It All began in Hell
As a writer and fan of Horror Fiction, I sometimes wonder where this genre came from and where the idea of writing such horrible things began. There are various theories of when and where these types of stories started. Some say it all started with the Romans -which seems logical as they certainly proved to be good at staging violence and death (just think of the gladiators and the Roman Circus). Was it Apuleuis, Seneca or Vergil? Horrifying scenes can also be found in many old books, including the Bible. For some reason, people have always seemed to be fascinated by the dark and cruel.
Yet, there was one particular book I came across as I searched through the prehistory of the Gothic genre: Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece, which is gaining new fame these days thanks to Dan Browns latest bestseller “Inferno”, takes its readers on a tour through hell. Dante’s s scenic details of the nine circles of hell and their varying terrors and tortures easily compete with modern Horror fiction.
Hell is still the homeland of dark literature. It’s the place where vampires, werewolves and zombies come from. If the protagonists of a horror story don’t come from hell, they certainly go through hell in the course of the horrible events they are forced to experience.
So, what is hell? Is it the meeting point of all the malevolence in this world? Is it like a caldron where all evils, imaginable and unimaginable brew? Is it the torture chamber ruled by the dark master, known by many names including Lucifer, Satan?
Is hell the exile where we are sent to be punished for all our misdoings?
Whatever hell really is, or however you imagine it, it has been part of human belief for over four thousand years. It has existed since the beginning, whether in the dark realms of death in the ancient Egyptian and Persian empires or as the anti-heaven of Christianity
– hell is still the most horrible place to find yourself.
Dark is Sexy
One of the things I like about Horror Fiction is that there are so many branches growing from its gnarled trunk.
There is the Science Fiction oriented Horror Story, the Gothic Story playing with archetypical fears, the psychological horror, the speculative horror, the splatter story, the vampire story, ghost stories and monster tales. The variety of ways in which the horror is presented is as extensive as the emotions the stories trigger. Some of these stories make you so scared and uneasy that you will keep the lights on at night because you can almost feel the invisible creatures lurking in the darkness of your bedroom. Other tales might make you sad because they remind you of something you have experienced or an injustice you have witnessed.
But then, there are also those stories, dark and horrible as they are, which dare put words to your most sinister dreams and excite you in ways you might be ashamed to admit.
For years now, sexy vampires have conquered television and movie screens -some were good hearted: Prince Charming’s fallen brothers, others were evil and dangerous: their cruelty making them all the more tempting.
The same applies to man eating women, devils in super-model bodies with beautifully harmless looks.
Dark can be pretty sexy. Danger is sexy. And, unfortunately, violence might be sexy too.
The connection between sex and horror fiction goes back to its beginnings and found its way out of the chambers of hidden desire into the world of literature thanks to one man, who had been shunned for many centuries and whose writing has been unjustly underrated:
Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis of Sade (1740-1814).
The eponym of Sadism was not only famous for his scandalous lifestyle which horrified contemporary society more because of his blasphemous opinions than for his abusive treatment of women of the lower classes, but he was also a writer. Writing was his only pleasure during the many years he spent in prisons or lunatic asylums, it was the only outlet he had for his (kinky) mind. The interesting thing about Sade is that he was one of the first who dared to put words to all those things which had certainly been part of the human mind for many centuries if not millenniums, even though we nowadays tend to blame modern media for – let’s say “irritating desires”.
The pleasure in causing pain is something we might have inherited from our animal ancestors. Other than the bloodlust of carnivorous animals, for humans it’s mostly a lust for power; to have the power to control another person to the point of hurting them physically, psychologically or emotionally.
The main question here is, how much can art add to these primitive longings? Can books, illustrations and images be blamed for intensifying the desire to hurt and dominate?
When you look at the “perverted” world of de Sade, there is hardly anything left that he did not describe, or that modern literature and media has come up with on its own. In 18th century France there was no television, certainly no public theater plays displaying “sadistic” scenes and only a few illustrations which made it to print. Where did he get all these ideas from?
Like many other controversial personalities, Sade started an ongoing discourse. His writing had an important influence on symbolism, psychoanalysis and the literary avant-garde.
Many of his descriptions anticipate milder versions found in Victorian Gothic tales.
“You always have to return to Sade in order to explain evil.” (Charles-Pierre Baudelaire)
Artists often walk along the thin line between provocation and disgust. How much can you dare to show or describe? When do descriptions of violence become too graphic and fail to have any effect other than distaste? Could art even be a therapeutic way to live out all those secret desires of violence and pain without causing real harm?
Reading de Sade shows us first and foremost one thing: some thoughts and desires might be horrible and “wrong”, but they are there. We’d better find a soothing way to deal with them.
My recommendations for further reading:
Here is an interesting book on de Sade by the feminist writer Angela Carter:
Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History by Angela Carter
The Beauty of darkness
In 1800, the German poet, writer and philosopher Georg Philip Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1819), who called himself “Novalis”, wrote his “Hymnen an die Nacht”. With this poetic cycle, he built an important bridge that transcended the religious lyric poetry of the baroque era and lead to a broader horizon where not only meter but also social norms were set free. By associating the night with beauty and justifying drugs in order to enter another sphere where the lover could be united with the dead bride, he found a way to overcome death and express the inexpressible.
His passion for both the mythical and science were overshadowed by an ever present limerence for death, which was caused by the early passing of his fiancé. This unique perspective left notable footprints on the road towards Dark Romance.
What I found intriguing was the shift of perspective taking place within Novalis’ poems and the other works of his time. Only in the moment when the obsession with nature and science became stronger than the obedience to religion did the beauty of darkness and “forbidden” things become more apparent. Death had suddenly become fascinating, the dark night a place to explore. Still, no matter the point of view from which it was analyzed, darkness never entirely lost its horror.
It’s like that feeling of taking a walk at night, where, at first, everything is so peaceful and quiet. Then, after a while, an unsettling feeling creeps in and all you really want is to get back inside where there are lights and you feel safe. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and all I can hear is my own heartbeat. At times I get the strangest ideas lying there in the dark.
Many cities look more enchanting at night, yet there seems to be a sense of sadness about them, no matter how many lights glimmer in the dark. In the end it is the sun that gives life and the light to see things clearly.
Wouldn’t we rather switch on the lights instead of facing our fears?
The Mother of Gothic Fiction
What scares you? One of the main motifs of Horror Fiction is to trigger an unsettling feeling in the readers. No matter if there is an underlying message or if the story is merely a playful experiment testing the limits of the reader’s imagination, it is the intention of Horror writers to shock their audience. Of course authors of Horror Fiction also want to entertain, but the laughter some parts of the story might provoke should only serve to release tension. I doubt many authors of Horror stories aim at being ridiculous. Yet, it has become kind of difficult to shock an audience who is well acquainted with horror, being fed with the most appalling pictures in the papers and on the news on a daily basis. The curious thing is that I often find classic Gothic novels creepier than modern Horror stories. Maybe it is the fantastic element in the newer novels that seems too abstract and unbelievable at times. I personally think that a malicious ghost is still way more unsettling than any alien energy threatening life on earth. Maybe it´s what Freud called “das Unheimliche” (the uncanny), a suppressed trauma or fear which is relived and triggered by mysteries and monsters which makes Gothic Fiction so intriguing.
It might also be the mix of romance, drama and hints at the forbidden that contributed to this genre´s past popularity and that continue to attract a modern audience.
Somehow, the Gothic novel can be seen as some sort of counterpart to the classic adventure story. The only difference is that it often deconstructs stereotypes and rather creates anti-heroes instead of supernaturally glorious knights and helpless ladies. One of the secrets of Gothic Fiction is that it obliterates the borders between black and white and paints a world in passionate colors. It doesn’t really matter why the hero falls off his pedestal. Could be that the devil seduced him, or a spirit possessed his mind. The most important thing is that nobody is perfect anymore and everyone is capable of doing evil things.
One of the most prominent dedications to the fans and readers of Gothic Fiction was Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817). Austen imitates a Gothic storyline and parodies the Gothic novel reader’s tendency to assume mysterious secrets and sinister villains behind everything that seems inexplicable. Among other works of Gothic Fiction mentioned in the book, there is particularly one author who is pointed out:
If you are a passionate reader of Horror and Gothic Fiction and haven’t heard of Ann Radcliffe, you should go and look her up immediately, for not knowing about her is like going to the theater on a regular basis and not having heard of William Shakespeare.
Ann Radcliffe (1764 -1823) was not only one of the pioneers of Gothic fiction and probably the most influential writer of this genre in general, she was also an early example of a bestseller author- particularly notable because of the fact that she was a woman. Her most popular novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) has often been described as the archetypical Gothic novel. Set in a romanticized, exotic landscape in southern France and northern Italy, the story is full of villains and desperate damsels, romance and terror.
While fantastic elements have already been part of earlier novels such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1763), Ann Radcliffe was the first author to take the trouble to explain these supernatural occurrences, often tracing them back to natural causes. The Gothic villain, as introduced in her novels, would become a new type of dark romantic hero, who was an early role model of the modern day bad guy. The sinister character never failed to draw fascination and secret adoration and was probably one of the main reasons as to why Radcliffe’s novels enjoyed great popularity among female readers.
The unsettling feeling Radcliffe’s Gothic novels triggered in her readers was also an exciting one. The adventures the heroes and heroines had to endure served as a welcome distraction from her upper middle class audience’s boredom of everyday life. The shock and terror which was induced by her stories was almost a sensual experience.
While contemporary male writers of Gothic fiction, like Matthew Lewis (The Monk), focused on more physical acts of horror and exposed their readers to demonic powers and bloodshed, Radcliffe created a parallel world of spiritual mysteries and imagined terrors. It was for Radcliffe’s preference for the “divine supernatural” that critics have described her writing as “female Gothic” in opposition to explicit scenes of horror as presented by male writers of her time. (cf.R. Miles, “Radcliffe, Ann”)
Ann Radcliffe is an early example for a more complex form of Gothic fiction working on the imagination, the subconscious and the emotions rather than feeding the readers with shocking sensational images. Whether you see her as an early example for literary feminism or heroinism (cf. Ellen Moers), or simply enjoy her original descriptions of landscapes, which are often shaded by the obscure, the charm of her writing is timeless and the looming terror which underlies her stories has not lost its impact.
“To the warm imagination, the forms which float half-veiled in darkness afford a higher delight than the most distinct scenery the sun can show” (The Mysteries of Udolpho)