By Ryan Fleming.
Frankenstein at work in his laboratory.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Modern horror fiction was born in novels. The Victorian trifecta of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) set the standards for the genre whose lineage can be seen to the modern day. It is in the modern day too that horror might be more identified as a cinematic rather than literary genre, but there remains plenty of overlap and cross-pollination, be it via adaptation or following trends.
Even on a purely literary front, for much of the 20th century it looked as though the short story had the edge on the novel as the format of choice for writing horror. These too owed their roots to 19th century literature, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic in short stories pioneered by American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. This was evident on the pages of pulp magazines and on the more prestigious literature magazines.
There is one name from the 20th century that became synonymous with the horror novel and may have played a part in re-popularising the format for the genre. That name is Stephen King, who from the publication of Carrie (1974) has grown almost synonymous with the genre itself both in literature and film. As with everything, however, King did not come about in a vacuum and the horror novel already had a good pedigree in the 20th Century before his rise.
The man has been prolific. Stephen King - the Master.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The horror novel never disappeared entirely. Even during its nadir with the rise of film and the pre-eminence of short stories, there were examples. One example is Guy Endore’s epic The Werewolf of Paris (1933) which has since gone on to occupy a space in werewolf fiction comparable to that of Dracula for vampires. Endore was ironically employed by several major Hollywood studios during the period, yet still chose to commit his work to prose rather than celluloid, which might indicate a preference for that format despite prevailing trends.
The trend of genre writers working for both page and screen did not end with Endore. In much the same way that writers of pulp fiction did not consign themselves to a single genre when there was more money to be made expanding one’s horizons. Robert Bloch, part of the youngest cohort of pulp fiction writers, went on to become one of the older members of the post-pulp era. In addition to many short stories, he is most famous for the novel Psycho (1959), which went on to be adapted for film in 1960 by Alfred Hitchcock. Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, two members of a group of US west coast writers called the “Southern California Sorcerers”, were others that dabbled in screenwriting, short stories, and novels. Matheson might be most famous for I Am Legend (1954), a mix of science fiction and horror which put its protagonist in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by vampires. Though concerned with vampires, the novel prefigures much of what would come later in zombie apocalypse horror. I Am Legend was adapted numerous times for film, as were Matheson’s other novels Hell House (1971) and A Stir of Echoes (1959) in addition to numerous of his science fiction works. Bradbury, though perhaps mostly known for his fantasy and science fiction works, combined the former with horror in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), itself adapted for film in 1983. Writers like these managed to keep the fire burning for the horror novel at a time when they were not in vogue, despite being just as capable of committing them to film or slicing them up into short stories or moving onto other projects.
However, it was not from the authors pages of pulp fiction or science fictions magazines that perhaps the most famous horror novel of the mid 20th century would be authored. It came instead from a far less sensationalist literary tradition. The Haunting of Hill House (1959) was actually the fifth novel by Shirley Jackson, but it was her first that was unabashedly a ghost story. Several of her earlier works could be described as Gothic, and a few as mysteries, but The Haunting was the first time the author committed to writing something supernatural. Amongst her earlier works, her 1948 short story The Lottery may come the closest to horror, looking at what lies beneath the seemingly bucolic nature of an American small town. One wonders if the readers of The New Yorker were inspired to send hate mail over it because of its content or because something dangerously close to genre fiction had invaded their periodical. With The Haunting, Jackson managed to modernise a Gothic ghost story in its literary form much as would be done with horror films in the decades that followed. Indeed, Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Jackson’s work as The Haunting was another example of such a horror film. The novel has been adapted twice more, once under the shortened name in 1999 by Jan de Bont and most recently as a Netflix production under the original name. The Netflix version somehow called it a “mini”-series when it stretches a taut 246-page novel into a nine-hour-and-forty-one-minute, ten-part slog.
First Edition of The Haunting of Hill House, available from AbeBooks at the modest price of £6000.
Picture from AbeBooks.co.uk
Almost a decade after Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House had been published, a trio of enormously profitable horror novels would open the floodgates for the genre on the printed paper. It would also forever change the direction of horror films from two of them.
The first of the trio was Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), whose rights had been purchased for film adaptation before the book had even been published. Levin was not a genre writer, though he wrote a lot of genres. Rosemary’s Baby was his only horror work, but in selling more than 4 million copies, it might have been enough. In comparison, Thomas Tryon was a genre writer and former actor whose acting opposite John Wayne or for Walt Disney television might have prefigured his later literary choices. His 1971 novel The Other was the second of three successful horror novels of the period, and Tryon’s debut. Its 1972 film adaptation did not change the genre conventions on film in the way Rosemary’s Baby did, or the film adaptation of the third part of the trio.
William Peter Blatty was inspired to write The Exorcist (1971) based on a reported exorcism that occurred in 1949 in Washington DC. Like other authors mentioned here, Blatty dabbled on both screen and page, though oddly for someone who wrote something reputed to be the scariest work of all time, his earlier screenwriting credits were mostly comedies, including the first sequel to The Pink Panther (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964). Blatty adapted his own work for the screen in 1973, and after Warner Bros moved ahead on a sequel – Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) – without him, he attempted his own follow-ups on both the printed page – Legion (1983), adapted by Blatty as The Exorcist III (1990) – and on screen – The Ninth Configuration (1980).
This was what the scene of horror novels looked like when Stephen King had his first one published. With the established successes set by Blatty, Levin and Tryon publishers may not have been willing to take the chance. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been cited by King as one of the finest horror novels of the 20th Century. Bloch, Bradbury, and Matheson have all been cited directly by King as an influence on his own works.
Like all writers, Stephen King owes much to what came before him across all mediums. However, if a boom in horror novels already existed when his first was published, then it had a similar effect to pouring petrol on an open flame. Like those predecessors too, its blast radius extended beyond the literary part of the genre and into film. As early as two years after the publication of his first novel, no doubt inspired by the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, Hollywood sought to adapt the works of Stephen King into major motion pictures.
King’s first novel was Carrie (1974) which combined the supernatural notion of telekinesis with the very real one of adolescent cruelty. Ironically, it would not reach its major success until the release of its 1976 film adaptation directed by Brian De Palma. Indeed, the original print run of the novel was limited to 30,000 copies. De Palma actually held casting for Carrie simultaneously with George Lucas for Star Wars (1977), so there exists footage of actors cast in Carrie reciting early dialogue for Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. There may exist some timeline where Star Wars wound up starring William Katt, John Travolta, and Amy Irving, and Carrie wound up with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher. King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, was released in 1975 and was inspired by the notion of Count Dracula coming back to 20th Century USA. Following his wife’s suggestion that the vampire would likely be runover by a taxicab on the streets of New York City, King instead set the tale in the eponymous Maine town. The fictitious geography of Maine towns like Chamberlain (Carrie), Jerusalem’s Lot (Salem’s Lot), Castle Rock (The Dead Zone, 1979, and others), and Derry (It, 1986, and others) recalls HP Lovecraft’s fictitious trinity of Massachusetts towns Arkham, Dunwich, and Innsmouth and would become a core part of King’s output throughout his career. The Shining (1977) would prove to be King’s first hardback bestseller and established his bona fides as the pre-eminent author in the genre. It too would be adapted in film, in 1980 by the renowned director Stanley Kubrick. King disagreed with many of the choices made by Kubrick on the film, but the adaptation recovered from an initial mixed response and is now recognised not only as a great horror film but also one of the greatest films of all time.
The 1980s brought further success to King, starting with Danse Macabre (1981), his non-fiction overview of the horror genre. There was a slew of hardback novels that quickly had their rights bought up for film adaptation. There was Christine (1983), adapted as a film by John Carpenter the same year as its publication. Pet Sematary (1983) was delayed in publication since the 1970s as King found it too disturbing, but was also adapted for film by Mary Lambert in 1989. It, one of King’s most famous novels, was originally adapted as a television miniseries in 1990 (Salem’s Lot had received a similar treatment in 1979) but was subsequently re-adapted as a film duology decades later as It Chapter One (2017) and It Chapter Two (2019). Many of King’s works are more recognisable for their film adaptations than their literary origins, and every decade since he was first published has seen at least one adaptation become a famous horror film in its own right. The 1990s saw Misery (1990), the 2000s 1408 and The Mist (both 2007), and the 2010s the aforementioned It films. At the time of writing this article, there are at least a dozen more film adaptations in various stages of production adapted from King’s works. Some of them new adaptations of old tales, some adapting his more recent works, and some remaking previously adapted works because if there is one thing Hollywood loves to do, it is remake films that were successful years ago. King has actively encouraged adaptations of his works by student and aspiring filmmakers via an arrangement known as a “Dollar Baby”, where the author grants permission to adapt one of his short stories for the sum of $1.
One young director who took advantage of the Dollar Baby offer was Frank Darabont, whose 1986 adaptation of the short story The Woman in the Room was also given commercial rights and released on VHS alongside a few other examples. Darabont’s later career involved adapting several of King’s works, but only one out and out horror – the aforementioned The Mist. Like his predecessors, King writes in genres outside of horror. These examples can be found more in his short fiction, including Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption in the collection Different Seasons, adapted by Darabont in 1994 under the shortened title The Shawshank Redemption. That film, originally released to positive critical reception, multiple award nominations but little box office success, was rediscovered on home video and is now considered one of the greatest films of all time. Again, like his predecessors, King has also written directly for the screen including the original horror anthology Creepshow with director George A Romero, several adaptations of his own works, and even an episode of The X-Files (Chinga) during the height of that series popularity in 1998. In fact, the works King considers to be his magnum opus, The Dark Tower series, are only peripherally horror, instead being mostly a mash-up of fantasy, science-fiction, and westerns.
In some ways, King represents the culmination of trends in genre writing started by the pulp fiction writers in the early part of the 20th Century. Willing to write across multiple genres, which then turned into multiple mediums as the generation influenced by those grew up, and they in turn influenced King.
At a time when it seems almost as though every publisher and writer in horror fiction is struggling to find that one very specific niche they can claim as their own balliwick in an incredibly atomised culture, there is maybe an example to be viewed in writing in as wide a context as possible. Whilst King may be the most prominent example of such an author rising in the latter part of the 20th Century, he was far from the only one.
There was already an ongoing boom in horror novels when Carrie was first published in 1974, and King’s debut novel did not reach its massive success until its film adaptation in 1976. It would therefore be wrong to say that many other prolific horror writers of the 1970s and beyond enjoyed their success as a result of King’s. Instead, they were all parts of the same wider success for the genre during that period, with the rising tide lifting all ships. King was perhaps just the most notable.
One author sold the rights to her first novel in October 1974 for $12,000 advance. This was at a time when new novel authors were receiving at most around $2000 advances. The author was Anne Rice, and the novel in question was Interview with the Vampire (1976). It originally received mixed reviews, which caused Rice to bow out from supernatural fiction for a time. She continued writing, but for a decade her works were historical or erotic fiction. It was following the publication of her first sequel The Vampire Lestat (1985) that critical opinion began to change on her debut. Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series would go on to comprise a total of 13 novels between 1976 and 2018. Rice adapted the first novel herself in 1994 as a film directed by Neil Jordan, which was released to positive reviews. Rice’s series, which was inspired in part by Dracula’s Daughter (1936), was a major influence on developments in vampire fiction during the late 20th Century. Portraying the vampire as a tragic, romantic figure as well as the point-of-view character. The series also proved popular with members of the LGBTQ+ community with the characters seen as allegories for socially isolated and alienated figures. From the Millennium onwards, Rice was adamantly against fan fiction based on her works, going so far as to request stories featuring her characters be taken down when posted to a prominent fan fiction website. Her stance mollified in subsequent years, though she was still dismissive of the concept as a whole.
As a novel writer, Dean Koontz actually predates Stephen King, with his first novel, Star Quest, being published in 1968. Star Quest was science fiction, and it was in that genre that most of Koontz’s early works lie. His 1970s output in horror and suspense were mostly published under pseudonyms. This was at the behest of his editors who convinced Koontz that authors that switched between genres would only manage to alienate existing fans and not pick up any new ones. However, Whispers (1980) was published under his own name and was his breakout novel as a writer of horror and thrillers. The Key to Midnight (1979) and The Funhouse (1980) had both sold over one million copies before Whispers but were originally published under the names Leigh Nichols and Owen West, respectively. Peter Straub, by comparison, had mixed success in writing until he began writing supernatural fiction with Julia (1975), which was followed by If You Could See Me Now (1977) and then Ghost Story (1979), which first brought him to wide public attention. Ghost Story was adapted into a film in 1981, and in 1984 Straub would collaborate with Stephen King on The Talisman, a fantasy novel. It took more time for Richard Laymon to find success, as the author credited The Woods Are Dark (1981) with almost destroying his career in the United States. His first published novel, The Cellar (1980) drew sharp criticism for its graphic sexual and violent content but was, nonetheless, still a success. He found more success in later years and with better publishers. And for someone whose splatterpunk works can put many readers off, he was very supportive and nurturing of up-and-coming writers with many having nothing but praise for him personally.
Similarly stomach churning across the Atlantic was English author James Herbert’s The Rats (1974). The Rats sold out its first paperback edition in three weeks at a time when Stephen King’s Carrie had only received a run of 600 books in its first UK publication. Herbert’s first novel saw a film adaptation as Deadly Eyes (1982), an adventure game under the same name in 1985 for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, as well as two lierary sequels and one graphic novel sequel (1993). Scottish author Graham Masterson turned from editing Mayfair and Penthouse to writing horror novels following his debut The Manitou (1976) and his works have similarly been cited for their sex and horror content. Masterson also dabbled in crime fiction, as well as several nonfiction sex instruction books. More prominently, the late 20th Century saw the emergence of two horror writers in the United Kingdom that would become synonymous with the genre in that country, both of them from Liverpool.
Razor sharp teeth and an evil reputation.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Ramsay Campbell, whose influences include Lovecraft and MR James, was prominent not just as a writer but also as an editor and critic for over half a century as of writing. Campbell has been publishing since the 1960s, but his first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother, was originally published in 1976.
Clive Barker also started out with short stories, his Books of Blood collections (1984-85), the first three volumes of which contained a foreword by Campbell. Volume five featured The Forbidden, which was adapted from its native Merseyside to the United States as Candyman (1992). Barker’s first novel, The Damnation Game (1985) was released to positive reviews, but his most famous work is perhaps The Hellbound Heart (1986). The Hellbound Heart was adapted as Hellraiser (1987) and was the start of a long-running series of horror films based around the demonic character Pinhead.
These are just some of the examples of authors who managed to become prominent during a boom period in horror novels started with Blatty, Levin, and Tryon and catalysed by Stephen King. If there is one thing these disparate examples show, it is an adaptability in what they write. When Rice’s first vampire novel received mixed reviews, she moved into other genres before returning. Koontz moved from science fiction to horror despite warnings from editors. And Masterton even traded the adult/men’s magazine publishing game, more respectable than genre fiction in some eyes, for writing horror fiction.
The horror novel came back in force during the final decades of the 20th Century, obtaining a popularity it had hitherto not seen. It also managed to have profound influence on horror films in a way not seen directly since the earliest Hollywood sound horror films. All of the authors cited herein dabbled in both short stories and novels, across multiple genres, because a story should only ever be as long as it needs to be in order to tell that story. Length is no indicator of quality, and for every epic horror doorstopper like some of Stephen King’s best works, there are those that drag out things for the sake of more content, like Netflix’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Horror novels may have had an influence on horror films during the 1980s, but a literary bent was not the most prolific aspect of the genre during the decade. At least, not directly. Instead, 1980s horror cinema was dominated, in both Europe and the United States, by slasher films. These were cheap to make by independent filmmakers and for every one that attracted muted praise, a dozen more were reviled for their artistic shortcomings and gratuitous violence. So much so that one European government in particular tried to ban the films outright.
That, however, is a tale for another day. So too is another development in horror literature from the final decade of the 20th Century. For as long as horror content has existed, its consumption by younger readers and viewers has been the subject of much handwringing by adults. Somehow, that had been muted by the 1990s, and for the first time horror literature aimed directly at younger readers became immensely popular – to the point of one series becoming the second best-selling book series in history.
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Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP.