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Horror fiction, horror literature and also horror fantasy is a genre of literature, which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, or startle its readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Literary historian J. A. Cuddon has defined the horror story as "a piece of fiction in prose of variable length... which shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing." It creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror is usually supernatural, though it can be non-supernatural. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society.
The genre of horror has ancient origins with roots in folklore and religious traditions, focusing on death, the afterlife, evil, the demonic and the principle of the thing embodied in the person. These were manifested in stories of witches, vampires, werewolves, mummies, and ghosts.
18th century Gothic horror drew on these sources with the seminal and controversial The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole. This marked the first time a modern novel incorporated elements of the supernatural instead of pure realism. In fact, the first edition was published disguised as an actual medieval romance from Italy discovered and republished by a fictitious translator. Once revealed as contemporary, many found it anachronistic, reactionary, or simply in poor taste - but it proved to be immediately popular. That first novel of Gothic horror inspired such works as Vathek (1786) by William Beckford, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1796) by Ann Radcliffe and The Monk (1797) by Matthew Lewis. A significant amount of horror fiction of this era was written by women and marketed at a female audience, a typical scenario being a resourceful female protagonist menaced in a gloomy castle.
The Gothic tradition blossomed into the genre modern readers call horror literature in the 19th century. Influential works and characters that continue resonating with film and cinema today saw their genesis in such works as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Each of these novels and novellas created an enduring icon of horror seen in modern re-imaginings on the stage and screen.
The proliferation of cheap periodicals, as early as the turn of the century, led to a boom in horror writing. One writer who specialized in horror fiction for mainstream pulps such as All-Story Magazine was Tod Robbins, whose fiction dealt with themes of madness and cruelty. Later, specialist publications emerged to give horror writers an outlet, including Weird Tales and Unknown Worlds.
Influential horror writers of the early 20th century made inroads in these mediums. Particularly, the venerated horror author H. P. Lovecraft, and his enduring Cthulhu Mythos pioneered the genre of cosmic horror, and M. R. James is credited with redefining the ghost story in that era.
Early cinema was inspired by many aspects of horror literature, and early horror cinema started a strong tradition of horror films and sub-genres based on horror fiction that continues to this day. Up until the graphic depictions of violence and gore on the screen commonly associated with the 1960s and 1970s slasher films and splatter films, comic books such as those published by EC Comics (famous for series such as Tales From The Crypt) satisfied readers' quests for horror imagery that the silver screen could not provide.
Many modern novels claim an early description of the living dead in a precursor to the modern zombie tale, including H.P. Lovecraft stories such as "Cool Air," (1925) "In The Vault," (1926) and "The Outsider," (1926) . Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend would also influence an entire genre of apocalyptic zombie fiction emblematic of the films of George A. Romero.
One of the best-known contemporary horror writers is Stephen King, known for writing Carrie, The Shining, It, Misery and many more. Beginning in the 1970s, King's stories have managed to attract a large audience, for which he was prized by the U.S. National Book Foundation in 2003. Popular contemporary horror authors include Brian Lumley, James Herbert, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, and Peter Straub.
Best-selling book series of contemporary times exist in related genres to horror fiction, such as the werewolf fiction urban fantasy Kitty Norville books from Carrie Vaughn, the erotic Gothic fiction of Anne Rice, and Goosebumps by R.L. Stine. Elements of the horror genre continue to expand outside the genre. The alternate history of more traditional historical horror in a novel such as The Terror exists on bookstore shelves next to genre mash ups such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the historical fantasy and horror comics such as Hellblazer and Mike Mignola's Hellboy. Horror serves as one of the central genres in more complex modern works such as Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, a finalist for the National Book Award.
One of the defining traits of the genre of horror is that it provokes a response; emotional, psychological or physical, within readers that causes them to react with fear. One of H.P. Lovecraft's most famous quotes about the genre is that: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." the first sentence from his seminal essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature.
In her essay "Elements of Aversion", Elizabeth Barrette articulates the need by some for horror tales in a modern world:
The old "fight or flight" reaction of our evolutionary heritage once played a major role in the life of every human. Our ancestors lived and died by it. Then someone invented the fascinating game of civilization, and things began to calm down. Development pushed wilderness back from settled lands. War, crime, and other forms of social violence came with civilization and humans started preying on each other, but by and large daily life calmed down. We began to feel restless, to feel something missing: the excitement of living on the edge, the tension between hunter and hunted. So we told each other stories through the long, dark nights...when the fires burned low, we did our best to scare the daylights out of each other. The rush of adrenaline feels good. Our hearts pound, our breath quickens, and we can imagine ourselves on the edge. Yet we also appreciate the insightful aspects of horror. Sometimes a story intends to shock and disgust, but the best horror intends to rattle our cages and shake us out of our complacency. It makes us think, forces us to confront ideas we might rather ignore, and challenges preconceptions of all kinds. Horror reminds us that the world is not always as safe as it seems, which exercises our mental muscles and reminds us to keep a little healthy caution close at hand.
In a sense similar to the reason a person seeks out the controlled thrill of a roller coaster, readers in the modern era seek out feelings of horror and terror to feel a sense of excitement. However, she adds that horror fiction is one of the few mediums where readers seek out a form of art that forces themselves to confront ideas and images they "might rather ignore ... [to challenge] preconceptions of all kinds."
One can see the confrontation of ideas readers and characters would "rather ignore" throughout literature, in famous moments such as Hamlet's musings about the skull of Yorick and its implications of the mortality of humanity and the gruesome end that bodies inevitably come to. In horror fiction, the confrontation with the gruesome is often a metaphor for the problems facing the current generation of the author.
Stephanie Demetrakopoulos illustrates a common interpretation of one of the benchmarks of the canon of horror literature. Tina Broussard in an annotated bibliography of Dracula surmises Demetrakopoulos' thesis:
This scholarly journal article explores sexuality in Dracula, including overtones of sexuality in the typical aggressive male and female sexuality which is either reflective of the chaste woman or the sexually aggressive female vampire. Demetrakopoulos suggests Dracula was an outlet for Victorian society, breaking through sexual norms with symbolic group orgies, male desire for sexually aggressive women, denial of motherhood, etc. She highlights ways in which the females defy gender boundaries by embodying masculine traits such as intelligence.
It is a now commonly accepted viewpoint that the horror elements of Dracula's portrayal of vampirism are metaphors for sexuality in a repressed Victorian era. But this is merely one of many interpretations of the metaphor of Dracula. Judith Halberstam postulates many of these in her essay Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker's Dracula. She writes:
[The] image of dusty and unused gold, coins from many nations and old unworn jewels, immediately connects Dracula to the old money of a corrupt class, to a kind of piracy of nations and to the worst excesses of the aristocracy.
Halberstram articulates a view of Dracula as manifesting the growing perception of the Aristocracy as an evil and outdated notion to be defeated. The depiction of a multinational band of protagonists using the latest technologies (such as a telegraph) to quickly share, collate, and act upon new information is what leads to the destruction of the Vampire. This is one of many interpretations of the metaphor of only one central figure of the canon of horror fiction, as over a dozen possible metaphors are referenced in analysis, from the religious to the anti-semitic.
In addition to those essays and articles shown above, scholarship on horror fiction is almost as old as horror fiction itself. In 1826, the gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe published an essay distinguishing two elements of horror fiction, "terror" and "horror." Whereas terror is a feeling of dread that takes place before an event happens, horror is a feeling of revulsion or disgust after an event has happened. Radcliffe describes terror as that which "expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life," whereas horror is described as that which "freezes and nearly annihilates them."
Modern scholarship on horror fiction draws upon a range of sources. In their historical studies of the gothic novel, both Devandra Varma and S.L. Varnado make reference to the theologian Rudolf Otto, whose concept of the "numinous" was originally used to describe religious experience.
Achievements in horror fiction are recognized by numerous awards. The Horror Writer's Association presents the Bram Stoker Awards for Superior Achievement, named in honor of Bram Stoker, author of the seminal horror novel Dracula. The Australian Horror Writers Association presents annual Australian Shadows Awards. The International Horror Guild Award was presented annually to works of horror and dark fantasy from 1995 to 2008. Other important awards for horror literature are as subcategories included within general awards for fantasy and science fiction in such awards as the Aurealis Award.
Some writers of fiction normally classified as "horror" nevertheless dislike the term, considering it too lurid. They instead use the terms dark fantasy or Gothic fantasy for supernatural horror, or "psychological thriller" for non-supernatural horror.
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