My Thoughts on What is Horror Literature Part 1~~~~~

Hello Darklings,

I have been sort of prodded, good naturedly of course, to write down my thoughts or opinions on what is Horror Literature.  And in just simply doing research on it I've found it to be a rather big subject, but I am going to give it a go.

So Darklings I will do my best to give my opinion of Horror Literature from Story Telling to at least the "Twilight Series"

Now please be warned I will not be able to touch on every aspect of it but I'll do my best.

So What is Horror Literature?

Let's start with a familiar cult Icon "Kolcheck, the Night Staker".

I really like the opening sequence from the cult T.V. program, because in the opening scene within a space of 30 seconds we see the basic premise for horror, the news reporter comes into the empty news room and starts writing his story, he becomes engrossed in it, possibly mentally reliving what he saw, then he senses the atmosphere in the room has changed, quickly he turns around and confronts...... What?  We don't know.  It could be a killer, a monster or the cleaning crew.

But that is what Horror literature is all about.  Page turning, engrossing, trying to discover the "what" type of reading material.

Now I have to admit that Horror Literature or Fiction is a very huge subject, if one wanted to do a serious in depth talk about it well it would take an entire college year and course to do it properly.

We would have to cover the entire way it evolved, from its psychological aspects and how it is currently evolving and changing, from its earliest printed gothic roots, to the "Twilight" book and movie series, televisions "Vampire Diaries", "True Blood", "Sleepy Hollow", "Supernatural" and beyond and how the concept of horror literature is blurred and covers almost all printed genres, and how it is bit by bit evolving into visual media.

That would also include how it is no longer  just one subject that refuses to be stuck in one tiny corner of a book shelf in a Library or book store.


Because Horror is all around us.

Given the amount of band width and such and how easily my fingers would get tired typing I'm only going to "talk" briefly about the earliest printed works and touch on some modern works that have affected me personally and why.

So what is Horror Literature, or more accurately Horror Fiction?

If I was asked this question 30, 40 years ago I would have given as examples Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" or Robert Lewis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" or his short story "The Body Snatchers".

However taking into account, with the intrusion and mental re-formatting and conditioning brought about by movies and television, today I'd be more inclined to say Freddy Krueger, Michael Meyers, Hannibal Lector, Jason, that puppet in "Saw" or that movie "2012" about the end of the world, I would have to eliminate "sparkly vampires".  This is only because I and many other people, especially the younger generation, have become more visually inclined to think of them as Horror, beyond the concept of reading material.

One has to admit that with the popularity of the modern horror film, with it's scenes of blood and gore, it has caused the human use of imagination that one must use with reading horror fiction,  to be eclipsed.

And there has been novels that have emerged dealing with serial killers, that although some people would consider more police procedurals, I would classify them as horror as well.

So we are back to the basic question "What is Horror?"

According to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, it gives the primary definition of horror as "painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay."  With that explanation it stands to reason that "horror fiction" is that which brings about those emotions to the reader.

Working further on that premise it can mean any literature from the supernatural to the mundane, provided it brings about those feelings of "painful, intense fear, dread and/or dismay."

Frankly, in my opinion that would also include reading the latest newspaper headlines or news broadcasts.

In the real, mundane world, for example, we drive on the freeway and drive slowly past an accident, an awful accident and we are horrified by what we see, because within ourselves we subconsciously think "There but for Fate, it could be me."

We could take it one step further and include all the horrors that are shown to us on a news broadcast, and again we subconsciously think  "there but for fate....."  That is the mundane.

The supernatural is a little harder to define and is to my way of thinking, subjective and certainly goes beyond the "Dude Run!"  reaction from the TAPS Ghost Hunters T.V. show.

So we must ask ourselves "where did it all start?"

I would be inclined to go with the old fashioned story tellers, who would tell of things that would make every sound the listener heard, be something to dread----going as far back as when Grog told Ork, sitting in the local cave around the campfire, about the strange thing with glowing eyes that he saw at twilight.   Bearing in mind that like the fisherman stories about the one that got a way, that grows from a modest 12 inch trout to a 30 foot sea monster, they do have a tendency to lean towards exaggeration with each telling of the tale.

But these same story tellers also used horrifying tales of more mundane matters to create and codify a code of conduct  for survival.  So one would have to say that these tales of both supernatural and mundane events were used by these early peoples to understand how important their conduct was to the survival of everyone in their community.

Later on as we became more civilized, these ghostly tales or tales of unnatural events became formalized in a way.

If you read some of our gentler fairy tales like those complied by the Brother Grimm then stories like "Little Red Riding Hood", where the wolf devours grandma and little red riding hood and then is later sliced open by a passing woodsman, or the children Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by their father at the instigation of their stepmother, to starve in the woods, then to confront a cannibalistic witch, that ends with the little darlings throwing the witch into the hot oven, well that would be considered horror.

The late Bruno Bettelheim in his book "The Uses of Enchantment" explains quite well how fairy tales were used to formulate how to behave in society, as well as the uses of metaphor as a teaching aid,  a sort of step up from the old-fashion story tellers.  In some cases Fairy Tales were used to make fun of some of the pretentious members of the upper strata of society

So with the advent of writing, and printing, many horrific situations that were told orally were saved in the earliest recorded tales, with many myths and legends featuring the basic scenarios that are archetypes that were later adapted by horror writers.

For example the legend of the Golem, a statue made of clay by a man allegedly named Rabbi Lowe is brought to life to help his people but instead becomes something uncontrollable and destructive; this is an archetype of the Frankenstein monster or the robot in the silent film, Metropolis and in most other Sci-Fi movies, now taken to an even higher degree with computers such as Hal in "2001" and on Television with 'the machine' and 'Samaritan' in "Person of Interest".

So let us move forward in time and look at the printed word---first I am going to be dealing with supernatural or perceived supernatural elements.

Our modern horror fiction established its roots in gothic novels that appeared in the late 18th and early 19th century, typified by Horace Walpole's book "The Castle of Otranto" (1764).  This novel can be looked upon as a prototype of the very first Gothic Novel dealing with horrific events both mundane and supernatural.  The Castle of Otranto tells the story of Manfred, lord of the castle, and his family. The book begins on the wedding-day of his sickly son Conrad and princess Isabella. Shortly before the wedding, however, Conrad is crushed to death by a gigantic helmet that falls on him from above. This inexplicable event is particularly ominous in light of an ancient prophecy, resulting in the father (Manfred) fearing for the end of his blood line, so he divorces his then current wife, to marry Isabella so his line can continue but in attempting to do this seems to activate the curse and leads to many a dramatic scene and revelations.

This plot concept was refined 30 years later by Ann Radcliff, when she reached her peak in writing with her novel "The Mysteries of Udolpho" (1794).

When Ann Radcliff wrote her novel she created the formula or blue print for succeeding Horror Gothic Novels dealing with supposed supernatural elements that frighten and terrorized many a young virginal heroine, only to discover finally in the end that everything had a logical and natural explanation.  This novel of hers is still in print today and her works have influenced many authors, from the very late 1700's right through the 21st century.

If you look at Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" that is also a Horror novel in the Radcliff vein, with a lonely house, a brooding owner, wind swept moors, secrets in the attic, and weird cries in the night.

The television soap Opera "Dark Shadows" used those same elements when they introduced the character of 'Barnabas Collins' and had many a housewife, teenager and young women glued to their Television sets.   I remember when I attended college, no classes could be held between 3 and 4 p.m. and in one large English class room a T.V. was set up so that students mostly female and a few male students , as well as a number of English teachers could come and watch the program,  you were lucky if you got a chair, many a time we had to sit on the floor to watch. 

Radcliff's formula echoed again and again by other author's such as Wilkie Collins' "Woman in white", Dauphine Dumaiers' "Rebecca", although no screams in the attic, Bram Stoker's atmospheric and some what sexually driven "Dracula" and beautifully rendered by Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

Just mentally picture the Victorian reader reading this line "Mr. Holmes, it was the footprints of a Gigantic Hound."  Even I would be inclined to think twice about going out alone at night with that image in my mind.

Jane Austen made use of Radcliff's formula in her novel "Northanger Abby" but in a more satirical vein.

Besides those mentioned, other authors that were influenced include the Bronte sisters, Robert Louis Steven, Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens, just to name a few.  Anyone who wrote were wise to read and learn the styles of pervious authors.

But how did horror take on a supernatural vein?

Ghost stories had always been with people and told orally but if one wants to see the beginnings of it in more modern literature then we'd have to thank a group of young people and unusual weather conditions for that.

And for that we need to go to the Summer of 1816, also known as the Summer that wasn't, when during this unusually cold summer 5 young and brilliant people gathered together in a Swiss villa and told themselves ghost stories.

These young minds were Mary and Percy Shelly, Mary's step- sister Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron and his doctor and companion John Pollidori, they stayed in Byron's Swiss villa and slept during the day and stayed awake at night because of the heavy rains and thunderstorms that were afflicting most of the continent.

Allow me to digress here, this unusual weather condition that affected many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, was due to an unusually violent volcanic eruption that occurred when Mt. Tambora in Indonesia erupted a year before in April of 1815.

The volcanic eruptions created a sort of Nuclear winter that affected Europe, the United States and Canada.  It was referred to as "The Summer that Wasn't"  and seriously affected food supplies causing famine and disease, rivers and lakes to remain frozen during the spring and summer and because of this resulting in numerous deaths.  The eruption  began on April 10, 1815 and was followed by between six months to three years of increased steaming and small eruptions that lowered global temperatures, some experts believe this led to major global cooling and worldwide harvest failures as far away as India.

This information can be found on Wikipedia.

In a way this major catastrophic event sort of set the mood for the creation of supernatural horror fiction.

Getting back to our group of young brilliant people, they spend their time talking about the various discoveries of science and chemistry, including the use of electricity to animate dead limbs as well as entertaining themselves with ghost stories.

It is told that Byron proposed that everyone try and write their own ghost story.  Mary Shelly wrote of a man that was brought to life by unnatural means, she later expanded it and wrote the classic work, "Frankenstein" .  This novel remains as one of the most enduring and imitated horror works.

It has also been considered the first science fiction novel as well as a philosophical novel or a 'novel of purpose' by some literary historians.

Some people believe that it was Mary Shelly's warning of the downfall of basic human traits such as the nuclear family unit, the concept of simple love and compassion and the dominance of too much science without the understand of the human heart.   I'll let each person read Shelly's novel and draw from it your own conclusions.

At this same gathering, Byron tinkered with a vampire story, but it was, John William Polidori that took Byron's tinkering's and devised the kind of vampire story or plot that has since become familiar to us, with his short story "The Vampyre."

Polidori created a supernatural character by combining evil with sinister charm, and these traits have been used and elaborated on by horror writers ever since.  It's believed that much of the personality traits as described in the novel, were borrowed by Polidori from his observations of Lord Byron.

Perhaps even resentfully, for later on Byron dismissed Polidori.  It has been alluded to that Byron had numerous love affairs with both women and men, and without going further into this it's possible that there was an intimate relationship between the two.   Polidori died some 5 years later at the age of 25, many people believe it was suicide although the Doctor attending his death said natural causes, perhaps so Polidori could be buried with proper funeral rites.

One other story that was written in serial sections that came out in 1845 and ran to 1847 was a "penny dreadful"  called "Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood."

The reason why they were called penny dreadfuls is because they were cheaply printed pamphlet like booklets that now a days we'd call either magazines or paperback books, that told sensational stories in chapters like a serial and only cost a penny per chapter, which was affordable for the lower working class, and most likely shared by the parlor maids of those staid Victorian home.  Although it is more than likely that the young daughters and possibly the lady of the house enjoyed them as well.  It was an inexpensive way of getting chills and thrills----much like the "Dark Shadows" and "Vampire Diaries" of its day.

"Varney the Vampire" was attributed to John Preskett Prest who also wrote the story of Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, eventually modern day composers thought the story of Sweeny Todd was far easier to make into a Broadway musical as oppose to Varney.

"Varney the Vampire" did have a lot of inconsistencies,  the vampire kept getting staked but the stakee's kept forgetting that if his body was left in the moonlight it would get re-vitalized, which happened again and again.

Eventually over many chapters Varney developed into a creature to be pitied as oppose to being despised, something that we have been seeing in today's modern vampire fiction.  Varney the Vampire eventually was put into book form consisting of 800 double columned, closely printed pages and it too can be found in print.

Varney along with Polidori's "The Vampyre", Stokers' "Dracula" and in the latter 20th century Ann Rice's Vampire series, created, developed and expanded the mythos of how vampires should look, act and behave.  They changed from monsters to dread and fear that everyone must make every effort to destroy to become creatures to be pitied and more recently, romanticized about and in a way emulated.   Montague Summers said in one of his works regarding the supernatural "In all the darkest pages in the malign supernatural, there is no more terrible tradition than that of a vampire---a pariah even among demons."

They are even now evolving and changing with Laurel K. Hamilton's vampire hunter series, the Twilight Series and other printed works that add sexual romance to the vampire, as well as on television with "True Blood" and on the major televisions stations the "Vampire Diaries", for example I was surprised hear the vampire hero Stephan say to our heroine "Coffee is our friend, it helps circulate our blood and warms our bodies so we won't feel cold to other people."  Well that was a new one for me and maybe raised the stock of Starbuck's, Dunking Donuts and Peet's coffee houses, come to think of it, there are a lot of Starbucks coffee houses out there----I wonder.

But that gives you one brief example in Horror literature and visual media how monsters and such evolve and change with the development, changes and perceptions in civilization and society.

In the February 8, 2010 issue of National Review, Author John J. Miller complained in his article titled "Defanged or Once Upon A Time, the Living Dead Were Scary,"  that vampires had lost their creepiness and are now yawn-inducing bores with all the hype that has been given to them and that lately they've become kinder and gentler as oppose to being the evil villains that they truly are.   Even I have to say that has become true with our old familiar monsters, now they have become loveable toys or iconic cartoons with Count De Count, Clawdeen Wolfe, sort of like Kermit with fangs or Disney's "Hotel Transylvania".

There were a number of writers that have written novels that are classics today, some of them are not of the type dealing with blood and gore but mostly of mood, and by using mood to created that feeling of dread and overwhelming fear, so that if you are properly engrossed in it, when there is a sudden noise or someone unexpectedly startles you, you jump with fear.

And I will continue that in my next posting.

Later Darklings

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. You covered so much ground. Your references to books, authors and movies should give people plenty things to watch and read.

    Your opening mention of "Kolcheck" thrills me. I have the short lived series on DVD and watch it at least once a year. I have all the "collections" of Dark Shadows and regardless of the often sloppy filming and editing it remains one of my absolute favorite things of all time. My first "crush" was on Barnabas Collins :)

    Wonderful post!