The Lexicon of Horror

Cover for New Print Edition of A Tale of Hell
Cover for New Print Edition of A Tale of Hell and Other Works of Horror

I have been searching for a vocabulary of horror and have yet to find one, therefore I decided to develop my own.  This is a page dedicated to listing words, terms, trivia, and phrases that may be of interest to writers of horror and to writers in general.   Where possible, I will state the source of the word with any comments I have following in brackets.   Some may be shortened for space considerations or other reasons.  These terms will deal with all aspects of writing horror from emotions to grammar to psychological terminology.  The list will be short initially, but I intend to expand it as time permits, so hopefully it will be of considerable length in the perhaps near future.  Consistency in some areas may be lacking as I experiment with formatting given the capabilities of this website and as I develop a format that meets my needs.

If you have a term you would like to submit, please do so along with the source.  If I consider it appropriate for this page (which I probably will so long as it is not unnecessarily obscene), I will post it here.  I try to reach as wide an audience as possible, therefore I try to keep objectionable material to a minimum.  Of course, I reserve the right to edit any submissions as I see fit.  If you would like to know my views on obscenity, please visit my post:  Slattery’s Tao of Writing, Part 6:  Profanity.

One reason that I enjoy learning new words is because they help me generate ideas for my own writing. I hope that these will help you do the same when you are also suffering from writer’s block or fatigue or otherwise need a little boost for your creativity.  If for no other reason, maybe you will read these solely for their entertainment value or to expand your knowledge of the genre.   Maybe I am a geek, but I do expanding my knowledge of any subject fun.

anacoluthon  1. A construction involving a break in grammatical sequence, as It makes me so—I just get angry. 2. An instance of anacoluthia.

apophasis  Denial of one’s intention to speak of a subject that is at the same time named or insinuated, as “I shall not mention Caesar’s avarice, nor his cunning, nor his morality.”

atmosphere of the mind  “A phrase invented by Henry James to denote what the subjective writer of the novel tries to convey to the reader.  After a time we in a sense ‘inhabit’ the writer’s mind, breathe that air and are permeated by his vision.” (1)

catachresis Misuse or strained use of words, as in a mixed metaphor, occurring either in error or for rhetorical effect.

conte cruel  “The conte cruel is, as The A to Z of Fantasy Literature by Brian Stableford states, a “short-story genre that takes its name from an 1883 collection by Villiers de l’Isle Adam, although previous examples had been provided by such writers as Edgar Allan Poe. Some critics use the label to refer only to non-supernatural horror stories, especially those that have nasty climactic twists, but it is applicable to any story whose conclusion exploits the cruel aspects of the ‘irony of fate.’”[1] The collection from which the short-story genre of the conte cruel takes its name is Contes cruels (1883, tr. Sardonic Tales, 1927) by Villiers de l’Isle Adam. Also taking its name from this collection is Contes cruels (Cruel Tales), a two-volume set of about 150 tales and short stories by the 19th-century French writer Octave Mirbeau, collected and edited by Pierre Michel and Jean-François Nivet and published in two volumes in 1990 by Librairie Séguier.” (3)

Some noted writers in the conte cruel genre are Charles Birkin and Maurice LevelH.P. Lovecraft observed of Level’s fiction in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), “This type, however, is less a part of the weird tradition than a class peculiar to itself– the so-called conte cruel, in which the wrenching of the emotions is accomplished through dramatic tantalizations, frustrations, and gruesome physical horrors.”[2]

Noted science fiction authors of conte cruels include Thomas M. Disch and John Sladek.[3] The conte cruel was the standard narrative form of soft science fictionby the 1980s.[3]

coup de theatre  (French) “An unexpected and theatrically startling event which twists the plot and action.  For instance, the sudden leap into activity of the supposedly invalid and bedridden wife of General St. Pe in Jean Anouilh’s play La Valse des Toreadors.“

danse macabre  (French)  “Also known as the Dance of Death…The Dance of Death (in art and literature) depicted a procession or dance in which the dead lead the living to the grave.   It  was a reminder of mortality, the ubiquity of death and of the equality of all men in that state.  It was also a reminder of the need for repentance. Apart from its moral and allegorical elements, it was very often satirical in tone.  The dead might be represented by a number of

Dancing through Hell

“Dancing through Hell” by Phil Slattery

figures (usually skeletons) or by a single personification of death…The theme or subject was especially popular in the late Middle Ages and the 16th c. [century] and the influence has continued to our own time…The motif (q.v.) of the dance is echoed in many ubi sunt (q.v.) poems, and we find macabre elements in the works of many writers:  in the somber tragedies of Webster and Tourneur, in the work of Poe, Baudelaire and Strindberg, and especially in Espronceda’s eerie poem El Estudiante de Salamanca (1839),  whose Don Juan hero dances with a corpse…The personification of death and the motif of the macabre is recurrent and appears to exercise  a considerable fascination for writers and artists. Death is, as it were, presented as a kind of sardonic joke.” (1)

de profundis  out of the depths (of sorrow, despair, etc.).  De profundis means “out of the depths” in Latin. It is the opening of Latin translation of Psalm 130 which continues “Out of the depths I cry to you.” Today the term can be used as a phrase to convey sadness or as an adverb.

ficelle  “the term used by Henry James in the prefaces to some of his novels to denote a fictional character whose role as confidant or confidante is exploited as a means of providing the reader with information while avoiding direct address from the narrator…In French, the word denotes a string used to manipulate a puppet, or more broadly, any underhand trick.” (2)

ghoul (from Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary) “…1. An evil spirit or demon in Moslem folklore held to plunder graves and feed on corpses.  2. A grave robber. 3. One who delights in the loathsome….”  The following is from The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology by Rosemary Ellen Guiley:

“A demon who feeds on the flesh of human beings, especially travelers, children, or corpses stolen out of graves.  Ghoulish entities are universal.  They are prominent in Arabic lore; the name is from the Arabic terms ghul (masculine) and ghula (feminine), which mean ‘demon.’  There are several types of ghouls in Arabic lore; the most feared is the female type that has the ability to appear as a normal, flesh-and-blood woman.  Such a creature marries an unsuspecting man, who becomes her prey…Ghouls are nocturnal creatures who inhabit graveyards, ruins, and other lonely places.  Sometimes they are described as dead humans who sleep for long periods in secret graves, then awake, rise, and feast on both the living and the dead.  Ghouls also personify the unknown terrors held by the desert and may be compared to the LAMIAE and LILITH night terror and childbirth demons…”

goblin (The following is from The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology by Rosemary Ellen Guiley)

“A wandering sprite who attaches itself to households and both helps and plagues the residents.  Goblins are comparable to low-level demons, not inherently evil, but mischievous, the equivalent of brownies in England and Scotland, kobalds in Germany, domoviks in Russia.  The Greeks called such spirits kobaloi, or “rogues” or “tricksters.”  Goblin is a French term.  A hobgoblin is a nasty type of goblin, intent on doing harm…”

grand guignol  (French) “a popular French form of melodrama featuring bloody muders, rapes, and other

Grand Guignol poster from

Grand Guignol poster

sensational outrages, presented in lurid and gruesome detail.  It is named after Guignol, a French puppet-character similar to Mr. Punch.  The term is now often applied to horror movies;  while in contemporary fiction, several of Angela Carter’s stories are studies in Grand Guignol.” (2)   For more information visit

hadal  1. of or pertaining to the greatest ocean depths, below approximately 20,000 feet (6500 meters).   2. of or pertaining to the biogeographic region of the ocean bottom below the abyssal zone.   Hadal entered English in the mid-1900s, and comes from the name Hades, the Greek god of the underworld.

isolato a person who is spiritually isolated from or out of sympathy with his or her times or society.

horror (from Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary) “…1. A strong and painful feeling of fear and repugnance 2. Intense dislike: ABHORRENCE…3. One that causes horror. 4. Informal. Something unpleasant, disagreeable, or ugly…5. Slang. Intense nervous depression or anxiety…”

Here are the words for horror in four other languages:

  • German:  (from The New Cassell’s German Dictionary, 1971) das Entsetzen, Grausen, der Abscheu, Schauder; Schrecken, Greuel…[Note that for “horror” in the sense of the literary genre German uses the English:  “Horror“.  For example, Horrorfilmis a horror movie.]
  • French:  (from The Bantam New College French and English Dictinary, 1991) la horreuravoir horreur de to have a horror of; commettre des horreurs to commit atrocities; dire des horreurs to say obscene things; dire des horreurs de to say shocking things about.  Finally, [from the Internet] horror film is film d’horreur.
  • Spanish: (from The University of Chicago Spanish Dictionary, 1971) el horror   It can also mean atrocity.  Dar horror is to cause fright or to terrify.  Tenerle horror a unois to have a strong dislike for someone.  The Random House Latin American Spanish Dictionary (1997) adds enormity to its possible meanings.
  • Latin: (from Cassell’s Latin & English Dictionary, 2002) horror ~oris,  bristling, shuddering; roughness of speech; dread, fright, especially religious dread, awe, by metonymy object of dread; a terror

logorrhoea “Excessive verbosity and prolixity. Vulgarly known as ‘verbal diarrhoea’”. (1)

macrology  “verbose repetition by way of long words and phrases” (1)

Malleus Maleficarum  The title is Latin for The Hammer of Witches; not to be used by witches, but on witches.  The following is from The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.

“The most influential and important witch hunter’s guide of the Inquisition.  Published first in German in 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum was translated into dozens of editions throughout Europe and England and was the leading reference for witch trials on the Continent for about 200 years.  It was adopted by both Protestant and Catholic civil and ecclesiastical judges.  It was second only to the Bible in sales until John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678.  The book gives instructions for interrogating, trying, and punishing accused witches and details the nature, characteristics, and behavior of demons and the devil…”

mordacious 1. sharp or caustic in style, tone, etc.  2. biting or given to biting.

mystique de la merde (French)  “Not exactly the ‘mystique of shit’, but a term denoting a preoccupation with the seamier, muddier, bloodier aspects of life, as well as, excessively, with sex and money.  The term was first used by Robert E. Fitch in 1956, and is a coarser version of mystique de la boue.  Among modern writers, Joyce, Genet, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and William Burroughs have all, from time to time, have exploited the possibilities of merde.” (1)

nemesis  “retribution or punishment for wrongdoing; or the agent carrying out such punishment, often personified by Nemesis, a minor Greek goddess responsible for carrying out the vengeance of the gods against erring humans.  The term is applied especially to the retribution meted out to the protagonist of a tragedy for his or her insolence or hubris.” (2)

oppression The following is from The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology:

“Demonic influence over a person that involves total domination of the victim’s will, either through a horrendous bombardment of external terrors or through an internal, psychological breakdown.  Oppression follows INFESTATION and can progress to full demonic POSSESSION.  It is also referred to as “vexation…”

palter  1. To talk or act insincerely or deceitfully; lie or use trickery. 2. To bargain with; haggle.  3. To act carelessly; trifle.

pleonasm “the use of unnecessary additional words;  or a phrase in which such needless repetition occurs, e.g. at this moment in time“. (2)

poete maudit  “a French phrase for an ‘accursed’ poet, usually a brilliant but self-destructive writer misunderstood by an indifferent society.  The name for this romantic stereotype comes from the title of Paul Verlaine’s collection of essays on Mallarme, Rimbaud, and other French poets, Les poetes maudits (1884).”

psychomachy  “a battle for the soul.  The term comes from the Latin poem Psychomachia (c. AD400) by Prudentius, describing a battle between virtues and vices for the soul of man.”  (2)

sarcasm  “…a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain…a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual… the use or language of sarcasm…French or Late Latin; French sarcasme, from Late Latin sarcasmos,from Greek sarkasmos, from sarkazein to tear flesh, bite the lips in rage, sneer, from sark-, sarx flesh; probably akin to Avestan thwarəs- to cut”…First Known Use: 1550″ (5)  The adjectival form is sarcastic.

sardonic  “characterized by bitter or scornful derision; mocking; cynical;sneering…[first use] 1630-40; alteration of earlier sardonian (influenced by Frenchsardonique) < Latin sardoni (us) (< Greek sardónios of Sardinia) + -analluding toa Sardinian plant which when eaten was supposed to produce convulsive laughterending in death” (4) The corresponding noun is  sardonicism.

Schauerroman (German) “shudder novel” “The German equivalent of the Gothic novel (q.v.) in English and related to the horror story (q.v.).  ‘Shudder’ because it is a spine-chiller which gives you ‘the shivers’.” (1)

solecism “a grammatical error:  or, more loosely, any mistake that exposes the perpetrator’s ignorance.  Adjective:  solecistic.”  (2)

theatre of cruelty  “a term introduced by the French actor Antonin Artaud in a series of manifestos in the 1930s, collected as Le Theatre et son double (1938).  It refers to his projected revolution in drama, whereby the rational ‘theatre of psychology’ was to be replaced by a more physical and primitive rite intended to shock the audience into an awareness of life’s cruelty and violence.   The idea, derived partly from Surrealism, was that the audience should undergo a catharsis through being possessed by a ‘plague’ or epidemic of irrational responses.   Artaud’s own attempts to put this theory into dramatic practice failed, and he was locked up for some time as a lunatic.  Some later dramatists, though, have developed these principles more successfully:  a celebrated instance was Peter Brook’s production in 1964 of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade.” (2)

topos  a convention or motif, especially in a literary work; a rhetorical convention.

uncanny, the  “a kind of disturbing strangeness evoked in some kinds of horror story and related fiction.  In Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of the fantastic,  the uncanny is an effect produced by stories in which the incredible events can be explained as the products of the narrator’s or protagonist’s dream, hallucination, or delusion.  A clear case of this is Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) in which the narrator is clearly suffering from paranoid delusions.   In tales of the marvellous [sic; US spelling marvelous], on the other hand, no such psychological explanation is offered and strange events are taken to be truly supernatural.” (2) [Slattery’s note:  this would classify Lovecraft’s works under tales of the marvellous.]

verbocrap “A type of jargon (q.v.) language commonly used by verbocrats, and thus dear to bureaucrats and semi-literate officials of all kinds.  It is marked by polysyllabic circumlocutions, crude syntax, faulty grammar and a self-important orotund tone; what A.P. Herbert called ‘Jungle English’ or ‘Dolichologia’…(1)

verisimilitude “Likeness to the truth, and therefore the appearance of being true or real even when fantastic…” (1)

verism  “the doctrine that literature or art should represent the truth (reality),  however disagreeable that truth might be.  A verist believes this.”  (1)

Vice, the   “a stock character in medieval morality plays;  he is a cynical kind of fool in the service of the Devil, and tries to tempt others in a comical but often sinister manner.  The Vice is believed to be the ancestor of some later dramatic villains like Shakespeare’s Iago, and of some more comic characters like his Falstaff.” (2)

Weltschmerz  “The German word for world-weariness (literally ‘world-ache’), a vague kind of melancholy often associated with Romantic poetry.”  (2)


1.  The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory by J. A. Cuddon, Penguin Books, 1991.

2. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms by Chris Baldick, Oxford University Press, 1990.

  1. From Wikipedia

4.  From

5.  From

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