As the 1700s drew to a close, the public furor over The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolpho and other gothic horror novels continued. Societal keepers and the media of the time became concerned that commoners, particularly young people, were spending too much time engaged in reading, particularly such gruesome fare as The Monk. In our last chapter, we talked about how cancel culture came for Matthew Gregory Lewis, forcing him to revise further editions of The Monk, and to issue a public apology.
In our last column, we discussed Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto—a novel written in 1764 that merged supernatural situations with realistic characters in a natural setting. I mentioned that while it was inarguably the world’s first supernatural horror novel, the marketing category of Horror wasn’t invented until the Eighties, so it was instead categorized as a “Gothic.”
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.
Last month, we explored how, after Rome’s Edict of Milan, Christianity spread throughout the world and began to influence supernatural fiction. But since our previous chapter focused primarily on twelfth century werewolf fiction, I want to begin this month by talking about another religious book that had a lasting impact on our genre.
We’ve explored how the supernatural informed much of humankind’s early written works, from the various texts of the world’s religions to cultural folklore and myths to fiction. Eventually, one religion began to influence them all. Around the same time that anonymous writer was penning Beowulf, the Roman Catholic church’s first official accusation of real-life Satanism took place in the French city of Toulouse.
As we’ve already established, supernatural elements informed much of mankind’s early written works, from the various texts of the world’s religions to cultural folklore and myths to one of humanity’s first pieces of fiction—The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Let’s examine some other early works of horror fiction from the dawn of civilization, starting in 1500 B.C. with the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur—a tale of bestiality, royal intrigue, and man-eating monsters.
In last month’s chapter, we examined one of the world’s first examples of horror fiction—The Epic of Gilgamesh. This month, that was supposed to lead into a chapter on Beowulf, Theseus and the Minotaur, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Oresteia, Dante’s Inferno, Lucian Samosata’s True History, and more.
I’ve decided we will get to those next month.
Instead, I’d like to use this month’s space to remember a mentor and dear friend of mine. I knew him as Dallas Mayr, but I first met him as Jack Ketchum (which is probably the name you know him by).
Before we talk about The Epic of Gilgamesh, I want to touch on folklore, myths, and religion. As stated previously, my goal with this column is to present a history of horror fiction from primitive man up to today’s Kindle revolution. In doing that, I will undoubtedly anger some people. (Indeed, judging by the recent histrionics of the addled S.T. Joshi, I already have.) But while I’m happy to piss people off by claiming there’s common ground between quiet horror and splatterpunk, or discussing the possibility that America’s oldest mass market paperback publisher was partially funded by organized crime, it is not my intent to anger or offend anyone by disparaging their personal religious beliefs.
In the opening sentence of his seminal 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.”
Decades later, in the Introduction to 1982’s Prime Evil anthology, Douglas E. Winter wrote, “Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.”
In his posthumously released 1993 song “Thug Life,” 2Pac (Tupac Shakur) rapped, “Thinkin’ of dead niggas that I knew that died young. Is there a heaven for a nigga up to no good, or is it another fuckin’ hood?”
Three seemingly disparate quotes, connected only tenuously, and yet all speaking to one universal truth that is as old as humankind itself. Three quotes that serve to interpolate the work of the Upper Paleolithic era’s version of Stephen King—an artist known as Thurg.
Hi. My name is Brian Keene. You might remember me from my previous Cemetery Dance column, End of the Road. Or perhaps you know me from the many novels and comic books and short stories I’ve written—too many, if you ask some critics. Or maybe you know me from my popular podcast, The Horror Show with Brian Keene. Or, it’s possible you don’t know me at all—or know me only by reputation (and if it’s the latter, then don’t believe everything you read online). Regardless of how you ended up here, welcome to History of Horror Fiction, a new monthly column brought to you by Cemetery Dance.