From the Dawn of Darkness: A Brief History of Horror in Literature

October 14, 2019 4 min read 0 Comments

From the Dawn of Darkness: A Brief History of Horror in Literature

Horror is one of the most creative and emotionally stirring genres in fiction, with its origins dating back thousands of years, yet it is often also one of the most unfairly judged and misunderstood. Regularly mistakenly perceived as a mass of unpleasant tales with nothing to offer but macabre violence, horror regularly delves into the deepest and darkest depths of the human soul, touching on forbidden feelings, unsettling questions, and morbid philosophy. It is this bravery to pull back the curtain and look at the rawest subjects, subjects that other genres often dare not peak at, that makes horror (and literary horror fiction) arguably the bravest genre of all.

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The Early Hours of Horror: The Original Terrors

With roots going as far back as the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans, the legendary creatures we know and fear from horror literature such as as werewolves, vampires, demons, and ghosts originate in ancient stories focusing on death, evil, and the afterlife, often manifesting as a representation of the darkness within humans. Perhaps the earliest appearance of horror-esque ghosts as we know them in history (or historical fiction) is in Pliny the Younger's tale of Athenodorus, who was visited by a chained spirit in his haunted house in Athens over two thousand years ago. After being led to a certain spot on the grounds of the house by the ghoul, Athenodorus dug up the earth to find the skeletal remains of the chained ghost that had appeared before him. After giving them a proper burial, he was haunted no further.

Then, as the centuries passed, other elements of horror began to become more prevalent in written works. Werewolves became increasingly popular in medieval French literature, and medieval figures have been (and continue to be) used as influence for more recent horror villains and characters in dark literature. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Vlad the Impaler, whose reputation for violence and cruelty served as the primary inspiration for Bram Stoker's vampire legend Count Dracula.

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The Gothic Age: Stoker, Shelley, and more...

The 18th century saw the development and rise of the Gothic horror genre, though it was the 19th century that gave us some of the most infamous, harrowing, and well-known horror fiction works to date. Including, but not limited to, Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1897), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), and the many works of Edgar Allan Poe, the Gothic age was certainly a time for true terror.

It is these stories and their characters (or, better put, their villains) that gave birth to what many now consider to be "classic" horror. What true horror fan can say they haven't read a number of these ghoulish books, or at least seen the stories play out on the big screen thanks to the wicked genius of the Hammer Horror adaptations? And, with the introduction of cinema, these spine-tingling stories have been immortalised in multiple formats for many generations to come.

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Pure Cosmic Dread: Lovecraftian Terror

The 20th century, however, saw the rise of a whole new breed of evil. H.P. Lovecraft is a name that makes even the bravest reader's hairs stand on end, yet during his lifetime he was practically unheard of; he died in 1937 from cancer at the age of 46, unknown and in poverty. Yet as the years went by, his unique blend of horror has not only found an immense following, but it has also shaped the entire genre of modern horror to this day through its influence on countless writers. After all, haunting and mind-bending works such as The Call of Cthulhu, The Colour out of Space, and At the Mountains of Madness are certainly nightmares you cannot forget.

It was predominantly through Lovecraftian fiction (as well as other writers around his time such as H.G. Wells) that certain science-fiction and horror themes became prevalent which are still continuously utilised in the genre today; forbidden knowledge, the fragility of sanity, unanswerable questions, the dangers of human progression, and unknowable fears so great and terrible that they go beyond the scope of human imagination. It's interesting that, despite the success of Lovecraft's books, his stories of cosmic terror are surprisingly rarely adapted for visual media - and when they are, they are often unsuccessful in presenting the true depth of his written horrors. After all, how can you depict a horror so terrifying, it propels the unfortunate individuals who witness it into madness on screen? How can you visually represent a form of forbidden knowledge so great, the human mind cannot comprehend it? Some things are better left to the imagination...

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The Modern Age of Fear: From King to Barker

And so this brings us to horror in the modern age. With the likes of Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, and Stephen King (the undisputed King of Horror in the late 20th/early 21st century), horror is continuing to keep a strong grip on the ladder of modern literature. More recent reads that are already viewed as classics of the genre include IT, Salem's Lot, I Am Legend, The Hellbound Heart, and Annihilation - none of which are to be missed.

With so much more to offer than simply what's in the title of the genre, horror is the perfect realm to delve into for any reader prepared to confront some of the most prevalent, relevant, and significant issues of our world in their darkest and most unapologetic forms. From social to historical, from the physical to the psychological, from gritty realism to the otherworldly and the supernatural - nothing is safe when you delve into this rich, limitless, frightening universe.

But readers beware - once you're in, there's no going back...



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