Written by Mark J. Palm
There was a time long ago when Stephen King had only about half a dozen published works to his name. A time when most of the Literary community thought that the novel of horror was about as welcome as a fart in church. Things have changed since then. The success of the aforementioned Mr. King may have had a bit to do with that. The oddest thing, for those of us who have taken classes in nineteenth-century fiction, was how many books on the syllabus were works of horror. So, in honor of the only season that changes my reading habits, here is my take on horror novels and stories for Halloween.
When it comes to older works of horror, one of the first things that you will notice is the trope of “things that are better left unsaid.” To our modern, jaded tastes, this reticence may take a bit of getting used to, but it’s there for a reason. First of all, most of the writers of that period actually had to leave things unsaid, or unshown. If they would have said or shown what was in their heads, their fiction would have gone unpublished. They may have, rather like the figures about which they wrote, had a pack of villagers hoisting pitchforks and torches lined up outside of their doors. Once you get used to that convention and rely upon your imagination to read between the lines, much older fiction of this type is well worth your while.
The Big Three
If you are going to discuss horror fiction of the nineteenth century, you have to address the big three. Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
I'll deal with Frankenstein first because I don't think that it's a very good book. Mary Shelley is not a writer of strong vivid prose, and if you are looking for a quick exciting book look elsewhere. I don't mean to dump on a woman who had the misfortune to be Percy Shelley's wife, but most of the book is fairly sedate. There is a strong tug of sympathy for all the lives the two have ruined, but Shelley's best work is when the doctor and his creation argue about Frankenstein's hubris. In daring to create life, or not taking responsibility for it?
Dracula is another matter. In the form of attack, the two books couldn't be further apart. Bram Stoker comes out swinging like a heavyweight, piling Harkner's confrontation with Dracula and the staking of Lucy right on top of each other. (This is my favorite scene in the novel, tragic, scary and sad all at once.) The rest of the novel hurtles along as well, from the undercurrent of sexual tension that must have been quite shocking for the time, through The Count trying to turn Mina, to the hero’s breakneck pursuit of the Count to his final end.
Finally, Jekyll and Hyde. If Stoker's Dracula is a hammer, Robert Louis Stevenson’s book is an ice pick. Slim and tense, this one has no extraneous parts. I believe that is one of the reasons that it holds up better than the other two books. Dr. Jekyll wants to escape the straitjacket of Victorian morals, but he also wants to be a paragon of virtue. He creates his fateful potion and ends up a doomed man. The violence of Hyde, in trampling a little girl and beating an old man to death with his cane, is still shocking today. Unlike the film adaptations, Robinson states that Hyde looks like a normal man. That is one of the things that gives this book a little extra bite. On the outside, Hyde looks like the rest of us, but cross him at your peril. Also, the ambiguity of the doctor's crime. Whether it was wrong to transcend the morals of his time or wrong to try and hide that transgression has undeniable power.
lesser known Stars
For me, the best bet in older horror is in the shorter works. Now I don't want to go on, so I will just tell you some of my favorites and hold the reason why to a minimum.
Poe has always been one of the classics, and for good reason. You can't go wrong with most of his short stories. His longer works, most of them written in serial form, are another matter. Poe writing for money and Gordon Pym is as much of a mess as you are likely to find in print. You can also pass on the stories of detection; they're not bad, but they don't scare.
H.P. Lovecraft has seen quite a rise in his reputation in the past few decades and that's both good and bad. When he was on his game, Lovecraft's stories of cosmic evil, have a megaton impact. The Colour out of Space, The Rats in the Walls, The Dunwich Horror, The Call of Cthulhu. You can feel the weight of an uncaring universe hanging over your head. Unfortunately, he was off more than on. In these stories, the reader tends to get buried under a blanket of obscure words and uncertain plots.
Classic Horror Authors
A lot of the writers who influenced Lovecraft and his generation have produced exceptional stories. For me, "The Great God Pan" by Arthur Machen is a classic and one of the best horror stories I have ever read. In a similar vein, works by Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, and J. Sheridan Le Fanu are quite good. Many people may not think so, but I think that a lot of Hawthorne is straight-up horror. In particular: My Kinsman, Major Molyneux.
I see that I have run on quite a bit here, so I will come to a close. If anyone is interested I will continue with a second installment dealing with novels and short stories of the modern era. As always, everything stated is merely my opinion. If anyone wishes to comment, feel free; I'd like to hear what you have to say and what you are reading this Halloween.