There was a time long ago, enough that Stephen King had only about half a dozen published works to his name, 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, or in Gothic fiction, was how many books on the syllabus were, in fact, pretty much 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 literally had to leave things unsaid, or unshown. If they would have said, or shown what was probably in their heads their fiction would have been guaranteed go be unpublished, and they may have, rather like the figures about which they wrote, have had a pack of villagers hoisting pitchforks and torches lined up outside of their doors. Once, however 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, mainly 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 except for the scenes where the Doctor tries, in a fever of concentration, to bring his creature to life, most of the book is fairly sedate. When the good doc chases his creature onto the arctic wastes 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 where lies Frankenstein's hubris; in daring to create life, or not taking responsibility for it.
Dracula is another matter. In terms of manner 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, with an undercurrent of sexual tension that must have been quite shocking for the time, through The Count trying to turn Mina, and the hero’s breakneck pursuit of the Count to his final end.
Lastly is 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, and 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 wants to be seen as a paragon of virtue, so 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, Hyde is supposed to look like a normal man, and for me 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 cover up that transgression, has undeniable power.
Now I have made it a point not to spoil the plots of books I review or chat about, and I have spoke a bit more than usual about the above books, but only because they have been in the public consciousness for so long that almost every reader has some idea of the plots. There are many other books of the same era, much less known, that are worth checking out, and since they are obscure for some readers, I will just point them out and move on. So turn your hand to The Monk by M.G. Lewis, The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, and two of my personal favorites, The Moonstone and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
For me, probably the best bet in older horror is in the shorter works. Now I don't want to go on for as long as I could, so I will try to 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 was writing for money and Gordon Pym for example 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, like The Colour out of Space, The Rats in the Walls, The Dunwich Horror and The Call of Cthulhu, have a megaton impact; you can feel the weight of an uncaring universe hanging over your head. Unfortunately he was off more than on and in those stories the reader tends to get buried under a blanket of obscure words and uncertain plots.
A lot of the writers who influenced Lovecraft and his generation have produced some 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, in particular My Kinsman, Major Molyneux is straight up horror.
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, and if anyone wishes to comment, feel free; I'd like to hear what you have to say and what you are reading this Halloween.