[The blog format has brought Hellnotes many new readers, who may have missed the earlier installments of the Old Masters of Horror column. To bring these new readers up to speed, following is an expanded version of the introduction to the column, which originally appeared on November 21, 2002.]
The roots of English-language horror reach back over a thousand years to Beowulf, the ancient tale of monsters. The following several centuries saw the publication of stories that can be considered horror but, as the people of those times were generally superstitious, those stories were believed to be true.
The eighteenth century saw the birth of modern horror. This was the Age of Reason, and the belief in the supernatural was waning. Horror writing was now viewed as entertainment, not something to be believed.
The first modern horror story is considered to be the ghost story The Castle of Otranto, a novella by Horace Walpole, which was published in 1764. The publication of this novella ushered in the era of Gothic fiction, which was characterized by the grotesque, the mysterious, and the desolate. The Gothic novels were the bestsellers of their day, yet they were disparaged by critics. (Sound familiar?)
The most widely read of all Gothic novelists was Ann Radcliffe. Her novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), were full of weird events which were explained plausibly, though in a contrived way, at the end. The Gothic novels of this era tended to titillate readers with vague references to dastardly deeds rather than showing anything gory happening.
Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) changed the convention to that date for Gothic fiction in that he went into lurid detail. The Monk caused a scandal and was banned, with later editions censored. (A new edition of The Monk was recently published by Oxford University Press, with an introduction by Stephen King.)
On Lewis’s last visit to Europe before his death, he met with a group of English writers and exchanged ghost stories with them. One of the members of the group was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and one of the topics of discussion was her work-in-progress, Frankenstein (1818), which would become one of the most famous and influential of Gothic novels. However, around the time Frankenstein appeared, the Gothic novel was falling out of fashion.
In the United States, fiction wasn’t published until the late 18th century. One of the first early American horror writers was Charles Brockden Brown. His three most notable novels are Wieland; or, The Transformation (1798), Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799), and Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 in Two Parts (1799-1800). Wieland deals with a grotesque temple, a weird religion, a supposedly supernatural voice (which were later revealed, a la Radcliffe, to be the work of a ventriloquist), multiple murders, and mental aberration. Edgar Huntly is about madness, murder, and somnambulism. The central incident of Arthur Mervyn is a yellow fever epidemic, with gruesome recountings of the disease and those who handle the dying and the dead.
The first American author to achieve fame abroad as well as at home was Washington Irving. His well known macabre stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “The Spectre Bridegroom,” and “Rip Van Winkle” were published in 1819 in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., also known simply as The Sketch Book. His later tale, “The Devil and Tom Walker,” published in Tales of a Traveller (1824), is about a deal with the devil, but, like his earlier stories, has an underlying theme of social commentary.
Edgar Allan Poe grew up while Irving was publishing his best work. Perhaps the most important horror writer in history, Poe had a troubled life, which he described himself as “insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” Poe began writing poetry and later moved into prose. His first stories were the humorous “Tales of the Folio Club,” several of which were published individually in The Philadelphia Sunday Courier in 1832. Poe rarely used the supernatural in his tales of terror, preferring to produce his frights by depictions of madness and murder. Poe wrote many well known weird tales, including “Ligeia” (1838), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). Poe is also considered the father of the detective story, as evidenced by his mysteries “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Gold-Bug” (1843), among others. His most famous poem is “The Raven” (1845).
A contemporary of Poe was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote Gothic and weird fiction. Hawthorne’s work tended more toward the moralistic and abstract, not the concrete terror that characterized Poe. Hawthorne’s stories include “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), about devil-worshippers; “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844), a mad-scientist tale about poisonous plants; and “Ethan Brand” (1851), a Gothic tale of the search for the “unpardonable sin.” His novels The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Marble Faun (1860) contain hints of the supernatural.
Ghost stories flourished in the second half of the 19th century, but around 1900, detective stories came into fashion (this is when Sherlock Holmes stories first appeared), which were seen to be more intellectual than horror stories. Around this time, Ambrose Bierce started publishing grim tales. He wrote war stories (he was a Union soldier in the Civil War), black comedy, and tales of the supernatural. Among his better known stories are “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Oil of Dog,” “My Favorite Murder,” and “The Damned Thing,” collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, also known as In the Midst of Life (1891), and Can Such Things Be? (1893).
It was during this time that Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote some macabre fiction as a sideline, published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Unfortunately, the story is so familiar that it cannot be read as the suspense novel it was intended to be, where it is not revealed until the last few pages of the book that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are the same person.
Other mainstream classic authors have written a few works with supernatural elements: Sir Walter Scott (“Wandering Willie’s Tale” and “The Tapestried Chamber”), Charles Dickens (“A Christmas Carol” and “The Signal-Man”), Edward Bulwer-Lytton (“The Haunted and the Haunters, or the House and the Brain”), Rudyard Kipling (“The Phantom ’Rickshaw” and “The Mark of the Beast”), and Henry James (The Turn of the Screw).
On the other hand, there are mainstream authors who are remembered more for their horror fiction. F. Marion Crawford wrote best-sellers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but he is known for his stories collected in Wandering Ghosts (1894). Robert W. Chambers was famous in his time for his love stories but is mostly remembered for The King in Yellow (1895), a collection of macabre tales.
At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu published several Gothic novels, popular then but forgotten now, and then moved on to short stories in the supernatural genre, for which he is better known. One of his innovations was the use of a psychic investigator (Dr. Hesselius in his stories), which was also used by later writers, such as Algernon Blackwood, with his Dr. John Silence. One of the best vampire stories ever written is Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1871), a fast-moving tale of a female vampire who preys on other females.
The book many consider to be the best horror novel of all appeared in 1897: Dracula. It was written by Bram Stoker, who was not a professional writer but the manager of an actor. He wrote other horror novels, but none as good as his masterpiece.
In the early 20th century, William Hope Hodgson published four novels: The Boats of the “Glen Carig” (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908), The Ghost Pirates (1909), and The Night Land (1912). He also wrote a number of short stories, which were weird tales about the sea and stories about Carnacki, “the ghost-finder,” a psychic investigator.
The last great master of the Victorian ghost story was M.R. James, who is considered the Father of the Modern Ghost Story. His stylish tales were collected in four books, which were then collected, with a few additional stories, into one volume, Collected Ghost Stories (1931). Among his best known stories are “Mezzotint,” “Casting the Runes,” and “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.”
Around the end of the 19th century, a secret society called The Order of the Golden Dawn was formed, the members of which were interested in spirituality and the occult. One of the members was Arthur Machen, a Welshman who lived in London. In 1894, two of his best horror tales appeared: “The Great God Pan” and “The Inmost Light.” The following year saw the publication of his great novel The Three Impostors, which contains his most vivid depictions of horror.
Another member of The Order of the Golden Dawn was Algernon Blackwood, who was first published in the early 20th century. His ghost story “The Willows” is considered his masterpiece, and he is also known for the stories of John Silence, an occult detective.
Lord Dunsany was another Golden Dawn member. He is known for the innovation of creating his own supernatural beings instead of relying on those already existing in literature. His first book, The Gods of Pegana (1905), was the first in which he created his own mythology. His work influenced later writers to invent their own supernatural entities. The most widely known of his short stories is “Two Bottles of Relish,” which is what the killer needed in disposing of a corpse.
The 1920s saw the start of the pulp fiction era. Pulp was both a physical and a stylistic characteristic. The magazines were printed on cheap pulp paper and usually had lurid covers. Pulp writing was also typically lurid and was looked down upon by the literati.
The most influential of the pulps was Weird Tales, which first hit the newsstands in 1923 and which is still published today. The most important author published in Weird Tales was H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft took “weird” to a new level. He combined ancient demonology with the then-recent theories of space, time, and relativity to create a new kind of horror. In the process, he created the well known Cthulhu mythos (Cthulhu was a fourth-dimension monster). The Cthulhu mythos remains popular to this day, with magazines and anthologies of Cthulhu-inspired fiction and even role-playing games.
Lovecraft was a mentor for a group of writers which included Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, Donald Wandrei, and August Derleth. Wandrei and Derleth founded Arkham House to publish the works of Lovecraft. Arkham House continues to publish classic horror. Howard, Smith, Bloch, and Derleth were important contributors to Weird Tales. Another contributor was Seabury Quinn, who created the psychic detective Jules de Grandin and wrote almost a hundred stories about him.
Exploring the world of classic horror will reveal innumerable treasures. You will also discover the influences on many modern horror writers.
Most works of fiction mentioned in this article are in print. For non-fiction books on the old masters, see Discovering Classic Horror Fiction I, edited by Darrell Schweitzer (published by Wildside Press), and Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media, by Les Daniels (out of print). For one master’s take on others, see “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” by H.P. Lovecraft (an annotated edition, edited by S.T. Joshi, is available from Hippocampus Press). For a free sampling of classic horror fiction, go to Horror Masters, where you will find oodles of stories by many of the old masters.