Shiver and Shudder: The Victorian Roots of Gothic Horror Stories

When most people think of 19th-century Romantic and Victorian fiction, what usually comes to mind are the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters. And with good reason—those works are wonderfully rich and historically distinctive. But another type of British fiction emerged during the 19th century that often flies under the radar (or hides in the shadows, as it were). And as the the temperatures begin to fall, the days grow shorter, and Halloween approaches, it’s fitting to revisit the darker side of classic British fiction.

The Romantic period that began during in the late 1700s / early 1800s came on the heels of the Enlightenment—an age in which art and literature primarily focused on order and rationalism. But making a distinct departure, Romantic poets such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percey Shelley, and Lord Byron began writing about what Wordsworth called “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” These poets argued that the human mind is not a rational or orderly thing, and that art created by humans should be unshackled from neoclassical constraints and set free to reflect the tumultuous feelings people actually experience in their lives.

Romantic poetry and fiction are absolutely flooded with emotion. One need only read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights to see how the tumult and tempest of love is played out in literary lives. But one of the most powerful human emotions is fear, and Romantic writers were not at all afraid of confronting it in their work. In fact, the Romantics and the Victorians were some of the first pioneers of gothic/horror fiction as a genre. Dante Alighieri had touched on it in The Inferno and Edgar Allan Poe began exploring Gothic themes in America, but it was the British writers who – more than any group – helped formalize a style of storytelling that took root in the dark corners of our minds and stayed there, haunting us ever since.

Below are five British novels/novellas written in the 1800s that laid the groundwork for modern horror and gothic fiction. Our current experience of Halloween owes a lot to these books and their writers, and it’s a pleasure to revisit and celebrate them during this haunted time of year.

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

Most people are familiar with the story: The brilliant young scientist Victor Frankenstein starts experimenting with dark and forbidden scientific techniques, and before long he has created a patchwork, hulking, grotesque monster. It’s a terrifying but fascinating look at a very 19th-century phenomenon: the frenetic, unwavering pursuit of science at all costs without ever stopping to question the moral consequences of those pursuits (at least until it’s too late).

The whole novel is phenomenal, but Mary Shelley’s true genius is in getting us to consider the question that’s at the heart of the book: Who’s more monstrous: The monster, or the man who created him?

Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1888)

This gothic novella makes literal the split personalities we all hold buried inside us. Dr. Henry Jeckyll is the calm, collected, rational man who functions perfectly well and holds a respected, reputable place in British society. But when he ingests a chemical serum, Jeckyll turns into a brutish, violent lout who impulsively tramples and kills people. Hyde’s physical manifestation of Jeckyll’s internal rage is a dualistic trope that’s very familiar now (because of pop culture characters like The Hulk), but it’s easy to forget how new it was when Stevenson wrote his late-Victorian sci-fi horror story.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde, 1890)

More a psychological thriller than a pure horror story, Irish writer Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray explores the supernatural effects of unbridled hedonism and sensuality. After a young, handsome socialite named Dorian Gray has his portrait painted, he begins exploring a self-indulgent, sensualistic lifestyle that – while turning his portrait likeness into something old and grotesque – ends up keeping Dorian young and beautiful. As long as he keeps embracing debauchery, Dorian is able to stay perpetually young.

The novella’s ending reveals a deeper layer of Dorian’s dilemma, and he ultimately has to confront the consequences of his choices. While not straightforward horror, the supernatural and Gothic flavor of Dorian Gray paved the way for modern psychological thrillers like Hellraiser and A Clockwork Orange, which explore many of the same themes.

The Invisible Man (H.G. Wells, 1897)

Set in late-Victorian West Sussex, England, H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man tells the story of a mysterious man named Griffin – a scientist who experiments with chemicals, turns himself invisible, and uses his newfound power to perpetrate random acts of brutality and violence. As much a mystery / science fiction story as a horror story, The Invisible Man predicted a question that’s been the basis of many genre stories in the last 40 or 50 years: When someone acquires superhuman abilities, what happens when they’re fundamentally flawed and broken people? The results have been explored in antihero stories as recent as Watchmen, The Boys, and Brightburn – all of which owe a big debt to Wells’ chilling tale.

Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897)

Another late-Victorian classic, Dracula doesn’t need much introduction or explanation. It’s a masterpiece of horror and Gothic storytelling that’s probably more famous for what it spawned than what it originally was: A cautionary tale about the indulgence of human passions and desire. On the one hand, it’s very Romantic in that it explores the unbridled human excess and emotion. On the other hand, it’s very Victorian in that it warns of the consequences of these things.

Some of the novels on this list were influential in tangential ways. We know the story types and tropes without really being able to recall them immediately. Ultimately, though, Dracula spawned its own specific fiction type that has resonated clearly for over a century: Nosferatu, The Lost Boys, True Blood, Interview with the Vampire, and – yes, we have to acknowledge it – Twilight.

So there we have it: Five 19th-century British horror/Gothic/sci-fi novels that will make your Halloween week both smarter and spookier. You probably know the genres and the characters from modern Victorian-based stories like Penny Dreadful and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But why not round out your love of Romantic and Victorian culture by exploring the original dark places where things go bump in the night?

3 thoughts on “Shiver and Shudder: The Victorian Roots of Gothic Horror Stories

Add yours

  1. I love you Victorian Trading!💜 This blog was spookalicious and right up my street. 💀Thank you for being fabulous you.

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