Happy Birthday, Horror!


It may not have been a natural birth, stitched together as it was from the flesh of other fictions, given life by the lightning bolt of Fear… still, it was 200 years ago this June that, by most accounts, Horror as a genre was born.

Brian Aldiss in his TRILLION YEAR SPREE cites Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN as ground zero for SF as a genre. While Sir Christopher Frayling begins his NIGHTMARE:The Birth Of Horror, with FRANKENSTEIN and how it came to be.

Gothic Poster

That ‘Haunted Summer’ on the shores of Lake Geneva, within the walls of Villa Diodati has a lot to answer for… and to celebrate, since not only did it result in the creation of FRANKENSTEIN, but also, indirectly, to DRACULA, in the writing of John Polidori’s THE VAMPYRE, and indeed in the figure of Byron himself, who directly influenced Polidori’s depiction of Count Ruthven, and the iconic image of every darkly handsome, gloweringly dangerous vampire thereafter.

From this night, when Byron, Shelley, Mary (then Mary Godwin) and Polidori told ghost stories comes one of the most influential books in the English Language and indirectly, an entire genre – one from which that most vampiric of arts, the cinema, has drunk deeply.

“Cinema comes to life in the dark – like Dracula.” – David Thompson

Given the immense influence of these books, these people and that night on our culture – artistically and otherwise –  why then does there seem to be so little celebration of it?

The BFI in their infinite wisdom chose to hold a huge celebration of Gothic and Horror Cinema a couple of years before this momentous date… which seems rather short sighted. They couldn’t have waited?

The way that TV and Literary subjects so often tie together now – see the recent spate of books and TV series about Russia, or those which ties very sensibly to specific historic events like the Somme, you’d have thought they could have held on just a little, in order to ensure blanket coverage.

As it was, the BFI Gothic celebrations were an immense success, but it’s hard not to feel that the Official bastions of our cultural and artistic heritage once again have slighted or underestimated the genre. Don’t quite take it seriously enough to think it warranted the extra effort, or the wait. Or perhaps just don’t see this moment in our cultural history for what it really is: One of the most important events in the history of art. Literary in it’s basis, but infinite in its influence both in subject and in style.

Is this because it’s Horror? I can’t help but think it is. It’s a genre then that has commercial value to our cultural institutions, but not enough meaning to be genuinely respected or cared for. Not enough meaning to note a date.

Similarly, though Mary Shelley lived for many years in the city of Bath and wrote much of FRANKENSTEIN there, that city still has not recognised her, nor the place where she lived and wrote with the ‘Blue Plaque’ seal of official approval, despite the fact that she is hands down one of Bath’s most famous residents, and despite the efforts of Sir Christopher Frayling, Angela carter and others to encourage the city to do otherwise. Jane Austen is their cause celebre… the respectable face of their literary heritage. Not this rebellious young woman who eloped with her lover, spent a summer with the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, and wrote a novel which got so under the skin of its readers as to never have left their nightmares since.


Perhaps that’s as it should be. Horror is, after all, a ‘disreputable’ genre. It’s meant to be the outlaw, the outsider. The genre that dares to challenge and attack and shake things up. But when it has so much influence, when it has borne GREAT and LASTING works of art, it still bothers me to see them diminished, ignored, or not given their due.

SO, while the cultural capital was a little premature with its ‘Petite Mort’ for horror (left the money on the dresser and walked out of the door)… up North we embrace it and declare undying love. Darkness and Shadow are part of the lands in which we live. We seem to occupy a similarly ‘outsider’ status, and we recognise one of our own.

It makes me proud  to see the way Newcastle has NOT forgotten, and indeed is celebrating this momentous anniversary with a series of lectures by Gail-Nina Anderson and our own NOVOCASTRIA MACABRE screening of Ken Russell’s GOTHIC at Newcastle Castle, which dramatises the events at Villa Diodati in a way that comments on them, the people involved, and the genre they begot, with Stephen Volk (screenwriter of GOTHIC as well as GHOST WATCH, AFTERLIFE, THE AWAKENING, MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT and more) and  David Pirie (who quite literally wrote the book on British Horror Films and the importance of Gothic Horror to our culture with A HERITAGE OF HORROR: ‘The Gothic is to Britain as the Western is to America’) in discussion after the film, chatting about the making of the movie, it’s conception, and the importance of the events depicted.

We’ve had our Shakespeare celebrations this year.

If you love the darker side of literature, the dangerous free spirits of Horror, Fantasy and SF, this is your moment. This one’s for YOU. Villa Diodati is YOUR Stratford Upon Avon. The theatre of your mind’s eye, The Globe. And whatever dark entity was conjured from the collective fears of Byron, Shelley, Mary and Polidori… that’s YOUR Shakespeare.

Embrace the darkness. Face your fears. Celebrate!

Gothic event alt2

GOTHIC screening at Newcastle Castle with Stephen Volk & David Pirie

Gail-Nina Anderson lectures at Newcastle Lit & Phil: ‘The Birth Of Frankenstein’ and ‘Byron: Poet, Pin-up, Vampire‘.

GOTHIC review by Ken Hanke

GOTHIC news and reviews at stephenvolk.net

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