My Thoughts on What is Horror Literature Part 2~~~~~

Hello My Darklings!

Well this is turning out to be a longer essay than I thought perhaps covering at least 1 more section.

But for now let me start out to briefly touch upon some authors that have written classics of Fear and Horror.

The first published American horror story was Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", printed between 1819 and 1820, this story was part of a larger volume of work titled "The Sketch Book".

I'm sure a number of you have seen Johnny Dep's film version of the story of Icabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, based upon this tale as well as the popular television show "Sleepy Hollow".

First I do want to state that there truly is a community in the Eastern part of the United States called Sleepy Hollow and they do a nice little tourist business with this legend.

In the original story Icabod Crane is a school teacher who tries to go above his station in life by courting the daughter of a wealthy landowner, the young lady is called Katrina Van Tassel, but Brom Bones (Brom is short for Abraham) is also courting the lovely lady.  So there is a rivalry between the two; at a party Brom frightens Crane with the legend of the Headless Horseman,  this story  is filled with the mood of  fear and terror and in the end we really don't know if Icabod Crane was done in, or if it was a prank by Brom to scare off his rival for Katrina's hand.

The beauty of this story is you are left wondering.  I have to admit that my favorite film rendering of this story was the animated version done by Disney with the voice of Bing Crosby narrating. And is as close to the original story as possible.

Although the Johnny Dep film did take it up a notch it did change the premise of the story, but gave the horseman a bit of background and with the television series "Sleepy Hollow", it changed the concept around completely but also injects some bits of true history in Crane's asides, as well as humor.  However I don't think Benjamin Franklin built a Frankenstein like body nor did Washington engage in battling the Occult, although it is believed that Washington was a Freemason.   But that did not stop me from enjoying the program.

Later gothic horror descendants include such late 19th century works, such as the previously mentioned "Dracula" and Henry James' psychological twister "The Turn of the Screw".

I did mention that "Dracula" does have a somewhat sexually driven underlying mood within the story, certain scenes such as how he seduced Lucy and then later Mina is fraught with sexual innuendo, and how the three "wives" of Dracula plead with the vampire count to "kiss" Jonathan Harker and yet Dracula says Harker is his (a hint of Bi-sexuality), and the undead Lucy attempting to lure her fiancĂ© into her unholy embrace, with Prof Von Helsing being both science, logic and a holy force (so a touch of the church) for purity.   "Dracula" itself is almost a metaphor for the evils that hid underneath the veneer of Victorian Society, and one could  spend an entire semester itself in dissecting this work.   And yet the forbidden "thrills" hidden within its tale caused many a staid Victorian lady to only dream about.

Something that is reflected in our 21st century works as typified for example, with the "Twilight" book series.

It's always the Bad Boys that attract the girls.

But with the "Turn of the Screw", because of its ambiguous nature, you are not sure if the ghosts were real or the latent suppressed sexual thoughts and imaginations of the governess.  Among serious literary critics there is still debate about that aspect.

Robert Louis Stevenson's classic story "Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde" dealt with the division of the human soul, the concept of separating the good from the evil, something that religious, puritanical  Victorians wrestled with and would have been horrified to even think about giving into their baser natures.

But Stevenson knew about the duality of Victorian Society and wanted to do something as an indictment about this double standard and wrote this as a sort of wicked poke in the eye about so-called moralist persons with hidden vices.  Some thing that is being exposed about at least every other day with modern day journalism.

It would seem that with a number of the better written mid-to late 19th century horror stories or novels, there seemed to be an undercurrent of implied sexual mores that were taboo to even think about but could only be explored via the horror novel or story which would give it a certain amount of respectability since it was implied in those stories as sex being evil, yet Stevenson knew the hypocrisy of these puritanical ideas with his writing "Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde."

In our modern stories of the later 20th and early 21st century, the concept of this is fully explored and even reveled in especially with the modern vampire novels.

I'm inclined to throw in Gaston Leroux's novel "The Phantom of the Opera" into this mix, with its moody scenes of underground vaults, the young heroine being musically seduced by "the voice", and then torn between the hero and the villain.  I'd have to say that this really was a romantic thriller with horror overtones of fear, more like fear of love and fear of being in love.  But the down side of it was that the characters I felt had no real depth, except perhaps the Phantom who was in the throws of extreme emotion that led to his dying.  Partly because Leroux, being a journalist, was far more interested in telling a thrilling story as oppose to character development.

And it's one of those stories in which the original silent film with Lon Chaney Sr. and the Broadway musical were much better adaptations and explorations of the novel.

If you haven't seen Lon Chaney Seniors silent film venison, you really should.  I would have to say that it visually elevated the story better than any subsequent film renderings with the exception of the Andrew Lloyd Webers' version.

Getting back to R.L.  Stevenson, his other story "The Body Snatcher" was a fictionalized account of the murders committed in 1828 by two thieves Burke and Hare who not only stole "fresh bodies" from graves but also murdered people and sold them to a medical school to be dissected.

Can you imagine how horrifying it would be to a person to bury a loved one, return a day or two later to lay fresh flowers and grieve, only to discover that your beloved's body was dug up and stolen by what was known as "resurrectioniests"?  Even today we are shocked and horrified at anyone desecrating a cemetery and yet it has been done in very recent times.

Grave robbing became so bad that the more wealthy would hire guards to stand watch over the grave for 3 days to a week to make sure that the body was too decomposed for such use.  The poor had family members take turns, but if they couldn't then that body was "fair game".   It wasn't until the "cadaver laws" were changed in 1832 that more bodies could be legally obtained for medical schools.

In the 1931 movie "Frankenstein" you see such an action of grave robbing done by the Doctor to build his creation.

The movie "The Body Snatcher" was made in 1945 of this story based on the lives of Burke, Hare and Dr. Knox with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Henry Daniel starring, the scene towards the end of the film,  with the Doctor in his coach with a dead body in a frightening rain storm was enough to give me a few nightmares.

Other early exponents of the horror form include such luminaries as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.  They are widely considered to be masters of the art and one cannot truly appreciate the craft of horror fiction if you don't read the works of these two authors.

Poe's best known fiction works are Gothic in style, a genre he followed to appease the public taste of the time.  His most recurring themes was of death with the question of death, including its physical signs, the effects of decomposition, concerns of premature burial, the reanimation of the dead and mourning.

Many of his works are generally considered part of the dark romanticism genre, this was a literary reaction by a number of popular authors of the day, against a movement called transcendentalism, a movement which Poe strongly disliked.  Because Poe lost too many beloved family members including his wife,  and friends to the horrors of death, the airy fluffiness of transcendentalism seemed to him to be a ridiculous farce.

Many of Poe's finest works were written after the death of his young wife, her slow decent into death seriously affected him, leading to bouts of melancholia and alcoholism, there is still some serious debates surrounding his death even today.

Turning now to English authors, among the writers of classic English ghost stories and horror novels, M.R. James is often cited as the finest.  His stories avoid shock effects and often involve an Oxford educated antiquarian as the hero.  It was reason vs. non-reason.

The idea of throwing a person, who is suppose to work with reason, into a situation where reason is no longer logical was horrifying to most well educated logical minds, especially to British and upper class American readers.

One of M.R. James better known short stories is "Casting the Runes", the story is about a professor who rejected publishing a paper on an occult subject that was submitted by a researcher; this researcher was considered a sort of outsider by the academic community.  The stores goes into the peculiar circumstances surround the death of the professor who rejected the paper.

This short story was made into a 1950's British cult classic film titled "Night of the Demon" (1957 British release)  it was released in 1958 in America as "Curse of the Demon"  I suggest that you watch the British Version as it is longer by 13 minutes, which was cut out of the American release.  The film stars Dana Andrews and I have to say that the Brits really know how to do a good adaptation.  And watch it completely to the very end credits, don't just stand up and say "Oh that was good."  No My Darklings, you must stay seated until the words "The End" comes up, then you'll know why.

I do have to say that the only real disappointment I found in the film is the early showing of the demon, if it was left unseen or suggested I feel it would have been far more effective, but as I understand it there may have been some debate over this.

The original short story "Casting the Runes" is available for reading over the internet,

Two other authors and their short stories that I recommend to read are Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" and Oliver Onion's "The Beckoning Fair One" both have been called their best horror stories.

Many of Onion's haunting tales deals with a person becoming isolated and cut off from reality, so that you don't know if what they are seeing is real or their imagination.

Algernon Blackwood was one of the most prolific English writers of ghostly tales in the history of the genre. He was also a journalist and a broadcasting narrator.

According to Wikipedia,  S.T. Joshi has stated that "his (Blackwoods') work is more consistently meritorious than any weird writer's with the  exception of  Lord Dunsay and that his short story collection "Incredible Adventures" (1914) "may be the premier weird collection of this or any other century". 

Most of Blackwood's tales are in public domain and on the internet, I recall seeing a televised version of his story "The Wendigo", many years ago,  and found it to be frightening.   According to different sources it seems that many of Blackwood's tales paralleled his life or was from encounters with people who experienced strange happenings.

Interestingly Sheridan Le Fanu, the author of "Camella" and H.P. Lovecraft preferred to call some of their writings as weird fiction or weird stories as oppose to Horror stories, the reason being that they felt that their stories were not horrific in any way but more like strange bizarre circumstances that happen to ordinary people.

Lovecraft described Horror or Terror this way : he said "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."

During the heyday of the Roaring 20's after World War I, to be followed by the Depression in the 1930's, the concept of playing upon this emotion of fear started to increase when horror fiction began to reach a wider audience with the rise of the American pulp magazine and it's European counterparts.  These pulp magazines was a sort of descendant from the penny dreadfuls, and played upon the emotions of those people having survived the horrors of war only to be plunged into the uncertainly of a depressed economy and towards the end of the 1930's the fear of the "saber rattling" happening in Europe and in the Asian countries.

This fear became strongly evident  when a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells "War of the Worlds" that occurred on October 30, 1938, caused wide spread panic and terrified many people into believing that the United States was being invaded by aliens from Mars. Directed by Orson Wells for his "Mercury Theatre of the Air" on the Columbia Broadcast Radio System (CBS),   it was Orson Wells version of saying "BOO!"  But it did prove one thing---Fear.   Fear of the unknown, and how people would react.

The premier horror pulp magazine was "Weird Tales," which printed many of Lovecraft's stores as well as fiction by other writers such as Clark Ashton Smith, E. Hoffmann Price, Seabury Quinn, C.M. Eddy Jr. and  best known modern day author, Robert Bloch.

At a lower intellectual level were the weird menace or "shudder pulps" such as "Dime Mystery" and "Horror Stories", which offered a more visceral form of horror.

Some stories in highbrow "literary" fiction could arguably be regarded as horror narratives, for example Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and "In the Penal Colony" and William Faulkner's "A Rose of Emily."

It does demonstrate that horror novels or stories can be found at all reading levels to fit with all tastes.
And if it wasn't for the American pulp magazines like "Weird Tales", those wonderful authors would never have gotten the fan following that they do today and their stories would have been lost forever.

In my next section I will go into the concept of abnormal occurrences occurring to normal people and the idea of the fear of losing control.

Later Darklings

No comments:

Post a Comment