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

How Mary Shelley changed history

It’s not exactly news that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has had a big impact on pop culture, and the well-known story of its inception during a rainy holiday at the Villa Diodati is the stuff of legend, but while I was doing background research for my new novel The Workshop Of Filthy Creation (a title which is itself a quote from Shelley!) I was surprised to find how deeply Frankenstein is rooted in the cutting-edge scientific thinking of its day and how the publication of the book, in turn, affected the development of medicine.


Galvanism, the study of electro-chemistry in living organisms, was developed by the Italian scientists Luigi Galvani (hence ‘galvinism’!) and Alessandro Volta (hence ‘voltage’!) Galvani electrified the snipped-off legs of a frog and got them to kick, which he said showed that there was a special type of electricity, literally a life force, which powered living things. Volta disagreed, and in doing so managed to produce a practical electrical battery, which vastly improved the early Leyden jars of the 1740s.

These two innovations: the idea that organic tissue could be activated by electricity, and a reliable source of power to make that happen, helped fuel a scientific shift in attitudes at the end of the eighteenth century, which for the first time saw the human body as a kind of biological machine which could – in theory! – be taken apart, put back together and generally mucked about with.

Aldini’s experiments

Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, put galvanism on the map with a series of medical demonstrations across Europe in which a human corpse was made to ‘respond’ by applying current to various muscles (his 1803 demonstration in London is described in detail in the first chapter of The Workshop Of Filthy Creation.) He advocated using electrical current as a medical treatment, as did Benjamin Franklin, who’d already been experimenting with electricity and batteries for years.

Among the many who took an interest in galvanic research, and especially in ideas for reanimating the dead, were the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Indeed, Shelley had been a keen amateur scientist since his school days, when he managed to zap one of his teachers with an electric shock. It’s possible that around 1814 he and Mary visited the notorious alchemist Johann Dippel, who is known to have experimented with dead animals and who was closely connected to an old fortress called – believe it or not – Castle Frankenstein. Mary Shelley would have been fully up to date on the subjects of galvanism and reanimation by the time she wrote her most famous book.

Frankenstein was a huge hit, particularly after a number of lurid stage versions had appeared. However, its popularity had an inadvertent consequence. Plenty of scientists were still experimenting with the revival of the dead – for example, in 1817 Karl Weinhold was doing nasty things to kittens in Germany, and the following year the famous ‘Clydesdale Experiment’ in Glasgow went one better than Aldini and apparently got a corpse to breathe – but as the profile of Shelley’s book rose, so the reputation of scientists in this field fell. People began to find this sort of research distasteful and unethical, equating it with the villainy of the fictional Victor Frankenstein. The book wasn’t the only reason that such studies went out of fashion by the 1830s, but it had a radical effect on public opinion.

Which raises an interesting question: if medical science had kept on trying to revive the dead, instead of solving other problems, what medical advances might have been missed (or made?) in the 1800s?


Published to coincide with publication of my novel The Workshop Of Filthy Creation

  • You’ve previously written a whole variety of books, covering a wide range of genres for an array of readers, including best-selling children’s literature (as Simon Cheshire). What draws you to writing science fiction, horror and speculative fiction specifically?
    • They’re the genres in which anything can happen – some types of fiction can end up feeling a bit same-y and formulaic but SF and horror, despite having their own tropes and cliches, have no limits. Whatever can be imagined can leap out of the page at you.
  • What was the greatest writing challenge that The Workshop of Filthy Creation presented?
    • I’ve never done so much research before! I always think that the more you find out about any subject, no matter how big or small that subject is, the more interesting it becomes. I’ve become absolutely fascinated by the history of surgery.
  • Has the Frankenstein story always interested you?
    • Yes, I think what intrigues me is the concept of the perpetual outsider. It’s certainly an idea that goes right to the root of my own life, but I’ll let the psychiatrists sort that one out..!
  • How long did it take you to write?
    • From first sparks in the brain to printed page, well over a decade. In between other projects, I rewrote it from scratch maybe six or seven times, and I often felt as if this story and I were locked in combat like Holmes and Moriarty going over the Reichenbach Falls, but I just had to get it right.
  • Do you have a writing ritual?
    • My problem is that I have no self-discipline whatsoever, so I have to stick to a rigidly timetabled working week or I’d spend all day sitting and reading. I switch on my wheezy old laptop at 8:30am, with a cup of coffee on one side of me and my breakfast on the other, and I treat writing sessions as if they were exams – no breaks, no talking, no looking things up on the internet.
  • Where is the best place to write?
    • I have an old bureau, made in Shanghai in 1921, that I found in a junk shop years ago and restored, and which now stands in the corner of my room. Every word I’ve written since has been typed while sitting at that bureau.
  • How would you describe your writing style?
    • I honestly couldn’t say. I spent a lot of years using a lot of different styles while I was working in the children’s/ educational market, so I guess it’s probably best described as ‘mutant.’
  • What books or authors have inspired your writing over the years?
    • So many! If there was one book which inspired me to become a writer more than any other, it would have to be Orwell’s 1984, but there are dozens of others.
  • Who would play the main characters in a film adaptation of The Workshop of Filthy Creation?
    • If the book fell through a space-time wormhole into the 1930s, I’d say Myrna Loy should be Maria, with Charles Laughton as Jabez Pell and Bela Lugosi as von Frakken. For a contemporary cast..? Well, I’d definitely want to play von Frakken, that’s for sure!
  • What are you currently reading?
    • Right now I’m reading Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst, and re-reading the collected short stories of Richard Yates, one of my all-time favourite writers.
  • What is the book you wish you’d written?
    • Either Clare Allan’s Poppy Shakespeare – which I just adore – or Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, which is not only a superb historical novel, it’s a textbook in plot construction and character detail.
Me n’ the book

My horror reading Top 10

I’ve been a horror fan all my life. As a kid I loved listening to my BBC Death & Horror Sound Effects record (on blood red vinyl!) as if it was Beethoven, I made those old Aurora plastic kits of Dracula and The Mummy, and the best film I’d ever seen was Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Anyway, in no particular order, here are some all-time favourite literary frights:

The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe. My favourite short story, ever. I must have read it several dozen times, and I’ve probably listened to the Christopher Lee audiobook recording of it even more, but there’s something about it, some peculiar weave in the words, that I find completely captivating. I once very nearly won a bet that I couldn’t recite the entire thing from start to finish without making more than 3 mistakes. Grrr, I made four! Curses!

EC’s The Vault Of Horror issue 37

EC comics. Curling up on the sofa, on a stormy winter’s afternoon, I never tire of EC’s authority-baiting horror comics of the 1950s, both as fascinating sociological snapshots and as gleefully ghoulish fun that’s packed with vengeful corpses, dastardly murders and mad scientists, all as tongue-in-cheek as the ‘60s TV Batman.

At The Mountains Of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft. What I particularly love about this novella is its sense of exploration. The characters gradually unearth the distant past like Howard Carter chipping his way into Tutankhamun’s tomb, but instead of finding lost treasure they find something that really should be left well alone. Lovecraft is the master of ancient menace and this is one of his very best stories.

The Uninvited by Clive Harold. Published in, I think, 1977 and now out of print for many years, this modest little paperback remains the single most unnerving thing I’ve ever read. It’s a journalistic account of a spate of real-life UFO sightings that took place on the west coast of Wales in the mid-’70s. This book also has the very best teaser line I have ever seen on a book: “This story is true. You’ll wish it wasn’t.”

The Ruins by Scott Smith. A book which creeps up on you, almost literally. A bunch of friends go on holiday to Mexico and think, hey, let’s go and visit that old Mayan archaeological dig. Bad. Idea. This is a brilliantly effective monster story which features a type of monster you don’t get very often – a homicidal plant.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Frankly, almost any of Matheson’s books deserve a place in almost any horror Top 10! This one is as bleak as they come, a lonely fight against the forces of darkness in which one man hunts for a way to cure a plague while its vampiric victims hunt him.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. Like Matheson, a Top 10 without Shirley Jackson would simply be cheating. This book, her last novel, is about the small-minded persecution of ‘otherness’ and is every bit as chillingly relevant today as it was when it was first published in the 1960s. Jackson’s ability to evoke a kind of miasma of dread is particularly unsettling here.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. If you don’t like this nightmare-inducing collection of short stories you might as well give the whole of magic realism a miss. It’s a twisty, deeply uncomfortable set of re-worked fairy tales – you’ll never be able to hear the words Little Red Riding Hood without thinking of werewolves ever again

Parasite Eve by Hideaki Sena. What I love about modern Japanese horror is that its underlying ideas are often bizzarely brilliant. This SF/ horror novel is one I particularly like, partly because it echoes some of the Frankenstein-ian themes in my own book The Workshop Of Filthy Creation, partly because its creepy child monster makes Regan in The Exorcist look like Paddington Bear!

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. A peculiar travelling carnival arrives one day in a small town in Illinois. Its odd proprietor, Mr Dark, says he can see your innermost desires, but the town’s inhabitants soon learn they must be careful what they wish for. A wonderfully macabre excursion into the fantastical, which was apparently inspired by a real life encounter that the 12-year-old Bradbury had with a carnival magician.

Never give up, never give in

Sometimes, when you’re a writer, an idea takes up residence in your head, demands squatter’s rights and simply won’t leave. My new novel The Workshop Of Filthy Creation is a case in point.

The book

When it’s published at the end of October (coming soon! watch this space!) it will have been lounging about in my brain, taking up space and eating all the jam, for at least 10 years – actually, thinking about it, closer to 15 years.

The plot evolved out of a completely separate and unrelated project, which never saw the light of day and which was originally a time travel story. I wrote an initial version of it, under a title I can’t even remember now, and my agent at the time didn’t like it much. So, in between other books, I rewrote it from scratch after doing three-and-a-half metric tonnes of research to make the Victorian setting much more authentic.

Ta daa! Hmm, no, said my agent, this is worse.

I left it alone for a while, came back to it, still thought it was the best idea I’d ever had, and rewrote it from scratch again, with a more intricate plot. Then, I rewrote it for a third time, with the same, improved plot but in an epistolary format (in imitation of Dracula and other gothic Victoriana) which I thought was pretty darn good, definitely the best version yet.

No, said my agent, this is even worse than before. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not going to work, there’s no market for this. Let it go.

I would not. Cut to: several years later, I’m onto about version 7 and I have one of those epiphany thingummies: I think to myself, why do I keep writing this as if it’s some sort of fast-paced thriller designed to be bought in Tesco’s with a quote on the cover about “pulse-pounding action”? It’s not like that. It’s about scientific ideas, and strange characters, and what-if scenarios; the pulse-pounding action needs to come towards the end. That’s why it’s not working.

With that one, simple realisation, I was free to rewrite it as the story demanded, as it should have been written in the first place, with all the sub-plotting, moral ambiguity and nasty medical detail it needed!

So The Workshop Of Filthy Creation is, as you might imagine, an intensely personal piece of work. At its heart, it’s a story about an outsider looking for a home, and about how the forces that shaped the Victorian world – and still shape our own world today! – worked both for and against such dispossessed characters. Its roots run deep into gothic literature, into Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even into all those James Whale and Hammer films which themselves fed off the gothic tradition.

I honestly don’t know how I’m going to feel when I finally hold a copy in my hands. After more than two decades of being a published author, with dozens of titles on my backlist, you’d think I’d be pretty blasé about the whole process, but not a bit of it. At least, not when it comes to this particular book. I reckon I’ll either jump about hooting with joy, or else sit quietly on the stairs and sob. It’ll be an emotional day, one way or the other.

Have to wait and see.


UPDATE: Here’s me opening the box containing the first copies. I was so delighted that I appear to have forgotten I can’t see a thing without my glasses…