Ghosts and Genre by Gail Z. Martin (guest post)

Ghosts and Genre
by Gail Z. Martin

If you think a ghost is just a ghost, think again. Ghosts in genre fiction vary depending on the sub-genre, in order to fit readers’ expectations and the narrative of the story. It’s something to keep in mind as an author, and something fun to watch for as a reader.

Let’s start with the traditional ghost story. Oops, do you mean gothic horror or modern horror? Both are ‘traditional’ ghost stories, but they approach the ghostly interactions very differently. A gothic story tends to be heavy on atmosphere, usually in the past or very influenced by the past. The emphasis is on mood and emotion—the horrific elements might never be shown. Think of Rose Red or The Woman in Black. Modern horror may explain the cause of the haunting through past events, but the action and focus is on the horrific elements (blood, gore, visual shock). Ghosts in a gothic horror story tend to act more indirectly (luring someone to their death) than directly (think of Paranormal Activity or The Ring).

Ghosts in epic fantasy often have a Shakespearean feel to them. They might be the shades of long-ago kings or warriors, wronged lovers or murdered princes. These ghosts usually have a strong sense of purpose that is, well, epic. They’re usually not haunting a castle just for the hell of it. They have a message of great importance to share, or they have a secret that could imperil the kingdom. Think of the ghost army Aragorn raised in Lord of the Rings—damned to wander as spirits because they did not fulfil their oaths, and released because they obeyed the will of their wronged king’s descendant.

Weird West and Steampunk ghosts tend to feel more modern, at least to me. They may or may not be from the 1800s, but they’re usually not the ancient dead, nor are they the spirits of old kings or knights. You’re much more likely to encounter the ghosts of folks who were down-and-out in life, who lived on the margins: gamblers and shady ladies, gunslingers and hapless settlers, prospectors and cowboys—or for Steampunk, vagrants and chimney sweeps, indentured servants and suicides. For Weird West, and for Steampunk the setting can be as spooky as the ghosts, and there is a sense of tension between modern science (or changing times) and magic/ghosts. The pull of old ways vs. new ways is as much a part of the tension as the ghosts. For Weird West, the landscape’s lonely strangeness is an essential part of the ghost vibe, where for Steampunk, the supernatural tugs against gadgets and inventions. It’s interesting to note that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could be considered Steampunk as much as it is considered horror.

Paranormal mystery ghosts aren’t generally scary or even spooky. They’re almost always in a modern-day setting, linked to a murder (it’s a mystery, after all), and usually the spirit of no one important until the circumstances of their death made them interesting. I find more of a tragic air to these ghosts, a wistfulness for a life cut short or chances not taken. They’re relatable, they add to the mysterious feel, but there’s almost a pact with the reader that nothing truly frightening is going to occur.

And then there’s urban fantasy. Modern day setting, usually with ghosts who are relatively recent dead (give or take a hundred years or so), and both the ghostly aspects and the supernatural elements really straddle the line between fantasy and horror. Blood and some gore is part of the scene-setting. Ghosts are often empowered and actively dangerous. Forget about these ghosts luring you to your death—they’ll push you off the bridge. The fact that ghosts in urban fantasy often take a more active role in the story I think reflects readers’ ambiguous feelings about modern society, real cities, crime, and the shadow world of gangs, human trafficking, and people who aren’t what they seem.

I write epic fantasy, urban fantasy, Weird West and Steampunk—and use ghostly/supernatural elements in all of those genres. To me, the way ghosts are portrayed in a sub-genre really does depend upon the zeitgeist—the ‘spirit’ of the age.

My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for my stories and for books by author friends of mine. You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat! Details here:

Book swag is the new Trick-or-Treat! Grab your
envelope of book swag awesomeness from me & 10 authors before 11/1!

set in my Deadly Curiosities world (Launches Dec. 29)

More cool treats with an excerpt from my friend
Laura Anne Gilman’s Silver On The Road

Trick or Treat! Read an excerpt from Grave Voices,
our new Storm & Fury Steampunk novella set in the world of Iron & Blood


About the Author

Gail Z. Martin is the author of the upcoming novel Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Dec. 2015, Solaris Books) as well as the epic fantasy novel Shadow and Flame (March, 2016 Orbit Books) which is the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga. Shadowed Path, an anthology of Jonmarc Vahanian short stories set in the world of The Summoner, debuts from Solaris books in June, 2016.

Other books include The Jake Desmet Adventures a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin as well as Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) from Orbit Books and the urban fantasy novel Deadly Curiosities from Solaris Books.

Gail writes four series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures, The King’s Convicts series, and together with Larry N. Martin, The Storm and Fury Adventures. Her work has appeared in over 20 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Realms of Imagination, Heroes, With Great Power, and (co-authored with Larry N. Martin) Space, Contact Light, The Weird Wild West, The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, Alien Artifacts, Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens.


  1. IRON BLOOD sounds and looks amazing!

  2. Nice to see you again, Gail!
    Good breakdown of the differences in ghosts. I enjoy a good gory movie when it's done right. (Like Evil Dead II.) But enjoy the Gothic ghosts as well, such as the ones in Crimson Peak. And now you have me curious about those Steampunk ghosts.


Post a Comment