The history of the horror genre stretches back centuries, even millennia, as human beings seem always to have had a desire to get spooked, if not downright terrified, by stories forever. While few of these histories go back further than 1700, they do document the rise, fall, and resurrection of horror novels and movies in the modern era. Some of the following books lean more academic while others are popular histories, aimed at an audience unfamiliar with the genre. Most reflect the personal tastes and prejudices of the authors, one of the things that makes them so interesting.
These aren’t primarily works of horror criticism (I have those books saved for a different list), but in each the authors certainly do offer their opinions on the reasons for the development and spread of the corner of horrordom they are examining. This is a field that’s expanding, happily. There are any number of corners of the genre that have yet to be documented, and my hope is that we will be seeing more explorations of this history over the next decade, particularly literary journeys like the one Paperbacks From Hell takes us on. And if you are looking for new titles to read, these are some great books to look into. It is in no small part due to some of these histories that I’ve been introduced to some of the wildest and most obscure horror novels, short story collections, movies, and plays.
Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927)
H. P. Lovecraft
This lengthy essay, often supplemented in books by a few other smaller ones on the same topic, is one of the first significant histories of the genre. It’s great just as a reading list, honestly, as Lovecraft discusses several authors who would’ve been forgotten altogether if not for this piece. He starts with Gothic fiction and takes it up through what was then the present. The latter is particularly interesting in that we get introduced to some of the authors, some arguably better writers (and kinder, more progressive human beings) than Lovecraft. HPL, much like Vladimir Nabokov, had rather strong opinions about horror fiction, so expect some unique takes on the classics. But that’s just part of the value in this book. It is also something of a manifesto.
What we are seeing in this essay is someone essentially creating a genre by tying together many works that hadn’t yet been critically associated with one another. Lovecraft namechecks and sometimes discusses in depth works of fiction from what we’d now consider proto-mystery, proto-science-fiction, and proto-fantasy, re-situating them in the light of the cosmic horror genre he was laying the foundation for. Authors like Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and their sort come in for a good deal of well-earned praise. Even if you find the man and/or his fiction useless, this essay will help you get a better idea of how the horror genre essentially came into being.
Danse Macabre (1981)
Stephen King wrote this entertaining history of his horror favorites not too long after becoming a best-seller. Much like Lovecraft, King is in part giving a list of his favorites, but he generally gives them a deeper reading than HPL did, no doubt in part because King was writing in the shadow of Freudian and Jungian analytic techniques. King writes extensively and interestingly about some of the major horror tropes that had been established by 1981, including vampires, werewolves, and more nebulous creatures.
Reading this book as a teen lit my brain on fire because I’d never seen someone seriously discuss these sorts of monsters in a psychological or sociological way. King pays special attention to sexuality in horror, noting how some of the genre’s plots and monsters relate to sexual repression. Finally, he gives an interesting and idiosyncratic defense of sorts for a genre that has always been attacked by tin-pot moralists and ideologues of every stripe. This is another book that’s excellent as a resource for what to read or watch, particularly from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.
The Monster Show (1993)
David J. Skal
This history of the genre focuses largely on movies, particularly those of the first half of the 20th century. Skal mixes cultural observations into the book, developing a thesis about horror and its connection to what he calls war anxiety, but the book is far more a history than a work of criticism. This is an especially valuable book for anyone who loves the Universal monster movies and other pieces that came out during that time, as Skal gives fascinating facts and anecdotes about the making of these films.
He also goes into some depth about how the movies were received, always an interesting topic when you’re considering a genre like horror, one that so often elicits strong reactions from audiences and critics. Moving past the era of the classic horror movies, Skal shows how public panics, tragedies, and pressing issues all were reflected in the horror fictions of their times.
Horror: 100 Best Books (1993)
Stephen Jones and Kim Newman
Compiled by horror author Kim Newman and editor Stephen Jones, this book gives horror writers a chance to pick some of their favorite pieces of fiction and write a little essay about what it meant to them and/or to the genre as a whole. The choices here are wildly idiosyncratic, ranging from Macbeth to the science-fiction of David Lindsay to Hawksmoor, an unfortunately obscure novel by historian Peter Ackroyd about architectural magic and serial killers.
My only complaint about this book and its sequel, Horror: Another 100 Best Books, is that the essays that accompany the book recommendations often include spoilers, making you want to read them only after reading the book in question. That aside, these two books have been invaluable in my readings of the genre, turning me onto authors I never would’ve heard of otherwise. If you can’t find a copy of the books, you can still easily find their lists of titles discussed on the Web.
The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror (1997)
This slim but illustrated book is an entertaining history of the Grand Guignol, a formative chapter in the development of modern horror fiction, particularly horror movies. The Grand Guignol (the name means “The Great Puppet”) was a theater in Paris that specialized in melodramatic and intensely gory plays. Gordon’s book has photos of some of these effects and they could be pretty gnarly. These plays were the forerunners of modern horror movies that focus on bloodshed and dismemberment, which is why you’ll sometimes hear Saw, Hostel, and other works of extreme horror referred to as being “Grand Guignol.” Alongside a brief history of the theater and its cultural effects, this book includes synopses of some of the plays performed there.
Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin (1999)
This long and thoroughly enjoyable history of the Gothic coverse everything from garden decorations to novels to the Goth music of the 80’s and early 90’s. Davenport-Hines discusses in depth the arise of interest in Gothic ruins in the 18th century and tracks the evolution of Gothic fiction in the wake of that aesthetic movement. Horror and the Gothic are not completely the same movement or genre, but the latter certainly paved the way for and mutated into the former, and this book gives a sturdy history of that process.
I liked that he looks at the music and fashion of Gothicism, as most histories of horror don’t get into those arts. Something his book focuses on is the role the Gothic played, and continues to play, in the lives of people who reject bourgeoise values in one way or another. Punk, both music and style, is often singled out as being centered on countercultural impulses, but as Davenport-Hines argues elegantly, the Gothic was there first making the squares uncomfortable and providing coded criticisms of the ideologies of the time.
The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch (2000)
In this short but informative survey of the genre, Wells takes readers not only through a history of horror up to the turn of the century, but also lays out in skeletal form some of the ways people have interpreted these movies and novels. I say novels, but this is another history that focuses primarily on movies. He brings in psychology and philosophy in order to examine the big themes of the genre, while never getting so in-depth as to make the book feel like hardcore theory. That said, this is a good one to pick up if you are interested in critical and theoretical approaches to the genre, as well as a quick look at some of its predominant themes and situations.
Shock Value (2011)
Many of the previous books on this list pay closer attention to the early horror movies than to anything after 1970. Zinoman’s book is a good corrective to that tendency, focusing mostly on the films that came out after Hollywood’s restrictive Production Code ended. His book has fascinating stories about the evolution of this new, darker era of the movies, examining the key works and lives of Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon, and Brian De Palma.
There’s some good stuff here about how horror movies in general, at least during the 70’s, became more personal works as well as more visceral ones. And you learn lots of fun stuff like the fact that Halloween and Alien are two variations on an original and more abstract idea. If you don’t know 60’s and 70’s era horror movies, read this one and then load up on your movie recommendations.
Reel Terror (2012)
David Konow’s history of horror movies hits all the celebrated classics the other books on this list cover, though it also adds new context and information about their creation and impact on the American cultural mind. But even better, he branches out to look at international horror as well, examining the Hammer movies of the 1960’s and giving good space to a look at the works of Italian directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava. He also takes his survey farther chronologically speaking, looking at the Saw and Paranormal Activities franchises, among other more recent fare. This is the best big broad view of horror movies on this list, weighing in at 500+ pages.
Paperbacks From Hell (2017)
This is a new favorite of mine. Paperbacks From Hell is a funny, comprehensive, and thoroughly illustrated look at the horror novels of the late 1970’s and 80’s. In particular, Grady Hendrix looks at the pulp of those decades as well as their gaudy, often nonsensical book covers. He groups these readings into themes (“Creepy Kids,” “When Animals Attack,” etc.) and then gives often hilarious synopses of their greatest and least works. I say “least,” because unlike every other horror book survey I can think of, Hendrix’s isn’t afraid to delve into the trashiest, most absurd novels as well as overlooked minor masterpieces.
One moment, you’ll be reading about undeservedly forgotten authors like Elizabeth Engstrom or Ken Greenhall, and the next, you’ll learn about Nazi leprechauns and the silly monster crab novels of Guy N. Smith. Hendrix doesn’t just synopsize these books, he discusses the themes involved in some depth, pointing out publishing and societal trends that may have encouraged their popularity. Such a fun book and a perfect gift for the horror fan in your life.