The evolution of the horror novel
From the beginning of time man has conjured up stories meant to produce fear in the minds of others. From the ancient civilization of Sumer arose the tale of the Ekimmu. While the Sumerians did not refer to this creature as a vampire, it very much so resembled one.
The first known mention of a werewolf in literature can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the story of King Lycaon. Written around 1 A.D. it would still be over a dozen centuries before horror fiction would begin to take on a face of its own.
In 1307 the Italian poet Dante Alighieri published The Inferno, a literary masterpiece depicting a journey through Hell. While this was clearly a horrific work of fiction, it would be centuries to come before authors of such work began to surface.
In 1487, Henry Kramer and Jakob Sprenger published Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches). Though it is known to be one of the most important treatises on witchcraft, it is far from being a novel.
Then, in 1714 Anglo-Irish poet Thomas Parnell published A Night-Piece on Death. His work, along with the other Graveyard Poets, Thomas Gray, Robert Blair, William Cowper and Edward Young, greatly contributed to the evolution of the Gothic novel. Which was now only decades away.
In 1765 Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto…and the first Gothic novel was born. This book forged a new kind of literature and in the coming decades would bring numerous authors onto the scene. Such as, Ann Radcliffe, Clara Reeve, Friedrich Schiller, Mathew Gregory Lewis, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and even, Bram Stoker. Delving into the darkness of humanity, these authors would solidify a literary genre.
In 1796 a twenty-year-old Matthew Gregory Lewis published The Monk. The story’s extreme violence and explicit sexual content made it one of the best-selling and most influential novels of its time. Inspired by The Monk, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs was published in 1815.
At this point medical science was setting new milestones. In need of cadavers for medical students to practice on, grave robbing had become a lucrative business throughout Europe and America. At a time when much of society feared that rogue scientist would soon be bringing the dead back to life; in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was as real as horror could get to the people of that era.
By now there were numerous authors writing Gothic novels and the genre flourished throughout the 1800’s.
- 1819 John Polidori: The Vampyre
- 1839 Edgar Allan Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher
- 1846 George Reynold: Wagner the Werewolf
- 1847 Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights
- 1868-69 Robert Browning: The Ring and the Book
- 1872 Sheridan Le Fanu: “Camilla” Through a Glass Darkly
- 1885 Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- 1897 Bram Stoker: Dracula
- 1913 Marie Belloc Lowndes: The Lodger
Finally, in 1929 William Buehler Seabrook introduced zombies to western civilization in his book The Magic Island.
With that, I have exposed the roots from which the modern-day horror novel sprouted, far enough.
While the information above provides a brief insight into the evolution of the horror novel, and genre, it also reveals how long the usual suspects of horror have been around. By the early 1900’s, depictions of Hell, witches, vampires, werewolves, monsters, crazed killers, and even zombies, had all been done. If we were to bring the list above up to date with the most recent authors and titles, one is quickly challenged to come up with an original antagonist for their latest horror title. But, it also prompts the question: What horror awaits?
While the aim of writing a horror novel is to spark fear, disturb, creep out, and terrify the reader, the formula for writing such literature is much the same as it is for writing any successful novel. The only difference, it must contain the aforementioned elements in order to keep the reader reading. Below I have lined out four basic elements that successful horror novels have in common. If you’re writing a horror story, it is imperative that these elements are applied.
While in this day and age it may be a little difficult to conjure up a completely original antagonist for your story, it’s easy to put a new twist or introduce new elements to an existing one. Is your book about vampires or zombies? That’s great, you’re in the perfect position to break the mold and take it to the next level. It only takes a few seconds of thinking outside the paragraph to manifest an original idea. Ponder a bit deeper and you’ll find that there is a world full of new and terrifying beings, creatures and apparitions waiting to enter the literary stage.
2: Characters with substance
You can have the most outrageous story line and plot ever conceived, but if your readers can’t relate or connect with your characters, you will lose them before they get there. I myself have put books down, never to be picked up again because I didn’t care about the characters, I didn’t care to read on and find out what fate may have befallen them. This doesn’t mean that you have to necessarily create likable characters, just interesting and original characters. Even if it’s some scrounge-ball that everyone hates, if he holds the readers interest they will read on just to find out how Butch Butcher tortures him to death.
I’m not big on outlining a story or plot in advance such as depicted in Robert Mckee’s book, Story. For me his method takes the fun out of writing. I write by the seat of my pants, so to speak. I have however, been known to outline my characters, their names, personalities and even their roll in the story.
- Name: Butch Butcher
- Description: Tall, muscular man, late 20’s. Lives in the Death Camp trailer park. Meth dealer, but doesn’t use. Likes to kidnap and torture people to death.
- Personality: Social. Likable through deceit (he’s not who he seems). Hides on the surface of his emotions. Good at playing innocent.
- Note: A non-suspect in the string of trailer park murders.
Lining out characters in this manner helps develop my story line and makes it easier to place my characters in situations of conflict and interact with each other. It also helps me develop unique characters that take on individual personalities and readers are interested in reading about.
3: Pace and style
Style: Horror novels, as well as thrillers tend to use shorter more efficient sentences. Avoid long running sentences that in the end really don’t say much. It also helps to minimize the verb usage when describing dialogue. Example: “she said with excitement.” Simplified, “she said.” If she was excited then an exclamation mark was used, indicating her excitement. It’s also good to eliminate words that emphasize. Example: “I just stood there, waiting.” Reads better, “I stood there, waiting.” It’s also more impactful to give the reader an image. “He was terrified.” How about, “he trembled with fear.”
Pace: If your book reads full throttle one slasher scene after another, your readers will grow to expect what is coming and will disengage from the fear. Tension must be ratcheted up and released throughout. At the same time, the pressure can’t drop too far, it must contain a certain level of stress in order to keep the reader engaged. Avoid over explaining the inanimate; focus more on building suspense for the next event in your story.
This alone is possibly the main factor for an enthusiast of the horror genre to take up such an interest. The reader wants to experience the thrill of fear, of shock, and takes a liking to the creepy and morbid. A good horror novel should be unsettling and leave the reader thinking about it for days to come. Don’t hold back, be descriptive and write what you’re thinking. If you’re thinking it’s too lewd or sick minded, or you’re afraid of what your parents may think if they ever read your book, then you’re making a capital mistake and the horror novel you really want to write, will never be written.
While some authors are naturals when it comes to verbalizing terror, most have to hone their craft through much practice. Most argue that reading notably good horror is the best way to become a good writer of it. For me, the more horror I read the more I start to imitate those authors; my unique style and voice tends to get lost in my writing. My ability to convey a scene so that the reader feels the words as they read, is greatly attributed to writing. Take for example, this picture.
Describe the woman in the photo from the stand point of someone who opened the door and found her strapped in that straight jacket, delivering a curdling scream from the bowels of Hell. Describe not only the scene, but the terror bestowed. Then, depict it from the other way around, through the eyes of the possessed woman, the anguish, hatred, and damnation she is experiencing.
Exorcises like this will not only help develop your ability to convey horror to your readers, it is very likely that you will produce something worthy of putting in your book.
To answer the nagging question:
What horror awaits…is a new perspective from which it’s seen, and a new voice from which it’s told.
What horror awaits…is possibly the novel you haven’t written yet.
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I hope you found this post informative and helpful. Comments are welcome!