The Horror Novel Analysis

Horror’s golden age: 1872-1912

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The four decades from 1872 to 1912 represent one of the two richest periods of horror fiction in the English language. Because such moods as dread and anxiety are easier to maintain in shorter forms, many of the most successful works from this period are stories and novellas.

The year 1872 saw the publication of In a Glass Darkly, by Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu also wrote novels in which the supernatural played some part, but he is remembered for his shorter works, among which is the novella “Carmilla” from this collection. Although not the first work in English to deal with vampires, “Carmilla” is one of the most sophisticated. It is not clear whether Carmilla is “really” a vampire or her feelings for the novella’s young narrator are sexual. Nor is it clear what ultimate spiritual fate awaits the narrator herself, who is dead when the story begins. “Carmilla” is reprinted in countless anthologies of horror stories and has inspired numerous film versions, the most famous being Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932).

The same air of ambiguity hangs over The Turn of the Screw (1898), by Henry James. In this famous novella a governess charged with protecting two young children either battles malignant ghosts or projects onto imaginary ghosts her own destructive feelings toward the children—it is not clear which. Another writer who found the novella especially useful for exploring ambiguous psychological states was the Englishman Oliver Onions. In The Beckoning Fair One (1911), Onions described the disintegration of a writer whose sanity is sapped by his own ghostly creation.

Equally astute psychological analysis characterizes short novels produced by two writers famous for works in a variety of forms. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the classic fictional treatment of the split...

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Between the wars

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The major development in horror fiction in the United States occurred between World War I and World War II. American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe had written prolifically in the gothic tradition, and drawing upon them and such British figures as Machen and Hodgson, Lovecraft created a highly influential body of work.

Lovecraft’s major achievement was the creation of the Cthulhu mythos. The stories written within this framework suggest that Earth was once the realm of a host of malignant entities, or Old Ones—among them the dreadful Cthulhu—forever striving to regain their foothold. In addition to his many stories, Lovecraft wrote two novels. The more important of them is At the Mountains of Madness, and Other Novels (1964), a thoughtful adventure novel concerning a scientific expedition to Antarctica that uncovers a dwelling place of the Old Ones. Lovecraft was a conscientious writer, but his work is often vitiated by a labored, mock-archaic style. For this reason and because of their bizarre subject matter, his stories appeared exclusively in amateur publications and garishly illustrated pulp magazines. Lovecraft’s many followers and imitators published in the same markets, and as a result horror fiction in the United States was cut off from the mainstream of literary development for decades.

American boom

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

After World War II, several American horror writers challenged the sometimes stultifying complacency of a society intent upon preserving the status quo. In I Am Legend (1954), Richard Matheson imagines a world in which almost everyone has become a vampire. In The Body Snatchers (1955), Jack Finney taps a similar vein of paranoia by imagining aliens who have taken over a small town’s seemingly normal residents. Ray Bradbury describes another small town visited by a sinister carnival in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).

Most strikingly, writer Shirley Jackson challenges the era’s normality with The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a coolly understated short novel in which the evil personality of a haunted house undermines the sanity of one of the group that comes to investigate its alleged supernatural nature.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, several horror novels became best sellers, propelling the genre into public awareness. In Rosemary’s Baby (1967) Ira Levin transferred the central situation of Machen’s The Great God Pan to contemporary New York City, while in The Exorcist (1971), William Peter Blatty describes a case of demoniac possession. Both novels were rapidly paced and appealed to audiences unfamiliar with horror fiction. More poetic was Thomas Tryon’s The Other (1971), an atmospheric tale of twins and their dark secret. Tryon’s next novel, Harvest Home (1973), describes a New England fertility cult. Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings (1973) posits a haunted house even more malignant than Jackson’s Hill House.

These works set the stage for a writer who would...

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Continuing British tradition

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The most enduring British horror fiction of the post-World War II period has been produced by writers working in the mainstream. Sarban (John William Wall) produced a haunting dark fantasy in The Sound of His Horn (1952), a short novel that combines time travel with a sadomasochistic fantasy positing Nazi triumph in World War II. In The Feasting Dead (1954) and The Vampire of Mons (1976), John Metcalfe and Desmond Stewart, respectively, each spin a psychologically compelling variation on the vampire theme. Richard Adams wrote a leisurely but grim ghost story, The Girl in a Swing (1980).

Noted biographer Peter Ackroyd has written a series of erudite horror novels, of which the best are Hawksmoor (1985) and The House of Doctor Dee (1993). Hawksmoor deals with an eighteenth century Satanist and architect of churches, while The House of Doctor Dee concerns a young man who discovers that he is living in the former abode of a famous alchemist.

The most accomplished postwar horror novel in Britain came from an unlikely source: famous comic novelist Kingsley Amis. His novel The Green Man (1969) features a libidinous and alcoholic innkeeper whose establishment is haunted by the ghost of a seventeenth century magician and terrorized by the magician’s murderous creation.

Two other British novelists, Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker, have written specifically within the horror and fantasy genres, and while they have gone on to explore a variety of themes and forms, their first novels remain their best. Campbell’s short novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976), is as ghoulishly unsettling as its title suggests. Barker’s lengthy and ambitious The Damnation Game (1985) retells in contemporary terms the story of Faust, the sixteenth century figure said to have sold his soul to the devil.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Barron, Neil, ed. Horror Literature: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Garland, 1990. Arranged alphabetically by author within broad chronological periods, this survey discusses most of the major works of the horror genre as well as many other, more obscure, authors and their works.

Bleiler, E. F., ed. Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror. 2d ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. Two-volume collection of accessible essays on the genres of fantasy and horror that examine every major figure in the field.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Classic Horror Writers. New York: Chelsea House, 1994. Collection of criticism of the works of major gothic and early horror writers.

_______. Modern Horror Writers. New York: Chelsea House, 1995. Continuation of Classic Horror Writers, covering late nineteenth century and twentieth century figures.

Burgess, Michael, and Lisa R. Bartle. Reference Guide to Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. 2d ed. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2002. Comprehensive guide to source materials on the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Lists relevant dictionaries, encyclopedias, and awards and provides bibliographies, fan guides, and price guides.

Docherty, Brian, ed. American Horror Fiction: From...

(The entire section is 409 words.)