Willie Lieberman is a fourth-year student in the History honors program specializing in European Studies
Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde… Some of the most recognizable characters in literature come from the horror fiction genre. Horror fiction is one of the oldest literary genres, with the vampires, demons, werewolves, ghosts, and more being products of ancient lore. Horror fiction in the western world really got its popular start in the eighteenth century with gothic horror. By the nineteenth century, horror literature took off and became the genre we know and love today. In this post we will track some of the most impactful works in horror fiction from the gothic fiction era at the end of the eighteenth century throughout the nineteenth century.
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) spearheaded the horror fiction genre. She wrote multiple novels still known well today that gained credence for the horror fiction genre at the end of the eighteenth century. Her works include supernatural elements of romance. As a woman writing in a time period where her gender was not widely respected, Ann Radcliffe and her accomplishments are even more impressive. Her most popular work is The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, Interspersed With Some Pieces of Poetry, and the Rose has a first edition from 1794 with four volumes originally owned by Canadian pastor and author Oswald Smith.
The next two novels on the docket are Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) and The Vampyre (1819) by John William Polidori (1795-1821). I’m writing about these two novels together because they were both the result of the same writing contest. In the summer of 1816, the famous author Lord Byron (1788-1824) stayed at Villa Diodati in Geneva with Polidori, and their guests were authors Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), and Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Lord Byron proposed the four authors write stories for a “ghost writing” competition. Mary Shelley wrote the beginnings of Frankenstein, while Lord Byron wrote a segment of a vampire story. Polidori, not yet a respected author, took inspiration for The Vampyre from Byron’s story, and Polidori even based a main character on Byron. Thus, when The Vampyre was published in 1819, the publisher originally attributed it to Lord Byron instead of Polidori. It is important to note that there were significant anti-Italian biases in this society, so Polidori was at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, both novels achieved massive success. The Rose has a first edition copy of Frankenstein that comes in three volumes.
We also have an early edition of The Vampyre attributed to Lord Byron that includes a letter from Geneva recounting the controversial story competition.
The most notable horror fiction contribution from the mid-nineteenth century is Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) by Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849). Edgar Allen Poe is the first American writer on our list, and he is one of the most famous authors of all time. Known for his spooky poems and short stories, Poe is a uniquely macabre writer. Printed in two volumes, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque is a collection of Poe’s short stories that he had published throughout the course of his career, and he was not financially compensated for this publication. The Rose has a first edition copy.
Rounding out the nineteenth century are two extremely popular novels that have garnered countless adaptations since their publishing. The Rose has two first edition copies of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). This story tells the mysterious circumstances surrounding a kind doctor who inexplicably turns into a villain at night, stalking Hyde park in London and committing all sorts of murders. We have two first edition copies, one a paperback and one a hardcover.
The final iconic horror fiction novel of the nineteenth century is Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker (1847-1912). This novel hardly needs an introduction. Like Frankenstein, Dracula is one of the most known and reproduced stories of this genre. In Victorian England, the idea of vampires was highly scandalous. Publishers in this period sometimes printed books with yellow covers as a sign of what they thought was inappropriate content. Many French books, for example, were printed with yellow covers. Both the Dracula hardcover and paperback were also printed in yellow. The paperback front cover displays a mildly comical illustration of Dracula dramatically scurrying down the side of a tower, and the book includes a colorful illustrated ad on the back cover.
This hardcover is a stunning canary yellow first edition with bright red lettering.
The nineteenth century was a transformative time for literature, with the growing middle class gaining access to books through increased literacy enabled by the accessibility of affordable paperback copies. The popularity of this genre took off during this time and has only expanded since. The kinds of fictional beings like vampires and ghosts included in these works are still the basis of works created in modern times that reach cultural phenomenon status. The Twilight series, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and countless horror movies can attribute their success to the late eighteenth and nineteenth-century horror fiction boom.