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A History of Horror Fiction: From the Greeks to Today

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A History of Horror Fiction: From the Greeks to Today


A History of Horror

Remember recent Halloweens when for some reason the costume of the moment was ‘Barb’ from 80s pastiche Stranger Things?

Some costumes you’re certain to see (or wear) year in, year out: the vampire, the werewolf, Frankenstein [sic]. All demonstrate the lasting influence that horror fiction, particularly of the gothic period, has had on pop culture.

But horror fiction goes back further than the Victorians. It can be traced to the Ancient Greeks and Romans (what, exactly, didn’t they have a hand in?) Within their myth, folklore, and religious traditions, these two cultures focused on the elements of death, the afterlife, demons, and the concept of evil. Popular horror characters, such as witches, werewolves, and vampires, make their debuts in the writings of some of Greece and Rome’s preeminent writers and dramatists.

It was in the 18th and 19th centuries when horror as we typically know it came into existence. Most notably, The Castle of Otranto kicked things off, injecting elements of the supernatural, which proved very popular with readers. Other 18th century releases included The Monk (1797) by Matthew Lewis, The Italian (1796), by Ann Radcliffe, and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), to name a few.

The 19th Century was when things really got going. Mary Shelley published her landmark Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and since then know-it-alls at dinner parties everywhere have informed people that Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster he created. 

Shelley’s novel celebrated its 200th birthday this year (2018) and its influence has only increased as the world continues to develop things like artificial intelligence and the cultivation of human organs.   

It wasn’t just Frankenstein (or his monster) that caused 19th century hearts to race and palms to sweat. Other books and stories were released throughout the century, many keeping Johnny Depp employed years after their original publication. Highlights include: The Brothers Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel (1812), Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo, works by Edgar Allan Poe, and lots more.  

There was an interesting shift in the 20th century as horror fiction came to focus more on the horror inherent in human experience. Perhaps the trauma of the Second World War made it starkly apparent that it’s not things that go bump in the night, or blood-quaffing aristocrats, that are truly terrifying, but the horrifying capabilities of ordinary humankind. Enter the psychological thriller, the obsession with, and sometimes the glorification of, the serial killer, the well-spoken cannibal called Hannibal, and the sexy psychopath.

Hannibal Lecter's Tinder profile pic.

Contemporary horror fiction has retained its interest in the human potential to commit acts of horrific violence, but there’s only so many ways in which one person can cause harm to another — although our motivation to come up with new ways is rather worrying. To get creative, contemporary horror fiction writers rely more on the monstrous or otherworldly. Stephen King (or King Stephen?), continues to use human violence in his work but he often dabbles in the supernatural or fantastical. The ‘new weird’ movement fuses element from various genres to create books that aren’t strictly horrifying, but eerie, gory, and grotesque.

I’ve always found it interesting that books with themes of natural disaster, nuclear holocaust or crippling mental health problems aren’t considered horror fiction. What’s scarier than the destruction of the planet, a radioactive winter, the loss of personal control? Perhaps these themes are too scary to face. Besides, how the hell does one dress up as global warming?

Read our quick list of horror fiction audiobooks below, from Shakespeare to Stephen King and arch-vampire fancier, Anne Rice. The list is by no means comprehensive, so leave your recommended audiobooks in the comments below 🙂

Happy horror listening! 😈

Horror Audiobooks: 1600s to 2018

Year: 1609

(first performed in)

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, narrated by Anton Lesser, Edward de Souza, Emma Fielding, Full Cast, Susan Engel

Year: 1764

(published in)

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, narrated by Neville Jason

Year: 1818

(published in)

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, narrated by Daniel Philpott, Roger May, Jonathan Oliver

July 1827

(Poe’s first poetry collection is published)

The Essential Edgar Allan Poe, by Edgar Allan Poe, narrated by Kerry Shale, John Chancer, William Roberts, narrated by Daniel Philpott, Roger May, Jonathan Oliver

Year: 1882

(published in)

Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm, narrated by Jim Dale, Janis Ian, Alfred Molina, Katherine Kellgren

Year: 1897

(published in)

Dracula by Bram Stoker, narrated by David Horovitch, Jamie Parker, Alison Pettitt, Joseph Kloska

Year: 1975

(published in)

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, narrated by Ron McLarty

Year: 1988

(published in)

The Silence of the Lambs Thomas Harris, narrated by Kathy Bates (!)

Year: 2013

(published in English)

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, narrated by Jeff Harding

Year: 2014

(published in)

You by Caroline Kepnes, narrated by Santino Fontana

Year: 2017

(published in)

Unsub by Meg Gardiner, narrated by Hillary Huber

Year: 2018

(published in)

Bad Man by Dathan Auerbach, narrated by Lincoln Hoppe

Year: 2018

(published in)

Blood Communion: A Tale of Prince Lestat by Anne Rice, narrated by Eric Shaw Quinn

If you’re looking for other horrifying (or simply spooky) Halloween reads, check out the rest of our ’13 for Halloween’ recommended audiobooks:

Steve Partridge

Steve is from the UK and has lived in London, Bulgaria, and Berlin. He studied Christian theology at King’s College London and spent several years working in publishing. His articles, books reviews, interviews and essays have been published in a range of digital and print magazines. In 2012, he was shortlisted for the Brighton Fringe Festival Writers Prize. His obsession with books and writing led him to start his own ‘BookTube’ channel on YouTube (to which you should probably subscribe). You can find him talking nonsense on Twitter @StPartridge.

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