Fiction most foul

mansion

The creative writing course I’m attending, looking at various genres, this week turned from Gothick horror to 20th-century Horror fiction, though not without a look first at 19th-century antecedents. These included Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Stoker’s Dracula (1897), James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and, not long after the turn of the century, Blackwood’s The Empty House (1903). Even a short romp through these key titles reveals a singular lack of female authors.

However, one female writer whose name did crop up in discussion was
Gertrude Barrows Bennett. Writing under the masculine pseudonym ‘Francis Stevens’ (given her by a pulp magazine editor) she is now credited with having invented the genre of dark fantasy in the years around 1920, maybe influencing H P Lovecraft’s writing in the twenties (though the connection is disputed). I could have added, of course, Edith Nesbit, better known as a children’s writer. Between 1893 (with collections called Something Wrong and Grim Tales) and 1910 (Fear) via 1897’s Tales Told in Twilight she published several short horror stories; many of these have recently been republished in a new collection by Wordsworth Editions as The Power of Darkness: Tales of Terror (2006).

Thereafter male domination of horror seems to have continued, usually with supernatural overtones (as in M R James’ ghost stories). After the Second World War this niche genre, long relegated to specialist magazines, caught the attention of the general public at the same time as horror films based on classic literature became more mainstream: Denis Wheatley for example topped bestseller lists with his Satanic-inspired fiction such as The Devil Rides Out (1934) and The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948). Television too got into the act with The Quatermass Experiment (1953) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958-9), followed by the start of Doctor Who in 1963 — all serials which were first aired by the BBC on British screens.

Change, however, was in the air. Up to now horror was largely predicated on some supernatural ‘explanation’ born from a Gothick or sub-Gothick imagination. It was also very Anglo-centric, whether written in the UK or inspired by British or a generally Western European culture. Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) was American through and through, though to my mind Hitchcock’s version of Bates’ Motel still betrays its Gothick ancestry. It also reflected a growing trend towards the psychological thriller, a term which apparently some exponents and critics prefer to ‘horror’.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” wrote H P Lovecraft. This ‘strongest kind of fear’ features in the useful distinction between ‘terror’ and ‘horror’ that we noted before, terror being fear of the unknown and horror being that unknown fear experienced in an explicit way; it suggests that many psychological thrillers would strongly deserve the label ‘horror’. Often set now in realistic and contemporary spaces (a motel instead of a medieval castle, say) the reader can more readily identify with the isolated individuals (a hitchhiker or a young mother, instead of a wandering nobleman or a tyrant’s ward) who find themselves in nightmare situations. Here they are presented with the options of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ in response to the growing threats offered to the protagonist, set in environments and reflecting experiences which many readers recognise and may resonate in their emotions.

The Gothick and the supernatural still feature strongly in contemporary horror, and here at last female writers start to make a real and individual impact. Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains (1969) utilises fairytale tropes in its post-apocalyptic setting; and Ann Rice’s Interview with a Vampire (1976) mixed Gothick and supernatural elements in with newspaper reporting. In more recent years Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) includes clairvoyance and more among its graphic descriptions of physical violence; Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983) envisaged a classic ghost story in a more modern Britain; and Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses (1987) riffed on Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde in 20th-century Edinburgh. Crossovers onto the small and large screen include Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 onwards) and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005 onwards).

All this seems to point to horror (whether with Gothick, dark fantasy or psychological thriller leanings) being a living genre, one that like a zombie seems to keep going despite premature death certificates. In particular the Gothick-cum-supernatural aspects seems to appeal to teenagers; especially when titles in this genre include feelings of isolation and alienation, examples of risk-taking, anti-heroes and mysteries, truths of which the protagonists alone hold the key (all points which came up in group discussion) this age group appears to be particularly fascinated by vampires, werewolves and the undead, lapping up graphic novels, films and electronic games featuring these denizens of the dark. It’s hard to guess whether a simple curiosity about possible life after death draws their interest principally or the visceral side of the literature — violence, sex or a combination of the two — without surveying their thoughts on the matter. Perhaps a diet of R L Stine’s books for younger readers, beginning with the Fear Street series (1989 onwards), has raised a generation which feeds the lucrative commercial propagation of this genre, thus creating a feedback mechanism which increases in intensity as time marches on.

In the creative writing class we finished with a look at an extract from Stephen King’s The Shining, a key example of the subgenre of psychological thriller. The young clairvoyant Danny is revealing his “invisible playmate” to be “really real”, someone who shows him increasingly frightening “signs”, all mixed in with his fear of his father who gets drunk (“doing the Bad Thing again”). The adult to whom he’s telling his secret calls it the ‘shining’, or seeing the future. Hard to tell much from an extract, but so many people tell me I ought to read King. First though I have those Nesbit tales to devour, and also a selection of Angela Carter’s dark fantasies —  The Bloody Chamber (1979), Nights at the Circus (1984) and Black Venus (1985).

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8 thoughts on “Fiction most foul

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    Although I’ve never been a fan of horror stories this was a really fascinating survey and analysis. I didn’t know that E. Nesbit wrote horror — can’t wait to find out what you think about them.

  2. I don’t know about the teens in England, but here in America the vampire has long been a favorite. I remember in the early 70’s having an older friend who was obsessed with vampires. She was convinced she knew a few (god only knows who she hung out with).
    Long before Ann Rice came out with Interview with a Vampire, they were thought of as sensual creatures. Today, they seen full of guilt and angst.
    I find it fascinating that historically it was women who gave us the great Gothic tales (James being a notable exception) while men gave us gory horror tales.
    Even today women tend to tell Gothic horror stories. Sarah Waters is a good example of this.
    I’d love for you to read The Shining. Selfishly, I’d like to see you do a review of the book, as no one does them better.

    1. I suppose vampires never fully went out of fashion. Certainly I can remember the British film studio Hammer producing no end of horror films in the 60s and 70s mostly starring Christopher Lee (often as Dracula), and this merely followed a long tradition of movies from both Europe and Hollywood on vampirism. Hammer concentrated on gore but some films (I’m thinking of the German remake of Nosferatu and the more recent Dracula film with Gary Oldman) emphasised the sensual, even sexual, aspect.

      I’m sure I’ll get on to The Shining sometime, maybe later on this year! So many books…

  3. I can remember seeing Frank Langella as Dracula on Broadway (late 1970s) and suddenly waking up to the sexual undertones of Stoker’s work, all brought to the surface in Langella’s portrayal as well as in the entire production. BTW, set designs were by Edward Gorey, a gothic artist of immense talent and humor — there’s nothing better than his *Gashleycrumb Tinies* and other alphabet books. I like a good dose of humor with my macabre, so I’ll take Gorey over King or Poe any day of the week.

  4. Gorey also illustrated books, didn’t he, but I’d never heard of him until the discussion about US editions of Joan Aiken’s Wolves novels.

    Lucky you to have witnessed Langella in action — a real legend in his time I’m sure.

    1. I have a much treasured collection of Gorey-ana, which of course includes the Aiken covers (I hate to admit it, but it was his covers that drew me to her books in the first place). His style is unmistakable, with complex crosshatching and people with bullet-shaped heads and heavy-lidded eyes.

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