History of Horror Fiction

Posted by Anthony North on January 17, 2011

The horror story no doubt began before history, with sinister tales of dragons and malevolent gods around the prehistoric camp fire. But horror as noted by history is much more recent. True, Sophocles and others offered stark, horrific visions in ancient Greece, and Beowulf from 10th century Europe has echoes of the horrific, but we had to wait for Shakespeare and his contemporaries to be specifically horrific for the sake of the story.
In plays such as Macbeth the modern idea of terrifying the public came of age. Yet horror was to become more subtle. Born out of the Gothic visions of the Romantics, horror became a merging of the psychological with the environment, or, in the ghost story, the supernatural.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often thought of as the first horror novel, but really this is more science fiction than horror. Horror itself developed in the short story, particularly Poe in the 1840s. Of particular note in the genre is Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and Stoker’s Dracula.
The Victorians actually created both the horror and ghost story in its modern sense. Prior to this period, if a ghost appeared in a tale, it was most likely to be prophetic rather than disturbing. It was Dickens who changed this, with his fine ghost stories, many based around Christmas.
The central theme of the return of the dead to confront the living was an inevitability once Spiritualism had gained popular notice. And from here on, the ghost and horror story was to march side by side, often written by the same writers.
One of the greatest of those writers was M R James, who perfected the growing sinister element of the normal, vital to the success of the genre. Other notables included Le Fanu, Bierce, Machen, Lovecraft, Blackwood and Benson.
All these writers wrote principally in the short story or novella form. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that this changed, with the novel becoming the primary medium. Of this new wave of horror, Ramsey Campbell is often thought of as its greatest literary exponent. However, horror broke into the bestseller lists with the mighty Stephen King. And from then until now, the public have just loved to be frightened to death by this story form.

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6 Comments

  1. David King said on May 16, 2011

    Comprehensive and interestingly told.

  2. Anthony North said on May 16, 2011

    Hi David, many thanks for that.

  3. Reader Wil said on May 31, 2011

    Hi Anthony! Many of these books I have read, but also gothic novels like those of Daphne du Maurier. Strangely enough I never read Stephen King.Do you count urban legends among the horror stories? May be they are too short to be collected in a book, though M.R James also wrote short ghost stories.

  4. Anthony North said on May 31, 2011

    Hi Reader Wil, not sure about urban legends. As for M R James, he’s one of my favourite ghost story writers. I also like King, although he is sometimes over-written. As for Daphne du Maurier, she was a great writer. Hitchcock’s excellent horror film, The Birds, came form one of her novellas, too.

  5. Reader Wil said on May 31, 2011

    Yes and then there is “The House on the Strand”, “Rebecca”and “My Cousin Rachel”, “Jamaica Inn”, which is really cruel and did actually really happen in Cornwall.

  6. Anthony North said on May 31, 2011

    Yes, Frenchman’s Creek is also very good, and even her short stories have been influential. The film version of her Don’t Look Now is excellent and chilling.

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