Genre Month: Horror, Part One

By Cammi Woodall

Ho, ho, horror! Not your typical December greeting, is it? My topic for today is horror literature. The first part of this article focuses on classical horror, up to the 20th century.

We are all scared of something. Maybe your fear is something concrete – spiders, clowns, darkness, thunder, taxes. Maybe you are scared of intangibles – loneliness, death, imprisonment, hatred, racism.  A typical definition of horror is ‘a painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay.’ Horror writers attempt to make some sort of sense of the senseless, bring order to the chaos, and scare the daylights out of you!

Horror in literature actually dates back to ancient Sumer with tales of a supernatural being called Emikku who could inhabit dead bodies. Its roots began in early Church essays describing how to combat witchcraft and devil worship. Works such as Dante’s The Divine Comedy took these essays and put the Church’s warnings into a fictional account of the atrocities of Hell and Purgatory.

William Shakespeare might be an odd choice for an article on the horror genre, but the Bard’s work has several overtones of horror – the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father running around plotting and encouraging revenge, Hamlet’s slow descent into madness.  Alas, think of poor Yorick! Hamlet stands in a cemetery speaking to the skull of his dead companion while he contemplates the finality of death. It doesn’t get much creepier than that! His macabre elements still inspire authors today.

The first true horror book is often credited to Horace Wadpole.  His Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was published in 1765 and contained the elements that would become standard for Gothic novels to come. A creepy mansion, underground passages, maidens in distress, ghosts, and mistaken identity depicted a supernatural fantasy at a time when most authors strove for realism. Critics considered the story in poor taste, but the public loved it.

The early 1800’s saw the rise of horror’s most well-known author, Edgar Allen Poe.  Poe’s use of short, staccato sentences and use of first-person view throughout his work heightened the tension, drawing the reader in to the terror happening on the page. Stories and poems such as The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado, Annabel Lee, and The Tell-Tale Heart still enthrall readers today. Who can ever forget the epic poem The Raven, never flitting, still sitting, and the ever lost Lenore?

The 19th century saw a turn away from Gothic elements to what is considered modern horror. Tales such as Jane C. Loudon’s The Mummy, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and H.G. Well’s The Invisible Man relied less upon creepy atmosphere and drew inspiration from science and alchemy. Many of the novels during this time went on to become iconic classics immortalized in film, stage, and television.

No article on classical horror would be complete with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Both are available as public domain books, so no true sales figures exist, but together they are considered the highest selling horror novels of all time.

Frankenstein is considered by many to be the first modern horror novel, as well as the first science fiction novel. During a bout of bad weather and boredom, Shelley’s companion Percy Bysshe Shelley a contest for best ghost story. Mary was fascinated with galvanism, a scientific fad at the time of using electrical currents on animals and convicted criminals to stimulate muscle contractions. Study of her journals also reveal that she constantly thought of a baby she’d lost a few years earlier. Her emotional state helped her craft a true tale of horror, with both Dr. Frankenstein and his creation.

Bram Stoker spent seven years writing his masterpiece, Dracula. Many believe he based his story on Vlad the Impaler, and that is was the first vampire story. Actually, Transylvania and its famous nocturnal inhabitants had been popular in literature for many years. Stoker just took these basic elements and crafted a true tale of horror and suspense. His influence lives on today, with popular vampire stories like Joe Hill’s Nosferatu, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and Stephanie Myers Twilight series.

Horror even spilled over into tales for children. The stories written by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen have been sanitized for today’s market, but children gathered around their mother’s knee or tucked into their cozy beds in the early 1830’s were familiar with very different versions of these beloved tales. The Little Mermaid suffered excruciating pain with each step, her feet bleeding, till she flung herself into the sea after her prince married another woman. The Evil Stepsisters cut off pieces of their feet to make the glass slipper fit, only to have their eyes pecked out by birds at Cinderella’s wedding. The Wicked Queen is forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance till she dies at Snow White’s wedding.

Click to tweet: Horror writers attempt to make some sort of sense of the senseless, bring order to the chaos, and scare the daylights out of you! Find out more about the genre known as “horror.” #horror #amreading

Not exactly the Disney versions, are they? Where are the grouchy lobsters or birds who help clean house? These stories often served as cautionary tales for children, much like modern day warnings of the Boogey Man.

The next part of my article tomorrow will focus on the 20th century. Stay tuned!

Writing Prompt – It was a dark and stormy night.

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