Monster romances are probably the first example that leaps to mind. The monsters are often terrifying, but there’s a strange, almost unnatural attraction to the “eldritch” here. (This is another way the two genres often meet and cross.)
Yet many monsterfucker romance writers start out with the “horror” premise and walk their eldritch love interest back. Even if the creature looks horrifying, it might be gentler or more concerned about their lover’s pleasure than any human lover could be.
Monster romances definitely play with this blurring of the genre lines. In fact, I’d say this is the most common place writers blend horror and romance together.
Horror and Romance as Satire
As we move more into contemporary—or at least human-to-human romances—we see horror as less intentional. Yet some authors do play with this. Jane Austen might actually have a good example here. Northanger Abbey has a heroine who is given to flights of fancy. She reads too many gothic romances, so she interprets everything the love interest does as having some sort of “gothic” explanation.
Northanger Abbey is intentionally playing with this, though: it’s a satire. Austen was mocking people who argued reading too many books rotted women’s brains. This is an argument we still see today about various forms of media. The primary argument in Austen’s day was that too many books warped people’s perception of reality and made them unable to distinguish between “truth” and “fiction.” Austen’s point in all of this is that such a person would need to be either as dumb as a sack of bricks or incredibly naive. Yet, in doing so, Austen plays with some of the tropes we’d associate more with horror.
Explore Horror in Romance Tropes
It’s something I wanted to play with myself in Rare Flower, particularly around the “fated mates” trope. We act like this trope is so incredibly romantic, but there’s a good chance it’s actually a bit … well, horrifying, since it completely erases human agency. You have no choice.
Add in a millennia-old supernatural creature who doesn’t necessarily understand human beings, and you’ve got a recipe for a tale that’s as horrifying as it is romantic.
One thing I often tell Editor is that what makes something “sexy” is if the character is into it. We can think it’s cringe—or it might not be our kink. But if the character thinks something is hot, then that is what should come across on the page. That is the key to making something “sexy.”
And people have widely varying kinks. I mentioned the monsterfuckers above—there are people whose kink it is to imagine being fucked by some eldritch horror. Other people do have fantasies about being brutalized or raped. As much as these situations are not something you’d actually want to happen outside of a controlled situation, many of us are attracted to the abject. This is the crux of where romance and kink overlap with horror and terror. We are both attracted to and repulsed by the abject. It fills us with dread and horror, disgust, but it also intrigues us and fascinates us.
The Line between Horror and Romance: Power and Consent
So making something that, on the surface, seems “horrifying” romantic or sexy is actually quite easy. All we have to do is imagine that someone is into it. And it’s easy to imagine that. After all, almost anything that falls into the category of the abject can be adapted into a kink.
Thus, it’s not at all surprising that horror and romance live side-by-side like they do. And it’s absolutely not surprising that so many writers and readers enjoy stories that tumble the two together, even unintentionally.
The danger, of course, is that this unintentional blending often risks portraying behaviors that we should legitimately be horrified by as normal or even desirable. In short, we run the risk of glorifying abuse, rape, and other forms of violence when we don’t mix horror and romance together intentionally.
That’s why there’s so much emphasis on intentionality and choice in Rare Flower. Narcissus has rape fantasies, which he displays ambivalence about. He finds the situation arousing, but he also knows he shouldn’t. He knows, on a cognitive level, that rape is not actually something to be desired. Yet he likes the scenario.
What follows is a discussion of consent, boundaries, and kink negotiation. Narcissus is allowed to have these fantasies, to be turned on by these thoughts and situations, and even to indulge in “play” that allows him to engage those fantasies—provided it’s safe, sane, and consensual.
That’s the borderline between romance and horror, and we’d all do well to keep it in mind as we’re writing and reading.