What are you scared of? Public speaking? Spiders? The dark?
Those are very real fears, and there are plenty of others. Some are serious, like the fear of being alone (autophobia) or the fear of confined spaces (claustrophobia). Some seem less so—like the fear of clocks (chronomentrophobia) or the fear of the number thirteen (triskaidekaphobia).
We all have our fears. So why would we want to pick up a scary book and frighten ourselves even more?
Maybe it’s because we know we can always close the book if things get too intense. Or maybe it’s because reading horror gives us a way to confront our fears. Perhaps if we read how Neil Gaiman’s seven-year-old protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane stands up to his evil nanny, then getting up and speaking in front of a classroom won’t feel so daunting. Maybe if we read how Clive Barker’s ten-year-old hero, Harvey, gets away from the soul-sucking Mr. Hood by tricking him in The Thief of Always, then that spider on the windowsill doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
But what about Gaiman, Barker, and the other authors who are famous for their horrific tales?
They are not free from being afraid. As a youngster, Stephen King slept with the light on for fear of the dark. Barker was afraid of flying. R. L. Stine was afraid of jumping into a swimming pool. Edgar Allan Poe and Shirley Jackson never got past some of their worst inner fears.
The fourteen authors profiled on the following pages face their fears, and ours, by drawing on a dark part of their hearts for inspiration in their writing. They write about the horror of the natural world and the supernatural. They write of physical terror and psychological terror.
As varied as their styles and their personalities are, what all these authors have in common is that they began reading at a very early age. Many read scary stories, weird tales, horror novels, and comic books when they were young. But they also read fantasy, science fiction, and classic literature. Reading was the key that unlocked the door of their active imaginations. “We all have fevered imaginative lives,” Barker says. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing.”
The results of their dark hearts are classics of horror literature. Some of the books and stories by these fourteen writers have been read for many decades. And many are sure to still be read a very long time from now. Mary Shelley
“It was a dark and stormy night” is an old—and often reused—opening line. But it really was a dark and stormy night in 1816 when Mary Shelley created Frankenstein
. More than two hundred years later, it is considered the first major horror story and is still read around the world. Even more than that, Frankenstein’s monster has become one of the most famous popular-culture icons ever. The character has been portrayed often in movies, on television, and in music, comics, toys, and games, making it instantly recognizable.
Let’s clear up one common misconception right away: Frankenstein is not the name of the monster in Mary Shelley’s novel, which was published in 1818 with the official title Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
. Instead, Frankenstein is the name of the being’s creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. In Mary’s writing, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation doesn’t have a name. Mary most often calls it a “creature” or a “fiend.” There have been many visual interpretations of the novel over the years. But actor Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the monster in the 1931 movie, Frankenstein
, is especially responsible for the image we think of today.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in 1797 in London, England. Her father was William Godwin, a well-known writer and political philosopher. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft. She was a writer and philosopher, too. Wollstonecraft was an advocate of women’s rights. She was a passionate feminist before that term even existed. She argued in her writing that women suffered from a lack of education. She felt they could be valuable contributors in all facets of culture if not held back by a society dominated by men.
That may sound like common sense today, but it was a radical, and controversial, idea in the late eighteenth century.
Unfortunately, Mary never knew her mother. Wollstonecraft became sick from complications during childbirth and died only eleven days after Mary was born. Godwin married a neighbor several years after Wollstonecraft’s death, but Mary never got along with her.
It was Godwin, then, who primarily raised Mary. Though she had little formal schooling, she read often from her father’s considerable library. Young Mary paid close attention to the many prominent thinkers who visited the family’s London home. She listened in on lively discussions about the arts and sciences, philosophy, and politics.
One frequent guest in the Godwin home before Mary was born was Luigi Galvani, an Italian doctor, scientist, and philosopher. Galvani believed that the dead might be brought back to life through electrical stimulation. In an experiment in 1780, he found that he could make a dead frog’s legs twitch with a jolt of electricity. That discovery came to be called “galvanism.”
More than two decades after Galvani’s initial frog experiments, his nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took his uncle’s theories further. In 1803, Aldini conducted a public experiment in London on the corpse of a man who had been executed for murder. Aldini stimulated the corpse’s face and muscles with electrical impulses. The dead man’s eye fluttered open. His jaw quivered. One hand clenched, then lifted. His legs moved. It was such a scary and shocking scene that one man died of a heart attack while witnessing it!
Mary would have been too young to see Aldini’s experiment, but it was a big deal in London. She likely would have heard her father discussing it with his guests.
Another of Godwin’s guests was Percy Bysshe Shelley, a writer and poet five years older than Mary. Shelley fell in love with Mary. Godwin did not approve of the interest that Shelley took in his daughter because Shelley already was married, although unhappily so. But sixteen-year-old Mary had a mind of her own. In 1814, she and Shelley ran off to France along with Mary’s stepsister, Claire.
After the death of Percy Shelley’s first wife in 1816, Mary and Percy married. That year, they were traveling in Switzerland with Claire and their son, William. They were staying near Lake Geneva with Lord Byron, another poet, and John Polidori, a writer and physician. But the weather in Geneva was terrible. Severe storms kept them inside. To keep themselves entertained, Lord Byron suggested they each come up with a ghost story.
For several days, Mary struggled for an idea that would “make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood,” she later wrote. Then one night, the conversation turned to galvanism. When Mary went to bed, she imagined a creature that could come to life through electrical stimulation. “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”
The myth of Frankenstein was born.
At first, Mary envisioned a short story. With Shelley’s encouragement, she turned it into a novel. It was published anonymously in 1818, when Mary was twenty. Mary’s name first appeared in a printing in 1823.
Today, we usually think of Mary’s creation as slow minded, scary, and evil. That’s in large part because of the movies—especially Karloff’s monster in 1931. But Mary created an intelligent character that spent much of the novel sharing its thoughts, feelings, and emotions. The creature struggled to find purpose in its existence. “My person was hideous and my stature gigantic,” it said. “What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them.”
Mary also created a character that was inherently good: “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy,” it says. The monster rebelled against Dr. Frankenstein and turned to murder and mayhem only after its creator rejected it.
Readers loved the novel, but many critics didn’t. In some ways, the book was considered scandalous. After all, few people questioned that all life comes from God, and here was eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley imagining one man creating another. Like her parents’, Mary’s views were considered quite radical at that time.
was published, Mary wrote six more novels, including a science-fiction thriller about the end of the world called The Last Man
in 1826. She authored many short stories, several travel journals, and book reviews.
However, the rest of Mary’s life was marked by tragedy. Three of her four children died in infancy, and Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in a boating accident in 1822. After Shelley’s corpse, along with two of his companions, washed up on shore, the bodies were buried in the sand. A month later, Shelley’s body was dug up and burned under a pile of wood, called a funeral pyre. Strangely, Shelley’s heart did not burn in the fire. It was given to Mary, who kept it, wrapped in silk, until her own death at age fifty-three in 1851.
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