Horror’s Literary Roots

Louis Daguerre-The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel

Although this site is dedicated to horror movies, no serious student of the genre should ignore the literary classics which have helped shape genre paradigms over the last three centuries.

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, 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 Greek and Roman mythology is full of monsters — Cerberus, the Minotaur, Medusa, the Hydra, the Sirens, Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis — 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 around 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 nineteenth century, Romantic 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, 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 magnum 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 – JS Le Fanu, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson and of course, Edgar Allan Poe. Horror filmmakers in the early twentieth century drew heavily on these texts for inspiration, making many movie adaptations —few of them faithful to the original.

Edgar Allan Poe

Dismissed 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 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. 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. His influence on the genre is enormous and no horror fan 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 unraveling of minds; the reader is left to decide whether the causes are supernatural or psychological.

  • 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), all of which utilize elements of horror as well as fantasy. They would go on to be adapted and re-adapted as movies over the next century plus.

Meanwhile, a new storytelling medium was taking shape, a blend of carnival sideshow, trick photography, and theatrical vignette: moving pictures.


Horror Classics You Should Read

It’s always heartening to see well-thumbed copies of these on a new friend’s bookshelf. Nonetheless, this is the 21st century so here are the e-text URLs of all these genre-defining works, all of them now out of copyright and in public domain.


Further Reading