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An Alternate History of Horror I: A Dark and Stormy Night

By Ryan Fleming


Photo of the Villa Diodati taken by Robert Grassi. Photo is in Public Domain.

Many of us have taken a holiday where the weather during the trip turned out to be less than desired. If you happen to be one of the few lucky ones never to suffer this, looking at the increase in extreme weather events over the past few years you won’t have to wait long. Of course, Climate change has ruined holidays long before the 21st century. One instance, in the early part of the 19th century, would prove especially impactful and specifically so as far as a certain genre of fiction is concerned. The horror genre, as understood today, was born in circumstances so appropriate they are inadvertently cliché. An isolated European mansion, in the mountains near a lake, on a dark and stormy night…


The year was 1816. A year remembered across the Northern Hemisphere as the Year Without a Summer. The summer having been lost to a brief period of climate change wrought by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in modern Indonesia. The change was brief but significant, triggering harvest failures and extreme weather conditions globally. Even as distantly as the other side of the world and over a year later, which brings us to Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland.


The Summer of 1816 saw the mansion rented by the English poet George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron, who resided there with his personal physician, John William Polidori. There they would befriend another English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, most importantly, the then Mary Godwin, later Mary Shelley. By 1831 Mary Shelley remembered “incessant rain often confined us for days to the house”. It was during one such instance that the company, after amusing themselves with a collection of German ghost stories, Byron proposed they have a contest to each produce a ghost story of their own. From that, horror fiction in its recognisable form was born.


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Before diving into the development of horror (and science) fiction and how it might have differed let us look at some of the more pivotal impacts of the brief period of climate change. In Asia, disruption to the monsoon season saw torrential rain and devastating flooding. Resulting in famine in China from crop failures and the exacerbation of a cholera outbreak in India. Europe, only just emerging from the Napoleonic Wars, also saw crop failures and an accompanying rise in food prices that brought upon riots across the continent.


North America fared little better; crop failures made worse by a poor transportation network. Crops destroyed by frost in New England and New York in June. Lake and river ice in Pennsylvania in July. Frost as far south as Virginia in August. New England was among the hardest hit, with tales of farmers freezing to death from Vermont and Maine. Even accounts of wells frozen solid in New Hampshire for the 4th of July.


Conditions in New England served to accelerate the migration of people from New England into western New York and what was then the Northwest Territory of the United States. Amongst those families to make the journey was that of Joseph Smith, whose family travelled from Vermont to western New York. This set off a chain of events that would leave to the founding of Mormonism and the Latter-Day Saint Movement. Itself just one of several religious strands born out of the “burned-over district” of New York.


The climactic change also had more subtle impact. Landscape paintings from the years after the eruption saw more use of red hues than were used in the years prior. Paintings in general shifted away from bright and hopeful themes to a darker mood dripping with despair. The artists, like those suffering from a lack of food, or forced to seek out new homes because of the drop in temperatures, did not know the cause of the change. It did not matter.


This might seem tangential to an examination of the history of the horror genre and how it might have differed. The circumstances in which the genre was born on the shores of Lake Geneva were a worldwide phenomenon. A volcanic eruption beyond the control of humanity is a tricky thing to imagine changing to alter the course of history. The famine and epidemics that followed the eruption from the islands of Indonesia all around the world were horrors of a very real kind.


Imagine the eruption happened in a world with eight times the population, and knowledge of the impact it would have on a global scale. Unfortunately, artists might need a lot more shades of red.


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Let us return to the Villa Diodati on that dreary, wet summer night in 1816. Specifically having a competition to write a horror story was not just inspired by the dismal weather. In the tried-and-true tradition of passing the time on a rainy holiday the denizens of Villa Diodati turned to reading. The conventions of the horror genre would tell us that the five (Byron, the Shelley’s, Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont) would stumble across some ancient tome. They would find it in a secret compartment behind a bookcase, having been hidden for decades or even centuries, covered in dust and full of harsh script in a dead tongue, accompanied by horrifying illustrations. In fact, the book that inspired the competition was only four years old in 1816.


Fantasmagoriana was an anthology of German ghost stories, translated anonymously into French by Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès and released in 1812. Its contents had been published previously in their native German between 1786 and 1811. The two volumes featured stories by four authors: Johann August Apel, Heinrich Clauren, Friedrich Laun, and Johann Karl August Musäus. The stories were drawn from the tradition of German folk stories. These were already so culturally embedded that Musäus’s stories were intended as satirical retellings of the same.


Folk stories and fairy tales have their origins long before they were collected by the Brothers Grimm. To this day, these stories would be the first horror content to which children are introduced. Not all horror, of course, but if they must be categorised as anything other than fairy tales some of them leave little other option. A witch that lures children to her house and intends to eat them, a wolf that murders a grandmother and steals her identity to eat her granddaughter.


Stories and characters we might consider horror today are not confined to folk tales either. Hamlet only learns of his father’s murder through a ghostly appearance on the ramparts. Macbeth is compelled to become king after an encounter with three witches. One might argue that people were more likely to believe in ghosts or witches when they appeared in the works of William Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be afraid of them.


There are precursors even earlier, many to be found in fables across all cultures. One Thousand and One Nights features many stories involving ghouls, and even a haunted house, originally written down in Arabic. The tales contained in the Vetala Panchavimshati, originally written in Sanskrit, are regaled to the protagonist by a spirit comparable to a vampire. And the legendary heroes of ancient Greece were often put into conflict with terrifying monsters.


These are merely a few examples.


The elements that make up horror fiction, whether separate or combined, have been used as long as there were stories to tell. Even if the residents of Villa Diodati had chosen some other book to occupy their time or no one proposed the story writing contest we would still have a horror genre. It might even be in a form we would recognise since Fantasmagoriana had already been translated partially into English in 1813, and the Gothic literary tradition was already well established.


However, although something akin to the horror fiction we know it is likely to come about without the events at Villa Diodati, the genre would be without one some of its oldest stock characters and most iconic works.


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Only one of the participants in the story writing contest was able to produce a complete short story. That was Mary Shelley, and at the encouragement of her husband she expanded it into a novel. That novel was released in 1818 as Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Better known simply as Frankenstein.


The title refers to the main character, a scientist who seeks to create life and succeeds in bringing to life a sapient creature, to whom the title does not refer.


It would be difficult to overstate the influence of Frankenstein on popular culture. In the more than two hundred years since its publication it has permeated from literature to theatre to films to television to music to comics and everything in between. That is only counting works directly derivative as well, there is a far greater influence of more nebulous concepts that originate with Frankenstein.


The influence of Frankenstein is not just limited to the horror genre, either. Some consider it to be the first story that can truly be described as science fiction. That can be attributed to how much Frankenstein is a product of its time. The Gothic and romantic traditions in literature were already well established and permeate throughout. Mixed in however are concepts drawn from Galvanism and ideas about life and death that would have been topics of conversation for the group at Villa Diodati.


Much as the horror genre would exist without the story contest at Villa Diodati so too would science fiction eventually come to be without Frankenstein. Not because of existing precursors so much as the scientific discoveries that had been made and would be made contemporarily with Frankenstein. Fantastical elements like what we would later see in science fiction were already a thing going back to some of the fables and legends mentioned earlier. There would be a convergence. Without Frankenstein though might horror and science fiction be less connected?


There have been plenty of works that blend horror and science fiction since Frankenstein was published. At times too it seemed as though to the mainstream they were the same though that era is long past and for discussion in a future article. Without Frankenstein might science fiction instead be more tied into, for instance, adventure literature along the lines what would be seen later in the 19th century from the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Might what we would call science fiction be more in the tradition of scientific romance (a term dating to the 1850s), seen as far apart from the horror genre with its supernatural content.


One element common between horror and science fiction is the notion of a protagonist driven by the pursuit of knowledge. It exists outside of these genres as well, of course, but the consequences tend to be far worse for the protagonist inside them. Victor Frankenstein seeks to create life and succeeds, but at the cost of losing everything else. It echoes down through the works of Edgar Allan Poe, M. R. James, and H. P. Lovecraft to name a few. The tragedy of the character abandoned too in some works in favour of a more malevolent mad scientist archetype. That side of the character can be seen in most comic book supervillains that appear in films dominating the modern box office. Perhaps not without Victor Frankenstein losing it all in the pursuit of knowledge.


Victor’s creation, not named in Shelley’s novel but within a decade being referred to erroneously as Frankenstein, is another character whose influence continues to the present day. The novel makes him out to be a sympathetic character, one whose only desire is to share his life with another but is rejected by every person he meets because of his appearance. Interpretations of this relating to parenthood, class and race have been examined by scholars far more qualified than this writer. The notion of a tragic monster, or at least one with a tragic origin, is another common archetype across genres. Popularised into horror and science fiction by Shelley’s novel.


In Danse Macabre, Stephen King characterises Frankenstein’s creation as the “Thing Without a Name” archetype and the novel itself as a tragedy. It is one of three Victorian novels from the United Kingdom cited as templates for much of later horror fiction. Frankenstein is chronologically the first of these three, the only one from an author born in England, and the only one written by a woman. Again, Mary Shelley was the only one to take her idea from the Villa Diodati contest to a full novel.


We never did find out who won the contest.


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A lot of what we think of as horror and science fiction can be traced back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We have Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because she and her friends stumbled upon a French translation of German ghost tales while stuck inside on a rainy holiday. The holiday was rainy because of climate change brought upon by the eruption of a volcano over a year earlier.


Horror may have had its predecessors, but it was this chain of events that entwined it with the Gothic and romantic movements. Science fiction would have come along eventually, but the only novel to come from one of the denizens of Villa Diodati that summer made it and horror siblings. However, even the unfinished works would prove significant.


The other two of the trifecta of Victorian horror novels cited by King would not come until decades after Frankenstein and the contest at Villa Diodati. One of them continued a particular genre strand started accidentally by another of the residents at Villa Diodati. The unfinished story is known simply as “Fragment of a Novel,” it would eventually be finished by someone else present that night in Switzerland. It introduced into English language literature something that would surpass the subject matter of Frankenstein as a horror stock character.


Vampires.

 
 

Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP

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