Vampire fangs, zombie bride bride gowns, Frankenstein’s monster masks… you’ll find all of these at any Halloween costume shop. But how did the stories behind them develop? Here are four classics of 19th-century English Gothic literature that are still casting their spooky shadow over our 21st-century ideas of the supernatural.
“Frankenstein”, Mary Shelley (1818)
Mary Shelley was just eighteen years old when she wrote a story about a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who builds a super-human creature from pieces of dead bodies. When Frankenstein then manages to bring the creature to life using electricity, the horror begins. Note that Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster he creates. The creature, lonely and angry that Frankenstein will not make him a female companion,
begins to kill everyone that the young
Mary Shelley had the idea for this horrifying story when on holiday with her future husband, Percy Shelley, and the poet Lord Byron in a villa beside Lake Geneva. It was the year 1816 and the weather had been unusually dark and cold all summer because of volcanic ash in the air after the eruption of Mount Tambora. Kept indoors for days by the terrible weather, the friends amused themselves with a ghost story competition; Mary’s story would become the basis for the novel she published anonymously in 1818. It has been adapted for stage and screen many times since then, but it is Boris Karloff’s 1931 film portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster with a bolt through its neck that has most influenced the way the monster is now depicted.
“Great Expectations”, Charles Dickens (1861)
This novel has strong elements of the gothic, especially in the character of Miss Havisham. Having been abandoned by her fiancé on her wedding day, she shuts herself up in her house and grows old without ever taking off her wedding dress: “She had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white.” Portrayed as a tragic, witch-like figure in life, Miss Havisham then dies a gothic death when her bridal dress catches fire. She has certainly influenced the character of the zombie bride in popular culture.
Dickens himself was a rationalist and didn’t believe in ghosts. In fact, he tried to expose the deception behind the séances — meetings in which the living tried to communicate with the dead through mediums — that were so popular in the Victorian era. But despite his scepticism, Dickens certainly understood the power of the gothic and ghostly in his novels. Supernatural beings appear in several of his works; the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future that haunt mean Ebenezer Scrooge in the novel A Christmas Carol are the best-known.
“Dracula”, Bram Stoker (1897)
This epistolary novel by Irish writer Bram Stoker set the conventions for much of the vampire literature and film that has come after it. Vampire Count Dracula arrives in London from Transylvania and begins to prey on two women, Mina and Lucy. While Mina manages to resist, Lucy does not and has her blood sucked every night by the vampire count. Despite desperate attempts to save Lucy’s life with blood transfusions and the use of garlic to try to keep the vampire away, Lucy soon becomes weak and dies.
After death, she becomes a vampire herself and leaves her grave to feed on the blood of children.
This fin de siècle vampire tale is full of Victorian anxiety about sexual corruption. The idea that the vampire could be both terrifying and at the same time sexually alluring was one that fascinated audiences then and continues to appeal now. Recent TV and film portrayals of vampires, including The Vampire Diaries and The Twilight saga, play with this theme and have been extremely popular, especially among teenagers.
“The Turn of the SCREW”, Henry James (1898)
This psychological thriller is built around ghostly beings and their perceived corrupting power over children. A is in charge of two children — Flora and Miles — in a country house, when a strange couple — Miss Jessel and Peter Quint — appear. The governess believes they are the ghosts of former employees and worries that they are exposing the innocent children to sex. The other employees at the house cannot see Quint and Jessel, and although the governess believes that the children can, they never admit to it. Are the strange figures real or imagined? Are Quint and Jessel behaving sexually towards the children or just towards each other but in the children’s presence? Many questions are left open to interpretation.
Like Dracula, published a year previously, The Turn of the Screw explores questions of corruption but this time from a strongly psychological perspective, something that would become increasingly important in thriller writing over the 20th and 21st centuries.