There's a lot more to gothic horror than Dracula and Frankenstein. Although Shelley and Stoker are the best known novelists, there were others prominent in their field whole helped define the genre; who etched the picture of the classic haunted house in all our minds; who turned the sublime into tormented landscapes; who ensured we would get chills down our spines and make goosebumps crawl over our skin. Without further ado, the masters of gothic horror.
H.P. Lovecraft described M.R. James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank”. His stories were written with the express purpose of terrifying friends and a handful or lucky (or perhaps unlucky) students attending Christmas Eve gatherings at King’s College, Cambridge. Paring description down to the bare bones, James left plenty of space for the reader’s unconscious to do the leg work. Light a fire and devote half an hour to read Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad in the quiet and you’ll find out why this story is regularly voted the scariest ever. Oh, and that window rattling upstairs? Just ignore it.
The admiration H.P. Lovecraft had for M.R. James was not entirely mutual—in a private letter, James referred to Lovecraft’s style of writing as “most offensive”. However, Lovecraft is hardly short of admirers, with Neil Gaiman and Stephen King among the notable names citing him as a major inspiration. Lovecraft spent the bulk of his formative years as a hermit, devouring books about ancient philosophy, chemistry and physics. His work—often referred to as the Cthulhu Mythos—is the distillation of this. While many of his contemporary writers of weird fiction found fear in the small and the claustrophobic, H.P. Lovecraft tapped into the terrifying size of the universe; populating it with eldritch horrors from the deep seas and unnameable "things" from space. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is as good a starting point as any.
Ann Radcliffe was the First Lady of gothic fiction, and her books, written at the tail-end of the 18th century, were loved by everyone from Keats to Dostoevsky (even giving the latter sleepless nights). The Italian arguably represents year zero for many of the tropes we associate with the gothic: full of orphans, sinister monks and assassins, and set in a Catholic country where bosoms heave, kidnappers conspire and thunder and lightning strike the land.
JOSEPH SHERIDAN LE FANU
Sheridan le Fanu dabbled with numerous genres, but it is his ghost stories that have really stood the test of time. Influenced by his wife Susanna's struggle with madness, le Fanu is a pioneer of psychological horror. The terror in many of his novels spring from the fact we don’t know if the threat is truly supernatural or merely a product of the narrator’s broken mind. A horrifying example is Green Tea, in which recurring character Dr Hesselius, an occult detective, investigates the case of a tormented intellectual haunted by a demonic monkey.
Henry James maintained that the inspiration for The Turn of the Screw came from a story his friend the Archbishop of Canterbury told him. The Archbishop, in turn, would say no more than that he had heard it from 'a lady', a delicious example of the way Chinese whispers can propel and embellish a tale. Oscar Wilde described the resulting novella, first published in 1898, as “a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale”. The Turn of the Screw has inspired a wealth of interpretations and countless academic quarrels, but there is one fact on which consensus can be reached: this is a deeply disturbing ghost story.
The end of the 19th Century saw the publishing industry begin to cater for a suddenly more widely literate population, and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle is a thrilling example of the results. The (sadly rather dubious) legend has it that the book was the outcome of a wager between Marsh and his friend Bram Stoker as to who could write the better horror story. Although critics favoured Stoker’s offering (some novel about a vampire you might have heard of), The Beetle proved incredibly popular with the reading public, selling by the bucket-load. In fact, it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that Stoker’s sales caught up. Few points here for subtlety, but for a rip-roaring, flesh-creeper of a novel look no further.
Often the stories that terrify us most have their seed in real events, and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery would appear to be no exception. While Jackson walked through the public square of her hometown one day a gang of school children, in an apparently random attack, started hurling huge stones at her. The story this inspired caused hundreds of readers to complain, and even unsubscribe from, from the New York Times following its publication. Perhaps the extent to which this tale hit a nerve suggests it speaks at something more fundamental within the human condition.
Violet Paget was a brilliant polymath and polyglot who published under the pseudonym Vernon Lee. She wrote at the turn of the century, a time when discoveries in psychology and evolution appeared to hint at a darkness within humanity. Oke of Okehurst, from her collection Hauntings, tells the story of Alice Oke who—haunted by her ancestor’s murdered lover and believing herself to be the reincarnation of a previous Alice Oke—descends into madness. A tense slice of psychological gothic, underpinned by the nagging sense that history is forever bound to repeat itself.
Thomas Mann wrote of Jeremias Gotthelf’s masterpiece The Black Spider that “there is scarcely a work in world literature that I admire more.” This classic story of good versus evil set in a Swiss village. Things begin to unravel when a woman makes a pact with the devil, believing she can outwit him (a recurring theme in world literature, and one that never tends to end well). This truly macabre book features one of the memorably disgusting bits of body horror in literature. Not one for the arachnaphobic.
Robert Aickman wrote in the 20th century, but with a style and sensibility closer to that of the 19th; an understated, steady manner that crawls under your skin and leaves plenty of unanswered questions for you to wrestle with. Aickman preferred to describe his tales—recently reprinted to mark the centenary of his birth—as "strange stories" rather than horror. For his take on the zombie story, check out Ringing the Changes—even with their rotten flesh and flying limbs, modern zombies simply aren’t as scary. Bonus fact: Aickman was the grandson of fellow list-member Richard Marsh.
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