Brian Keene’s History of Horror Fiction, Chapter Seven: The First Horror Novel

Welcome back. We are still traveling through time, you and I. And though it seems like it has been a year since our last column, we can undo that. We can pretend that I wasn’t almost burned to death in a terrible mishap and that no time has passed at all.

For indeed, it hasn’t. 

Our journey through the history of horror fiction began 20,000 years ago, when we visited the world’s first horror novelist, Thurg. We then went to 2100 B.C. and learned about things like The Epic of Gilgamesh and the world’s first zombie novel. In 1500 B.C. we checked out Theseus and the Minotaur, the tale of Perseus. The Odyssey, and The Iliad. Then, traveling onward through time, we checked out The Oresteia, Beowulf, Dante’s Inferno, Lucian Samosata’s True History, and more. In the twelfth century, we read feminist werewolf fiction. And in our last column we visited the Elizabethan era and examined horror fiction on the stage, with the works of William Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlow, Ben Jonson, and John Webster. It was Webster’s The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi that propelled the genre forward in terms of gruesome, macabre and supernatural trappings. We also looked at Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard, and the enduring impact it had on the horror genre, influencing everyone from Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King to DC Comics and Dungeons and Dragons

And since it has been a year in real time, if you need a refresher on those forays, visit the archive of our travels thus far

We have arrived now in the 1700s. The Elizabethan poets and playwrights have laid the groundwork, building on the myths and folklore and oral tradition that came before them, and Thurg’s cave paintings before that. 

Novels—a relatively long prose work of narrative fiction—have been around in some form for several centuries, but this century is when they begin to proliferate and dominate. 

While stories from the previous centuries often featured supernatural scenarios and situations (as we have detailed exhaustively in previous columns), most of the novels published during the 1700s feature contemporary (for their time) settings with realistic characters and situations. 

There are, as always, a few notable exceptions. While best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe (1719), Daniel Defoe has a hand in bridging the gap between horror poetry and theatrical productions and horror fiction, particularly his short stories “The Magician” (published in 1726) and “The Ghost in All the Rooms” (published a year later). Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, itself influenced by Defoe, also features fantastical and supernatural imagery. But despite the horror elements, both Defoe and Swift’s prose is realistic in tone, and qualify more as adventure tales than they do horror. 

Oil painting of Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole, from an oil painting by Joshua Reynolds.

It is the same with much of the literature of the period. The supernatural has been forsaken for romance. Indeed, it is the popularity of those romances that leads Horace Walpole to write the world’s first legitimate horror novel—The Castle of Otranto.

Walpole is a fascinating subject, and I could write a series of columns about him alone. Born into privilege in 1717, he was the youngest son of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole. He followed his father into politics, serving in Parliament as a member of the Whig party. He didn’t begin his writing career until middle age.

Written in 1764, The Castle of Otranto tells the story of Manfred, lord of Otranto, and his desperation to escape the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy which he believes foretells his demise. To do this, Manfred intends to leave his wife, Hippolita, and marry a much younger woman named Isabella. If this plot sounds like all the trappings of the romance genre, remember that is by design. The popularity of romances during this era is what Walpole intended to emulate…but with the addition of the supernatural. Thus, in addition to the ancient curse, The Castle of Otranto contains inanimate objects that seemingly move on their own, doors that open and close on their own, bloody murder, secret rooms and traps, crumbling subterranean passageways, a walking portrait, an evil villain, and many other staples of the horror genre that still exist today.  

Cover of The Castle of OtrantoTo be clear, The Castle of Otranto is the first supernatural horror novel. But since the marketing category of HORROR wasn’t invented until the Eighties (don’t worry, our time travel will take us there eventually) it was instead categorized as a “Gothic.” Walpole’s endeavor to merge supernatural situations with realistic characters acting in a “natural” manner gave birth to this brand-new literary genre. The novel went on to be a template for much that has come since, including Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn inspired H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and William Hope Hodgson, who inspired Robert Bloch, Manly Wade Wellman and Richard Matheson, who inspired Stephen King, Peter Straub. Joyce Carol Oates, and Ramsey Campbell, who inspired Paul Tremblay, Mary SanGiovanni, Victor Lavalle, and yours truly.

All roads lead back to The Castle of Otranto.

And on one of those dark roads is a creepy monk.

More on him next month. It’s good to be back…


If you enjoy this column, you might enjoy my new book End of the Roadcoming soon from Cemetery Dance. It’s a memoir, travelogue, and post-Danse Macabre examination of modern horror fiction, the people who write it, and the world they live and die in. Critics call it exhilarating, emotional, heartfelt and hilarious. You might dig it, too.

Brian Keene is the author of over fifty books, as well as hundreds of short stories and dozens of comic books. He also hosts the popular podcast The Horror Show with Brian Keene. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.

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