A brief history of gothic horror

Horror stories – for the most part, anyway – are all about bodies. Bodies changing, bodies dying, bodies coming back to life, bodies being bitten with fangs. All the things which can transform, or damage, or distort us (physically or emotionally!) are what’s at the heart of most scary fiction, either in books or on screen.

Werewolves? People whose bodies turn into animals. Vampires? They drink our blood. Serial killers slice us up, aliens mutate into us, ghosts are our body-less spirits, demons possess us, robots replace us and zombies are just plain old dead bodies. (We could go into a whole thing about how zombies are an allegory of disease, but let’s put that aside for a year or three…)

The modern horror story is basically a Victorian invention. Horror fiction has its roots in ancient folklore and mythology, the kind of monster-in-the-cave stories we’re all familiar with, but it was only in the 1800s that stuff started to be written purely to scare. Before that, monsters or the supernatural usually turned up as part of a larger story. The ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or the witches in Macbeth, for example, or assorted nasties from the Brothers Grimm. They weren’t normally the whole focus of the tale being told.

Charles Dickens

One of the writers responsible for the change was Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol, which revolves around ghosts, was one of his most popular hits, and he wrote several other stories designed simply to send shivers down the spine, such as The Signalman. Partly, the change reflected Victorian society’s morbid craze for Spiritualism and life-after-death beliefs. But mostly, it was down to a handful of books and writers who were influenced by gothic literature.

In the later 1700s, there was a literary and artistic movement called romanticism, which was all about stressing strong emotions in art and writing. The gothic style evolved from this. Gothic stories were full of dark secrets and daring heroes as well as ghosts and other supernatural things. There’d be gloomy castles and foggy mountains, bandits and monks, windswept maidens and evil magicians, as well as all the family curses, madness and death you could possibly cram in.

The first gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s The Castle Of Otranto, published in 1764. Today, this book is a strangely dull and difficult read, but it clearly started a trend. The influence of gothic fiction can be seen in quite a lot of Victorian novels, including the works of the Brontë sisters.

Illustration from Conan Doyle’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1902)

Six separate literary elements, all of them firmly based in the gothic tradition, are what eventually set the scene for the arrival of horror fiction as we know it today. One of these elements was Charles Dickens’s ghost stories, as mentioned above.

The tales of terror written by Edgar Allan Poe around the 1840s, full of nightmares about being buried alive and haunted by eerie visions, are another of the six; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde gave us an entirely new twist on the theme of monsters; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spooky detective mystery The Hound Of The Baskervilles is the element that was published last.

The remaining two pieces of the puzzle are perhaps the most important of all. They are novels which between them created two of the most familiar characters in all fiction, worldwide.

Vampires have been the subject of more stories, novels, movies, TV series, more just-about-everything, than any other imagined horror. They were around in legends and folklore, in various forms, for many hundreds of years, but they were made popular by the Irish writer Bram Stoker, author of Dracula.

Bram Stoker

To be perfectly honest, Stoker was never one of the best writers around and Dracula, published in 1897, was by far his best book. It was also his most successful, because at the time it was such an unusual and daring story. It’s all about how Dracula travels from his home in Transylvania, first to Whitby in the north of England and then to London, only to be defeated by a small team of investigators. The vampire himself is absent for over half the book, he’s mostly a sinister presence in the background!

Dracula, as a character, was a mixture of old European myths and Bram Stoker’s boss. Stoker had started out as a mathematician and a civil servant, but from 1878 he was the secretary and touring manager of the famous Victorian actor Sir Henry Irving.

Hammer Films’ Dracula

Stoker was a great admirer of Irving’s acting. Which was lucky, because by all accounts Irving was the kind of boss who’d make a serial killer look like a small fluffy kitten. He could be rude and cruel to Stoker one minute, charming the next. It’s not a great leap of imagination to see that such a person could be turned by Stoker, his no.1 fan, into the smoothly sinister Dracula.

It’s often thought that Dracula was based on the medieval ruler Vlad the Impaler, but there’s no evidence of that. All Stoker did was take Vlad’s nickname ‘dracula’, meaning ‘son of the devil’, out of an East European history book. It’s fortunate that he did that, because his main character was going to be called Count Wampyr. Which doesn’t quite have the same impact. (He was also going to make Dracula’s nemesis in London a police inspector, but changed his mind when the Met noticeably failed to track down Jack the Ripper – that’s the only reason the book includes the character Van Helsing and his sidekicks. Oh, one more thing: Stoker’s original ending to the book involved an exploding volcano – just goes to show how important a bit of re-writing can be..!)

Here’s an oddity: the word ‘nosferatu’ is plastered all over the world of the undead, but it appears to be fictional – if it was ever actually used in any Eastern European language at all, it’s origins and usage are long lost!

Mary Shelley

Dracula was eagerly adapted for stage and screen. Another horror story, written almost eighty years earlier, in 1818, had been snapped up even quicker. Fifteen theatre versions of this story were produced within ten years of its first appearance, all the more remarkable because its author was only eighteen years old when she started writing it. Her name was Mary Shelley, and the book was called Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

Shelley was the daughter of the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, although her mother died when she was less than two weeks old. She had almost no school education, but was tutored by her father, the political writer William Godwin. She also learnt a great deal through her reading, and through meeting her father’s many influential friends.

The monster in an 1823 stage production

How Frankenstein came to be written is almost a gothic story in itself. Mary and her soon-to-be husband, the poet Percy Shelley, spent the summer of 1816 in Switzerland. They rented a grand house beside Lake Geneva, the Villa Diodati, along with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, the at-the-time-infamous poet Lord Byron, and Byron’s personal doctor John Polidori.

They spent their time writing, boating on the lake and discussing anything and everything. The weather was dreadful, and one stormy night they amused themselves by reading German folk tales around the log fire. Byron suggested that the violent thunder and lightning outside was ideal for inspiring supernatural stories. So they decided to have a competition, to see who could write the scariest.

Still the best! James Whale’s 1933 Frankenstein

Mary’s story, about a medical man called Victor Frankenstein who sets out to create life, was inspired by the nightmare she had that night (Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll was also inspired by a nightmare). The others encouraged her to write it into a full novel, and Frankenstein was published about eighteen months later. Another of the stories thought up on that holiday in Geneva, and later published, was Dr Polidori’s The Vampyre. This was a gothic drama which would in turn become one of the inspirations for Dracula!

Mary Shelley wrote a great deal more, including the end-of-the-world novel The Last Man, but Frankenstein has always been her most popular book. As well as being a landmark of horror, it’s also thought of as being the first proper science fiction story. It’s quite unlike its many movie versions, concentrating on the rights and wrongs of Frankenstein’s actions rather than what the monster gets up to.

Here’s a weird coincidence: what town links Mary Shelley, Dracula and Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde? Answer – Bournemouth. Shelley is buried there, Henry Irving was a frequent visitor there, and Dr Jekyll was written there!

Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and Charles Dickens’s ghostly tales all boosted public interest in spine-chillers, and changed the nature of what a scary book could be.

For most of the 20th century, horror fiction was dominated by short stories. Writers like H.P.Lovecraft and M.R.James were experts at creating frightening atmosphere. Novel-length stories like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot were the exception right up until the 1970s and ’80s.

A ’70s paperback edition
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