The Evolution of Horror in Fiction: a brief guide

Felipe Wasserstein

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How horror fiction keeps re imagining and reinventing fear.

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Fear continues to fascinate people. Credits to: Charles Thompson (Flickr)

As a literary genre, horror has many definitions. Authors and literary historians tend to have similar and complementary views when defining the subject. And they all agree on describing horror as a genre which explores one of our basic emotions: fear.

Literary historian J. A. Cuddon defines the horror story as: “A piece of fiction which shocks, or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing.”

Another definition comes from author Douglas Winter in his 1982 anthology Prime Evil. He says that horror fiction: “It’s not a kind of fiction meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.”

The Horror Writers Association complements those ideas. To them the genre has the power to evoke the atmosphere and sense of dread that threatens our comfort levels. It’s a type o literature that speaks of the human condition by reminding their readers of how little they know and understand.

Horror also changes the way readers sympathize with characters through their tragedies. In the book The Philosophy of Horror, edited by Richard Fahy, in Chapter 2 (Trough a Mirror, Darkly) it is said that sympathy is much more visceral than emotional. For Philip Tallon, writer of the second chapter, this happens because the emotion felt by the characters in horror stories mirror those of the readers. We can observe this in any story where the protagonist enters a dark basement or fights a monster.

That is why horror literature is closely associated as a metaphor for the larger fears of society. The genre has roots in Folklore and religious traditions such as death, the idea of after life, demons, demonic possessions and witchcraft.

As our fears change, so does horror fiction. It has the capacity to expand its grip towards other types of fiction across human history.

Origin and The Gothic Novel

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A gothic classic. Credits to: Chris Drumm (Flikr)

Much of the roots of horror literature began with the Inquisition and its obsession with heresy and witchcraft. Other inspirations included the first volume of Dante`s Divine Comedy, Inferno (1307), and John Milton`s Paradise Lost (1667).

During this period, the first books associated with horror were guides written on how combat witchcraft.

Horror as genre would start with the emergence of Gothic horror. This style of fiction combined both horror and Romanticism. The first book in Gothic horror was The Castle of Otranto (1764), by Horace Walpole.

The novel opens with young Conrad about to marry Isabella, until a giant metal helmet falls from the sky and kills Conrad. His father Mafred is terrified by a prophecy that he would die without a male heir. In despair, he chases Isabella, trying to rape her, so she can conceive an heir to the throne.

The book used many supernatural and fantastical elements. This was controversial at the time, since most of the writers of 18th century strived for realism instead of fantasy.

The Castle of Otranto inspired other works such as The Italian (1796) by Ann Radcliffe and The Monk (1797) by Mathew Lewis.

The Monk was inspired by the violence and carnage of the French Revolution.The book was a story of illicit sex, cross-dressing rape, murder, ghosts, rituals and matricide. It became a novel that portrayed the extreme, adding another element to horror literature.

During the 19th century, horror fiction concentrated on new topics such as fear of science and mental illness. This period is known for the influential works of Mary Shelley, Bram Stocker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde. They created some of the most enduring icons in the history of horror, adding sub genres to the Gothic novel such as science fiction, the vampire and the detective genres.

Edgar Alan Poe introduced and popularized the Gothic horror in the USA through his poems and short stories dealing on mystery and the macabre. He is also considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre.

Mary Shelley`s Frankenstein (1818) was published in a time when medicine and medical technology were at the forefront of the sciences. The novel captured the sense that science would unlock the secrets of life.

Frankenstein subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus”, refers to another failed attempt to bring “fire” to humanity. Shelley is showing the dangers of scientific exploration and some of the ideas defended by the Enlightenment.

Bram Stocker`s Dracula wasn`t the first novel about vampires to be published in Europe, but it made the genre popular.  It was an example of Invasion Literature (tales about hypothetical invasions by foreign powers).

Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885), took a different approach from the majority of the Gothic novels. Instead of fantasy, the novel focused on individual morality and life in the crowded cities (which had become more impersonal and violent).

Dracula, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein received numerous adaptations over the years. This included plays, movies and TV series.

Horror in the 20th century and contemporary horror

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Stephen king. Credits to: Stephanie Lawton (Flickr)

Horror in the beginning of the 20th century was largely published in pulp magazines and cheap periodicals. The short story started to replace the novel as the main format chosen by horror writers.

One of the most important writers for pulp magazines was H. P. Lovecraft. His prose dealt with themes related to forbidden knowledge, inherited guilt and fate.

Though Lovecraft started to gain recognition only in his later years, his work influenced many modern writers such as Stephen King.

The early 20th century was also a fertile ground for horror films. The 1930s and 1940s saw a significant amount of movies based on stories and characters created in the Gothic era. The 1960s and 1970s introduced the slasher genre.

The 1970s marked the beginning of the contemporary horror in literature, with writers such as Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker and Peter Straub.

Stephen King`s works expanded horror to audiences worldwide. Peter Blatty`s The Exorcist (1971), Anne Rice`s Interview with the Vampire (1976), Clive Barker`s The Book of Blood (1984) and Peter Benchey`s Jaws (1975) expanded and introduced new sub genres into horror fiction.

Horror continues to expand outside the genre. It is now becoming more common in novels about alternate history (The Terror, 2007), parodies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 2009) and comic books (Wytches, 2014).

No matter how you define it, horror fiction continues to mutate and expand. The same can be said about people fascination with it. As H. P. Lovecraft said: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”Save

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Felipe Wasserstein