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A Brief History of Horror Literature

By Kristin Masters. Oct 24, 2013. 1:10 AM.

Topics: Horror, Legendary Authors, Book Collecting, Book History

Even the earliest recorded tales have elements of horror, fear, and despair, and the archetypes of horror have likely lasted much longer. The vampire archetype, for example, can be traced all the way back to the ancient civilization of Sumer; the vampire-like being Emikku would inhabit the bodies of people who had died violently or who were buried improperly. 

Inquisition Spurs Interest in the Supernatural 

But the roots of today's horror literature can be found first in the Inquisition. In 1235, the Vatican issued an order to reestablish the orthodoxy of the faith. Almost immediately, charges of heresy were inextricably tangled with allegations of witchcraft. The resulting obsession with witchcraft would endure until the seventeenth century. 

Bartolomeo's depiction of Dante's Inferno (ca 1435)

Then in 1307, Dante published the first volume of his Divine ComedyInferno. The vision of Satan that Dante presented would prove heavily influential, though today it's been eclipsed by the one presented by John Milton in Paradise Lost (1667). 

For the next century, works of horror would still be largely tied to religion. In 1486, Inquisitors Henry Kramer and Jakob Sprenger published Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches). The book, which codified a belief in witchcraft, was reprinted 14 times throughout Europe by 1520. It certainly contributed to the witch craze that gripped the next two centuries. 

By the 1580s, a new kind of horror had come to the London stage. The series of gruesome plays began with Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1585) and included Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (1594), Hamlet (1600), and Macbeth (1605). Following the performance of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (1613), death would not appear again on the English stage until Victor Hugo's Hernani was staged in 1830. 

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The Gothic Novel Emerges

Skip forward to 1714, when Thomas Parnell published A Night-Piece on Death. This was the first work of the so-called Graveyard Poets. Sometimes also called the Churchyard Poets, the group was made up of pre-Romantic poets known for their preoccupation with mortality and death. Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, James MacPherson, Robert Blair, and Thomas Chatterton were among the Graveyard Poets. Though most critics dismissed their work, their efforts did contribute to the evolution of the Gothic novel. 

Sixteen years later, in 1731, the Austrian government ordered an investigation into a mass hysteria that gripped the village of Medvegja. Local citizen Arnold Paole had died in 1726 after falling off a hay wagon. Prior to his death, Paole had intimated that he'd been bitten by a vampire when he lived near Gossawa, in Turkish Serbia. To reverse the curse, Paole said he'd smeared himself with mud from the vampire's grave and with the vampire's blood.
About a month after Paole's death, villagers said that the deceased man had risen from his grave and killed four people. Believing Paole to be a vampire, they'd disinterred his body forty days after his death. It was relatively undecayed, lending further "credibility" to their theory. They drove a stake through the heart of Paole's corpse and burned it. His four supposed victims' bodies were treated the same way. Despite these precautions, ten more people died of mysterious circumstances in 1731, and the village blamed Paole. (Read more about this fascinating case from the Wellcome Library.)

Johannes Fluckinger made the report, corroborating the villagers' claims. The story quickly gained attention throughout Europe. The tale made its way into both international journals and the imaginations of the fashionable set. Even scientists and philosophers were fascinated. From this unlikely source sprung our modern obsession with vampires. 

In 1765, Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, considered the first Gothic novel. The book would have incredible impact on the emerging genre of horror. The next influential novel in the genre would be Anne Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, a book that left an indelible mark on Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and countless other authors. Legendary authors like Matthew Lewis and Charles Brickden Brown would also contribute to the gothic novel as a genre.


Though these authors worked within the same genre, they didn't always appreciate each other's work. Inspired by Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis published The Monk anonymously in 1705 (because at that time he was a member of Parliament). But Radcliffe was so shocked at the luridness of Lewis' novel, she wrote The Italian (1797) in response. 

The Gothic novel would take another dramatic turn in June, 1816. For three days, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley, and Dr. John Polidori shared a villa at Lake Geneva. Likely under the influence of laudanum, they decided to have a ghost story-writing contest. The result: Mary Shelley originated the genre of science fiction with Frankenstein (1818), while Dr. Polidori established the vampire sub-genre with the publication of The Vampyr in the New Monthly Magazine (1819). Dr. Polidori's work was originally attributed to Lord Byron, and the main character is indeed a caricature of him. 


Meanwhile horror again flourished on the British stage from 1790 to 1825. Three theaters offered spectators a host of horrific options: Fitz Ball's The Devil's Elixir; Matthew Lewis' The Castle Spectre; and James Planche's The Vampire (1819) were just a few popular productions. The last actually led to the development of a new stage apparatus called the "vampire trap." These productions were both bloody and expensive, so they ceased as soon as "the devil was no longer in fashion." 

Edgar Allan Poe would bring the Gothic tradition to America; his first story, "MS Found in a Bottle," appeared in the Baltimore Saturday Visitor in 1833. He went on to produce some of the world's most outstanding macabre tales, and has also been called the father of the detective novel. 

Horror Even for Children

Over the next decade, horror would make its way into virtually all art forms. In 1819, Francesco Goya painted a series of eighteen frescoes, known as the Black Paintings, in response to the French invasion of Spain. And the following year Hector Berlioz made waves with Symphonie Fantastique. The symphony shocked its audiences with its shocking sounds and grotesque imagery; Berlioz had named the movements "March to the Scaffold" and "Dream of a Witch's Sabbath." 


It's worth noting that even in this age of reason and scientific advancement, life was still often violent and short. People of all ages were often intimately acquainted with the realities of mortality. This fact extended to children. Modern readers are scandalized by the gruesomeness of Jakob and Willhelm Grimm's Kinder und Hausmarchen (1832) and the grisly details in Hans Christian Andersen's Tales Told for Children (1835). Today all these stories have been sanitized, but gory details and lessons learned through violence were not at all unheard of at the time. 

And although they certainly don't qualify as horror in their own right, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872) would influence horror writers over a century later, in the 1980s. Lewis Carroll's poem "The Jabberwocky" weaves the ridiculous with the horrifying, and twentieth-century authors would play with that juxtaposition, as well as with imaginary worlds and parallel universes. 

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The Industrial Revolution and Penny Dreadfuls

The Industrial Revolution spelled major changes for horror literature in the 1840s. Literacy rates had improved. Cities were more crowded than ever. And people wanted a distraction from the less than idyllic life of industrialized cities. Horror during this time became more visceral and gory. The Penny Blood (or Penny Dreadful) emerged as a cheap form of entertainment for mass audiences. The stage equivalent was the Penny Gaff. Edward Lloyd made quite a fortune for himself off Penny Bloods. He'd already dipped into horror with Thomas Prest's The Calendar of Horrors in the 1830s, and he simply adapted that to a more recognizable form. 

A representative penny dreadful 

It was Prest who brought us Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber (originally The String of Pearls, 1847). And James Malcolm Rymer was behind Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood (1845), which had no little influence on the vampire genre (including Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1897). George Reynold's Wagner the Werewolf was published in 1846. At the time, people saw exposure to Penny Dreadfuls as a sure-fire path to juvenile delinquency. Parents banned the cheap books and frequently burned them if they were found in a child's possession. That unforgiving destruction gives Penny Dreadful collectors an interesting, though not insurmountable challenge, because it made these books all the more rare. 

Gothic Begins to Give Way

Robert Browning published The Ring and the Book in 1868 and 1869, and it remains the longest narrative poem in the English language. The poem was also the first notable work of horror based on a contemporary criminal; Browning had based the poem on an old court record he had found in 1860, detailing a man's murder of his wife. A few years later, in 1872, Sheridan Le Fanu pubished "Camilla" in Through a Glass Darkly. In this piece and others Le Fanu began to dismantle Gothic artifices, bringing elements of horror and the supernatural into everyday life. The traditional trappings of Gothic horror had begun to fall away.

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Richard Mansfield's performance of Mr. Hyde was so ferocious, the Scotland Yard brought him in for questioning in the Jack the Ripper case. 

As Victorian ideals replaced Romantic ones, authors also turned their awareness back to individual morality. The crowded cities had grown more impersonal, more violent, and suddenly one could no longer count on the goodness of others. It was an anxious time, a time when man's propensity for evil could not be ignored, and thus ripe for a work like Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885). Like The Ring and the Book, Jekyll and Hyde was based on the a real story, a criminal whom Stevenson's family had actually once done business with. The novella was an instant success.

Meanwhile, only three years later, Jack the Ripper would wage his bloody campaign in London, giving us yet another archetype of horror. The earliest notable example of a Ripper-based story did not come, however, until 1913 with Belloc Lowndes' The Lodger.

Across the channel in France, the movement first known as L'Esprit Decadent and later called Symbolisme had gained a firm foothold among authors like Charles Baudelaire, Joris Karl Huysmans, and Guy de Maupassant. They produced some of the finest European works of the macabre. Poet Paul Verlaine did what no Gothic author had attempted to do--he gave horror a definition within the context of his movement, saying that "it is made of a mixture of the carnal spirit and the sad flesh, of all the violent splendours of the declining empire." 

The French stage of the 1890s and 1900s saw the return of overt gore. The Grand Guignol, a term that once referred to puppets, came to denote short plays full of violence, murder, rape, suicide, and ghostly apparitions. London would eventually host its own less lurid adaptations of these plays, most notably from 1920 to 1922. 

Posters for the Grand Guignol Theatre

Transition to Modern Horror

Ambrose Bierce published Can Such Things Be? in 1893. The collection of ghost stories followed his gritty war stories, bringing ghosts into modernity. H.G. Wells would go a step further in 1898; War of the Worlds, usually classified as blend of science fiction and horror, took horror into the futurepresenting a whole new source of fear and anxiety for modern readers. 

Thomas Edison had a hand in the first real horror movie! 

The turn of the century also saw the first experiments with horror film, which tended toward the gruesome and fantastic. The first true horror movie was William N. Selig's sixteen-minute adaptation of Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde. The first movie adaptation would appear later, in 1910. Directed by J. Searle Dawley, the film's production required the assistance of none other than Thomas Edison!  

By this time, the short story had definitively replaced the novel as the modus operandi for most horror writers. In 1907, Algernon Blackwood published The Listener, containing his most highly regarded short story, "The Willows." Blackwood was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society created by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers in 1888. The organization was home to many a prominent writer, from the infamous Aleister Crowley to William Butler Yeats, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Sax Rhomer (who has faded into obscurity now but was wildly popular with his contemporaries). Members of the Order were responsible for the majority of weird and horror fiction produced in the UK at the time. Their work also marked the end of an era for horror; soon after, the genre's popularity would fade. Still, Dennis Wheatley was a hugely popular English writer between the 1930s and 1960s. He focused on the occult, and his thrillers served as some of the inspiration for Ian Fleming's James Bond series. James Herbert and Clive Barker began publishing horror in Britain the 1970s and 1980s.  

Weird Tales, Nov 1923

In America, horror was flourishing. In 1923, the first issue of Weird Tales appeared. The magazine never turned a profit in its 32 years, but it did feature a number of still-famous authors like H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury. Four years later, Lovecraft published The Call of Cthulhu, earning him critical acclaim and recognition as one of the preeminent horror writers of the era.

Modern History's Impact on Horror

The Great Depression only enhanced Americans' interest in supernatural and horrifying. A number of horror-themed radio shows sprung up, including "The Shadow" (1930) and "The Spider" (1933). Both spawned successful spinoffs in the form of novellas and comic books. Yet the 1930s also marked the last decade of the pulps. Publisher Henry Steeger visited the French Grand Guignol theater for inspiration and returned to revive the Dime Mystery Novels series. He added the Terror Tales and Horror Stories series over the next two years. All three pulps survived until 1941. 

The very real horrors of World War II overshadowed fictional ones. Though Bradbury and a few other significant authors continued publishing horror stories and science fiction, it wasn't until the 1950s that horror again hit a stride. Richard Matheson's 1954 I Am Legend was the first modern vampire novel, and Shirley Jackson's 1959 The House on Haunted Hill remains one of the most critically acclaimed genre novels of the past sixty years. 

Also in 1957 was another seminal event in the modern history of the horror genre itself. Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer, was arrested for the murder of Bernice Worden. When authorities searched Gein's home, they discovered the remains of at least fifteen different womenin small pieces. Gein admitted to exhuming bodies and committing acts of cannibalism. The story shockedand fascinatedthe nation. (Find sordid details here.) Much earlier Fritz Lang's 1931 movie, M, marked the first serious film about a serial killer and was based on the real-life serial killer Peter Kürten, the "Vampire of Dusseldorf." But the serial killer hadn't found its way into fiction yet. The Gein story would inspire Robert Bloch's Psycho (1959) and pave the way for works like Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter series. The serial killer has since become an indispensable archetype for the genre. 

The Cold War had ushered in a new age of paranoia and fear of invasion. These fears were realized in works like Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby (1967). This was the first prominent work of speculative fiction. It also marked a shift back towards the novel as the preferred form for horror writers. The 1970s saw a deluge of horror novels, starting with William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971) and perhaps epitomized by Stephen King's Carrie (1974). Stephen King fairly burst into not only the American horror scene, but the larger world of literature. Peter Benchley published Jaws in 1975, which was a true coming of age for the modern monster tale. And Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire in 1976, bringing new life and direction to vampire fiction. 

First UK edition of Jaws

New technology brought new possibilities for horror film makers of the 1980s. Soon the emphasis had shifted to gore for gore's sake, and the film genre fell out of favor with mainstream audiences. But the horror novel was enjoying an excellent reputation for quality writing, despite the growth in formulaic shocker stories. In 1981, Thomas Harris published Red Dragon, the first novel in his Hannibal Lecter series. The novel remains one of the most commercially successful portraits of a serial killer, and it heralded the start of the serial-killer craze of the ensuing decades. London playwright Clive Barker's short story collection The Books of Blood (1984) marked a new age of horror in the UK and Europe. He remained an influential figure, pushing the boundaries of the genre and fueling discussion over how the genre should be defined. 

In recent years, the archetypes of vampires, werewolves, and zombies have come to dominate the horror genre. The 1990s was a time of compromise and self-consciousness for the genre. R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series was the publishing phenomenon of the decade, in some ways setting the stage for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series; Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials saga; and even Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series.

Though horror has come a long way from its Gothic roots, there's no doubt that the genre will continue to flourish and evolve. 

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Further Reading

'A Vampyr in Hungary' (Wellcome Library)

Ed Gein (Wisconsin Sickness)

Four Hans Christian Andersen Stories That Are Way Stranger Than You Think (Books Tell You Why)

Tabula Rasa


Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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