‘O God!’ I screamed, and ‘O God!’ again and again; for there before my eyes – pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death – there stood Henry Jekyll! DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE
If you’ve got your costume, have apples ready to be dooked and carved pumpkins guarding your door, why not settle down in your haunted house with a book to read?
We may no longer be burning witches at the stake but the fascination with the supernatural is as old as mankind, and it doesn’t seem like we’re going to lose our love of ghouls any time soon. Scary stories hold a deep place in our psyches, and fairytales could be considered our first encounter with the genre. These stories are universal, told and retold throughout the world (Angela Carter’s Book of Fairytales has great stories which appear in different forms across the globe). Often life lessons or morality tales, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood or the ugly sisters in Cinderella are no less vicious or relentless than modern day horror villains, and the tales have the same real/unreal atmosphere of modern urban legends.
However, the horror genre as we know it today really began in the nineteenth century (Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales – or Grimm’s Fairy Tales – was published in 1812). There are four classic horror books which have themes and ideas that raise their heads again and again in the horror genre, no matter what the medium. These are Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, and The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James. These texts seem so well known in our culture that it can feel as if there is little point in picking up the books. But, like the fairytales, these stories have so often been adapted by the teller to suit their purposes, that your expectations may be challenged when you pick up a copy.
Classic horror themes encompassed in these novels:
Frankenstein: The manipulation of life and death
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Leading a double life
Dracula: The threat of a mysterious stranger
The Turn of the Screw: Mental fragility blurring events
These timeless ideas are just as disquieting today as they were when these books were written. They play on the characters’ vulnerability and leave them powerless, at the mercy of the next terrifying and unexplained event to befall them. These are suggestions which can make you feel uneasy in your own home when reading them – and when horror has made your safest place unsafe, you know that its work is done.
In today’s horror fiction, traditional elements are often softened and reshaped – just think of the vampires in the Twilight series or the witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. And many people will read their first proper ‘horror’ books as children, especially in the Point Horror or Goosebumps series (how about RL Stein’s ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Goosebumps?). But what would be a genuinely scary modern book for Kohl readers this Halloween?
Stephen King is of course the one person most associated with horror fiction. Some other fairly recent publications are Hilary Mantel’s Orange-shortlisted Black Magic, and Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger. I found some of Neil Gaiman’s short stories in Fragile Things pretty scary, and I did grow up terrified by Roald Dahl’s The Witches – especially the little girl who was trapped in the picture getting older and older…
But perhaps the most unsettling pieces of horror can occur outside the genre. Does 1984’s Room 101 rate a horror mention? Or perhaps graphic novels offer the perfect blend to take the genre onwards, especially when film seems to be torn between sanitised horror and headline-grabbing torture porn.
Where do you think the horror genre will go next? And what scary book would you recommend for this Halloween?