The Horror Genre Is Older Than You Think: A New History, From Homer to Lovecraft

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The below essay, by attorney and writer Leslie S. Klinger, is taken from the introduction to In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe: Classic Tales of Horror, 1816–1914, a new anthology devoted to recovering those horror writers who are obscured by the looming shadow of Edgar Allan Poe. In his introduction, Klinger locates the origin of the “tale of terror” not in Poe — as is often claimed — but in Homer. Next, Klinger threads his history of horror through its “flowering” in the late 18th century, in effect providing a sensible context for what would become the modern horror story. In Klinger’s narrative, Poe’s work, as well of that of his disciples, is made all the more fascinating because it is placed in a new context — a new history of horror.

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From In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe:

Edgar Allan Poe did not invent the tale of terror. Homer’s Odyssey records Odysseus’s confrontations with several witches, including Circe. The Bible (Samuel 28, 3-25) reports Saul’s consultation with the Witch of Endor, a medium who calls up a spirit whom Saul identifies as the prophet Samuel. The writings of the Greeks contain several accounts of ancient vampires, called lamiæ or empusæ. Phlegon of Tralles, writing in the 2nd century, recounts a story about Philinium, a woman who returns from the grave to sleep with a young man, Machates. The empusæ also appear in Aristophanes’s The Frogs (ca. 450 B.C.E.). Flavius Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana, ca. 200 C.E., tells of a near-fatal relationship between Menippus and a “Phoenician woman” who confesses to being a vampire. The Roman raconteur Lucius Apuleius, in The Golden Ass (translated into English in 1566), reports numerous meetings with witches and sorcerers, as well as a vampiric creature. Chaucer and Shakespeare both knew the traditions well, and their writings include numerous tales of ghosts and witches. The Renaissance polymath Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a novel-length story about an archdemon called “Belphagor” (or “Belfagor”). In the late 17th century and early 18th century, popular English writer Daniel Defoe penned a number of stories that are today classed as horror tales.

However, the true “flowering” of stories of horror (picture the emergence of creeping, pustulant vines rather than flowers) began in the late 18th century. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) invented out of whole cloth the genre that became known as the Gothic horror or Gothic romance. Walpole sought to combine medieval ideas about the supernatural with the realism of the modern novel. Above all, he sought to create an atmosphere of terror, a world in which anything could happen and often did: A giant helmet falls from the heavens, crushing Conrad on his wedding day; immense limbs appear within the castle itself; mysterious blood flows; and a hodgepodge of other bogeymen wander in and out of the tale.

The immense success of Walpole’s novel (which he wrote under a pseudonym and passed off as drawn from historical records) lead to others exploring the genre. In 1777, Clara Reeve published an anonymous work originally titled The Champion of Virtue. The author shamelessly termed it the “literary offspring” of Otranto, and the public embraced it with the same fervour as Walpole’s melodrama. Although it was similar in style to Otranto, Reeve attempted to inject more realism, avoiding some of the absurdities of Walpole.

Anne Radcliffe was perhaps the most successful exponent of combining the supernatural and the modern. Radcliffe’s six novels, most notably The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) (parodied brilliantly by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey (1817, although likely written 1798-99)) all focused on young heroines confronted with mysterious castles and even more mysterious nobles. Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1796), a sensational story of depravity, debauchery, and diabolism, was also extremely popular, and some critics see the physical description of Ambrosio, the titular monk, as the basis for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. Sir Walter Scott’s immense output included many horrific folk tales, including the portion of Redgauntlet known as “Wandering Willie’s Tale” or “The Feast of Redgauntlet” (1824). Scott was also highly appreciative of the work of Radcliffe.

In America, Washington Irving wrote many tales of regional supernatural phenomena, among which “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” (1820) are surely his best-remembered. Although his psychological tales of New England made his fame, Nathaniel Hawthorne was also fascinated by strange stories, and among his numerous tales of the occult, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”(1837) and the posthumously-published Septimius Felton, or The Elixir of Life (1871) are examples of Hawthorne’s continuing interest in the search for immortality.

The Gothic romantic phenomenon was not limited to English-speaking countries. The French roman noir (“black novels”) and the German Schauerroman (literally, “shudder-novels”) were equally popular. The bizarre tales of German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann and Polish nobleman Jan Potocki were also a part of the tradition. These continental cousins were generally more violent than their English counterparts.

The early stages of the Romantic movement, born in the early 19th century, produced twin icons of horror: the “scientific monster” and the vampire. Curiously, both emerged from a single night devoted to the telling of stories of horror. In 1816, Dr. John William Polidori accompanied his patient Lord Byron on a trip to Italy and Switzerland. That summer, they stayed at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, where they were visited by poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his soon-to-be-wife, Mary, and her stepsister, Jane “Claire” Claremont. When incessant rain kept the five friends indoors, they began reading aloud a book of ghost tales. According to Mary Shelley, Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story to rival those in the book. Her husband wrote nothing in response to the challenge; Byron started on a story but reportedly abandoned it.

Mary Shelley’s effort became Frankenstein, published two years later. The tale of the scientist Victor Frankenstein and his misbegotten creature became extremely popular, resulting in a number of stage plays, a revised edition in 1831, and eventually countless films, parodies, comic books, radio dramas, and advertising images. Called by some the first science fiction novel, the popular images of the story have grown in stature to overshadow the original work. Seemingly every schoolchild knows the meaning of a staggering walk with outstretched arms; every filmgoer knows the indelible image of a horrific monster sharing a flower with an innocent child. While Shelley’s book was more a reverie on moral responsibility than a forecast of science-gone-wrong, generations read it as the ultimate horror tale, a stern warning about the arrogance of humankind.

An anonymous reviewer in 1818 hailed Frankenstein for its originality, excellence of language, its “peculiar interest,” and termed it “bold” and possibly “impious.” Later that year, Sir Walter Scott, writing for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (and ascribing the book to Percy Bysshe Shelley), commented that the work expressed its ideas clearly and forcibly. In his review, Scott contemplated the purpose of “marvellous romances,” as he classed the work: “A more philosophical and refined use of the supernatural in works of fiction, is proper to that class in which the laws of nature are represented as altered, not for the purpose of pampering the imagination with wonders, but in order to shew the probable effect which the supposed miracles would produce on those who witnessed them. In this case, the pleasure ordinarily derived from the marvellous incidents is secondary to that which we extract from observing how mortals like ourselves would be affected by scenes like these which, daring to depart from sober truth, are still to nature true. . . .” In other words, Scott believed that works like Frankenstein prepared us to face the horrific.

The other fruit of that famous summer evening (depicted idiosyncratically in Ken Russell’s 1986 film Gothic) was Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” the first popular account of vampirism published in England, in April 1819. Originally heralded as a work of Byron—and then seen as a satire of Byron—the story recounts some of the activities of the vampire Lord Ruthven, a nobleman marked by his aloof manner and the “deadly hue of his face, which never gained a warmer tint.” In the early part of the 19th century, the enigmatic yet strangely compelling Ruthven befriends a gentleman named Aubrey, who finds that even Ruthven’s death does not rid him of his deadly companion. When Ruthven returns from death, he rejoins Aubrey to the latter’s horror and soon attacks and kills Ianthe, the object of Aubrey’s affections. Plunged into a breakdown, Aubrey recovers only to find that his beloved sister has also become the victim of the creature, who then vanishes.

Polidori was no great writer, as is evident from the concluding lines of the book: “Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!” Polidori’s work is credited as the first of the great vampire tales, however, primarily for its depiction of a gentleman vampire—a far remove from the disgusting, blood-sucking corpses detailed in the accounts of vampires written by Calmet and other historians. It was immensely successful; within Polidori’s lifetime (he died two years after publication), the work was translated into French, German, Spanish and Swedish and adapted into several stage plays, which played to horror-struck audiences until the early 1850’s.

Another memorable work of the early Romantics was Melmoth the Wanderer, published in 1820. Written by Charles Robert Maturin, the great-uncle of Oscar Wilde, its protagonist, John Melmoth, has sold his soul to gain 150 extra years of life. Melmoth wanders the earth searching for someone to take over this contract. Although the book is convoluted, with numerous tales-within-tales, Melmoth has been compared to Moliere’s Don Juan, Goethe’s Faust, and Byron’s Manfred as a great allegorical figure, and H. P. Lovecraft called it “an enormous stride in the evolution of the horror-tale.”

Also extremely popular was Varney the Vampyre, written by James Malcolm Rymer and serialized in 109 weekly installments, from 1845 to 1847. The first novel-length account of a vampire in English, the prose of Varney is sensational: “Her bosom heaves, and her limbs tremble, yet she cannot withdraw her eyes from that marble-looking face. . . . With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth—a gush of blood, and a hideous sucking noise follows. The girl has swooned, and the vampire is at his hideous repast!” Despite its artistic shortcomings, however, Varney delivers a vivid, monstrous portrait of the undead. The vampire is Sir Francis Varney, born in the seventeenth century, frequently reborn from the dead—a “tall gaunt figure” whose face, similar to Ruthven’s, is “perfectly white—perfectly bloodless,” with eyes like “polished tin” and “fearful-looking teeth-projecting like those of some wild animal, hideously, glaringly white, and fang-like.”

The tales of Edgar Allan Poe were mid-century milestones on the trail of the horror story. Beginning in 1835 with “Berenice,” a dark tale of a man who becomes obsessed by his lover’s teeth, Poe’s stories covered the gamut of science fiction, mystery, and horror. It is impossible to overestimate their influence. In many of his works, Poe strove to create a “single effect” with a tale, focussing on an intense emotional experience. Poe was widely hailed in Europe, especially after Charles Baudelaire translated his work into French (between 1852 and 1865), achieving the dubious distinction of being the first American author to be better-regarded abroad than at home. For example, although “The Gold Bug” (1843) and “The Raven” (1845) made him a household name, he earned little from his writing, and at his death, he was popularly viewed as depraved, alcoholic, and drug-crazed.

Poe’s best stories traverse the ranges of existentialism—pondering the inexorable nature of time and death and the indifference of God—and the depths of the human soul. They explore the demonic souls of ordinary people and extraordinary criminals and the pathology of crime and confession. Poe’s work is read far more widely today than it was in the 19th century. Poe is the “grand master” of horror writing, and it is no surprise that iconic images of Poe and his raven form the logos of the Mystery Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association.

Poe’s immediate legacy was the stories of Ambrose Bierce, Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins, all of whom wrote immensely popular tales of visitations by ghosts and other strange occurrences. For example, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) is regarded today as verging on sentimental slush, but at its core, it remains a chilling story of a crisis of conscience brought about by powerful spirits. Collins’s Woman in White (1860) combines the atmosphere of Gothic romance with the newly-invented mystery tale, emphasizing rational deductions from clues. Bierce, many of whose short stories are still read today, crafted realistic accounts of war and horror which rang true to the American reading public, striving for Poe’s “single effect.”

Among the many fantastic writings of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is his highly sensitive “Carmilla” (1872). The tale records the history of a female vampire. After a carriage accident, the charming and beautiful Carmilla is taken in by Laura, the narrator, a lonely young lady. Laura experiences terrifying dreams in which a mysterious woman visits her in bed and kisses her neck. She recalls that in the daytime the doting Carmilla occasionally “would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek. . . . In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. . . . I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence.”

Laura discovers that Carmilla is the double of Carmilla’s ancestor, the Countess Mircalla Karnstein (of Styria) dead for more than a century. With the help of her father’s friend General Spielsdorf, she travels to the village of Karnstein in Styria, where she learns from the General that Carmilla (who also calls herself Millarca) is the Countess Mircalla, a vampire. Laura and a band of men exhume Countess Mircalla’s body and destroy her by driving a stake through her heart.

The late 19th century produced a number of writers fascinated by horror. Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Guy de Maupassant, Henry James, and Robert Louis Stevenson all produced numerous stories in the genre, too many to consider here. The peak of 19th century horror literature, however, towers over its foothills. In 1897, Bram Stoker—a theatre critic, business manager, writer of romantic fiction and minor stories of fantasy and terror—delivered Dracula, a work so chilling that it set the standard for every subsequent story of creatures of the night.

When Dracula (which Stoker had originally titled The Un-Dead) appeared, some critics were immediately excited. The Daily Mail characterized the book as “powerful, and horrorful. . . . The recollection of this weird and ghostly tale will doubtless haunt us for some time to come.” “[H]orrid and creepy to the last degree,” said The Pall Mall Gazette. “It is also excellent and one of the best things in the supernatural line that we have been lucky enough to hit upon.” Less favourably, The Bookman expressed sentiments more in line with the majority of English reaction: “A summary of the book would shock and disgust; but we must own that, though here and there in the course of the tale we hurried over things with repulsion, we read nearly the whole thing with rapt attention.”

Although vampires had been in the public eye for hundreds of years, it was Dracula who caught the imagination of the world and led “the triumphal march of the un-dead Transylvanian vampire,” in the words of one critic, “through the newspapers, books, cinema screens and stages of the Anglo-Saxon world.” Hundreds of stage plays, radio broadcasts, films, and television series (as well as thousands of vampire-themed stories and novels) followed in its wake. It was widely admired by 20th-century writers as well: H. P. Lovecraft, in his survey of “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” wrote, “[B]est of all is the famous Dracula, which has become almost the standard modern exploitation of the frightful vampire myth. Count Dracula, a vampire, dwells in a horrible castle in the Carpathians, but finally migrates to England with the design of populating the country with fellow vampires. How an Englishman fares within Dracula’s stronghold of terrors, and how the dead fiend’s plot for domination is at last defeated, are elements which unite to form a tale now justly assigned a permanent place in English letters.”

Although Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Lord Dunsany (all of whom lived to mid-century), and M. R. James were hailed by Lovecraft as the finest fantastic writers in the early years of the century, they are little-remembered today. Machen, a Welsh author whose supernatural works first appeared in the 1890’s, was highly interested in the occult. He espoused a belief that behind the veil of “reality” lay a realm of magic and ancient beings. In the 1920’s, his writings attained popularity in America, with Vincent Starrett and James Branch Cabell among his strongest advocates. Machen’s work was an influence on the development of the pulp horror found in magazines like Weird Tales and on such notable fantasy writers as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft.

The Englishman Algernon Blackwood was very much in the tradition of Poe and Bierce, with a prolific output of supernatural novels and short stories. Lovecraft described him as “inspired and prolific . . . amidst whose voluminous and uneven work may be found some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age.” His tales, Lovecraft noted, built up “detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision. Without notable command of the poetic witchery of mere words, he is the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere.” As a journalist, Blackwood wrote hundreds of articles, essays, and works of fiction, often under very short deadlines. His last collection of short stories appeared in 1946.

British peer Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett was the 18th Baron Dunsany. He was a prolific playwright, poet, novelist, and short-story writer. Although he wrote many supernatural stories, he is probably best remembered as a fantasist, a predecessor of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. His Chronicles of Rodrigues (1922) and The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) are highly acclaimed, and subsequent fantasy writers as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges and Neil Gaiman and science fiction writers Michael Moorcock, Arthur C. Clarke, Gene Wolfe, and Robert E. Howard have acknowledged the influence of Dunsany’s writings.

Montague Rhodes James was a medieval scholar whose ghost stories, many written as Christmas fireside tales for his friends, have been hailed as the finest in the genre, generally centred on malefic supernatural beings whose attentions are garnered by an unsuspecting victim opening an old book or a discarded reliquary. After years of neglect, his stories are being rediscovered as long-lost gems of the occult.

In 1919, with the publication of a story entitled “Dagon,” a giant emerged in the genre. Howard Phillips Lovecraft began his career as a poet. In his influential “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” he described the field as “a narrow though essential branch of human expression, and will chiefly appeal as always to a limited audience with keen special sensibilities. Whatever universal masterpiece of tomorrow may be wrought from phantasm or terror will owe its acceptance rather to a supreme workmanship than to a sympathetic theme.” Lovecraft’s own workmanship produced an immense, steady stream of stories, novels, poetry, and essays, ending only with his untimely death in 1937 at the age of 47.

“Dagon” was the first of Lovecraft’s pieces to explore his self-created mythos of a pantheon of extra-dimensional deities which predate the birth of humankind. These “elder gods,” Lovecraft observed, were to be found in the interstices of ancient myths and legends. August Derleth, Lovecraft’s greatest disciple, termed these gods the Cthulhu. Lovecraft’s themes were indeed far from sympathetic: He was deeply cynical of mankind, especially in light of what he believed to be scientific evidence of the insignificance of humanity and the random, probabilistic nature of the universe. His writings expressed fatalism and a sense of inherited guilt for the sins of prior generations. He also posited extensive influence exerted by nonhuman intelligences on human affairs. The workings of the gods were best left unexplored by humans, he believed. In “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), he counselled, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents . . . some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.”

For most of the 20th century, the definitive editions of Lovecraft’s work (specifically At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels, Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, The Dunwich Horror and Others, and The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions) were published by August Derleth’s Arkham House, which Derleth founded for the express purpose of publishing the work of Lovecraft. Lovecraft intentionally used a sesquipedalian style of writing with antiquated spellings, to invoke a tone of seriousness and verisimilitude. His work was influenced heavily by Dunsany’s ancient gods and Machen’s tales of elder evils. In turn, his writings have been acknowledged as influences by a number of major science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers of the late 20th century and have been extensively parodied and copied in many media, including dozens of films.

It is impossible in this brief overview to do justice to horror writing after the first half of the century. The modern masters—Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Shirley Jackson, to name a few—are so well-known as to need no introduction, and any attempt to provide a history from this close proximity would be injudicious. We are fortunate to live in a time when the garden of the supernatural tale has grown so luxuriantly.

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Excerpted with permission from In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe: Classic Tales of Horror, 1816-1914, edited by Leslie S. Klinger. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.