Horror, as a genre, is relatively new in the world of literature. Before the 1800s, there were monsters and demons and horrific acts in fiction. In Beowulf, what is Grendel but a forerunner to the Creature from the Black Lagoon? These monsters would do monstrous things but, inevitably, good triumphed over evil. You could read all the ghastly stories you wanted but you knew the hero would live, the creature would be vanquished and no ambiguity would be found.
If there is a mother and father of modern horror, they are Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. With Frankenstein, Shelley created a story where the creature is the sympathetic character. With the writings of Poe, he was just as likely to put you into the head of a murderer as he was a hero. With this shift in perspective, we reached the modern horror tradition.
Still, for all their efforts, neither Poe nor Shelley lingered in the idea of the supernatural. Although it could be hinted at, their horrors were based on science, psychology, nature and medical oddities. Torture and murder and madness could be found in the tales of Poe but not an actual ghost or goblin.
Spinning from their tradition, Ambrose Bierce, Bram Stroker and Henry James would go beyond the earthly plane and create macabre tales of ghosts, vampires and other monstrosities. Oddly, it is almost this early that the line between literary fiction and the genre ghetto of “horror” was established. One could write about horrific things befalling normal people but as soon as you brought a ghost or monster in, you were writing populist trash for degenerates.
Using other literature as a guidepost, it is easy to see that mental illness was something people found disturbing and inexplicable. In Jane Eyre, a certain psychotic is locked away in an attic, too unstable for the outside world. For Poe to not only frankly discuss the actions of the insane but also to let you inside their thought processes was revolutionary. Think about the Tell-Tale Heart or the Cask of Amontillado. Both stories are told from a first person perspective of a murderer. However, the cold, calculating evil of the narrator of Amontillado could not be more different than the fevered rantings of the narrator of the Tell-Tale Heart. Poe seemed to have a unique talent to sympathize with murderers.
I would argue that other authors could sympathize with murderers as well but they lacked the artistic fortitude to explore those darker thoughts. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a perfect example of removing the humanity from the pursuit of evil. A failed experiment leaves Jekyll helpless to prevent his transformations into the monstrous Mr. Hyde. While the argument can be made that the evil of Hyde was present in Jekyll all along, Stevenson presents evil as an external curse brought on by science rather than an expression of internal horror.
Poe, by humanizing the horror, made it one bad day away from your own fate. Even those who came after Poe (like Machen, Bierce and Chambers) went to great pains to separate the reader from the horrific events they describe. Try reading a horror short by Ambrose Bierce. Almost without fail, each tale begins with a long and useless description of how the narrator happened across an old friend who invites him to tea. Over tea, the old friend then regales the narrator with a spectacular story involving yet a third person who relayed this amazing story to the old friend.
I have tried for years to figure out the reasons for such an approach. Normally, when dealing with horror, you have to contend with storytelling techniques that make sense. For example, once Jonathan Harker goes full vampire in Dracula, his letters home cease to be a source for the narrative. Likewise, you can’t have your narrator die and still tell the story in past tense unless you like extra cheese with your horror fiction. So, perhaps, adding in layers of storytellers makes the ending less predictable. However, you still have to have someone survive to tell the tale or it just doesn’t work. Why third person omniscient narration was unpopular, I have no idea.
In the end, one of my favorite innovations of Poe was his dwelling in the darkness of depression. Lost loves and regrets are the ghosts that haunt his characters. There is nothing supernatural about how his narrator mourns for the loss of Lenore or Annabelle Lee. That his loss drives him mad, that is a horror I think we all can relate to.
But here is the rub with all fiction: do you want to see yourself reflected or do you want to escape into a world you don’t recognize? I wonder how many of Poe’s readers in the 1800s were well-adjusted sorts who just loved to dabble in the depravity of his fictions? Did the authorities consider his work to be a dangerous read for someone already on the brink of madness? I wish I knew.
At any rate, the romanticism of the 19th century would soon give way to ever more metaphorical and metaphysical threats to hapless fictional characters. Next time, I want to jump into the deep end of the pool that HG Wells helped build…I’m going to look at the horror behind aliens.