It’s the summer of 1816 and in a mansion by the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, five guests are trapped by the icy weather outdoors.
Mary Godwin, her step-sister, and her lover and soon-to-be husband Percy Bysshe Shelley had been travelling through Europe for some years. On a visit to Switzerland, the trio found themselves at the Villa Diodati, rented by Lord Byron. Mary Shelley’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, had become Byron’s lover and convinced Mary and Percy to rent the house opposite so they could visit. Also in attendance at the party was Byron’s doctor, a young physician named John Polidori.
Quite out of season, the Villa Diodati was caught under freezing conditions and sheeting rain. The terrible weather was due to events a year ago, and half the world away.
Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia had erupted. It was the world’s largest eruption since around 180AD. It was the latest, and largest in a string of volcanic eruptions around the world. The eruption caused a huge amount of volcanic dust to be released into the atmosphere. As a result, less sunlight could break through the Earth’s atmosphere. Modern scientists estimate that the Earth’s average land temperature dropped by around 1°C.
Consequently, crops perished across the world, leading to wide-spread famine across Asia, North America, and Europe.
The rains that created gothic horror legends:
Fortunately, for the Shelleys and their friends, the rain was nothing more than an inconvenience. However, despite the inconvenience that rain led to the creation of some of the most important horror novels ever written.
Instead of venturing out of the villa, the friends entertained one another with poetry readings and ghost stories. Some historians also believe the young people (who, with the except of Bryon, were all under-25) also enjoyed some poly-amorous adventures.
After reading ghost stories, Lord Byron issued a challenge to his guests. The three men and Godwin would each write a horror story of their own. While the men came up with their ideas quickly, Mary struggled with writers block. However, one evening, she and Byron discovered the experiments of Erasmus Darwin. The scientist had caused a dead man’s hand to twitch using electricity.
That night, Godwin dreamt a dream that was to become one of the greatest works of gothic literature ever written. She wrote in her diary:
“When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.
“… I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantom of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be… His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken.
“… the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”
Frankenstein is born:
Upon waking the next morning, Godwin immediately got to work on her novel: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
In her book, Victor Frankenstein is a scholar who, after his mother’s death, buries himself in his work, hoping to create life. He builds a huge 8 foot tall man, intended to be a world-renowned beauty. In reality, his creation disgusts him. Victor spurns his monster who, in turn, escapes.
Upon realising the horror of its creation, the creature turns to Victor to build a bride for it, reasoning that as a living being it deserves happiness. When Victor is unable to go through with this, the monster vows to destroy Victor and all he holds dear.
Godwin’s friends gave her novel rave reviews and it became an instant hit when she published it in 1818.
However, despite Frankenstein becoming the most well-known work from that summer, the works of the men proved to be great horror successes too.
John Polidori’s The Vampyre was a landmark work of vampire fiction which went on to inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Almost everything we associate with modern vampire fiction came from Polidori’s novella. Polidori single-handedly invented the modern vampire as a suave, mysterious, womanizing nobleman. His vampire character, Lord Ruthven, sparked a craze for vampire novels around Europe. Alexandre Dumas’ The Count Of Monte Christo even makes an explicit reference to the character.
Meanwhile, Lord Byron’s work, a poem called The Darkness reflected on the end of the world. Due to the odd weather and the recent discovery of sunspots by astronomers, there were fears at the time that the world was ending. As a result, The Darkness recounted the final reflections of the last man on Earth.
The best horror novels for 2017 you should also read
Of course, there are plenty more incredible tales about the unusual things that inspired authors to write. However, if we should take anything from the story of the Villa Diodati, it’s that cold weather and a dreary atmosphere are the perfect conditions for horror.
Naturally, with winter drawing closer and darker nights setting in, there’s never been a better time to pick up a horror novel. It’s an incredibly crowded genre, and (perhaps with the exception of romantic-fiction) one where a lot of truly terrible prose rears its ugly head. Still, if you know where to look, there’s plenty of top quality literature out there. We’ve rounded up two lists: the classics and the most exciting new horror novels out there!
10 classic novels every horror fan should read:
1. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
We already covered the plot of this one above, but safe to say, it’s pretty scary. While Hollywood has almost entirely changed the character of the monster, the original version is still a haunting figure. This one has more of a creepy sense of dread than outright horror, but it’s still definitely worth reading!
2. Dracula by Bram Stoker
Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to provide legal support to Count Dracula who is buying a home in England. After some odd interactions with locals and the Count himself, Harker realises he’s living in a vampire’s castle. He barely escapes with his life, but by that time, Dracula is already on the move. Landing at Whitby, he restores his strength by feeding on a local girl, Lucy Westenra, who, coincidentally, is the best friend of Harker’s fiancée Mina.
As Lucy wastes away, Mina and her friends summon the aid of Abraham Van Helsing to combat the vampiric threat. Meanwhile, Dracula himself plans to infect the rest of the world with vampirism, starting in England.
Again, Hollywood has almost entirely altered this one from it’s original version, so even if you’ve seen every Dracula film out there, you’ll still find plenty of surprises in the novel.
3. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson
Another Hollywood classic that has been altered beyond recognition. In many ways Jekyll And Hyde is the original addiction story, but it mostly reads as a mystery. Unfortunately, the ultimate reveal that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same spoils the mystery element, but the novel is still interesting.
In short, Gabriel Utterson begins to see a vicious murderer named Edward Hyde around London. Around the same time, Utterson’s friend Henry Jekyll begins to act suspiciously. Jekyll believes the forces of good and evil inside him are battling for dominance, and uses a serum to transform himself in order to indulge in his vices.
4. The Monk by Matthew Lewis
Regarded by many as the first horror novel ever written, Lewis’ work is a hoot throughout. There are dozens of different plot-lines that all feed into one another, but the central story involves an incredibly devout monk named Ambrosio. The monk is seduced by a demonic witch named Matilda. She uses magic and womanly wiles to turn Ambrosio away from God and towards his dark temptations. This leads to a series of murders, rapes, and incestuous love affairs.
Interspersed throughout are various adventures involving ghosts, robbers, lost children, and loving young couples.
The whole thing is almost impossible to satisfactorily describe, but it’s definitely worth reading. Despite being one of the earliest novels, The Monk is a joy to read throughout.
5. The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James
An unnamed governess is hired to raise two children, Miles and Flora. She eventually learns that her predecessor, Mrs Jessel was in a sexual relationship with another employee Mr Quint. The two may also have been molesting the children. The governess begins to see their ghosts around the house, and becomes convinced the children can see them too. She becomes obsessed with proving the existence of the ghosts, imperiling her position in the house.
This one is an absolute classic and James’ unwillingness to make a decision as to whether this is a ghost story or one about the governess’ deteriorating mental health makes it deliciously fascinating.
6. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
A seriously spooky Scottish tale of boyhood and religious fundamentalism. The half-brothers George and Robert were raised separately and went down very different paths. George became a thoroughly decent and popular young man. However, Robert, raised in a fundamental sect of Christianity, nurses his dark desires, believing he is predestined for heaven, no matter what actions he took on Earth. The disconnect between the brothers is heightened by the mysterious presence of ‘Gil-Martin’, a shape-shifting companion of Robert (or perhaps an aspect of Robert himself) who pushes his friend towards evil.
7. Psycho by Robert Bloch
Psycho is, according to our ranking, the greatest horror film ever made. But what many audiences don’t realise is that it’s actually a very faithful adaption of a novel. The book tells the story of Norman Bates whose unhealthy relationship with his mother leads to some murderous interactions.
While it was derided as schlocky nonsense after first being released, Psycho became a fan-favourite after the film aired and its easy to see why. It’s riveting and exciting at every turn, full of pathos and mystery.
8. The Shining by Stephen King
Yet another incredible book utterly ruined by the Hollywood adaption. While most viewers agree that Kubrick’s take on the novel was brilliant, few can deny that the book is better. The book is definitely much more supernatural than the film. Jack Torrance is slowly sent mad by the hotel, while in the film he comes off as already pretty unhinged. There are also many more spooky goings on in the novel, and Danny is portrayed as actually psychic here.
It all adds up to a novel that is so much richer, deeper, and more interesting than the film could ever be.
9. It by Stephen King
Another Stephen King, but the man is the undisputed King Of Horror, so we think it’s a fair inclusion. It is a coming-of-age story about a group of friends who work together to battle an extra-dimensional child-murdering shapeshift from beyond the universe. The creature takes the form of their worst fears to stalk them and their friends. Meanwhile, they must deal with bullies and other aspects of growing up.
10. The Call Of Cthulu And Other Weird Stories by H.P Lovecraft
Few horror writers have such a pedigree as H.P Lovecraft. His Cthulu mythos has directly and indirectly impacted the entire horror genre. In this original story, Francis Thurston uncovers a cult who worships a mythical being named Cthulu slumbering beneath the Earth. Cthulu is one of the Great Old Ones, godlike beings who will awaken at the end of the world. Unsurprisingly, the novel ends with Cthulu awakening and mankind on the brink of extinction.
10 modern horrors that you might not have heard of:
1. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
According to The Guardian:
“In that childhood, Smith and his brother Hanny are taken by their bitterly devout mother to a religious retreat overlooking the Loney. Together with a priest and sundry devotees, they are to visit a shrine in the hope of curing Hanny, who is mute.
“The Easter rituals in which their mother trusts have a sinister quality: the hurling of stones; the burning of marzipan to represent the perfidious Judas.”
2. The Ritual by Adam Nevill
Recently made into a film, this one deals with a group of old school friends who go hiking in the Swedish forests. After getting hopelessly lost, the group find themselves in an ancient shack. Unfortunately for them, they are not alone and something is keen that they never leave.
3. Stag Hunt by Anthony McGowan
One of McGowan’s few adult novels, but definitely worth reading. Stag Hunt is the story of a group of public school friends who reunite to go on a stag hunt for one of their numbers’ stag party. However, they soon find that they are the ones being hunted across the private Cornish reserve, and one of their number is out to murder them. A suspiciously similar BBC mini-series was aired in early 2016, despite claims that the two projects weren’t connected. Still, the novel is far better than the BBC’s apparent copy-cat attempt.
4. Sleeping Beauties by Owen King and Stephen King
An epidemic breaks out across the impoverished Appalachian town of Dooling. The plague causes women to fall into a deep sleep and become cocooned in a mysterious material. Attempting to wake the sleepers results in them reacting murderously to those who disturb them. As the women in the town fight to stay away, hysteria sets in.
5. Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
12-year-old Oskar befriends his mysterious neighbour Eli, despite warnings from her guardian, Håkan. As they grow closer, Oskar learns that his new friend is a vampire and her guardian is murdering locals to procure blood for them. A touching coming of age story with some supernatural scares.
6. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
Pronounced ‘Nosferatu’, this one is, unsurprisingly, about vampires. The story revolves around a supernatural child abductor called Charles Manx and his creation ‘Christmasland’. A woman named Vic who, blessed with supernatural abilities herself, attempts to protect her son, Wayne from Manx. The latter is obsessed with kidnapping him and taking him to Christmasland, there to become one of his army of vampire children.
7. A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Told from the perspective of Merry, an 8-year-old girl, this story deals with demonic possession. In the midst of a financial crisis for her family, Merry’s sister Marjorie begins to act suspiciously. Her born-again Christian father decides she is possessed by a demon and arranges an exorcism. The novel deals with Merry’s reaction to all this, but there’s a great twist which totally reframes the story about half-way through!
8. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
In Depression-era Chicago, a drifter named Harper Curtis finds a key to a house that opens on to other times. But it comes at a cost. He has to kill the shining girls: bright young women who burn with potential. He stalks them through their lives across different eras until, in 1989, one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives and starts hunting him back.
9. The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey
In a dystopian future, the majority of humanity have been wiped out by a fungal infection. The infection causes hosts to basically become zombies, while the rest of humanity lives inside protected enclaves. A few of the children of the zombie-like creatures have yet to lose their mental functions. Scientists conduct experiments on these children in a remote research lab. When the lab is overrun, a small group of humans and a child zombie escape and make for the closest human encampment, 74 miles away.
10. The Fisherman by John Langan
The winner of this year’s Bram Stoker Award for the best in horror fiction. This is the story of Dutchman’s Creek. Steep-banked, fast-moving, it offers the promise of fine fishing, and of something more, a possibility too fantastic to be true. Abe and Dan are two widowers who have found solace in each other’s company and a shared passion for fishing. They hear rumors of the Creek, and what might be found there. Soon the men find themselves drawn into a tale as deep and old as the Reservoir. It’s a tale of dark pacts, of long-buried secrets, and of a mysterious figure known as Der Fisher: the Fisherman.