As humans, fear is built into us, it is the oldest and strongest emotion. I believe fear to be the core of all human actions. We work because we are afraid of being poor, we go to the doctor because we are afraid to die, we marry because we are afraid of being alone. It is strange then that as humans we are of a mind to seek out the things that scare us, we build and frequent Haunted houses. We spend money to watch horror movies on cinema or seek out and read horror novels.
Personally, one of my favorite kind of movies and literature is Horror Genre. So, I decided to write two articles about the most famous, classic Horror books of 19th and 20th Century.
So, let’s take a look to the best classic Horror Books that were written in the past centuries and which are considered precursors of this genre. Here we go!
1. Frankenstein (by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) — published 1818
Mary Shelley began writing “Frankenstein” when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, “Frankenstein” tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein.
Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature’s hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.
2. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (by Washington Irving) — published 1820
Headless horsemen were staples of Northern European storytelling, featuring in German, Irish (e.g. Dullahan), Scandinavian (e.g. the Wild Hunt) and English legends and were included in Robert Burns’s “Tam o’ Shanter” (1790), and Burger’s Der wilde Jager, translated as The Wild Huntsman (1796).
Usually viewed as omens of ill-fortune for those who chose to disregard their apparitions, these specters found their victims in proud, scheming persons and characters with hubris and arrogance. The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite specter of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.
The story was immediately matched by a thrice marvelous adventure of Brom Bones, who made light of the Galloping Hessian as an arrant jockey. He affirmed that on returning one night from the neighboring village of Sing Sing, he had been overtaken by this midnight trooper; that he had offered to race with him for a bowl of punch and should have won it too, for Daredevil beat the goblin horse all hollow, but just as they came to the church bridge, the Hessian bolted, and vanished in a flash of fire.
All these tales, told in that drowsy undertone with which men talk in the dark, the countenances of the listeners only now and then receiving a casual gleam from the glare of a pipe, sank deep in the mind of Ichabod.
3. The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum & The Tell-Tale Heart (by Edgar Allan Poe) — published 1839, 1842 & 1843
Although Poe mainly wrote poems and short stories – besides “The Black Cat”, which is a very good book but not one of his best compared to his other stories – I couldn’t help mentioning him since he was one of the pillars of Gothic Horror in the 19th Century. These three short stories are considered three of his best stories by most readers and I won’t disagree.
The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)
The story begins with the unnamed narrator arriving at the house of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, having received a letter from him complaining of an illness and asking for his help. Usher’s sister Madeline dies, but somehow comes back from the grave.
Although Poe wrote this short story before the invention of modern psychological science, Roderick’s condition can be described according to its terminology. It includes a form of sensory overload known as hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to textures, light, sounds, smells and tastes), hypochondria (an excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness) and acute anxiety.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1842)
The unnamed narrator is brought to trial before sinister judges of the Spanish Inquisition. Poe provides no explanation of why he is there or of the charges on which he is being tried. Before him are seven tall white candles on a table, and, as they burn down, his hopes of survival also diminish. He is condemned to death, whereupon he faints and later awakens to find himself in a totally dark room. At first the prisoner thinks that he is locked in a tomb, but then he discovers that he is in a cell. He decides to explore the cell.
The narrator discovers that the prison is slightly illuminated and that he is strapped to a wooden frame on his back, facing the ceiling. Above him is a picture of Father Time, with a razor-sharp pendulum measuring “one foot from horn to horn” suspended from it. The pendulum is swinging back and forth and slowly descending, designed to kill the narrator eventually.
The Tell-Tale Heart (1843)
This is a first-person narrative of an unnamed narrator, who insists that they are sane, but is suffering from a disease (nervousness) which causes “over-acuteness of the senses”.
The old man with whom the narrator lives has a clouded, pale, blue “vulture-like” eye, which distresses the narrator so much that they plot to murder the old man, despite also insisting that they love the old man. For seven nights, the narrator opens the door of the old man’s room in order to shine a sliver of light onto the “evil eye”. However, the old man’s vulture-eye is always closed, making it impossible to “do the work”.
On the eighth night, the old man awakens interrupting the narrator’s nightly ritual. But the narrator does not draw back and, after some time, decides to open the lantern. A single thin ray of light shines out and lands precisely on the “evil eye”, revealing that it is wide open. The narrator decides to strike, jumping out with a loud yell and smothering the old man with his own bed. Then he/she dismembers the body and conceals the pieces under the floorboards.
The narrator begins to feel uncomfortable and notices a ringing in their ears. As the ringing grows louder, the narrator comes to the conclusion that it is the heartbeat of the old man coming from under the floorboards.
4. Carmilla (by J. Sheridan Le Fanu) — published 1872
Generally acknowledged as a major influence on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, this novel is the very first vampire thriller.
Seemingly by happenstance, the mysterious and beautiful Carmilla comes to stay with the young and virtuous Laura. Laura, who has been living a lonely existence with her father in an isolated castle, finds herself enchanted with her exotic visitor. As the two become close friends, however, Laura dreams of nocturnal visitations and begins to lose her physical strength. Through much investigation, the gruesome truth about Carmilla and her family is revealed.
5. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (by Robert Louis Stevenson) — published 1886
Mr. Utterson is a London lawyer who is a friend of Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll gave up his regular practice to experiment with non-traditional medicine. Utterson is concerned because Jekyll has written a will that leaves all his money to his new partner Mr. Hyde. Utterson has heard bad things of Hyde and disliked him at first sight. The lawyer thinks his friend is being blackmailed.
One day, the lawyer is asked to identify the body of a murdered man, Sir Danvers Carew, one of Utterson’s clients. Hyde is suspected of the murder but he has disappeared. Jekyll swears that he has not seen Hyde and has broken with him forever. The case remains unsolved and Jekyll becomes more sociable than he had been.
Suddenly, though, he locks himself into his laboratory, yelling to the servants through the door, directing them to gather chemicals for him. The servants recognize a change in his voice and think that their master has been murdered; another man has taken his place in the lab.
6. The Picture of Dorian Gray (by Oscar Wilde) — published 1890
Written in his distinctively dazzling manner, Oscar Wilde’s story of a fashionable young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty is the author’s most popular work.
The tale of Dorian Gray’s moral disintegration caused a scandal when it ﬁrst appeared in 1890, but though Wilde was attacked for the novel’s corrupting inﬂuence, he responded that there is, in fact, “a terrible moral in Dorian Gray”. Just a few years later, the book and the aesthetic/moral dilemma it presented became issues in the trials occasioned by Wilde’s homosexual liaisons, which resulted in his imprisonment.
7. The Island of Doctor Moreau (by H.G. Wells) — published 1895
This early work of H. G. Wells was greeted in 1896 by howls of protest from reviewers, who found it horrifying and blasphemous.
In “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, a shipwrecked gentleman named Edward Prendick, stranded on a Pacific island lorded over by the notorious Dr. Moreau, confronts dark secrets, strange creatures, and a reason to run for his life.
While this riveting tale was intended to be a commentary on evolution, divine creation, and the tension between human nature and culture, modern readers familiar with genetic engineering will marvel at Wells’s prediction of the ethical issues raised by producing “smarter” human beings or bringing back extinct species. These levels of interpretation add a richness to Prendick’s adventures on Dr. Moreau’s island of lost souls without distracting from what is still a rip-roaring good read.
8. The Beetle (by Richard Marsh) — published 1897
“The Beetle” tells the story of a fantastical creature, “born of neither god nor man”, with supernatural and hypnotic powers, who stalks British politician Paul Lessingham through fin de siecle London in search of vengeance for the defilement of a sacred tomb in Egypt.
In imitation of various popular fiction genres of the late 19th Century, Marsh unfolds a tale of terror, late imperial fears, and the “return of the repressed”, through which the crisis of late imperial Englishness is revealed.
This Broadview edition includes a critical introduction and a rich selection of historical documents that situate the novel within the contexts of fin de siecle London, England’s interest and involvement in Egypt, the emergence of the New Woman, and contemporary theories of mesmerism and animal magnetism.
9. Dracula (by Bram Stoker) — published 1897
A true masterwork of storytelling, “Dracula” has transcended generation, language and culture to become one of the most popular novels ever written. It is a quintessential tale of suspense and horror, boasting one of the most terrifying characters ever born in literature: Count Dracula, a tragic, night-dwelling specter who feeds upon the blood of the living, and whose diabolical passions prey upon the innocent, the helpless, and the beautiful. But Dracula also stands as a bleak allegorical saga of an eternally cursed being whose nocturnal atrocities reflect the dark underside of the supremely moralistic age in which it was originally written — and the corrupt desires that continue to plague the modern human condition.
The Dracula mythology has inspired a vast subculture, but the story has never been better told than by Stoker.
10. The Turn of the Screw (by Henry James) — published 1898
A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children at a forlorn estate. An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.
Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls.
But worse – much worse – the governess discovers that children have no terror of the lurking evil. For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.
Notable Horror Book:
The Monk (by Matthew Lewis) — published 1796
The book I want to mention is my favorite. It was published in the 18th Century and maybe it’s one of the most famous – perhaps the most famous – Horror Novel of that era. It’s a prime example of the male Gothic that specialises in the aspect of horror. Its convoluted and scandalous plot has made it one of the most important Gothic novels of its time, often imitated and adapted for the stage and the screen.
I read it 10 years ago and, since then, no other book – Horror Fiction or not – has managed to shock me as much as this one. After I read it, I was overwhelmed with many thoughts and mixed feelings that somehow matured me and changed the way I judge of what is good and bad. So, here we go!
Set in the sinister monastery of the Capuchins in Madrid, this is a violent tale of ambition, murder, and incest. The struggle between maintaining monastic vows and fulfilling personal ambitions tempts its main character into breaking his vows.
Ambrosio is a famous monk, Lorenzo is a wealthy young nobleman and Antonia is a beautiful young woman. Lorenzo and Antonia meet while listening to Ambrosio, and fall in love instantly.
Ambrosio is the most virtuous and strict monk in the whole city, when he discovers that a young nun named Agnes has gotten pregnant despite her vows, he turns her over to the cruel Prioress with no regrets. His lack of sympathy comes to haunt him, however, when a young monk named Rosario is revealed to be the beautiful Matilda, a woman who has come to the monastery out of love for Ambrosio. The monk struggles with his desires, but eventually succumbs to temptation and breaks his vows of chastity by having sex with Matilda.
Lorenzo visits Elvira, Antonia’s mother, to ask for her daughter’s hand in marriage. However, Elvira is a common woman who married a Marquis, and she knows that there are numerous problems inherent in lowborn women marrying noblemen. Meanwhile, Ambrosio sees Antonia in church and immediately begins to desire her. He makes frequent visits to her family’s house under the pretense of offering counseling to the gravely ill Elvira.
Ambrosio despairs of being able to possess Antonia. Matilda, however, offers her assistance, summoning a demon that gives Ambrosio a magical myrtle branch.
I hope you like the article! Personally, I think it’s one of my favorites in this Site. So, I’m thinking of writing another similar one, with the best Horror Books of 20th Century. So, stay tuned!
I’ll be happy to read your comments below, so feel free to tell me your favorite Horror Book of the 19th Century, no matter if it’s on the above list or not. Well, I mentioned my favorite one and I absolutely recommend you to read it! ☺