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Horror: A Literary History is a hardcover book published by the British Library, and Edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes – a Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University. Accordingly, he is the author of previous books on gothic horror and horror films. This book explores the origins of horror as a concept and the gothic romances which were its relative beginnings as a genre around the late 1700s. As it progresses chapter by chapter through the years, it describes briefly the influences on each turning point, finally bringing us up-to-date with the latest creations and re-inventions from the new millennium. The cover design is by Rawshock Design, and there are periodic basic illustrations, book covers and photos in monochrome.
This book makes references to certain films, but concentrates on the written word, both in novel and magazine short story form – which is as it should be. As a semi-regular collector of hardback classic gothic horror novels and collected works of such ground-breaking 18th Century and early 19th Century fame as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, etc., an extensive non-fiction study of literary horror came as more than a welcome addition to many era- or sub-genre-specific works. Where this book really excels is in highlighting and investigating the landmark books, short stories and writers from each period, and describing their impact on society at the time. I thought I possessed a reasonable knowledge of this subject, but there are a few names even I didn’t recognise. It also serves as a good reminder of those authors which I used to know about but have for some reason slipped my mind, and those that I am now determined to seek out.
Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, full of blasphemy, sex and carnage, was unsurprisingly considered disgusting and outrageous when it first emerged in 1796. What was considered horrific developed through demons and ghosts over the years, reflecting the times and people’s attitudes, until the immensely popular Penny Dreadful periodicals which featured a clash of the genteel civilised and the hideously brutish. The String of Pearls was one such example, which featured Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Spring-Heeled Jack was another. It’s obvious when reading this book that Reyes has his favourites. Several times he mentions titles like Rosemary’s Baby, Blatty’s The Exorcist, and the two books of Tom Tryon. He’s positively fixated with Arthur Machen (who admittedly is a good read), whilst totally omitting (or forgetting) the impact of such contributors of the art as E.F. Benson and Graham Masterton – to mention but two.
Although it didn’t really affect me that much, I believe a substantial stumbling block in the construction of this work to be the writing style. It’s an informative read but not an enjoyable one. It comes across strongly that the reader is being preached to; not surprising considering the man is a professional lecturer. Not everyone who reads a reference book is studying for a degree, and I feel this could turn many people off purchasing the book.