by John Pecoraro, Assistant Director, Manhattan Public Library
It’s nearly Halloween and time to snuggle up with a classic horror story that will scare you silly. According to H.P. Lovecraft, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Great horror stories create eerie and frightening atmospheres, provoking emotional, psychological, or physical responses. For most of us, that response is fear.
With its origins in folklore and religious traditions focusing on death, the afterlife, evil, and the demonic, horror has grown into a popular genre in both literature and cinema. Horace Walpole’s gothic classic, “Castle of Otranto,” (1764) is considered the ancestor of the modern horror story. Throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century, writers of gothic fiction were often women, such as Ann Radcliffe (“The Mysteries of Udolpho,” and “The Italian”), and featured resourceful female protagonists.
Gothic blossomed into horror during the nineteenth century with works such as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818). In addition to its continued popularity as a novel, this story of regenerated life has inspired over two dozen films, including such off the wall classics as “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
Other influential authors of nineteenth century horror include Robert Louis Stevenson (“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and “The Body Snatcher”), Joseph Sheridan La Fanu (“Uncle Silas”), Ambrose Bierce (“Can Such Things Be?”), Oscar Wilde (“The Picture of Dorian Gray“), and Bram Stoker (“Dracula“). But for sheer eeriness, you can’t beat Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe’s short stories define horror for many readers. We experience being bricked into a living grave in “The Cask of Amontillado” and dread the approaching plague in “The Masque of the Red Death.” “The Fall of the House of Usher” hints at acts too horrible to speak of, and the best laid plans of a murderer come to ruin in “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
The twentieth century saw another explosion in horror with the proliferation of the pulp magazines. H.P. Lovecraft published stories in “Weird Tales” and “Astounding Stories” among others. Lovecraft’s “Chthulu Mythos” pioneered the sub-genre of cosmic horror. Denizens of the Chthulu universe are minor players, insignificant to the powerful Great Old Ones who exist on a cosmic level beyond human understanding. A character’s search for knowledge in Lovecraft’s stories usually ends in disaster.
The most popular, and perhaps the most prolific, writer of modern horror is without a doubt Stephen King. Since 1973 and his debut novel, “Carrie,” King has published fifty novels and nine collections of short fiction. His work has won the Bram Stoker Award, presented by the Horror Writers Association, over a dozen times. Some of King’s more famous titles include “The Shining,” “The Stand,” and “The Dark Tower” series. Many of King’s novels and stories have been made into movies. King has also collaborated with fellow horror novelist Peter Straub on two titles: “The Talisman,” and “Black House.”
Dean Koontz is another prolific writer of horror among other genres. In “Phantoms,” for example, two sisters visit a ski resort in California and find no one alive. The few bodies they do find are mutilated or exhibit a strange cause of death. Koontz’s more recent titles include the series on Odd Thomas, who has the uncanny ability, not only to see the dead, but to see the shadowy figures lurking around people who cause death or who soon will die.
“I am Legend,” by Richard Matheson, was influential in the development of the zombie genre and in popularizing the concept of a worldwide apocalypse due to disease. This title was adapted to film three times, including the classic “Omega Man” with Charlton Heston, and “I am Legend” with Will Smith.
In “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” by Ray Bradbury, two teenage boys have a harrowing experience with a nightmarish traveling carnival that comes to their Midwestern town. Mr. Dark, the carnival’s leader, bears a tattoo for each of the unlucky souls enthralled to him, those lured by his offer to make their secret fantasies real.
The Internet is replete with sites offering lists of the most frightening in horror. Still having trouble deciding on the scariest story? A simple search of the library’s catalog will point you in the right direction for your scary, sleepless night.