Monday , February 26 2024
Celebrate Halloween with one or two of the earliest examples of the horror novel.

Frankenstein, Dracula, and Eight More Early Tales of Terror for Halloween Reading

Celebrate Halloween with one or two of the earliest examples of the horror novel. Before there was an H. P. Lovecraft, before there was a Stephen King, there was:

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. This 1764 short novel is usually credited as the first piece of Gothic fiction in the English language. There had, of course been ghosts in plays – Hamlet, Macbeth – but in prose fiction, a genre fairly new itself, Walpole was doing something that hadn’t been done before. The biggest problem with Walpole’s work for many readers is the difficulty they have suspending disbelief in the events described: a huge helmet, large enough to imprison a man inside, falls from the sky almost on the first page.otranto

Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1778) tries to remedy the problem by describing events that are somewhat more believable: doors, for example, inexplicably blow open revealing the true heir. The trouble here is that the events are not all that horrifying.

The Mysteries of Udolpho, Anne Radcliffe’s lengthy 1794 novel, adds several of the tropes that were to become standard in the Gothic novel, most notably the beautiful young woman preyed upon by a dark villain. She is also careful to provide reasonable explanations for the seemingly supernatural events.

That is not the case in the Matthew Gregory Lewis romantic classic The Monk (1796), combining two tales, one about a monk who makes a Faustian bargain with the devil, and one about a lover who finds he has eloped with a ghostly legend called “the bleeding nun.” What Lewis adds to the Gothic mix is a bit of sex as well as some real supernatural horror.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) was written as a challenge that she, Shelley, Byron and a hanger-on named Polidori took to see who could write the best horror story (see The Bride of Frankenstein)). In it Shelley creates a monster who in many respects is more sinned against than sinning. Featuring perhaps the best-known monster of the genre, Shelley’s novel may have a few surprises for those who only know of the monster from the James Whale movie.

Certainly the other candidate for the best-known monster would be Bram Stoker’s vampire Dracula (1897). Stoker, of course, was not the inventor of the vampire. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Christabel” has a vampirish character named Geraldine, and Sheridan Le Fanu had introduced the female vampire in his 1871 Carmilla. Besides, as early as 1845 through 1847 there was James Malcolm Rymer’s serialization Varney the Vampire.

Of course, if you’d like something with some literary pretension, there is the Robert Louis Stevenson tale of split personality Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and if you want something with some real literary credibility, there is Oscar Wilde’s venture into the genre, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1881), a novel that explores some serious philosophical issues.

If none of these is to your taste, you can always look across the Atlantic, where Gothic traditions are transplanted and take root if somewhat tamely in Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland(1798)>, blossom in the stories of Washington Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, and flower in the Henry James classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898).

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About Jack Goodstein

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