By the end of the nineteenth century, writers interested in exploring supernatural themes had abandoned the mode of gothic fiction pioneered by eighteenth century English novelist Horace Walpole. Walpole and his imitators had exploited such props as medieval ruins and gloomy manor houses riddled with secret passages, while later gothic novelists had accentuated madness and excessive violence. Newer writers emphasized character, practiced a more sophisticated narrative technique, and displayed an intuitive grasp of the workings of the human psyche.
Horror fiction continued to do what gothic fiction had done before it. In an era of growing emphasis upon science and reason, it explored humankind’s darker and more irrational impulses. Increasingly, however, the boundaries between horror and gothic became more slippery, and individual authors or works are being categorized and analyzed in either genre.
Horror’s Golden Age: 1872-1912
The four decades from 1872 to 1912 represent one of the two richest periods of horror fiction in the English language. Because such moods as dread and anxiety are easier to maintain in shorter forms, many of the most successful works from this period are stories and novellas.
The year 1872 saw the publication of In a Glass Darkly, by Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu also wrote novels in which the supernatural played some part, but he is remembered for his shorter works, among which is the novella “Carmilla” from this collection. Although not the first work in English to deal with vampires, “Carmilla” is one of the most sophisticated. It is not clear whether Carmilla is “really” a vampire or her feelings for the novella’s young narrator are sexual. Nor is it clear what ultimate spiritual fate awaits the narrator herself, who is dead when the story begins. “Carmilla” is reprinted in countless anthologies of horror stories and has inspired numerous film versions, the most famous being Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932).
The same air of ambiguity hangs over The Turn of the Screw (1898), by Henry James. In this famous novella a governess charged with protecting two young children either battles malignant ghosts or projects onto imaginary ghosts her own destructive feelings toward the children—it is not clear which. Another writer who found the novella especially useful for exploring ambiguous psychological states was the Englishman Oliver Onions. In The Beckoning Fair One (1911), Onions described the disintegration of a writer whose sanity is sapped by his own ghostly creation.
Equally astute psychological analysis characterizes short novels produced by two writers famous for works in a variety of forms. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the classic fictional treatment of the split personality in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Dr. Jekyll is a paragon of virtue, but the alter ego he releases by chemical means is a monster of murderous desire. In The Picture of Dorian Gray (serial 1890; expanded 1891), Oscar Wilde described a bon vivant whose portrait registers the ravages of sin while he himself retains his youthful appearance.
During this same period several British writers produced what American writer H. P. Lovecraft was to describe as “cosmic horror.” These writers included Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson. Rather than embodying evil in stock figures such as ghosts, these writers located malignity in the universe itself. Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894) is an early example. This novella describes a union between a young woman and Pan, ostensibly a minor classical deity but in this case a figure emblematic of a greater and far more frightening “reality” lurking beyond the everyday world. The experience drives the woman mad, and the daughter she subsequently bears instigates a cycle of destruction years later.
Unlike many talented supernatural writers of his time, Hodgson wrote effectively in longer forms, and his novels constitute a high-water mark of horror fiction. In The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (1907), Hodgson drew upon his years at sea to describe the fate of a ship imprisoned in the weeds of a phantasmagoric Sargasso Sea. The tightly constructed short novel The Ghost Pirates (1909) utilized another sea setting to describe a ship taken over by sailors from another dimension. In his masterpiece, The House on the Borderland (1908), Hodgson resuscitated the familiar gothic prop of the ruined manor—in this case a deserted stone house in the west of Ireland. Travelers recover from this ruin a manuscript describing an eruption of swinelike creatures from a nearby pit as well as an existentially chilling vision of the fate of the universe. Hodgson’s enormous twovolume final novel, The Night Land: A Live Tale and The Night Land: Volume Two (1912), is written in a trying eighteenth century style but describes a world millions of years in the future. The remnants of humankind have gathered in a great pyramid known as the Last Redoubt, outside of which waits a horrifying assembly of malignant deities.
The best literary works often transcend apparent trends or categories. This is true of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), a melodramatic adventure novel that eschews the sophistication characteristic of much supernatural fiction of the period. Irishman Stoker mixed eastern European myths of the nosferatu (or vampire) with legends of Vlad the Impaler, a bewilderingly bloodthirsty tyrant of the fifteenth century. Told in the form of letters and journal entries, the novel carries its nowfamous central character, Count Dracula, from Transylvania to England and back again. Dracula is a compelling and irresistibly readable account of the struggle between good and evil, and it has proven inestimably influential.
Between the Wars
The major development in horror fiction in the United States occurred between World War I and World War II. American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe had written prolifically in the gothic tradition, and drawing upon them and such British figures as Machen and Hodgson, Lovecraft created a highly influential body of work.
Lovecraft’s major achievement was the creation of the Cthulhu mythos. The stories written within this framework suggest that Earth was once the realm of a host of malignant entities, or Old Ones—among them the dreadful Cthulhu—forever striving to regain their foothold. In addition to his many stories, Lovecraft wrote two novels. The more important of them is At the Mountains of Madness, and Other Novels (1964), a thoughtful adventure novel concerning a scientific expedition to Antarctica that uncovers a dwelling place of the Old Ones. Lovecraft was a conscientious writer, but his work is often vitiated by a labored, mock-archaic style. For this reason and because of their bizarre subject matter, his stories appeared exclusively in amateur publications and garishly illustrated pulp magazines. Lovecraft’s many followers and imitators published in the same markets, and as a result horror fiction in the United States was cut off from the mainstream of literary development for decades.
After World War II, several American horror writers challenged the sometimes stultifying complacency of a society intent upon preserving the status quo. In I Am Legend (1954), Richard Matheson imagines a world in which almost everyone has become a vampire. In The Body Snatchers (1955), Jack Finney taps a similar vein of paranoia by imagining aliens who have taken over a small town’s seemingly normal residents. Ray Bradbury describes another small town visited by a sinister carnival in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).
Most strikingly, writer Shirley Jackson challenges the era’s normality with The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a coolly understated short novel in which the evil personality of a haunted house undermines the sanity of one of the group that comes to investigate its alleged supernatural nature.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, several horror novels became best sellers, propelling the genre into public awareness. In Rosemary’s Baby (1967) Ira Levin transferred the central situation of Machen’s The Great God Pan to contemporary New York City, while in The Exorcist (1971), William Peter Blatty describes a case of demoniac possession. Both novels were rapidly paced and appealed to audiences unfamiliar with horror fiction. More poetic was Thomas Tryon’s The Other (1971), an atmospheric tale of twins and their dark secret. Tryon’s next novel, Harvest Home (1973), describes a New England fertility cult. Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings (1973) posits a haunted house even more malignant than Jackson’s Hill House.
These works set the stage for a writer who would transform horror fiction into a staple of contemporary culture. Stephen King’s stories and novels have earned for him not only an enormous readership but also grudging literary respect. King’s many works range from treatments of traditional themes to more original creations. ’Salem’s Lot (1975) is a straightforward but vividly realized vampire novel, while The Shining (1977) is an equally vivid haunted house novel, the “house” in this case being a snowbound hotel in the Rocky Mountains.
King’s lengthy novels, The Stand (1978, unabridged 1990), It (1986), and Lisey’s Story (2006), show his considerable talents stretched to their limits. In The Stand, a plague has wiped out most of humanity, setting the stage for the ultimate confrontation between good and evil. In It, a handful of characters—both innocent children and less-than-innocent adults—battle an unimaginably malevolent being buried far beneath Earth’s surface. In Lisey’s Story, a widow struggles to recapture memories of her dead husband, and faces a threat to her life.
King has been so prolific that he has written under more than one name. In one case, he simultaneously published Desperation (1996), as King, and another novel, The Regulators (1996), under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. These two books deal, appropriately enough, with a shift in the nature of reality and, like all King’s best works, exhibit a grasp of realistic detail and an imaginative reach seldom equaled in the genre.
King’s contemporaries have profited from his popularity, and some, such as Dean R. Koontz, have equaled him in production. Other writers include David Morrell, who provides a natural (if harrowing) explanation for supposedly supernatural phenomena in The Totem (1979), and Anne Rice, who initiated a ten-volume series of richly imagined if ultimately repetitious novels with Interview with the Vampire (1976). Others in the Vampire Chronicles series include The Vampire Lestat (1985), The Tale of the Body Thief (1992), Memnoch the Devil (1995), Blood and Gold: Or, The Story of Marius (2001), and Blood Canticle (2003). Suzy McKee Charnas has written works that are more restrained. Her novels include The Vampire Tapestry (1980) and Stagestruck Vampires, and Other Phantasms (2004).
King’s most talented contemporaries include Peter Straub, T. E. D. Klein, and Jonathan Carroll. Straub’s Ghost Story (1979) and Klein’s The Ceremonies (1984) both recapitulate the history of the horror genre, and Straub, in Shadowland (1980), investigates the realm of a modern magician. Carroll’s The Land of Laughs (1980) looks back to Matheson, Finney, and Bradbury as it exposes the dismaying reality behind a seemingly idyllic midwestern town. Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel, The Historian (2005), became a best seller and was translated into twenty-eight languages. It tells the story of a young woman and her father who uncover the true history of Vlad the Impaler, or Dracula.
Continuing British Tradition
The most enduring British horror fiction of the postWorld War II period has been produced by writers working in the mainstream. Sarban (John William Wall) produced a haunting dark fantasy in The Sound of His Horn (1952), a short novel that combines time travel with a sadomasochistic fantasy positing Nazi triumph in World War II. In The Feasting Dead (1954) and The Vampire of Mons (1976), John Metcalfe and Desmond Stewart, respectively, each spin a psychologically compelling variation on the vampire theme. Richard Adams wrote a leisurely but grim ghost story, The Girl in a Swing (1980).
Noted biographer Peter Ackroyd has written a series of erudite horror novels, of which the best are Hawksmoor (1985) and The House of Doctor Dee (1993). Hawksmoor deals with an eighteenth century Satanist and architect of churches, while The House of Doctor Dee concerns a young man who discovers that he is living in the former abode of a famous alchemist.
The most accomplished postwar horror novel in Britain came from an unlikely source: famous comic novelist Kingsley Amis. His novel The Green Man (1969) features a libidinous and alcoholic innkeeper whose establishment is haunted by the ghost of a seventeenth century magician and terrorized by the magician’s murderous creation.
Two other British novelists, Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker, have written specifically within the horror and fantasy genres, and while they have gone on to explore a variety of themes and forms, their first novels remain their best. Campbell’s short novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976), is as ghoulishly unsettling as its title suggests. Barker’s lengthy and ambitious The Damnation Game (1985) retells in contemporary terms the story of Faust, the sixteenth century figure said to have sold his soul to the devil.
Read Gothic Novels and Novelists
Read Vampire Narrative
Read Postmodern Gothic
Read Analysis of Stephen King’s Novels
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