From the moment I heard the vampire’s name, I associated him with forbidden desires. After all, I was only seven-years-old when the R-rated Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) was released to theatres and very much forbidden from seeing it. Despite the begging, my parents decided it “…just wasn’t for kids.” Unacceptable! We were a family of horror fans (seriously, my dad had me convinced he was an actual werewolf) and vampires were definitely my thing. Perhaps as a consolation, my mother went out and bought me a high-collared black cape from our local K-Mart. That Halloween, an elementary-aged but very convincing Count Dracula stalked the streets of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in white face paint and plastic fangs.
In an undergraduate classroom, even one full of English majors, it can be hard for nineteenth-century literature to turn heads. “Achingly dull” or “overly wordy” are typical responses to the Victorians. Despite its place in our cultural imagination, Dracula doesn’t incite average readers to clamour for Bram Stoker’s foundational novel. But by the time Dracula’s three sultry vamp ladies crawl suggestively down Jonathan Harker in bed, who is insensate with fear and “languorous ecstasy,” students realise this isn’t some stuffy sermon on middle-class morality they’re dealing with. The assumed Victorian prudishness doesn’t fly, but catapults out the nearest window. This isn’t what they were expecting. Certainly not from 1897. But why not?
It’s almost impossible to imagine a contemporary possession story, whether in a book or film, not being somehow influenced by William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Blatty’s novel is one of those books that defines a subgenre and many of the images that readers and film-goers have of possession tales (the troubled priests, the candle-lit Catholic iconography, the other-worldly voices) seemingly originate with Blatty’s 1971 book. But there’s a possession novel, much less well known, that appeared roughly a decade earlier, and which includes many of the possession narrative attributes that would become a staple in books and films involving exorcism.
Apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there’s hardly a more famous vampire novel than Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. It was among the first of its kind to take a modern stance to the vampire tale, such as coping with the existential horror of living forever when one’s loved ones have grown old and died, or the ethics surrounding drinking human blood.
“Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes, then shows them to us in rough disguise: the monster and the rocket” – W.H. Auden
You may believe that Alien is a science fiction film. After all it’s set in space with all the hypersleep pods and computer terminals and rumbling star-drives you might want. The story happens in some distant (but not too distant) future where humanity feels at home travelling the gulfs between stars. It is, perhaps most pressingly, called Alien.
You may believe that Alien is a science fiction film and it’s not an absurd position to hold. It’s just wrong.
In the convention program book for the 1983 World Fantasy Convention, Stephen King wrote: “What [Robert] Bloch did with such novels as The Deadbeat, The Scarf, Firebug, Psycho, and The Couch was to rediscover the suspense novel and reinvent the antihero as first discovered by James Cain.” A screenwriter and novelist of German Jewish descent from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Bloch was the youngest member of The Lovecraft Circle, or the writers who followed H. P. Lovecraft and published their short fiction in Weird Tales, a pulp horror outlet that circulated through the Great Depression. But Bloch is probably best remembered for his novel Psycho that served as the basis for one of the most iconic horror films of the 1960s. While Bloch was hardly the first to lend a psychological perspective to the horror novel (a feat that many initially attribute to Edgar Allan Poe, but can also arguably be found in Gothic and speculative literature since its inception), his unique true-crime slant to storytelling set the tone for both speculative fiction and psychological horror for the latter half of the twentieth century.
Richard Matheson is not quite a household name, but guaranteed you’ve heard of his work. He has written some of the most memorable scripts for television and movies of the mid-twentieth century, particularly for the Roger Corman/AIP “Poe Cycle” of films starring Vincent Price and the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” featuring William Shatner. You might also remember his novel I Am Legend, also turned into a film called The Last Man on Earth which served as the inspiration for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. While it is unlikely you can name five of his short stories off the top of your head, his legacy is everywhere, in The Walking Dead to Jordan Peele’s remake of The Twilight Zone. Without Matheson, we wouldn’t have some of the biggest subgenres of science fiction and horror.
“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.” – “Ian McEwan: ‘Who’s going to write the algorithm for the little white lie?’”
With this dismissive opinion of science fiction – writing that’s full of fun and gadgets, perhaps, but ultimately vapid and ignorant of more important concerns – Ian McEwan not only set the genre internet alight but also added himself to a list of hoary old authors and critics who’ve blithely dismissed genre fiction as little more than children playing with toys while the adults look on indulgently.
In the summer of 1948, more than three hundred letters arrived at the offices of The New Yorker in response to a short story, “the most mail the magazine that ever received in response to a work of fiction” (Ruth Franklin, “‘The Lottery’ Letters,” The New Yorker June 25, 2013). At a time when the post-World War II boom of the United States was about to decline into the paranoia and conformity of the Cold War, the story in question could not be more appropriate, nor terrifying for the American imagination.
Think of the term “haunted house” and it is likely to conjure up a variety of images, including decaying Victorian mansions or Gothic manor houses from rural England. However, mention the town of Bennington, Vermont and it is not likely to strike fear in the heart of the Western imagination the same way “Transylvania” would. Yet, it is a locale responsible for generating one of the greatest modern haunted house stories in the English literature.