The Horror Begins – Horror’s Roots

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”— H.P. Lovecraft (Supernatural Horror in Literature)

When people think of the word ‘Romance’ in regards to book genres they picture something a bit like this:

Ok, maybe not exactly that. What can I say? Fabio was everywhere when I was growing up. What some people don’t know, however, is that back when novels started becoming popular the term ‘Romance’ had a very different connotation. It referred to a book being fantasy and not a book grounded in everyday, typical life. To understand how horror has evolved over the centuries we’ve got to go back in time. Way back.

Horror, fear and the tale of terror have been with us for a very long time. Ever since people told stories you could always find hints of terror and horror. From these, poems and ballads emerged and, finally, the Gothic Romance. Where instead of Fabio and rippling pectorals there are castles, skulls and tombstones.

The first in a long line was a book called The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. While it wasn’t the best written piece of literature it did open the door for more intricate and well-written novels. To be fair, Walpole wrote it because he had a love of the medieval and wrote it for fun. It became more popular than he had anticipated. And, yes, it is a hot mess in terms of plot and coherence but it still gave birth to one of the largest forms of literature today, horror.

Walpole’s novel spawned the genre of the Gothic Romance and inspired many other authors to follow suit in crafting atmospheres of dread, terror and the ghastly. The most popular of which was  Ann Radcliffe. She wrote many Gothic Romances. Her most popular of which was The Mysteries of Udolpho. Ann Radcliffe expanded the boundaries of the Gothic Romance. She wrote sweeping vistas of the Italian countryside. It mattered little that she hadn’t traveled to any of them, neither had most of her intended audience. Then she peopled it with extremely sensitive people. Like the kind of people who cry at sunsets and faint at the drop of a hat. They are also hampered thus further by all of the poems stuffed into it and her insipid heroines. Each can be exchanged for another. They gasp, they cry, they faint and are self-absorbed. It’s pretty much a late 18th century version of Twilight. She also had the unfortunate tendency to shoot her supernatural spectres in the ghostly foot by creating non-supernatural explanations for them all.

The popularity of Mrs. Radcliffe’s first book, The Italian, and The Mysteries of Udolpho spurred a lot of imitators. Some would adhere to her strict non-supernatural policy while others would expand the field a bit. Some to greater and lesser effect.

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey rightly lampoons all of the common tropes and cliches of the genre. Although someone could read her book as an attack on the genre itself, it definitely is not. She mentions the books fondly in letters and such. She would also have to have read them frequently in order to riff on them so well. What she does lampoon in it, however, was the tendency of the time to view novels as a lesser form of entertainment and a commentary (through the characters of Isabella Thorpe and her brother John) about consuming entertainment responsibly. Which really surprised me. It seems the argument about entertainment’s influence on morals and judgement has been going on a lot longer than television and video games.

She first sold Northanger Abbey to a publisher in 1803 but the publisher chose not to publish it. After a while Austen’s brother bought it back and it was eventually published posthumously in 1817. Although the publisher wouldn’t give a reason for not publishing it after it was purchased I have a theory that since it was written during the Gothic Romance boom they didn’t want to take the chance of publishing a spoof and tanking the popularity of the Gothic Romances.

A few years after the publication of The Mysteries of Udolpho another book came on the scene: The Monk by Matthew Lewis which threw a whole new spin on the genre. Heavily influenced by German ghost stories The Monk became so popular that the author became known as Matthew “The Monk” Lewis. The Monk featured pregnant nuns, rape, murder, demons and an appearance by The Devil himself. While most of it is pretty tame by our standards it caused quite the uproar when it first came out. It was also highly criticized at the time but even amongst the criticism was also praise. He would go on to write more, mainly translations from German ghost stories.

From Matthew “The Monk” Lewis we go on to Charles Robert Maturin and his book Melmoth the Wanderer. It’s a tale about an Irish gentleman who trades his soul for a preternaturally extended life span. He can get out of the deal, however, if he can convince someone else to take the deal. It’s a long book that weaves together several narratives into one. Honore Balzac wrote an unofficial sequel/reimagining of the Melmoth tale named Melmoth Reconciled, in which the titular character is able to exchange with another person, thus freeing himself of the Devil’s bargain.

These were the biggies of the Gothic Romance era but other authors weren’t just resting on their butts. The market was flooded with Gothic Romances for the brief period that it was popular. Some of them can be found in the book The Northanger Horrid Novels which includes the ‘horrid’ mysteries mentioned in Northanger Abbey. For a long time these books were thought to have been made up but since the advent of e-books and The Guttenberg Project many older books that were thought to be lost have now been ‘rediscovered’. You can find all of the Romances mentioned in Northanger Abbey in this book: The Complete Northanger Horrid Novel Collection put together by M. Mataev.

The Gothic genre has never really died out but it has been expanded to include a wider variety of novels and themes. Since today is Goth Day I suggest you get out your black eyeliner, nail polish and spiky dog collar (if you don’t have one you can borrow mine) and curl up with a few old-school horror tales. You’ll probably laugh over the fact that these were the horror novels of their day. Don’t laugh too hard though, you might smear your makeup.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Gothic Romance and Horror through the years these four books are a great place to start. They’re highly recommended (Stephen King’s kind of skims over some of the early horrors, including Weird Tales, though): The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough, Supernatural Horror in Literature by H.P. Lovecraft, The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance by Edith Birkhead, and Danse Macabre by Stephen King.

All covers link to Goodreads

2 thoughts on “The Horror Begins – Horror’s Roots

    1. The Dorothy Scarborough and Edith Birkhead ones can be a bit dry but The Lovecraft and King books are written in a much more relaxed style. I will warn you though, the King and Lovecraft ones (particularly the Lovecraft book) have very detailed descriptions of the books so, spoilers ahoy!

      I’m very glad you liked reading it. Thank you!

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