The concept of horror is one of the oldest genres in storytelling. Early tribes would tell ghost stories of demons and monsters as a way to warn of the dangers of the unknown and the world they live in. These stories would be past down from one generation to the next, evolving over time. These stories would take precedence over the lives of those who listened and carried on their forefather’s traditions, creating superstitions which often had fatal or restricting repercussions. These stories would intertwine with religious beliefs and societal customs, sometimes having a widespread effect of hysteria on those who took them too literally.
Eventually, the popularity of the written word would spread, and with education becoming more and more accessible to middle class children rather than the elite, novels were born. Believe it or not, the first English novel wasn’t written until 1719 when Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe. Horror’s first introduction to the literary world was a gothic novel entitled, The Castle of Otranto written by Horace Walpole, which tells the tale of a mad lord seeking a runaway bride. This tale created the familiar themes and stereotypes of the gothic genre, from skeletons to ghostly apparitions, to ominous castles looming in a misty countryside. The sudden popularity of horror brought some of our favorites into fruition with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein following suit in 1818 and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. This solidified the very monsters and boogeymen told in countless tales and set forth the creation of two legendary monsters that have become timeless throughout the decades. The gothic genre flourished toward the end of the nineteenth century, with such literary greats such as the Bronte Sisters and Oscar Wilde at the helm.
Despite the surge of popularity, horror became a taboo subject. A guilty pleasure for aristocrats, and smut to those with more pious views. Penny Dreadfuls became a mainstream source of finding your horror fix. These short literary magazines contained poems and stories of all the terrors civilized society felt were too vulgar to discuss openly. However, this did not halt the interests of those yearning for thrills, but it did make it difficult for horror writers to earn decent wages. Since horror was considered the lowest form of literature, magazines would offer the bare minimum for submissions, and publishers would hardly offer anything at all for unsolicited manuscripts. It’s no wonder that literary legend Edgar Allen Poe, whose work revolutionized the gothic horror genre, died nearly penniless, alone in the streets.
Within the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the gothic genre has adapted to reflect the times, especially with writers like the father of science-fiction horror, H.P. Lovecraft, who gave us Cthulhu and gothic writer Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House) who blended the rural American aesthetic with psychological horror. Stephen King has become a household name and still maintains the crown of Horror King when it comes to horror literature. As he still continues to produce work even now, he remains a tough champion to usurp. His work, like Jackson’s, reflected contemporary culture and blended the supernatural into familiar suburban settings. His characters are ones we see in ourselves, and the evil they must endure is often adapted from the fears we, as a nation, hold at heart. Clive Barker has become another popular horror novelist with his brutal, and overly descriptive body horror that will leave most readers mentally scarred.
Nowadays, we are seeing a new medium for horror to thrive. Yes, we all know they have never wavered in the cinematic department, and even horror anthology television shows have been making a comeback within the last decade, but horror literature is still pulling in readers from all across the world via the internet. Creepypasta and Reddit have become the most popular method of new, aspiring writers to share their own original works of horror or even spread some of their own encountered urban legends. Some of these stories have had such a toll and influence on their readers they have led to some of the most bizarre and twisted crimes to date.
The internet sensation of Slender Man began on Creepypasta and has been reiterated and revamped countless times in various films and shows, the most popular being the YouTube web series Marble Hornets. The well-suited faceless stick figure is said to stalk and drive his victims mad before capturing them, and has led to the murder of a twelve year old girl in Wisconsin, when two of her classmates stabbed her nineteen times in order to become servants of Slender Man. This widespread panic led to a demonization of Creepypasta as panicked parents believed it was corrupting their children.
This sort of panic is not new. Not by a long shot. This sort of panic occurred in the mid 50s with horror comics such as Tales from the Darkside and Tales from the Crypt. Children often had to hide horror comics under their mattresses the way teens hide pornogrpahy. The idea that horror literature is taboo has been a constant belief in this country for many decades, waning as the years go by.
Nowadays, horror has become mainstream, and often marketed for teenage consumption, including its literature. New writers have found success by having their stories and posts shared and reblogged on sites like Reddit, allowing them to get their work published. My personal favorite is Dathan Auerbach’s Penpal. Auerbach submitted this story in piecemeal, one chapter at a time, telling the story of a man recalling repressed childhood memories and coming to the realization that he had been stalked, kidnapped, and targeted by a deranged lunatic. This is one of the few written words of horror that have actually frightened me and comes highly recommended for anyone in need of a good scare.
Some believe that literature is a dying art as we continue to see more and more technological advances. I disagree. There will always be those who enjoy using their imaginations, who crave the desire to be inspired and therefore will look for something good to read. It is often these sort of folk who adapt the materials they read into other forms of artwork. How many of our favorite horror films are based on novels? Think about it! The Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, The Omen, and of course the dozens of novels turned movies by Stephen King. Though horror cinema still takes the lead, there are those who prefer the slow burning suspension of a terrifying story and will look anywhere to get their fix. Whether it’s at a bookstore, or online. Where horror literature will end up next, only time will tell.