By Cammi Woodall
It was a dark and stormy night. It automatically sets the mood, doesn’t it? Horror as a literary theme continued into the 1900’s and gained in popularity.
The late 19th and early 20th century saw the rise of the Penny Dreadful, mass produced periodicals that made popular fiction available to a much larger section of the population than books. Lurid tales of werewolves, vampires, and ghouls helped spur sales. Due to their low cost, sales of the magazines skyrocketed. After purchase, the magazines could then be passed around for many to enjoy, escaping the uncertainty and fear of the Depression and the World Wars.
During the 1960’s and 70’s, elements of horror in literature became more visceral. Supernatural and creepy overtones were no longer enough for the reading public. Intense moral situations, vivid descriptions of gore, and stories based on real-life tragedies flooded the best sellers list. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, The Amityville Horror by Jan Anson, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby contained graphic accounts of adult situations more extreme than previously depicted in mainstream literature. The public responded favorably, with several horror novels reaching epic sales during this time.
Click to tweet: What do you think is the bestselling modern horror novel of all time? Names like Stephen King or Clive Barker may come to mind, but that title goes to a book published in 1979. V. C. Andrews wrote Flowers in Attic. #horror #amreading
Due to intense moral dilemmas, the book was banned from many schools and reading fairs. The shocking tale follows the Dollanganger children. The unexpected death of their father is only the first of many calamities that follows the siblings through the five book series.
No article about horror fiction would be complete without mentioning Stephen King. He is the master of horror with over 50 best selling novels. Just a few of his titles include The Shining, Cujo, Carrie, Misery, Needful Things, Thinner, Salem’s Lot, It, and The Running Man. His tales range from a rabid dog terrorizing a town (a real-life horror we could all encounter) to a post apocalyptic America fighting a maniacal evil (something I hope we never face). Often knocked by critics, especially for his earlier work, King’s stories resonate with the reading public. People who do not typically read horror will read Stephen King.
Even kids want to get scared. R. L. Stine published his first scary teen novel, Blind Date, in 1986. (Tagline – It wasn’t a date! It was a nightmare!) It was an instant success. He went on to write the Fear Street series and the Goosebumps series. Both series spawned movies, television shows, and merchandise that were extremely popular. The Fear Street series remains one of the best selling Young Adult series of all time.
This article only touches on a few writes of horror literature, but I am running out of room! There are countless other authors to explore – H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Frank E. Peretti, Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub, RAy Bradbury, Dean Koontz, Joe Hill, Seth Grahame-Smith… Well, you get the idea. There are horror novels for whatever ‘fear level’ you want. Your public library is a great way to check out a new author and see if you like their style.
So, after this history lesson, you may be wondering. Why do we read or write horror stories? Isn’t real life filled with enough despair, mistrust, uncertainty, and cruelty to fill dozens of horror novels? Yes, unfortunately. I hope none of us will face a killer clown crawling out of the sewer, or have a family member converse with skeleton parts, or conduct cadaver experiments in our creepy lab. These are abstract horrors because they are not liable to happen.
But we will experience grief as we lose a loved one, terror if we are attacked, loneliness, despair, regret, anxiety, betrayal… By reading horror, you escape the everyday fears we face. Writing horror allows the author to exorcise demons they hold within. When you hold a book or an unfinished manuscript in your hand, your are the master of that tiny little section of your universe. The story can allow you to escape for minutes or hours; the heroes and heroines may save the day and defeat the horror. If it gets to be too much? Simply close the book. Stop writing or reading. You control the horror.
All this research has made me want to re-visit some old favorites. I think I will curl up with my dog-eared copy of It. Wait, do I hear a tapping at my chamber door? It is a dark and stormy night, after all.
Writing Prompt: The pounding on the door stopped. The sudden silence was more unsettling than the rattling door.