Horror Literature Origins where Mankind Struggles to Exist

Alan Jones

Alan Jones

Man’s heroic, and often horrific, interaction with forces larger than himself forms an integral part of the oldest surviving examples of literature, religious and otherwise. Both the ‘Babylonian Epic Of Gilgamesh’ (c.2000 BC) and ‘Homer’s Odyssey’ (c.800 BC) involve adventurers battling against an array of malevolent monsters, sometimes helped and occasionally hindered by the gods. The Bible also contains an extraordinary collection of monsters and demons, from the sea-beast Leviathan to Satan (aka the Devil), the arch-enemy of God. Satan was developed by Christianity into the absolute embodiment of evil, and appears in the apocalyptic Revelation of St John — along with other terrifying beasts — where, in the form of a dragon, he is eventually vanquished by the archangel Michael.

Man’s inherently sinful nature (according to Christianity) led to an obsession with the fate of souls after death. This is reflected in Dante’s elaborate poem of the after-life, ‘The Divine Comedy’ (c. 1310), as well as in the wealth of horrific depictions of the Last Judgement that appeared in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — of which the nightmare visions of Bosch and Bruegel are merely the most famous examples. The Middle Ages also produced an early werewolf tale in Marie de France’s ‘Bisclavaret’ (‘Lay Of The Werewolf’), and the first mention of the legend of the man who mocked Jesus on his way to the cross, and who was thereby condemned to roam the earth until Judgement Day. Recorded in the chronicles of Roger of Wendover and Matthew of Paris, the man was only identified as the “Wandering Jew” in later versions of the tale.

One of the most compelling legends of the Renaissance period was that of Faust, an actual German necromancer whose exploits were embroidered after his death into the tale of a man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for all the knowledge in the world. Among the many writers to exploit the story where Christopher Marlowe in his play ‘The Tragical! History of Doctor Faustus’ (c.1590) and Goethe in his two-part dramatic poem Faust (1808 & 1833).

The work of Marlowe’s contemporary William Shakespeare also contains a good deal of horrific and supernatural elements.

From the witches and ghosts in ‘Macbeth’ (a supposedly jinxed play), through the blood-soaked shocker ‘Titus Andronicus’ (which features rape, hand amputation and cannibalism), to ‘The Tempest’, set on an island where a banished magician rules over a motley assortment of spirits and monsters.

Ironically horror as a recognisably autonomous genre had its main origins in the eighteenth-century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment when science and reason were meant to banish superstition and ignorance forever. Perhaps as a reaction against this optimism, certain artists and writers produced work that explored the darker side of their own imaginations. One such was Horace Walpole, the dilettante aesthete and son of the prime minister, who produced the first British horror novel. ‘The Castle Of Otranto’ (1764). Prompted by a nightmare (but claimed to be based on an Italian original), it is a tale of usurpation and skullduggery among the Italian aristocracy — complete with ghosts, prophecies and poisonings. The novel established a vogue for what became known as Gothic fiction and spawned a host of imitators.

Among the most successful was Ann Radcliffe, who took Walpole’s approach even further in her five novels, and set out the parameters of the Gothic horror romance in the most popular one, ‘The Mysteries Of Udolpho’ (1794). With her crumbling castles, misty landscapes, monstrous crimes, and rationalised supernatural happenings, Radcliffe laid the foundation for the entire genre, and in ‘The Italian’ (1797) created the seminal dark and sexy hero. Her novels nearly always include a beautiful, virtuous heroine and a male tyrant, with a powerful tension between the two.

More sensational still is ‘The Monk’ (1795) by M.G. Lewis, which tells of a charismatic and devout preacher who becomes a slave to lust and sexual depravity. The novel is set in Catholic Spain which, like Radcliffe and Walpole’s Italy, is an exotic fantasy world where barbarism and civilisation are only thinly separated. Lewis’s emphasis on the extreme psychological struggles of his protagonist is even more marked in Charles Maturin’s ‘Melmoth, The Wanderer’ (1820), which concerns a man’s bargain with Satan to extend his life, and its terrible consequences.

Gothic fiction was brilliantly mocked in 1818 by Jane Austen in her clear-headed parody of the genre, Northanger Abbey, but the same year saw the publication of one of the greatest works of literary horror: Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus’. Begun as a ghost story, the finished work is a compelling tale of corrupted scientific ambition and nature’s terrible revenge. Some critics have interpreted it as expressing underlying social anxiety at the speed of technological change brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Mary Shelley was part of the Romantic movement which, with its emphasis on subjectivity and opposition to the idea that the universe could be understood in purely rational terms, was ideally attuned to exploring supernatural themes. It was also very much a pan-European phenomenon, existing against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars that were convulsing the continent in the early-nineteenth-century. In Germany Heinrich von Kleist wrote a series of deeply pessimistic short novels in which arbitrary and irrational acts of violence seem to govern people’s lives. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s work is even stranger: his first weird tale, ‘Ritter Gluck’ (1809), tells of a musician convinced he is the famous composer Gluck, but his most familiar tale is probably ‘The Sandman’ (1816), a story of a young man who cannot free himself of the memory of a traumatic childhood incident which blights his existence. ‘The Sandman’ reads like a Freudian case history, and indeed Freud made the story the centre of an influential essay in which he defined the uncanny as deriving its terror “[…] not from something externally alien or unknown but — on the contrary — from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it.” The early-nineteenth-century also saw an increasing awareness of indigenous folk literature, with writers like the brothers Grimm rekindling an interest in folk tales and fairy tales.

The weaving of the bizarre into the real world by Hoffmann had an enormous influence on the grotesque humour of Nikolai Gogol’s Russian stories (such as ‘Diary Of A Madman’, 1835), as well as on the Americans Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Irving’s most famous work, ‘The Sketch Book Of Geoffrey Crayon’ (1819), includes the short stories ‘The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle’; while Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote several successful horror stories, collected in ‘Twice-Told Tales’ (1837). Even more significant for the genre was Edgar Allan Poe, one of the originators of the detective mystery story with ‘The Murders In The Rue Morgue’ (1841). Poe brought a new psychological depth to tales of terror, for example in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843) in which a man develops a neurotic obsession with the diseased eye of the old man with whom he boards. In the era of modern cinema, Poe became the most adapted of American authors.

As the Industrial Revolution transformed the nineteenth-century, economic growth led to an increasing appetite for reading the material, which was satisfied through the relative cheapness of mechanised printing; and so the “penny dreadful” was born. From the 1830s crudely printed and illustrated forerunners of the comic book, such as ‘The Terrific Register’, ‘Leisure Hour’ and ‘Family Herald’, began pandering to prurient and bloodthirsty tastes; horror tales published included Frederick Marryat’s ‘The Phantom Ship’ (1839), based on the Flying Dutchman legend, and Lady Esther Hope’s ‘The Blue Dwarf’ (1861). The most famous was ‘Varney, The Vampire, Or The Feast Of Blood’ (1845), one of the earliest vampires and the first to sport fangs, whose authorship was attributed to J.M. Rymer, though it may be the work of Thomas Preskett Prest. It was Prest who wrote the famous penny dreadful based on a French murderer of fourteenth-century legend that led to several versions of ‘Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street’. The period also saw something of a craze for sensational theatrical melodramas, the most famous being ‘Maria Marten or Murder In The Red Barn’ (1840), based on the famous murder case of 1827.

Often the penny dreadful stories were adapted from the pages of contemporary newspapers, with the facts so distorted in their breathless retelling that they became tangled up with reality. This was the case with the story of “Spring- Heeled Jack”, a bogeyman of uncertain origin who assaulted women indiscriminately and escaped from crime scenes by taking giant leaps on supposedly spring-loaded boots; the image of him with pointy ears and nose, red glowing eyes and ability to emit flame from his mouth are only embellishments to a figure who terrorized London, starting in the 1830s. Headlines were also made by Scottish body-snatchers Burke and Hare in the late 1820s – the influence for Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Body Snatcher’ (1885).

Real life crime stories and the conventions of the Gothic novel were fused in the work of the now largely forgotten William Harrison Ainsworth, whose 1834 novel Rookwood — a highly romanticised account of the highwayman Dick Turpin — catapulted him to success. Crime stories (so-called “Newgate novels”) were taken up by other novelists, including the young Charles Dickens (‘Oliver Twist’, 1838) and Edward Bulwer Lytton (Eugene Aram, 1832), although compared to Ainsworth their agenda was more social than sensational. The only Ainsworth novel to remain in print is ‘The Lancashire Witches’ (1849), about a monk who sells his soul to Satan and brings forth a whole progeny of witches. The rather more talented Charles Dickens was responsible for the appearance of the first detective in British fiction (‘Inspector Bucket in Bleak House’, 1853) and for some of the finest ghost stories ever, including ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) and ‘The Signal-Man’ (1866).

Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins was the key exponent of a literary subgenre, the “sensation” novel, which reached the height of its popularity in the 1860s. Credited by Henry James with introducing into fiction “those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors”, Collins wrote ‘The Woman In White’ in 1860 — a brilliantly plotted thriller that is equally strong on atmosphere and suspense. By the time of ‘The Moonstone’ (1868), which involves the fallout from the theft of a gemstone sacred to Hindus, Collins was pretty well burned out as a novelist.

Meanwhile, in the same decade, Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu was producing his own contribution to horror literature: a series of supernatural tales which emphasised the mysterious and the inexplicable. His novel ‘Uncle Silas’ (1864) and his most famous story, the vampire tale ‘Carmilla’ (1871), have both been filmed — the latter several times.

By the 1880 and 1990s, the supernatural had become so respectable a literary subject, that many highly regarded authors tried their hand at it. In France the cult of Poe (fuelled by Baudelaire’s translations) fed into the decadent sensibilities of the Symbolists to produce a number of darkly morbid works such as the ‘Contes Cruels’ (1883) of Villiers de l’lsle-Adam and JK. Huysmans’s Satanist novel ‘La-has’ (1891).

Huysmans was an important influence on Oscar Wilde whose ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ (1890) provides a modern take on the Faustian pact. Four years earlier Robert Louis Stevenson penned his famous tale of a hubristic scientist in ‘The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde’ (1886), a story which offers an intriguing look at the idea of a divided or repressed personality. Stevenson’s friend Henry James also wrote a number of ghostly tales, of which the most disturbing is the deeply ambiguous ‘The Turn Of The Screw’ (1898), with its hints of child abuse and its unreliable narrative voice.

The same period also produced a classic vampire novel in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897) and saw the appearance of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective Sherlock Holmes, a character with an almost uncanny ability to unravel difficulty, and often gory, cases. One real-life case that Holmes might well have struggled with was that of Jack the Ripper, who between August 1888 and July 1889 committed a series of horrifyingly brutal murders of women in London’s Whitechapel area that remains unsolved to this day. Fictionalised accounts of the murders appeared almost immediately, but the best-known early novel based on the case is ‘The Lodger’ (1913) by Mrs Belloc Lowndes, filmed by Hitchcock in 1926.

As the cinema era dawned, filmmakers appropriated the bestsellers of the day to ensure a guaranteed audience. So despite the diversity of their themes, authors such as Poe, Conan Doyle, Shelley, Stevenson, Stoker, H.G. Wells (‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’, 1896), Gaston Leroux (‘The Phantom Of The Opera’, 1911) and Gustav Meyrink (‘The Golem’, 1915) were all lumped together as horror writers, simply because their material was voraciously drawn upon by the founders of the genre. Also placed in this group was the German writer Harms Heinz Ewers. A friend of occultist Aleister Crowley, Ewers popularised the Schauerromans (“shudder novels”) of the early-twentieth-century with his short stories, Der Zauberlehrling (‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, 1907), ‘Alraune’ (1911) and ‘Vampir’ (1921). One of Ewers’ translators in America was Guy Endore, who went on to write ‘The Werewolf Of Paris’ (1933).

In England, the scary ghost story was practically reinvented by M.R. James’s ‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ (1904) and ‘Casting The Runes’ (1911). His stories emphasized the hair-raising intangible to such a degree that they are rarely filmed; the same is true for those of the American writer responsible for creating a wave of abnormally warped Gothic horror, H.P. Lovecraft. His work was directly inspired by his nightmares, and it is this insight into the symbolic subconscious that resonates with latter-day filmmakers, as seen, for example, in Stuart Gordon’s ‘Re-Animator’ (1985, see Canon), based on the story from 1922. Heavily influenced by Poe, the dreamy settings of Lord Dunsany and the mystical writings of Arthur Machen, Lovecraft had a limited readership during his short lifetime, but his works, in turn, had a crucial impact on horror writers including Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker and Stephen King.

Two further Lovecraft disciples were responsible for reshaping the horror genre in modern times. By attempting to get inside the mind of a psychopath — in novels like ‘The Will To Kill’ (1954) and ‘Psycho’ (1959) — Robert Bloch succeeded in blurring the distinction between crime and horror fiction. More recently Anne Rice, in her ‘Vampire Chronicles’ series, breathed new life into what had become the most cliche-ridden of horror sub-genres. ‘Interview With The Vampire’ (1976), the first and most celebrated of the series, is remarkable for the way it creates a fully-realised world, one in which the vampires possess a wide range of recognisable feelings and emotions.

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