With the Halloween season creeping up, you may be scheming which horror books to devour this October. Stephen King comes to mind with his cocaine-fueled nightmares Carrie (1974), The Shining (1977) and It (1986). The Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine also springs to mind. The kiddie horror books are still fun and quick reads as adults to harbor in spooky atmosphere and nostalgia (I’d recommend The Haunted Mask (1993)). But what about noncontemporary horror? Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster have been ingrained into pop culture, but their influence affects much more than TV specials and neon green plastic.
All modern horror roots itself in chilling tales from the nineteenth century. Gothic literature infused castles, death, and romance. The most famous horror stories of this century include Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker. Literature and film scholars, such as Rick Worland, argue that these works form the basis for all modern horror as we understand it today and created three large categories that every horror story falls into: scientific, natural, and supernatural.
Frankenstein founded the science category. In the novel, a misguided scientist creates a creature through an unconventional scientific experiment. Here, science brought the threat into existence. The science category includes horror related to knowledge and the consequences of man playing god. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde founded the natural category. Here, a well-tempered scientist creates a potion that turns him into his evil alter ego. This natural category usually relates to man being the monster by representing the darker side of human nature. Animals could be the subjects, too. Lastly, Dracula founded the supernatural. Count Dracula is an undead evil who journeys to London to find new victims and enter society. Supernatural is arguably the largest category with ghosts, hauntings, and dark magic being common themes. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) by Washington Irving and the works of Poe should also be recognized in shaping early horror.
Many horror stories fall into multiple categories. For example, although his transformative potion was created through science, Mr. Hyde is a mortal monster. Through time, many genres and subgenres of horror novels have arisen from dark imaginations. Perhaps Hollywood plays the largest role in creating subgenres and our current understanding of horror. In classic cyclical fashion, horror books inspired horror movies which in turn inspired more books. Which made more movies. And lots of bad ones at that. Thanks Hollywood.
But as for spooky book suggestions for this year, you can’t go wrong with Frankenstein or Dracula. Frankenstein is undoubtedly a timeless classic that inspired many horror standards (although the novel’s scientist is not mad, the monster is not mute and dumb, and the hunchbacked assistant is absent. You can thank Universal studios for their Classic Monsters movies of the 1920s to 1950s for that. The films are amazing though. I’d suggest Bride of Frankenstein (1935)). Dracula is told through letters and diary entries making it an easy read. It doesn’t read like something written in the 1800s and demonstrates a classic example of a good versus evil conflict.
If you want a shorter 19th century horror read or want to avoid the mainstream (Halloween hipsters?), The Vampyre (1819) by John William Polidori tells the story of a young English man befriending an aristocratic vampire. This story is one of my personal favorites. Curiously, this short story streamlines the heaps of vampire folklore into a modern, coherent tale and predates Dracula by nearly eighty years. Carmilla (1872) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is another vampire story that predates Dracula. In this novella, not only is the vampire a female, she’s also a lesbian.
Try one of these horror classics out this October. Many of them have entered into the public domain and can be easily accessed online. Happy hauntings!