Fate sits on these dark battlements, and frowns,
And, as the portals open to receive me,
Her voice, in sullen echoes through the courts,
Tells of a nameless deed.
Frontispiece of The Mysteries of Udolpho
October is fright month on many television stations here in the states, with every horror flick from the last 30 years darkening the small screen. We have a rule at our house: no scary stuff if Mom has to be in the room. My sons and husband sigh with exaggerated patience as I stick my fingers in my ears and hum while crossing their viewing point. I just don’t like to be scared.
But that wasn’t the case for many young ladies and gentlemen in the nineteenth century. Then as today, tales of horror sent delighted shivers down their spines. The first “Gothic novel” was published in 1764: Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (although the first edition was written under a pseudonym). Gothic novels combine horror and romance, but often romance in the older meaning of the word, what today we would call adventure. They featured castles in exotic locations, what the English considered romantic time periods (often the 1500s), and menacing villains threatening lovely young heroines, but not necessarily with handsome princes riding to the rescue. The haunting supernatural events were often, but not always, explained away in the end.
Some of today’s horror icons, Dracula and Frankenstein, were popularized by nineteenth century Gothic writers Bram Stoker and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, respectively. By far one of the most popular pieces, however, was The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. Published in 1794 in four volumes, it has been called the first bestseller, and it was still a bestseller long into the nineteenth century. Jane Austen’s heroine in Northanger Abbey, which was written in 1798 but not published until 1818 after Jane had died, reads The Mysteries of Udolpho and begins to see the people around her in a whole new light.
So, are you looking for something scary on this Halloween? Or are you hiding out with a good book?