Share |


Horror Then and Now

by Jessica Zellers

*This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of RA News.*

For some of us, it's always horror season. We celebrate Christmas as the time for ghost stories. We expect our beach reads to deliver a high body count. When we hear "Saint Valentine's Day," we silently add the word "massacre." For others, horror season is a short-lived window of opportunity right around Halloween. These poor souls spend the rest of the year reading books that do not leave them whimpering under the covers. Both groups -- devoted horror fans as well as dabblers -- can benefit from being reminded of some spooky old favorites along with, ahem, some new blood. For example, Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House is a perfect pick for fans of Richard Matheson’s modern horror story, Hell House, and vice versa. Like chocolate and peanut butter, the classics below and their modern read-alikes can stand on their own or complement each other.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
ISBN: 9780380730407

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
ISBN: 9780743298025

A sense of dread builds slowly but steadily through Rebecca, set in the 1930s English countryside. After a shocking plot twist, the tension dissipates and it seems as though all will be well for the unnamed narrator and her new husband. But this is no cozy English mystery: this is classic gothic horror, complete with one of literature's creepiest villains, Mrs. Danvers.

Set in contemporary times but with the same eerie, gothic feel, The Thirteenth Tale borrows freely from du Maurier's novel. Fans of Rebecca will recognize the sheltered young heroine, the sprawling mansion, half-truths and hidden clues, and the scandalous family secrets.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
ISBN: 9780486266848

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
ISBN: 9780140071085

Hell House by Richard Matheson
ISBN: 9780312868857

The Turn of the Screw is the perfect horror story for readers who prefer subtlety and nuance. No two readers will interpret the book in exactly the same way, Henry James is ambiguous throughout. Is it really a ghost story? Is the horror perpetrated by human monsters or supernatural entities? Can the governess trust her own senses, or is she susceptible to the eerie setting of the Victorian manor? This is a fine gothic story of a haunted house, although we never find out conclusively who -- or what -- is doing the haunting.

Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House -- considered by many critics to be the best haunted house story ever written -- is an excellent companion to The Turn of the Screw. Set on a remote country estate, a fragile young woman struggles with her sanity as she endures a series of terrifying but subtle events. Is she the victim of malevolent spirits or her own overwrought imagination?

And an excellent companion to both The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House is Hell House, written by established horror writer Richard Matheson. As with the other two books, Hell House puts likeable main characters into a creepy old house and exposes them to dangers that become increasingly more terrifying. While Matheson's writing style is more visceral (and sexual) than the two older books, his novel derives its real horror from similar tensions between the uncertainty of supernatural events and the questionable mental stability of the main characters.

The Dunwich Horror and Others by H. P. Lovecraft
ISBN: 9780870540370

Mr. X by Peter Straub
ISBN: 9780679401384

In contrast to many other classic horror writers, H. P. Lovecraft did not concern himself with ambiguous or psychological horror. His otherworldly creatures are incomprehensibly horrific, brutal, and evil. Every fan of the horror genre should read at least one short story from his Cthulhu Mythos, if for no other reason than to see how Lovecraft continues to influence writers today. “The Dunwich Horror” is a fine introduction to Lovecraft, featuring a creepy small town and man who is unaware of his demonic parentage. This short story can be found in many collections, including The Dunwich Horror, and Others: The Best Supernatural Stories of H.P. Lovecraft.

Peter Straub's novel Mr. X is a tribute to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos in general and to the short story "The Dunwich Horror" in particular. Familiarity with Lovecraft permits readers to enjoy Straub's inside jokes, but it is not necessary to know Lovecraft to enjoy Straub's shivery small-town story of a man of uncertain parentage who is gifted -- or cursed -- with some supernatural family secrets.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
ISBN: 9780670878000

Monster by Dave Zeltserman
ISBN: 9781590208601

The novel Frankenstein was so scary that it frightened its own author. Though Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation are pillars of popular culture, the original text is often overlooked. This is a shame: Shelley’s imaginative tale of terror Is a literary masterpiece, blending adrenaline and thrills with thought-provoking questions about what it means to be human.

In Shelley's classic novel, Dr. Frankenstein's creation is a monster, albeit a sympathetic one. In Zeltserman's campy retelling, the real monster is the doctor himself, aided by his co-conspirator, the Marquis de Sade. Frankenstein's patchwork science experiment is the hero, and his perspective on events will delight anyone familiar with the original material, provided they can handle the depraved scenes of horror.

Dracula by Bram Stoker
ISBN: 9780141439846

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
ISBN: 9780316011778

Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is essential reading for anyone claiming to be a fan of horror. Innumerable movies, books, television shows, and breakfast cereals have been inspired by Stoker's vision, but the original novel should be read for its own merits. Its prose is surprisingly accessible for modern tastes, and the story itself is both creepy and terrifying.

Purists who find themselves appalled at vampires who sparkle or make wisecracks will appreciate the corrupt and ancient antagonist of The Historian. As in Bram Stoker's novel, the tension builds over the course of the book, until the final showdown between the good guys and the vampire. Elizabeth Kostova's writing is finely crafted and expertly paced.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
ISBN: 9780375751516

Dorian by Will Self
ISBN: 9780802117298

When it was published in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray scandalized the Victorians, who were horrified by Oscar Wilde's perspective on hedonism and homoeroticism. The real horror, however, lies in Dorian Gray's Faustian bargain. Having traded his soul for eternal youth, Dorian Gray slowly loses his morality and his sanity, inviting readers to contemplate classic themes of horror such as death, aging, and false beauty.

Will Self's novel Dorian is a direct homage to Wilde. The homoerotic undertones are now overtones, and the three main characters of the original novel are living in late-twentieth century England, where drugs, sexual promiscuity, and materialistic debauchery are taking their toll on everyone except for Dorian, who remains unaffected by the excesses of his lifestyle. The novel's tributes to the original are artfully done, though it can be enjoyed on its own as a satire of English society.

The horror genre is too dark, too grizzly, and too disturbing to be universally popular. Most folks sample from it sparingly, if at all. This is the best time of year to promote the genre, and readers who develop a taste for the horrific will find satisfying stories in the past and the present alike. Use these titles to create booklists, blog posts, or book displays, and bear them in mind for conversations with readers who want something horribly good to read.

Jessica Zellers is a freelance librarian with a weakness for fat Russian novels.