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Horror Roundtable 16: Horror History 101

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When: 23 February, 2014
Time: 8pm EST (use the Time Zone Converter to find your local time)

Horror History 101

Who are the founding fathers of the horror genre, and what is it about their work that allows it to stand the test of time? Let’s look at some of the iconic figures in the horror fiction genre, books and short stories that are required reading for all those who love the genre. But let’s do that from a global perspective. We will go as far back in time as we can, and then fly forward to the present day, illuminating along the way crucial moments and writers in the genre. It’s a history lesson 101.

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Special Guests:

James Doig works at the National Archives of Australian in Canberra. He has edited several anthologies and single author collections of horror and supernatural stories by early Australian authors, including Australian Ghost Stories (Wordsworth, 2010) and Ghost Stories and Mysteries of Ernest Favenc (Borgo, 2012). He has also published articles in journals like Wormwood, All Hallows and Studies in Australian Weird Fiction on forgotten authors of horror and the supernatural such as Lionel Sparrow, “Keith Fleming”, Reginald Hodder, H.T.W. Bousfield, Helen Simpson and R.R. Ryan. He has a Ph.D in medieval history from the University of Swansea, Wales.

Douglas E. WinterPublisher’s Weekly has hailed Doug Winter as “the nation’s most accomplished critic of horror, dark fantasy, and dark crime.” His books include the only authorized biographies/critiques of Stephen King (Stephen King: The Art of Darkness) and Clive Barker (Clive Barker: The Dark Fantastic); the Book of the Month Club’s “Best Suspense Novel of the Year,” Run; and the best-selling anthologies Prime Evil and Revelations.  Doug’s short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker Award, and has twice won the International Horror Award.  He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and has contributed more than 300 articles and reviews to major newspapers and magazines in the United States and Europe.

Yvette Tan didn’t know that she was writing horror until people started telling her that her stories gave them nightmares. Her first book, ‘Waking the Dead,’ is a collection of short fiction in English, while her second, ‘Kaba (Fear),’ is a collection of flash fiction in Tagalog. She has been noted as one of the people who popularized horror fiction in English in the Philippines.

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103 comments on “Horror Roundtable 16: Horror History 101

  1. A great source of horror history is anthologies. The best known is probably Fraser and Wise Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (1944), or perhaps David G. Hartwell’s Dark Descent. In the 1970s and 80s British anthologists like Hugh Lamb, Richard Dalby, Peter Haining and Mike Ashley opened up the field by rediscovering forgotten writers like R. Murray Gilchrist, Barry Pain, Bernard Capes, L.A. Lewis, Frederick Cowles, Eleanor Scott, Lady Dilke, Richard Marsh, E. and H. Heron and many others. Specialty presses have been reprinting collections by these authors since the 1990s in limited editions.

  2. And there are more accessible books – Stephen Jones’ and Kim Newman’s Horror: 100 Best Books, and Horror: Another 100 Best Books have brilliant essays by writers and scholars on their favourite books going back to earliest times. The Book of Lists: Horror contains various horror lists but is skewed towards film rather than literature. Les Daniels’ Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media is one of the most accessible histories of the field and can be found in cheap paperback editions. The great T.E.D. Klein’s Raising Goosebumps for Fun and Profit is full of insights.

  3. Classic reference books that are unfortunately quite scarce and expensive are Everett Bleiler’s Guide to Supernatural Fiction, probably the most sought after reference book. A favourite of mine is London book dealer, George Locke’s, three volume Spectrum of Fantasy – a checklist of his incredible collection with notes of how he acquired the books and how much they cost, modeled after similar multi-volume works by the great collectors of nineteenth century fiction, Michael Sadleir and Robert Lee Wolff.

  4. One thing about our genre is that we’re blessed with the number and quality of reference books and histories of the genre. Most recent is ST Joshi’s 2 volume Unutterable Horror. Mike Ashley’s Who’s Who in Horror and Fantasy Fiction (1977) is still a useful and surprisingly complete reference. Neil Barron’s Horror Literature, and Marshall Tymn’s book of the same name are annotated checklists. David Pringle’s St James Guide to Gothic, Ghost and Horror Writers has short essays and bibliographies of a huge number of authors.

  5. A massive thank you to our guests Yvette Tan, Doug Winter, and James Doig for what has been an incredibly informative and interesting discussion.

    This Roundtable will remain open for the next week, so feel free to come along and add your thoughts/comments.

  6. Yes, Centipede make nice books and they’re mighty tomes – I shudder at the thought of how much it’ll cost to send one to Australia!

  7. Nick Joaquin is awesome! The academics hate that people think of him as horror, but he makes liberal use of its elements. A lot of ‘canonical’ authors actually use horror elements in their fiction such as F. Sionil Jose’s “The God Stealers,” but no one really thinks of it as such.

  8. As far as publishers go I’d mention Tartarus Press, Ash Tree Press, Swan River Press, Egaeus Press, Ex Occidente, Midnight House and Ramble House. Wordsworth Editions produce a very affordable Myster & Supernatural series. If you had some time on your hands you could buy the huge Wordsworth edition of Varney the Vampire for a couple of bucks…

  9. Valancourt is U.S., although they do publish a fair number of British writers…. valancourtbooks.com

  10. In truth, the fiction we love and that can be classified, if you wish, as “horror” has a remarkable depth and defies any notion of genre. Take a look at the lists James mentioned, or simply the catalog at Valancourt … you may be surprised by the amount of weird fiction that has been published, and in such diverse venues.

  11. Horror in the Philippines, specifically, has been linked to komiks (the local term for pulp comics written in Filipino), which were popular in the 70s. In terms of theme, though there are good plot and character-based stories out there, stories that deliver nothing but fast scares are still the most universally popular among the masses.

  12. I’ve a collection by a Nick Joaquin called Tropical Gothic, but much to my shame I’m yet to read it!

  13. Since our time is running out, it might be worthwhile to offer up some recommendations … and I’ll start with one not specific to authors, but to an imprint: Valancourt, which is doing a great job unearthing otherwise forgotten horror fiction — what I would tend to call “weird fiction” — as well as preserving more recent fiction in print.

  14. Probably worth me mentioning on the British side of things the huge numbers of popular novels that appeared between the wars by opportunistic publishers. A fair amount of it was horror, eg H. Russell Wakefield. Karl Edward Wagner, the great American writer and collector identified some of the more obscure examples in some ‘best of’ lists he put together for Twilight Zone back in the 80s. These were so obscure and unobtainable that many people believed he invented them – they include novels by Mark Hansom (whose identity is still unknown), Jack Mann (ie E. Charles Vivian) and RR Ryan. A few enterprising publishers have been reprinting these in recent years.

  15. Sorry, Kathy… looks like Hawthorne (and Melville) were unfortunate casualties of our efforts to move quickly through nearly three centuries, focusing mostly on supernatural horror … I know Charlie loved Hawthorne’s dark romanticism … words that also could describe Charlie’s work …

  16. Yes, James. Though there are stories that draw on more ‘Western’ concepts like psychology, the majority of horror here still like to use elements of folklore.

  17. great discussion! where did everyone go? anyone here a fan of hawthorne? i know charlie liked his stuff quite a bit. stuff. hahaha. well …

  18. And curiously, although horror — like romance and westerns and boxing stories and detective stories — had always been targeted toward the “masses” … as we’ve seen, it grew out of literary impulses and continued as a thread in “higher” literature even as the lower-brow venues cheapened its image in many ways…. so that by the time of the 1960s, horror really had become the stuff of B movies and B fiction — in the public eye and the commercial eye, whether or not it deserved that description

  19. I guess ‘cosmic horror’ comes into its own thanks to Lovecraft – you get a lot of good modern horror coming out of that tradition – Ramsey Campbell, Laird Barron, Caitlin Kiernan, Mark Samuels etc.

  20. The pulps were another major breeding ground for contemporary horror … and they were succeeded, in turn, post-World War 2, by horror comics … which were omnipresent until Congress forced the Comics Code down the industry’s throat….

  21. What’s interesting, and powerful — at least thus far — about True Detective is that it’s able to give us Lovecraft as he once was … by not giving us Lovecraft, of course, but by giving us Chambers … so we have that sense of an elder unknown and unknowable but without the crappy baggage of the plush toy Cthulhus … You just know, sadly, that some jerk is going to come out with a Yellow King bobblehead… and that a bunch of horror fans will go willingly along with another sad cheapening

  22. There were pulps in England too, but they’re much rarer to find than the American versions – ghost story writers like A.M. Burrage wrote a lot of material in British pulp story magazines.

  23. And his fiction often insisted that our science didn’t matter one whit, in the face of the unseen and unknowable…

  24. Where Lovecraft found his power — thanks, in part, to Chambers — was in his unwillingness to explain. He was in that sense the anti-Radcliffe. Not only was he resolute in the possibility of the supernatural, to the point that his fiction insisted on its existence, he was resolute in an unwillingness even to begin to explain it, at least at times. And be placed the reader in the uncomfortable position of finding themselves in an alternate cosmology that co-existed with the Judeo-Christian one …

  25. Well, Lovecraft was steeped in science and reason – as much as possible he tried to give his tales a rational background and explanation.

  26. Also, Flannery O’Connor isn’t considered horror, but some of her stuff bleeds into the area.

  27. Much horror output in the mid part of the century is closely associated with the pulps – that more targeted equivalent of 19th century popular magazine – Weird Tales etc. A lot of fine writing came out of them, as well as a lot of crap, but the crap can be fun.

  28. I’m loathe to describe Lovecraft’s work as science fiction, and would tend to ally those elements more with Wells’ notion of “scientific romance” … another phrase, perhaps, for science fantasy … which always troubled me as a descriptive…

  29. Thanks, Doug. And I am with Yvette – I always teach ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as literature, but also as ‘horror’ – even if (‘when’ usually) I have to act a bit, read aloud, the more disturbing passages so students understand the amazing depth of ‘creepy’ the story offers. ;-p

  30. Also in the 20th century, a more supernatural bent: HP Lovecraft and MR James. Horror literature would influence the budding film industry. It would also be the subject of comic books.

  31. Rhonda, the notion of “modern Gothic” is a difficult one, given the level of self-awareness and media surplusage faced by contemporary writers. But Iain Sinclair comes to mind as someone worthy of a look.

  32. If I can use an Australian example, John Harwood’s The Ghost Writer uses many Gothic trappings, but the important thing is that his writing isn’t pastiche, it’s a reinterpretation or re-imagining. When modern writers do that, it makes for great fiction.

  33. A lot of people in academia don’t consider “The Yellow Wallpaper” horror because it’s “literature,” but yes, it’s one of the creepiest stories out there.

  34. And then … to try to keep us on pace, with an eye on the clock …. with the 20th Century, the fear of our innate savagery, the emerging fear of the blowback of imperialism and colonialism, and the fear of the ever more powerful technology of war, comes the fear of the scientific — and, in turn, the opening gambit of science fiction — notably in the “scientific romances” of H.G. Wells: The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The Island of Doctor Moreau.

  35. That period marks the maturity of horror fiction – the trappings of the Gothic novels and tedious ghost stories fall away and horror becomes much more sophisticated – entrenched often in the here and now (not some crumbling medieval castle)and much more psychological – perhaps reflecting the rise of psychology as a science.

  36. Are there any modern Gothic writers, any of you can think of, who did their homework – who write what you would consider a worthy of the predecessor(s) modern Gothic novel … ?

  37. There’s a resurgence in an interest in Chambers because of the TV show True Detective. Also Ambrose Bierce and HP Lovecraft, though interest in Lovecraft never really waned thanks to the internet and Cthulhu plush toys. Apologies, jumping eras a bit.

  38. Also in that 15 or so year period, you had one of the great early feminist stories — note that I didn’t include the word “horror” as a modifier, because that would be far too limiting: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”…

  39. Yes, Carmilla has a lot to answer for – all those sexy Hammer vampire flicks of the 60s and 70s…

  40. The Golden Age – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula, Dorian Gray, Mr James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Arthur Machen, Oliver Onions Widdershins, Dracula, the Beetle…

  41. Actually it was more like 15 years, but consider, between 1886 and 1902, you had Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde … Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray…. Bram Stoker, Dracula … Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow … Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness … the stories of M.R. James … and those are merely high points…

  42. Joseph Sheridan le Fanu deserves a mention – he took the Gothic novel to a new place with Uncle Silas, and his ghost stories stand up will today, and a perennial staple of anthologies, eg Green Tea. Carmilla is probably the first great vampire tale, perhaps the greatest vampire tale, if I can stick my neck out for a swipe.

  43. In the space of about ten years at the close of the 19th Century, horror had an astonishing reign ….

  44. A female werewolf … those interested are probably better off reading “The White Wolf of the Harz Mountains,” which is effectively the chapter of The Phantom Ship involving the werewolf.

  45. For early werewolf fiction, it’s hard to past Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf (1895) – a terrific tale that should be better known.

  46. And there is more to come, I believe … since I hope to cover post-Poe fiction that many readers may have missed….

  47. You mean Reynold’s Wagner the wehr-Wolf? Reynold’s wrote penny dreadfuls – those weekly penny-part publications. Varney the Vampire is another example, and The String of Pearls (aka Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber), but they’re also very much a slop – padded out by the author(s) if they proved popular with the reading public.

  48. That said, I would urge anyone seriously interested in writing horror to take a good look at the precedent, including Otranto and Wieland and even Melmoth … if only to be present at the creation and to understand how the fiction has evolved since then…

  49. Love the discussion – I now I have some new direction to take, as I was looking at my collection of books, dying for some new fiction. It appears I need to look at some older fiction now/currently to pique/keep my interest. ;-p

  50. I wouldn’t stone you, Yvette, Those are novels of a different time, writer for a different audience who were quite different kinds of readers….

  51. I agree completely Yvette! Literary scholars can dust them off and write a PhD about them, but very few have stood the test of time, imho.

  52. dI agree completely Yvette! Literary scholars can dust them off and write a PhD about them, but very few have stood the test of time, imho.

  53. Looking back before that time, there isn’t much that seems memorable or, as you note, appealing to the modern audience, even for historical reasons … although it is worth noting that the first werewolf fiction appeared relatively soon after Frankenstein …

  54. Poe marks a watershed – so influential in so many ways. In a sense he also marks the beginning of the mass market fiction magazine and the rise of the short story as a commercially viable form. That’s important – you get Dickens writing and publishing ghost stories at Christmas for his own magazines, you get le Fanu writing for magazines in Dublin, and so it goes on. Cheap, mass market publishing really kicks off the horror story,

  55. And then, the next generation … Poe and Baudelaire and LeFanu … as the Gothic became more sensual and at times more willingly lurid … and directed more at the masses, which accounts in part for what we might call its increasing “readability” …

  56. Before Poe there was an awful lot of horror being published- look at all Gothic novels being dug up and reprinted by modern publishers like Valancourt, Zitaw, and back in the day, Arno (thanks to the indefatigable Devendra Varma), but personally I find much of it unreadable, though it may have appealed to readers of the day.

  57. Personally I must admit to a continued fascination with Wieland, because it is American in a time when most memorable fiction of its type was British, and there are traces of an American horror fiction emerging in its pages. But you cannot easily find anything before Poe to compare with the Shelleys and Byron and Polidori and that legendary summer in Geneva.

  58. Ann Radcliffe might not be great horror, but I think there are a couple of truly great Gothic novels – Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820),Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and of course Frankenstein (1818).

  59. And of course that continues today … Steve King dealing with alcoholism in The Shining and Doctor Sleep, among other novels. The mediation of human frailties and everyday worries through the mirror of unreason.

  60. Yes, nicely said – I guess the Gothic novel is all tied up with romanticism and the reaction against the Age of Reason. That said, it’s worth mentioning that many Gothic novels deal with perfectly ‘reasonable’, everyday worries – loss of inheritance, loss of freedom etc

  61. Radcliffe had that urge for realism, I believe … even if sometimes it pushed the reader away. She needed the rational, even as she danced with the irrational. Explanation is always anathema to great horror.

  62. Oops! Of course that should be Ann Radcliffe. It’s often said she’s a bit of a cop out because she always rationalises the supernatural horrors. But the Gothic villain in many ways starts with her.

  63. The Castle of Otranto was the first novel to use the supernatural instead of realism. It was also the start of the Gothic novel.

  64. We’re not that far from Valentine’s Day, so it’s nice to remember that Shelley kept her dead husband’s heart in a scarf … now that’s romance!

  65. And by 1798, we have the first American Gothic/horror novel — and arguably the first American novel — Charles Brocken Brown’s Wieland, or The Transformation.

  66. And we shortly get many talented female writers – Anne Radcliff, Clara Reeve, and of course, Mary Shelley, making a huge impact.

  67. Welcome… I worried that I would be typing non-stop for the next hour or so….!

    And yes, Walpole … and the dam breaks.

  68. The inevitable marker, which followed closely on the heels of Defoe and Richardson, is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), which is widely accepted as the first novel in the English language to delve into supernatural elements.

  69. Sorry, Doug – just made it. I’m thinking that it wasn’t too long after the early novels you mention that we get to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and the first Gothic novel. From there, the field takes off, thanks to canny publishers like the Minerva Press. You can always blame publishers for working out what the public wants and cranking it out!

  70. So I’ve tried to set the stage for a horror history that focuses on the printed word, from the 1700s to today.

  71. And I would argue that, although horror certainly interpenetrated art, literature, religion, popular culture in all its forms … it was not until storytelling evolved into novels of realism and psychology that a literature of horror could be possible.

  72. The modern novel probably emerged with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722) – books named for their central characters. Defoe’s characters were so convincing, and their worlds were so convincing, that he is often called first writer of “realistic” fiction.

    Then came Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-41) and Clarissa (1747-48), the first “novels of character” — or, as we’d say today, psychological novels. Defoe and Richardson were the first great Anglo-American writers whose plots didn;t derive from mythology, history, legends, folk tales.

  73. The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “Character” tell us: “The inferior novelist tends to be preoccupied with plot; to the superior novelist the convolutions of the human personality, under the stress of artfully selected experience, are the chief fascination. Without character it was once accepted that there could be no fiction.”

    Since the beginnings of language, written stories have been named for their central characters, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Beowulf to the Book of Job and probably half the books of the Bible.

  74. Because of our technical issues, I will begin with a soliloquy of sorts. Historical, but also to talk about something that too often eludes beginning writers and also blurs our vision of the fiction of fear….

  75. Tonight’s topic, of course, is “Horror History 101.” And the roundtable will try, in the course of the limited time available, to offer its perspectives on the fiction of fear.

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