Horror: an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust.
Or, indeed, all of those in varying degrees.
Scholars and academics, over the centuries, have described our continued attraction to the fear of the unknown through fictional horror or terror as a need to recapture that pre-civilization rush of fight-or-flight adrenalin and its corresponding intensity of emotions. [A brief overview from The Atlantic.]
At its best, horror fiction goes beyond cheap thrills to provide insights into human nature through monsters (human or otherwise) as metaphors. If nothing else, it brings new, otherworldly possibilities into our relatively more mundane realities, allowing us to both appreciate the ordinary while opening ourselves to the extraordinary.
And, we’ve come a long way from the ancient folklorish stories of witches, demons and ghosts that originated mostly from religious traditions across many cultures. These gave rise to the Gothic tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries (my favorites). The 20th century gave us the pulp and zombie varieties, with blood, gore, violence, otherworldly creatures capable of large-scale violence, etc.: writers like H P Lovecraft, Stephen King, R L Stine, Anne Rice et al. And, as the 21st century continues to bring us horror fiction that blends seamlessly with many other genres (e.g. mystery, action/psychological thriller, speculative, fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, etc.), it continues to be one of the biggest and bestselling genres – in books, film and online fan fiction.
Before we get any further, let’s get one thing out of the way. For those who look down on horror/terror fiction as not “literary”, the wonderful Margaret Atwood has some sharp words:
It also seems to be a general rule that this year’s despised pop shocker may well furnish the next decade’s serious thesis material. What is Beowulf – what is Inanna’s descent to the Underworld – what is the dismemberment of Osiris, not to mention Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus – but horror/terror shock material of a former age? Yes, some of it was “religious” in intent. It would be, wouldn’t it, as the membrane separating gods and monsters is notoriously thin.
So no harrumphing about my interest in the form, please. Horror/terror and “literature” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, tales of this kind may be among the most “literary” that there are, being both very ancient, and – unlike, say, social realism, in which a real tour of a real meat-packing factory may be involved – derived entirely from other tales. (Hint: there aren’t really any Walking Dead. Sorry. Sad, but true. Therefore all such monsters are metaphors.)
And, to shed some light on horror vs terror vs gruesome, we turn to 3 masters of their genre and craft.
First, Ann Radcliffe’s late-18th century distinction between horror and terror that terror is a feeling of dread that takes place before an event happens and horror is a feeling of revulsion or disgust after an event has happened and:
Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them.
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible concept of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of the fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguards against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
And, finally, Stephen King who, in his Danse Macabre, took both of his predecessors’ thoughts further by admitting:
I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.
He further explained these three as follows:
…. The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there ….
For those who prefer literary fiction over other genres, if Atwood’s admonishment above is not enough, you might enjoy the classical masterpieces in the horror novel or short story genre that have not only endured to this day but also influenced countless other stories across genres and media. [Notes: Horror was/is also present in drama and poetry, but we’ll come to those forms another time. Also, the list below is mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries and the Western canon. We’ll explore other eras and canons later.]
1 The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe — The original Gothic novel that has inspired many others, including classics like Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, etc. It was even parodied in Northanger Abbey by Austen. It has all the elements of suspense, romance, atmospheric settings, intricate sketches, evil / supernatural forces, physical and psychological terror, etc. But, more than anything, it has beautiful prose. [Note: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole was, chronologically, the first well-known Gothic novel from the 18th century. I haven’t read it and hesitate to recommend it for that reason alone.]
He loved the soothing hour, when the last tints of light die away; when the stars, one by one, tremble through æther, and are reflected on the dark mirror of the waters; that hour, which, of all others, inspires the mind with pensive tenderness, and often elevates it to sublime contemplation.
2 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley — Described as the first science fiction and monster novel, it has pronounced Gothic elements too. Such has been its influence that Frankenstein’s monster has become a universal archetype in the horror and sci-fi genres across cultures. Shelley started this was she was only 19 and the story came to her in a dream, which she described as follows:
I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.
Beyond her youth and her literary influences (Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge, etc.), it was also an amazing technical feat of writing in how she layered the epistolary form with a story within a story and illustrated or alluded to many religious and controversial ideas of the time (e.g. gender equality, religion vs science). You can read Shelley’s original digital manuscripts here. And, as it is just too irresistible, here’s Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey reading the book for Audible.com.
I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.
3 The Vampyre by John William Polidori — The original vampire novel before Stoker’s Dracula. In 1818, Mary Shelley, her future husband, poet Percy Byshhe Shelley, their friend, Lord Byron and Polidori, the physician, were vacationing at a villa by Lake Geneva. Poor weather had confined them indoors for days, so they set up a little competition to write the scariest story. Shelley started her masterpiece here. Byron started a bit of a vampire novel, but, abandoned it as an unfinished fragment. Polidori took up that fragment and wrote this novella. The other significant thing about this novel is that the protagonist is a thinly-disguised Byron – charismatic, sophisticated and romantic – which makes this a double pleasure.
…. and often as she told him the tale of the living vampyre, who had passed years amidst his friends, and dearest ties, forced every year, by feeding upon the life of a lovely female to prolong his existence for the ensuing months, his blood would run cold, whilst he attempted to laugh her out of such idle and horrible fantasies; but Ianthe cited to him the names of old men, who had at last detected one living among themselves, after several of their near relatives and children had been found marked with the stamp of the fiend’s appetite; and when she found him so incredulous, she begged of him to believe her, for it had been remarked, that those who had dared to question their existence, always had some proof given, which obliged them, with grief and heartbreaking, to confess it was true.
4 Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe — He is described as the father of the detective fiction sub-genre – his Dupin having spawned Sherlock Holmes, who, in turn, inspired Poirot and many others. His horror writing had strong elements of the Gothic as well, but he veered more to the macabre. In particular, many of his stories illustrate the perfection of the unexpected plot twist technique. That said, opinion on Poe’s brilliance remains divided.
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
5 The Strange Case of Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson — One of the earliest and best-known psychological thrillers. This one is influenced by and has, in turn, influenced many fiction traditions – Gothic, fable, allegory, detective fiction. It tackled many psychological themes, particularly, morality, duality in human nature, good vs evil, etc. Drawn from a Stevenson’s own dreams and written in a furious 3-day drug-fuelled jag, the first manuscript was so gruesome that he burned it. But, he was drawn back to it and wrote another draft in 3 days again. It was an instant bestseller.
The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness. There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.
6 Collected Ghost Stories by M R James — The only book on this list that’s from the early-20th century. But, given that James wrote in the Victorian tradition of the previous century and his wide influence to present-day horror fiction, it belongs on this list. These are some of the best ghost stories that influenced many, including the aforementioned H P Lovecraft and Stephen King. What particularly distinguished James’ works was how he departed from the popular Gothic tradition and set his stories in more realistic, contemporary settings with scholarly protagonists. And, there is a marked lack of female characters worth speaking of. Yet, these stories have their own different pleasures. First, they were written to be read aloud. And, second, rather than try to give you cheap, momentary thrills, these slow-build stories really do mean to frighten and stay with you long after you’ve read them. Haunting, you might say. Ha.
He blew (the whistle) tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure — how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a seabird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes.
If you’re looking for something other than cheap thrills, you could not do better than these few novels and short stories to begin with. Which are your favorite horror fiction works and why? Let us know in the comments.