Horror: An Origin Story
Hello, and Happy Halloween to all the readers of Meghan’s House of Books. Yup, its that time of year again, where Meghan allows me to come here and do a thing. So, I thought I’d have you all sit around the campfire and offer a bit of a short history lesson. Some of you might already know all this, but some might not. Here goes…
Any writer worth his salt is also a historian of the genre they write in. In an effort to understand how the genre works, what makes our writing that suitable for that genre, what the rules were from the outset and how they’ve changed and developed over time. We search with a rabid knowledge-lust to find out exactly where we came from, in a similar way someone might research their familial history.
Horror isn’t any different, especially in a world where the genre is constantly being divided into categories and sub-categories. We go back to move forward, discover where our cues came from and how we can best serve what we’re doing ourselves. By their own admission, Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell would scarcely have been the same writers if not for HP Lovecraft, MR James, and writers of their ilk. So, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on where I think horror came from, how it developed and who were the main players in its development. Be warned, there’s some left field ideas in here, but its all about the discussion. Disagreement is allowed in any debate.
Where to begin?
Well, I would arguably go back to written works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and other ancient texts which document mythologies and spoken histories. Are they horror? Well, yes and no. My view is that there are elements of horror in all of them, alongside a heavy dose of fantasy. I would posit the notion that the earliest overt writers of horror did likely look to writings like these, if not those writing specifically, and take some inspiration from some of the stories told there. Remember, this is about finding the primordial ooze which gave rise to horror, and I think this is most likely where it’s to be found. Some of the imagery in these texts is pure horror, and we still use those images today.
Homer’s Illiad is, to my mind, the first real horror story. Like the ancient texts I referenced above, it is as much fantasy as horror, but I find the two genres are inextricably linked in many ways. There are many horrific moments in that work, and many tropes we still see in horror today. There are meek and mild maidens who rise to be badass warriors, there are evil antagonists who creep you out and make you want to see them die in messy ways, and sometimes Homer shows you those deaths. For an ancient Greek philosopher, Homer was definitely a hell of a horror writer.
Taking his cue from Homer, I would cite Dante Aleghieri. The Divine Comedy, and particularly the Inferno section, is truly overt horror. It gives us a view of Hell, and one man’s trip through the seven levels of it. If we have to look hard to find horror DNA in the ancient texts I described, or in Homer, we certainly don’t with Dante. There is beauty in the horrific, and Dante revels in its description. Is he the first true horror master, the grandfather and architect of it all? Well, I’ll leave that for you guys to debate.
Goethe is another one from a little later than Dante. His Faust poem has given rise to the term “faustian,” which is a trope often used in horror. Clive Barker is a great proponent of the faustian pact trope, where a protagonist accepts a gift or an offer, only to be confronted with unforeseen and often horrific consequences. In Goethe’s Faust, the title character makes a pact with Mephistopholes, or Mephisto in some translations, and finds he has actually sold his soul to the devil himself. Is this horror? I’d say so.
Another early writer who often saw beauty in the horrific is William Blake. Alongside his paintings, Blake was a polymath who certainly delved into the darker literary arts. His work is often cited by horror writers as an inspiration.
Which brings us to, quite likely, the more familiar architects. I’ve skimmed through several hundred years of history here, highlighting writers who shaped the future of what would become horror. When we hit the 19th century though, we see a massive shift in sensibilities and matters which suddenly become acceptable to write about. Horror, the supernatural and erotic are no longer the things of taboo they once were, particularly in Britain, where horror and science fiction seem to take root first and strongest.
Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelley are perhaps the first real horror writers we would think of from this period. Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde, which has all the hallmarks of horror and science fiction. There is a psychological element to both, as we witness a descent into madness for the main characters in both those works. For me though, it’s Mary Shelley who truly broke the boundaries and addressed what horror would become later. It’s Shelley who confronted the idea that mankind may really be the monsters. I would ask, is Prometheus really the monster in Frankenstein, or is it the doctor who creates and abandons him? This is the question which horror writers wrangle a lot of the time, whether the monsters in their tales are archetypes for the worst of human traits, or whether mankind truly is portrayed as the monster for their treatment of anything they consider other. For me, Mary Shelley was the true risk taker of this generation, and her work certainly pushed the boundaries of taboo like few others dared.
Moving on to Bram Stoker, and the later 19th century writers. Stoker wrote Dracula, and we know what that one book gave rise to. It’s a franchise before anyone knew what such a thing was. Another taboo breaker, which gave us horror with a hint of the erotic. He provided another element to throw into the primordial ooze of the horror blueprint. I would also cite Lair of the White Worm too, which has elements of Lovecraft’s weird fiction before such a term was ever coined.
Writers which may seem like left field choices here would be Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. Although their work is not, in the strictest sense of the word, horror, there are certainly elements to be found in their stories. Hounds of the Baskervilles certainly leans heavily into our world, and Dickens was a great writer of ghost stories which he often incorporated into his studies of life in Victorian London. Both are more than worthy of deeper investigation.
Edgar Allan Poe needs no introduction, and is widely accepted as one of the true architects of modern horror. His poetry and short stories are the inspiration for many modern writers, with such absolute classics as The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, The Telltale Heart, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Fall of the House of Usher, and so many, many more besides. He touched on so many different forms of horror that it’s difficult to argue with anyone who asserts that Poe is among the most important writers of horror we’ve had. I would tend to agree.
In the early to mid-20th century, horror still continued to burgeon. It was, however, branching out from the gothic sensibilities of the previous decades. Writers like HG Wells and Aldous Huxley were writing with a far more futuristic vision, imagining new worlds and visitations from warrior races from other planets. Some would call their writings science fiction, but there is certainly horror in there too. Tell me The War of the Worlds or Brave New World are not both works of horror. Shirley Jackson and MR James flew the flag for gothic horror and ghost at this time. Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a staple which entertained and inspired for generations to come, while MR James’ short ghost stories are a staple diet for many modern writers trying to learn and hone the craft of creating atmosphere. But, the real trailblazer of this time was HP Lovecraft. Totally unappreciated at the time, Lovecraft’s contributions and importance didn’t gain popularity until the 60’s and 70’s, but his ideas have been the springboard for a good many writers since. He’s more than just the Cthulu mythos though. His ghost stories, tales of rats in the walls, and other gothic style stories are absolutely as important as the Old Ones stories.
All of these writers, in some way or another, have shaped horror in the last century. Without each of them, or some combination of them, we would not have had Ramsey Campbell, Robert Bloch, James Herbert, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and the other horror masters who have rightly taken their place in the pantheon in the years since. Horror writers like me look back on these creators in awe of their inspiration, their vision, their bravery to explore ideas which were certainly counter to societal conventions and often considered dangerous or immoral. Without that bravery, none of us would be here.
So, I raise a toast to all of those who went before. All any of us who write can hope for is that we honour their legacy, and keep the flames of their creations alive for the generations to come.
Boo-graphy: Paul Flewitt is a horror and dark fantasy writer from Sheffield, UK, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Paul began publishing in 2012, beginning with the flash fiction story, Smoke, for OzHorrorCon’s Book of the Tribes anthology. He went on to pen further short stories, including Paradise Park, Climbing Out, Apartment 16c and Always Beneath.
In 2012, he also published his first novel, Poor Jeffrey, which was received to much critical acclaim.
His novelette, Defeating the Black Worm, was released in 2021, through Demain Publishing.
Paul cites writers such as Clive Barker, Stephen King, James Herbert, and JRR Tolkien as inspirations on his own writing.
Paul continues to write, contributing to Matt Shaw’s The Many Deaths of Edgar Allan Poe anthology in 2020 with The Last Horror of Dear Eddie. He also began releasing free short stories and fanfiction on his Wattpad account for fun.