Halloween is coming and here is a list of authors and their stories which, throughout the decades, have sent readers flying under the covers in sheer fright.
Edgar Allan Poe, the father of a modern-day short story, was fascinated with the morbid side of things. A brilliant man who died at an early age, Poe seemed to have a premonition of his tragic end. His most famous tales are harrowing stories of people who literally cannot escape the grim fate that would be the author’s own.
“Berenice” (1835) is the story of a man obsessed with his late wife’s teeth. He digs up her grave to retrieve them. While caught up in his quest, the husband fails to hear the screams of his wife, a woman who had been accidentally buried alive. On it went. Both “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and “The Premature Burial” (1844) are two more tales of being buried alive. The latter story concerns an epileptic who fears that he will be mistaken for dead and accidentally interred while in this state. Harrowing as they are, such fears, according to one critic, “[were] not…terribly unusual…during Poe’s time. When most people died at home and were quickly buried without being embalmed, newspaper stories occasionally reported cases of people hearing the screams of the wrongfully buried and rushing to their rescue. The danger was common enough that concerned citizens could buy their loved ones ‘safety coffins’ in which the accidentally buried who awoke in his or her coffin could ring a bell that would (hopefully) be heard above ground by someone who could come to their aid.”
On a more humorous side, “The Balloon Hoax” (1844), was Poe’s little joke on a gullible public. The April 13, 1844, issue of The New York Sun sold out by running a story on one Monck Mason and his balloon trip across the Atlantic. Alas, it was nothing more than Poe’s fictional recounting of the deeds of Thomas Monck Mason, who in 1836, had traveled in his balloon from London to Weilburg, Germany. In 1938, when Orson Wells’ narrated a radio adaption of H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds, it was so convincing that many listeners believed an invasion by extraterrestrial beings was occurring. Was Wells influenced by Poe?
The most famous horror novel is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) about a Transylvanian prince who wanders east to London to find “new blood” and to spread the undead curse. An epic battle of good vs. evil takes place between the human monster and ordinary English subjects.
Close behind is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). The novel has become the allegory of human hubris (i.e., “he created his own Frankenstein”). The novel tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who goes out of his way to create something new and fantastic. The scientist instead creates a human monster who declares to the world “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.” Shelley was the wife of the famed romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Along with Lord Byron, the three held a competition on who could create the best horror story. Frankenstein, not surprisingly, has won hands down in the court of history. The novel retells the ancient story of men believing that they are as gods.
Across the Atlantic, Stephen King, one of the most popular authors of our time, graduated from teaching high school to the best seller lists with Carrie, a 1974 novel that was later made into a popular movie starring Sissy Spacek. Carrie, a teenage girl who has telekinetic powers, is ridiculed by her high school mates after discovering the menstrual process. Carrie attends the high school prom and exacts revenge on her sadistic classmates who deny her a chance to be prom queen. The movie contains the unforgettable scene where a hand reached out of Carrie’s grave to grab an unsuspecting Sue Snell (Amy Irving). The nightmare jolts Irving awake and will do the same to the viewer.
Another American horror story novelist is H.P. Lovecraft. A native of Rhode Island, Lovecraft specialized in “weird” stories that have never stopped drawing in readers. The Call of Cthulhu (1928) centers around an ancient dragon-sea monster hybrid that implants itself subconsciously into human minds, driving them slowly insane, causing them to speak in tongues and commit ritual acts of violence. At the Mountains of Madness (1931) continues the same theme. An Antarctic expedition goes haywire as a professor and his crew unearth the remains of a previously undiscovered prehistoric species, who as it turns out, are plenty full of life—and havoc.