Horror’s Literary Roots

Horror literature has deep roots. As long as there have been stories, there have been stories about the Other, the unrealities we categorize today as speculative fiction. Early creation myths in all cultures are populated by demons and darkness. 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 Greek and Roman mythological heroes faced memorable monsters such as Cerberus, the Minotaur, Medusa, the Hydra, the Sirens, Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis. In China, Ancestor worship and the veneration of the dead begins with the Zhou dynasty, 1500 years BC.

The modern horror genre as we know it is only around 200 years old. A specific genre of horror literature begins to have form and conventions towards the end of the eighteenth century. Going further back, every culture has a set of stories dealing with the unknown and unexplained. These tales chill, provoke, and keep the listener wondering “what if..?” Modern horror films are the present-day version of the epic poems and ballads told around the fires of our ancestors.

Although this site is dedicated to horror movies, no serious student of the genre should ignore the literary classics that shaped genre paradigms long before moving pictures were invented.

The Gothic Tradition (1764-1832)

The term ‘horror’ first comes into play in the subtitle of Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel, The Castle of OtrantoA Gothic Story. Although rather a stilted tale, it started a craze for overwrought fiction, full of supernatural shocks and mysterious melodrama. It spawned many imitators, which attracted the genre tag ‘Gothic’. 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.

Karl Friedrich Hampe Ritterburg im Mondschein
The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)

Radcliff’s novel follows the fortunes of the plucky and resourceful Emily St. Aubert, an aristocratic young woman who has to find her way in the world without the protection of her father (who dies while they are travelling along the French Mediterranean coast together). Radcliffe writes evocatively of the wild landscapes of Southern France and Northern Italy:

…the view was bounded by the majestic Pyrenees, whose summits, veiled in clouds, or exhibiting awful forms, seen, and lost again, as the partial vapours rolled along, were sometimes barren, and gleamed through the blue tinge of air, and sometimes frowned with forests of gloomy pine…

After her father’s death, Emily finds herself under the control of her venial and superficial aunt, Madame Cheron, and her new husband, the cruel Montoni. Montoni wants Emily to marry his friend, Count Morano, but she has already given her heart to Valancourt, who she met while traveling with her father. Montoni imprisons Emily in his ancestral home, the Castle of Udolpho, and after many trials and tribulations she escapes and finally reunites with Valancourt.

©Leo Wilson 2019

The earlier Gothic novels often centered on Romance, with horror elements (wicked villains, ruined castles, bad omens, ghosts) used as a way to keep the path of true love perilous indeed. As the Age of Enlightenment gave way Romanticism, poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel) and Goethe (The Erlking) reflected the strong emotions of the movement through a glass darkly. The Romantics recognised that fear and awe aren’t so very different sensations.

Let The Vampires In

Vampires began to make an appearance in poetry in the latter half of the 18th century. The Romantic imagination salivated at the thought of supernaturally beautiful women, hovering between life and death among the tombstones, waiting to seduce an unsuspecting lover. Goethe’s The Bride of Corinth (1797) concerns Philinnion, who rises from the grave after six months to charm her fiancé. In Robert Southey’s epic poem, Thalaba The Destroyer (1801) a similarly afflicted bride dies and returns from the grave on her wedding day (“But in her eyes there dwelt/Brightness more terrible/Than all the loathsomeness of death”).

Engraving from Goethe's The Bride of Corinth
Engraving from Goethe’s The Bride of Corinth

The first vampire prose story is published in German around 1800, although it wasn’t translated into English until 1823. Johann Ludwig Tieck’s Wake Not The Dead also concerns a vampire bride. The hero, Walter, is distraught after the death of his first wife Brunhilda (“a beauty far surpassing in loveliness all her rivals”). He turns his attentions to her sister, the much more mild-mannered Swanhilda (“her eye beamed eloquently, but it was with the milder radiance of a star, tranquillizing to tenderness rather than exciting to warmth”). Although she looks like her sister, Swanhilda lacks her passion and fire. Disappointed, Walter asks a necromancer to raise Brunhilda from the tomb – with some dire consequences, as you can imagine.

George Byron’s epic poem, The Giaour (published in fragmentary form in 1813) incorporates a vampire. The hero (‘giaour’ is a Turkish term for outsider or infidel) kills a rival and is cursed:

But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent,
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race. 
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life,
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse. 
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem. 
Wet with thine own best blood shall drip
Thy gnashing tooth and haggard lip;
Then stalking to thy sullen grave,
Go—and with Gouls and Afrits rave;
Till these in horror shrink away
From Spectre more accursed than they!

The Villa Diodati, June 1816

Villa Diodati, 1816
Villa Diodati

Horror literature changed direction on a single night: June 17, 1816. Two major novels, Frankenstein and The Vampyr, sprang into being in the same room, stemming from the same series of conversations about the space between life and death.

It was one extraordinary night in an extraordinary summer. In April 1815 Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, propelling “12 cubic miles of gases, dust and rock” into the atmosphere. Tens of thousands died. The ash was a major global pollutant over the next couple of years. It blocked out sunlight and causing average temperatures to drop around 3ºC. 

The effects were felt worldwide for many months.  Frost and snow through the summer destroyed crops in Europe and New England. China flooded. It rained non-stop for eight weeks in Ireland leading to a typhus outbreak. Everywhere, crops failed, causing starvation, disease, and mass migration.

It was a dark and stormy night…

The weather was still awful when Lord George Byron rented the Villa Diodati on the banks of Lake Geneva. He was accompanied, increasingly reluctantly, by his personal physician and aspiring poet, John Polidori. Fortunately, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont were staying practically next door. The two households whiled away the chilly evenings together.

They talked frequently of the supernatural, of what happened after death, and ghosts. On June 17th, they embarked upon a competition, to see who could come up with the most fantastical tale. Byron scribbled a fragment, titled ‘The Vampyr’, while Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley) got busy with a story of a mad scientist who wanted to defy God and Nature based on earlier evenings’ discussions:

One night she sat listening to a conversation between the two poets at Diodati. What was the nature, they questioned, of the principle of life? Would it ever be discovered, and the power of communicating life be acquired? Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things. That night, Mary lay sleepless…”

Quoted in Dr. John William Polidori’s Diary, 1816

Godwin’s tale would, of course, become Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, published in 1818.

Polidori kept Byron’s fragment among his papers and, a few months later, after he and Byron had parted company, he worked it up into a full length novel. The Vampyr, published in 1819, was mistakenly attributed to Byron himself. He inspired, rather than wrote it: Polidori’s bloodsucking villain, Lord Ruthven, was Byronic to his core.

Victorian Horror Literature

Some of the greatest mid-nineteenth century novelists (on both sides of the Atlantic) tried their hand at gothic horror, as opposed to gothic romance. Emily Bronte steeped her magnum opus, Wuthering Heights in gothic situations and sensibilities. 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 – JS Le Fanu, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson and of course, Edgar Allan Poe. Playwrights adapted these popular novels for the stage.

Edgar Allan Poe

Dismissed for many years as an alcoholic hack, Poe is now gaining his rightful place in the literary canon, and not just as a writer of horror literature. 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 staples of the horror genre. Reading him now, it’s difficult to grasp 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. He met a grim, still unknown end. In September 1849, he was on way home to New York City from a trip to Richmond, Virginia, when he vanished. A week later, he was found badly beaten and raving in Baltimore, Maryland. He died in hospital before recovering his faculties and to this day the final week of his life remains a mystery. His influence on the genre is enormous and no horror literature fan should be without a Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

Fin de Siècle Horror Literature

As a Viennese academic called Sigmund Freud was beginning his explorations into the recesses of the human consciousness, horror literature took on a more psychological turn. Writers, building on Poe’s ideas, traded freely in madness. These horror stories deal with the slow unraveling of minds rather than external monsters. The 1890s proved to be a premium decade for horror literature.

  • Henry James plays with the mind of a nanny in The Turn of The Screw in 1898
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman weaves a diatribe against patriarchy (‘You see, he does not believe I am sick!”) into The Yellow Wallpaper (1899)
  • Oscar Wilde challenges staid Victorian moral values with The Picture of Dorian Grey in 1890
  • 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

HG Wells developed the concept of speculative fiction further with his science-themed novels The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The Time Machine (1895) and War of The Worlds(1898). Wells believed there was a dark side to scientific progress. These narratives utilize elements of both horror and fantasy that remained resonant throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Wells’ novels have been adapted into movies in every decade since they were first published. Most recently a version of The Invisible Man hit cinemas in 2020.

Meanwhile, a new storytelling medium was taking shape, a blend of carnival sideshow, trick photography, and theatrical vignette: moving pictures. Filmmakers wanted material that would be popular with audiences, so they looked for stories that had been hits on stage. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that some of the very earliest movies have horror themes or are based on classic horror literature.

Horror Classic Literature You Should Read

It’s always heartening to see well-thumbed copies of these on a new friend’s bookshelf. Here are the e-text URLs of some classic horror literature now in the public domain.

Further Reading