Surreal Horror

What is the Surreal Horror Subgenre?

Surreal horror is quite literally the stuff of nightmares. Logic and reason are abandoned in this subgenre for the truly bizarre and often, disturbing. Surreal horror is also the subgenre where non-threatening things such as dolls or clowns becomes objects of abject terror. This is weird fiction, but weirder and more terrifying. Hauntings, crimes, and even monsters are scary in their own right, but they make sense, and in a way, that makes them somewhat less scary. Not so in surreal horror. This is the subgenre of the unexplained and unimaginable.

Stories in surreal horror will often echo the nightmarish qualities of the tale by using disjointed and dream-like language and pacing. Because of this, surreal horror can sometimes be confused with psychological horror. The difference is that in psychological horror, the reader can be reasonably sure that the nightmarish happenings are taking place in the protagonist's head, while in surreal horror, while the reader may hope that the protagonist is dreaming all of this up, chances are, that is probably not the case.


Surreal Horror Characteristics

Level of Characterization: Surreal horror will have a high level of characterization as it is the characters that are responsible for holding the reader through the disjointed and complicated plots. Characters are the believable touchstone in the madness of surreal horror.


Level of Plot: Expect the level of plot to be high in surreal horror. There will be twists and turns, and the pacing may be odd, but surreal horror will have deep and engaging plots.


Level of Supernatural: The level of supernatural varies in surreal horror, but can be moderate to high as many of the unimaginable events or creatures in this subgenre can be explained away as supernatural.


Level of Scary: The level of scary varies in this subgenre as the dream-like qualities of the writing may take away some of the creep factor. Surreal horror is more atmospheric rather than in your face scary. So, expect the scares to be moderate.


Level of Violence: Yet another varying element in surreal horror is the level of violence.Expect there to be some violence as unimaginable horror cannot really be described without any violence, but generally violence in this subgenre is low to moderate.


Typical Setting: There are no typical settings in surreal horror. Stories can take place in cities, small towns, haunted houses, even in nightmares.

Related Horror Subgenres

Weird tales are related to surreal horror in that they are both similar in nature, though surreal horror takes the weirdness farther. Also related are supernatural and the Lovecraftian subgenres, given their close relation to weird tales. Because of the nightmarish quality of surreal horror, psychological horror could also be related to this subgenre, and given its atmospheric nature, gothic horror could also be easily related to surreal horror.

Don't Read Surreal Horror If You Dislike…

Disjointed and dreamlike language and pacing or unexplainable events and creatures. If you're looking for a subgenre that abandons all logic, surreal horror is the place for you. If you need the safety of explanations, look elsewhere.

It by Stephen King- The town of Derry is plagued by a monster that preys on children and their fears. A ragtag group of misfit kids have seen the monster and survived, and they may be the only ones who can stop It.


Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell- Out of work film critic, Simon Lester jumps at the chance to write a book about a controversial silent film star, Tubby Thackery, but details about Thackery's life are hard to come by, and strange tales of his performances about. As Lester investigates Thackery's life, strange things begin to happen, and he soon learns that this project could cost him his sanity.


The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan- India Morgan Phelps, otherwise known as Imp, is a
schizophrenic who is haunted by a girl she finds near a river. Eva Canning may be part
mermaid or part werewolf, or none of these, Imp isn't sure. She can't even trust her own
memories, but Imp must discover Eva's secrets before her life and her sanity crumble entirely.


The Turn of the Screw by Henry James- Classic haunted house horror at its finest, The Turn
of the Screw tells the story of a governess who believes that her charges are being haunted
by the ghosts of her predecessor and her lover.


House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski- Johnny Truant makes a macabre discovery in his
new apartment. The body of its former tenant along with a manuscript that the old man was
working on.  As he reads and researches the story, Johnny learns of a house that doesn't
seem to exist where supernatural forces drove the family who lived there and researchers into
insanity and murder. The more that Johnny investigates the manuscript, the closer he comes
to insanity himself.


Come Closer by Sara Gran- Strange things are happening around Amanda, a happy and successful architect. At first, it starts out harmless, an odd noise in her apartment and unexplainable dreams about a woman on scarlet shore, but as Amanda's unease intensifies, so to do the odd occurrences and her own erratic behavior.


Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk- When seventeen writers are invited to a retreat, they are
locked in an abandoned theater and told they have three months to write something amazing.
Conditions quickly deteriorate as the group feels that only their suffering will make for an
excellent work of fiction, kind of like Lord of the Flies, but with writers.


Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis- Ellis's fictional memoir details his rise to fame and marriage to a movie star. They flee the horrors of life in the big city only to find terror haunting their spacious, suburban home.


John Dies at the End by David Wong- When David and John try a mind-altering drug called Soy Sauce, they discover that Hell itself is poised to invade and only they can stop it. Written by Jason Pargin (under the name David Wong), an editor at, this story is a hilarious and bizarre rip on Lovecraftian horror.


Horns by Joe Hill- Ig Parrish's already messed up life changes forever when after a night of drinking and doing terrible things that he can't remember, he wakes up to find that he is growing horns. Desperate to be rid of the things, Ig searches for answers and discovers that the horns have a terrible power to make people admit their darkest secrets, but to Ig, this power may be a blessing rather than a curse.

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