Genesis of a Horror Fan: Week 2

Join me as I explore the things that made me a horror fan!  One item per week until the end of October!

Week 2: Classic Literature

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I have always been a bookworm.  I wasn’t a stranger to what most kids my age were reading, and I read my fair share of popular “kid lit.”  The Hardy Boys (far superior to Nancy Drew, in my opinion), Goosebumps, and The Babysitter’s Club were something that I regularly hunted for at the local library.  However, I had a teacher that recognized that I was reading well above my level, and he introduced me to the classics.

Now, most people think of classics, and they think BORING.  They think of flowery language that’s annoying to read, and stuffy characters that are hard to relate to.  They remember having to sit down and write an essay that they hated.  And, they remember being told that they “should be reading something of substance.”

“Should” is one of the most dangerous words you can use when you’re trying to get a kid to read something.  The impulse to buck the trend and not read something because someone says you should is strong in me to this day.  Apparently, it’s the one rebellious streak that this goody two shoes has left.  It is one of the reasons that I was shamefully resistant to Harry Potter for so long.  How dare they tell me what I “should” be reading?  How dare they think they know what I like?  To this day I respond better to enthusiasm and passion.  “Oh, my God!  You HAVE to read this!” or “Holy crap!  How have you NOT read that?” usually work better for me.  “Should” tends to imply that the book isn’t really all that great, but everyone else is reading it so why not you?

Most of the classic horror literature that I read was very gothic in nature.  Dark hallways, howling winds, flickering candles, and granite walkways always make a great, gloomy backdrop to any scary story.  What makes these novels so great is that classic horror was often a veiled look at human nature.  They were ways in which authors could exploit societal fears about everything from sex to science.  When you look back on how a lot of these works were reviewed, many were not appreciated at the time of publishing and were considered ahead of their time for this very reason.  People did not want to examine that side of themselves in the moment; it’s only looking back on the past that we can appreciate what these works were trying to say.

And so, I won’t tell you that you should check out these classics.  I’m telling you that they are important works that were revolutionary for their time.  I’m telling you that they are books that people tend to read as children, but are far more disturbing to read as an adult when you have more life experience.  And, of course, I’m telling you that they were influential on my love of horror to a huge degree.  So, if you agree with my endorsement, give them a try!

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Hoo boy.  Where do I even start?  For a little novella, this one packs a real punch.  It tells the story of a nanny who has travelled to an old, isolated house to care for two children.  Their uncle leaves for business regularly, and she is often abandoned there with them.  She begins to see the spirit of a man who she becomes convinced is there to take the soul of one of the children.  The ending to this story is one you won’t soon forget, and I don’t want to spoil it by saying too much.  I’m pretty sure I actually gasped when I read it.  This book was my first experience with an unreliable narrator, and still the ending floored me.

The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

Speaking of unreliable heroes……

H. G. Wells novels are largely considered science fiction.  They definitely are, but that doesn’t make them any less scary.  The Invisible Man is very much a “human horror,” and explores the concept of the corruption of man when he gets a taste of power.  A scientist turns himself invisible but is unable to reverse it.  What follows is his descent into madness, and the realization that invisibility covers a multitude of sins.  This book is a very cool exploration of what happens to someone with the ability to never be caught, and it is frightening.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Poor, obsessed Dr. Frankenstein and his poor, poor creation.  As a kid reading this, the focus is on the huge lumbering monster that leaves destruction (and several bodies) in his wake.  The fact that the monster has no grasp of right and wrong is terrifying on its own.  Right and wrong are things that we learn, and the monster never had that chance.  Reading as an adult, however, you see that the good doctor is the real monster, forsaking right and wrong for the sake of scientific progress.  The fact that this book was written by a nineteen year old girl on a bet still floors me to this day.  It is a mature work that still resonates with readers, and is surprisingly relevant in today’s world.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula may seem like an obvious choice, and it is, but for very good reason.  It is by far one of the most scarring experiences for a young reader.  Over the years, many young people have read more sanitized versions of Dracula.  Comic books, versions of the story abridged for children, and Twilight-esque garbage have made people forget just how disturbing this defining vampire story really is.  Over the years, the character of Dracula has become romanticized and in some cases even tragic and sympathetic.  I am here to remind you that the original bears no resemblance to these versions at all.  In the original story, he is a horrifying monster.  He has played with necromancy.  There are scenes in which his attacks resemble rape.  He eats babies.  In true classic form, it really dives into the Victorian fear of sex in a way that was very unique at the time, in which seduction itself is dangerous, but the denial of that seduction is even more so.  It is also written in a very unique way, with the story being told through a series of letters, journal entries and news articles that are being put together by the narrator.  This way of storytelling was totally unique to me, and gives it an almost detached feeling of being research that makes it seem as if it was something that could have happened.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Before I get any complaints, please note that I understand that Wuthering Heights is not a horror novel.  But, this article is about what influenced me as a horror fan, not what are the scariest books I’ve ever read.  This story is one of the most honest looks at what an obsession with unrequited love can do to a person, and it sure as hell ain’t pretty.  The doomed story of Heathcliff and Cathy is one of the most disturbing looks at human nature that I have encountered to this day, and one of my all-time favourite books (I read it once a year!).  There is debate as to whether or not the ghost in this story exists outside of the dark hero’s mind, but that doesn’t make her presence any less startling.  The cost of obsession is high, and madness sets in rather quickly.  For those who think this is a tame little romance, I feel I need to remind you that at one point Heathcliff digs up her grave and breaks her coffin.  He then bribes the undertaker to bury him beside her so that when he dies their bodies can rot together.  The setting for this book on the dark, cold, windy moors is a character all by itself; this book was definitely my first look at how a well-drawn setting can make the most innocent story seem horrific, and make you peek around corners before turning them.  It is also one of the first books I read with an anti-hero.  Heathcliff is not a wonderful man mourning a tragic loss; he is an outsider who has let his circumstances turn him into a vengeful, abusive jerk.  I went into this one expecting a lovely romance, and what I got shook me.

 Hope you enjoyed!  Look for a new entry next week!

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