A brief history of horror fiction. Horror movies' literary background: ancient myths, gothic novels, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley, Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, H G Wells
Roots of the Horror Genre
• noun 1) an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. 2) a thing causing such a feeling. 3) intense dismay. 4) informal a bad or mischievous person, especially a child.
— ORIGIN Latin, from horrere ‘shudder, (of hair) stand on end’.
- Oxford English Dictionary
Although this site is dedicated to the horror film, no serious student of the genre should remain ignorant of the literary classics which have helped shape the paradigms over the last two centuries. This is a very brief overview - check the Further Reading links at the end for articles which explore this fascinating field.
As long as there have been stories, there have been stories about the Other, the unrealities we might categorise today as speculative fiction. Early creation myths in all cultures are populated by demons and darkness, and early Abrahamic and Egyptian mythology resounds with tales of a world beyond the physical, a realm of the spirits, to be revered and feared. Classical mythology is replete with monsters - Cereberus, the Minotaur, Medusa, the Hydra, the Sirens, Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis to name but a few- and heroes must navigate safely through the land of the dead on frequent occasions. Ancestor worship and the veneration of the dead begins with the Zhou dynasty in China, 1500 years BC. The modern horror genre as we know it is only around 200 years old (it begins to have form and conventions towards the end of the eighteenth century) but it has distinguished antecedents. Every culture has a set of stories dealing with the unknown and unexplained, tales that chill, provoke and keep the listener wondering "what if..?" Horror films are the present-day version of the epic poems and ballads told round the fires of our ancestors.
The Gothic Tradition
The term 'horror' first comes into play with Horace Walpole's 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto, full of supernatural shocks and mysterious melodrama. Although rather a stilted tale, it started a craze, spawning many imitators in what we today call the gothic mode of writing. Better writers than Walpole, such as Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho) and Matthew Gregory Lewis (The Monk) took the form to new heights of thrills and suspense. For half a century, gothic novels reigned supreme. As the Age of Enlightenment gave way to the new thinking of the early nineteeth century, Romantic poets of the stature of Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel) and Goethe (The Erlking) reflected the strong emotions of the movement through a glass darkly, recognising that fear and awe aren't so very different sensations. The first great horror classic (Frankenstein 1818) was written by a Romantic at the heart of the movement - Mary Shelley.
Nineteenth Century Masters
Some of the greatest mid- nineteenth century novelists (on both sides of the Atlantic) tried their hand at horror fiction, paying tribute to the dying traditions of the gothic. Emily Bronte steeped her magnus opus, Wuthering Heights in gothic situations and sensibilities while Dickens wrote a number of ghost stories (the best perhaps being The Signalman, the best known A Christmas Carol). Herman Melville incorporated many supernatural elements into Moby Dick, as did Nathaniel Hawthorne with The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. As the century advanced, many writers turned to the short story or novella form to spook their readers - J S Le Fanu, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson and of course, Edgar Allan Poe.
Edgar Allan Poe
Reviled for many years as an alcoholic hack, Poe is now gaining his rightful place in the literary canon; his terse yet suggestive prose style carries him through several volumes of startlingly original short stories and some heartbreaking poetry. He is credited with inventing the modern detective story (The Murders in The Rue Morgue -1841) and with being the first writer to explore psychoanalysis within a literary format. The funereal landscapes and grotesque characters he wove into his stories have become staple tropes of the horror genre. Reading him now, it is hard to imagine how innovative and creative his work was in the 1830s and 1840s. Sadly, he was ahead of his time, and struggled his whole life with poverty and lack of recognition. Much ink has been expended on the mysterious circumstances of his death - he was found badly beaten and raving in Baltimore, and died in hospital before recovering his faculties. No serious student of the genre should be without a Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
The End Of The Century
As a Viennese academic called Sigmund Freud was beginning his explorations into the recesses of the human consciousness, literature too took on a more psychological bent, with many writers trading freely in madness (building on the work of Poe), and the horror that lies beyond the boundary we call sanity. These stories deal not with events, but with the slow unravelling of minds; the reader is left to decide whether the causes are supernatural or psychological. Henry James played with the mind of a nanny in The Turn of The Screw in 1898, while Charlotte Perkins Gilman weaves a diatribe against patriarchy ('You see, he does not believe I am sick!") into The Yellow Wallpaper (1899). And of course Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) spiced up the psychological with the sexual, creating an anti-hero in the Count whose appeal shows no sign of diminishing over a century later. H G Wells developed the concept speculative fiction further with his science themed novels The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man, The Time Machine and War of The Worlds, all of which utilise elements of horror as well as fantasy.
And then came the Great War, and with it horrors that not one of these literary minds could have conceived.
Classics You Should Read
It's always heartening to see well-thumbed copies of these on anyone's shelf. Nonetheless, this is the 21st century so here are the e-text URLS of all these genre-definining works, all of them now out of copyright and in public domain.
- Frankenstein (1818) - Mary Shelley. Often imitated, never equalled.
- Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) Edgar Allen Poe - full of absolute gems from the mind of a dark genius. Set "View Text" to "Biggest" in your browser otherwise you too will end up in an insane asylum
- The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)- the seminal novella from Robert Louis Stevenson
- Dracula (1897) - Bram Stoker, pulp fiction of the very best kind
- The Yellow Wallpaper (1899 short story)- Charlotte Perkins Gilman charts female hysteria - or does she?
- The Monkey's Paw (1902 short story) - W W Jacobs - the ultimate in "be careful what you wish for"
- Supernatural Horror In Literature - H P Lovecraft (1927); the master of the horror story writes a masterful definition. Lengthy, but very worth a read
- The Horror Timeline - comprehensive outline of the genre's literary history
- Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film - helpful examination by Darryl Jones