In the past few years, there has been a great deal of focus in the horror community on the explosion of horror literature in the 70s and 80s, an interest partly generated by Grady Hendrix’s excellent book Paperbacks from Hell. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about gothic and horror writing that was being published just prior to those years – the time when writers such as Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson were flourishing. If “mid-century” often conjures up images of cocktails and cigarettes, McCarthyism and the atomic bomb, Freudian theories and existentialism, what horror novels and stories were highly reflective of those times? Below is a list of six books that partially embody the notion of mid-century horror.
Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
Maybe no other writer is as closely intertwined with mid-century anxieties and concerns as Jackson, and all of her novels and stories could be included on this list. But We Have Always Lived in the Castle seems particularly in tune with an age that was frequently obsessed with conformity, with Merricat and her sister and uncle living radically outside of the social mores of the 50s and early 60s. As with a lot of horror writing during this time, the violence is more suggested than shown (with the terrifying exception being when the locals attack the Blackwood homestead), but the sense of unease is palpable from the first pages when we follow Merricat through an arduous journey around town.
Maybe due to its overall conformist ethos, the mid-century was fascinated by anti-heroes, with actors such as James Dean and Montgomery Cliff playing morally complicated protagonists, but most anti-heroes tended to be male. One of the most remarkable aspects of Jackson’s novel is the character of Merricat herself, who is one of the great female anti-heroes of the time period. Some readers see her as a radically feminist figure, others as a deeply troubled teenager, and some readers as both. But pretty much all readers agree that she’s the cheerfully sinister heart of Jackson’s last novel.
Richard Matheson, The Best Of Richard Matheson (2017; Penguin Classics)
The Twilight Zone series was the epitome of the mid-century aesthetic, with episodes being introduced by Rod Serling, who was always dressed in a suit, and who was almost always smoking a cigarette. Richard Matheson wrote many of the stories on which some of the best Twilight Zone tales were based. “Nightmare at 20,00 Feet,” “Third from the Sun,” and “Long Distance Call” all appeared in the TV anthology series, and all appear in the Best of as well. They’re worth reading even for people who have seen the famous Twilight Zone episodes, though, since Matheson was able to develop the characters in a manner that was difficult to capture in the half-hour format. But some of my favourite stories here are the non-Twilight Zone ones: “Born of Man and Woman,” “Witch War” (with its feminist undertones), “Dress of White Silk,” and “Blood Son” (a very 50s vampire story). “Dance of the Dead” is also a standout from the selection. First published in 1954, the narrative is a work of sci-fi horror that captures the nihilistic spirit of early punk rock subculture – a subculture that wouldn’t exist for another two decades. The story explores, in a macabrely giddy way, what human life might be like after a nuclear apocalypse and germ warfare. The new Best of from Penguin Classics also includes an insightful introduction by Victor LaValle, one of the best horror writers publishing today.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Any list of mid-century horror fiction has to contend with the very real-life horror of racism and segregation, as well as the fact that few writers of colour were being published in the 50s and 60s. How many writers of colour are missing from this list because they could not get their work published? It’s a question that haunts – and should haunt – every discussion of literature during this time period.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is an example of a novel with gothic undertones written by an artist of colour that miraculously did make it past the institutionalised racism of the publishing world. As scholars such as Leila Taylor and Maisha Wester have argued, the gothic has been employed by some African-American writers to explore the trauma of racism by those who suffer from it, with Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Octavia Butler’s Kindred being two of the most well-known examples. Similarly, the unnamed protagonist in Invisible Man takes a long gothic journey into a country determined to find ever new ways of wiping away the complexity of his identity, ending with scenes of chaos and despair that rival anything on this list in their bleak intensity. From the famous Battle Royal opening, with its depiction of ritualistic abuse inflicted by a group of older white men on to a group of young black men, to the narrator’s surrealist-tinged subterranean life in the last few paragraphs, the narrative unfolds with a nightmare logic. Though often discussed as a novel in the Modernist tradition, especially in the first decades following its release, I would argue Ellison’s work actually has more in common with Afro-Gothic novels such Beloved and Kindred, as well as contemporary novels by writers like as Tananarive Due and Victor LaValle.
Ray Bradbury, The October Country (1955)
Rereading Bradbury’s autumn-themed collection for the first time in many years, I was struck by how vividly it taps into the mode of gothicism that also gave us the Addams Family cartoons and Edward Gorey’s illustrations. Like Addams and Gorey, Bradbury’s approach to the gothic was frequently laced with acidic humour, and peopled by odd, eccentric characters, such as the enigmatic thin man in “The Man Upstairs,” and the woman who literally refuses to die in “There Was an Old Woman.” And like Gorey in particular, Bradbury was drawn to the themes of memory and loss, as seen in the lyrical “The Lake,” with its images of a late summer beach. In fact, the entire book has a wistful tone, first struck in the opening prose poem, where Bradbury promises to take us to “that country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts.” My two favourite stories in the collection are “Jack-in-the Box,” about a mother and child who create a separate reality for themselves in a large manor, and the classic “The Crowd,” an uncanny tale about malevolent spectres in the automobile age that reads like a cross between J.G. Ballard and Algernon Blackwood.
Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
It might seem strange to include Highsmith’s first Ripley novel since it’s so often categorised as a crime story, but I’ve always thought that the novel could equally be considered a work of gothic horror storytelling. The gothic has given birth to a long line of memorable (and at times charismatic) villains, going all the way back to Lewis’ The Monk, and Tom Ripley certainly fits that type. But more importantly, gothic horror is fundamentally obsessed with identity, which is why mirrors, doppelgangers, and plain old mistaken identities are so familiar to the genre – and Highsmith excels at this exploration of fractured identity. Tom Ripley is constantly reinventing himself, first by pretending to be a close friend of Dickie Greenleaf’s, and then by assuming Dickie’s identity (a process he starts while Dickie is still alive by dressing in Dickie’s clothes and repeating Dickie’s gestures). Highsmith deftly weaves in issues of class and sexuality, too, creating a context for Ripley’s actions, and painting the monied, smug, straight world of the Greenleafs and their ilk with an incisively satirical edge.
Daphne du Maurier, Don’t Look Now (1971)
If “mid-century” is defined as the late forties to the mid-sixties, this novella, published in 1971, is definitely cheating by a few years. But I decided to include it since it seems to be one of those stories that harbour a mid-century sensibility despite its publication date. In fact, the novella could be seen as one of the last examples of mid-century horror. The glamour of travel, the fashionable, witty couple at the centre of the narrative, the lack of graphic violence – all seem to belong to a slightly earlier age. (The film version, released in 1973, is much closer to the spirit of the 70s with its explicit sex scene and experimental direction.) Du Maurier’s tale involves a semi-wealthy couple, Laura and John, who are travelling through Italy after having lost their daughter, and who meet two eerie sisters from Scotland who strike up a peculiar relationship with Laura. For those who have seen the film and haven’t read du Maurier’s story, I can’t recommend the novella highly enough. Much like Shelley’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, there is a feminist current to du Maurier’s tale, with John, who radiates the practical, no-nonsense attitude of a certain mid-century masculinity, troubled by the mystic dimension brought into his life by the two elderly sisters. If, as the late cultural critic Mark Fisher argued, the gothic at times whispers of a reality different from “capitalist realism,” du Maurier’s novella could be seen as a story about a mid-century man’s desire to expel the weirder, less linear aspects of experience from his world – and his complete failure to do so.
Needless to say, this is only a partial list – and one that could easily have been twice as long. A longer list would include Robert Aickman’s terrifyingly dreamlike stories (especially “The Hospice,” with its almost David Lynch-ian atmosphere), and Charles Beaumont’s work. Beaumont, like Matheson, was involved with The Twilight Zone, and he penned some of the series’ creepiest episodes, including “Perchance to Dream,” “The Howling Man,” and “Living Doll” (this last one a precursor to many haunted doll films). Maybe at some point in the near future there will be a Paperbacks from Hell-style book about gothic horror from these years.