Most of the 19th century saw horror fiction based, to one degree or another, on the Gothic tradition. These stories and novels usually centered on ancient castles and abbeys, featuring young women (and more rarely men) struggling with cruel relatives, dastardly foreigners (particularly Italians), and ghosts determined to get revenge for old wrongs. While this was itself innovative for years, it soon grew stale, even self-parodic, as can be seen in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which already in 1803 was meant to spoof the genre’s excesses. Despite the sci-fi/horror of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, horror was bogged down in repetitive and hidebound tropes.
This isn’t, of course, the full story. Within the movement known as German Romanticism, several authors who were to eventually prove useful to the genre did their best work. The towering figure here is E. T. A. Hoffman, though Goethe’s Faust also engages with dark material and some of Friedrich Schiller’s dramas, while having one foot in Gothicism, touch terrifying nerves. Midway through the century, Edgar Allan Poe’s work challenged many Gothic conventions, although often staying just this side of actually modernizing the tale of fear. There were other authors, mostly minor, who in some way or another bucked the rapidly calcifying tradition, but things stood at a standstill until the last decade or two of the century, when Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde brought back some of the originality evinced in Shelley’s masterpiece, this time adding a healthy dollop of psychology. It wasn’t until the last few years of the 19th century, though, before some of these potential narrative directions truly broke the stranglehold of Gothicism.
H. P. Lovecraft is now known, of course, for the way in which he fused horror, science fiction, and cosmic fantasy into a new horrific paradigm. While he is the most well-known horror author of the early twentieth century, he wasn’t alone in laying down the foundations of its modern incarnation. For this list, I’m focusing on ten of the best writers of terror who directly preceded or were contemporaries with HPL. Most of these authors had a direct impact on what would soon come to be known as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” And even those who didn’t would soon see literary (and eventually cinematic) progeny of their own.
What I love about the stories of these authors is that they still, a century later, can shock, frighten, or even awe their readers. This isn’t just some history lesson: I can all but guarantee that if you give these stories and novels a chance, at least some of them will entertain and disturb you.
Of the authors on this list, Ambrose Bierce is the one best known for his non-horror writings. Bierce was veteran of the Civil War who went on to become a journalist, literary critic, poet, and satirist. His book The Devil’s Dictionary, a volume of amusing and cutting redefinitions of words, still packs a punch. His definition of the word “arrested,” for instance, is “Caught criming without the money to satisfy the policeman.” After a life filled with personal tragedy and ever-increasing cynicism, Bierce vanished into Mexico in 1913 at the age of 71, intent on seeing the Mexican Revolution for himself. There’s some evidence that he joined up with the revolutionary Pancho Villa, but no one knows what really happened to him.
Bierce’s fictional output leaned heavily towards realism, particularly in his vignettes about the Civil War. He did, though, also write a number of ghost stories as well as tales that delve into the burgeoning field of psychological horror. The best-known of the latter is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a story whose twist-ending is now obvious only because so many other writers have imitated it. His influence on H. P. Lovecraft and his circle can be felt in their inclination toward grim, cynical, and surprising endings. He also invented an ancient city named “Carcosa” and the place-names “Hali” and “Hastur,” which Robert Chambers, Lovecraft and others borrowed and incorporated into their own cosmic horror stories.
M. R. James
Perhaps, in retrospect, the most “old-fashioned” of these authors, M. R. James was a medievalist and biblical scholar now known almost exclusively for his fine ghost stories. His tales were a palpable evolution from the previous era’s supernatural literature, still caught up in creaky Gothicism as those authors still were. A typical James story involves a scholar looking into some antiquarian object or setting who quickly learns the past still retains the ability to haunt the present. James’s ghosts are also far more disturbing than your typical see-through and moaning apparition, often appearing inhuman and twisted by their manner of death or the effects of curses and decomposition. The element of mystery and investigation further augment the power of his stories, presenting the supernatural as an intellectual puzzle as well as something to be feared.
James has had a massive impact on modern horror, at first through his influences (however subtle) on his readers H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Later James fans and literary descendants include but are not limited to Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, the awesome mystery writer Ruth Rendell, poet John Betjeman, T. E. D. Klein, Marjorie Bowen, and The House with a Clock in Its Walls author John Bellairs. The movie Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon (1957) is a great adaptation of his story “Casting the Runes,” and his influence can be felt in Ringu/The Ring, The Woman in Black, and virtually every other subtle ghost movie of the last fifty years. Two excellent stories to start out with: “The Mezzotint” and the deeply disquieting “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.”
Arthur Machen (real name: Arthur Llewellyn Jones) was a Welsh author, translator, and pioneering psychogeographer. Early on, his work was associated with Oscar Wilde and other Decadents, and he made a living by translating, among other things, Giacomo Casanova’s epic Memoirs. After the publication of the short novel The Great God Pan, though, Machen was mostly known for his Weird/horror fiction. A central idea running through many of his stories is that the Earth was once inhabited by other creatures, magical and often dangerous beings whom we now remember only vaguely as fairies, elves, dwarves, and similar folklore monsters. These beings still survive in some form, though, and hope to one day regain control over the world. If that concept sounds familiar, it may be because it strongly influenced H. P. Lovecraft in his creation of the Cthulhu Mythos.
Machen inspired so many later authors, filmmakers, and artists of other kinds that it would be exhausting listing them all. Aside from Lovecraft and the authors associated with him, Machen had a big impact on Jorge Luis Borges (and through him magical realism in general), Aleister Crowley, Paul Bowles, Alan Moore, William Butler Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, and Peter Straub. Although I know of no direct film adaptations of his work, Guillermo del Toro is a fan and Pan’s Labyrinth is certainly Machensian. The Great God Pan, a story about mad science and intrusive cosmic forces, is a great novel to start with, as are the shorter stories included in The Three Imposters and The White People and Other Weird Stories.
Robert W. Chambers
Robert W. Chambers is an odd one in that it’s generally agreed that his best work is primarily found in only one collection, but that book has had long legs. It’s called The King in Yellow and it’s a short story collection that revolves around a play by the same name. “The King in Yellow,” while never summarized, has something to do with an alien city named Carcosa and a masque in which one of the party-guests is revealed, despite his weird appearance, not to be wearing a costume. More than this, we do not know. We do know, however, that those who manage to read the play in its entirety go insane. The stories in Chambers’s collection range from Decadent vignettes about artistry and mad love to a tale set in the near future.
Chambers had some influence on Lovecraft and, through him, other authors like Clark Ashton Smith. Lovecraft seems to have borrowed Chambers technique of only alluding to the horrific secrets of the cosmos and while he’d already invented the Necronomicon by the time he discovered The King in Yellow, it certainly influenced how HPL used that mysterious text in his stories. Much more recently, the first season of True Detective has several references to Chambers’s inventions, suggesting interdimensional causes may lie behind the killings that show explores. Check out The King in Yellow. I’ve heard a later collection, The Maker of Moons, is worth reading, but I haven’t read it myself.
E. F. Benson
E. F. Benson may be the least influential author on this list, but considering who he is sharing the limelight with here, that’s no great slight. His “Mapp and Lucinda” series, light satirical novels about social climbing in a small seaside town, seem to have had some staying power. The “spook stories” (his own term) are, though, what you’ll want to give a read. Benson was a student and social acquaintance of M. R. James, and the influence of the latter on his writing is obvious. But Benson went further than his teacher in both modernizing horror and in exploring different supernatural scenarios. Ghosts feature in his work, for sure, but so do hideous sluglike abominations, bloodsuckers, mad scientists, and awful premonitory nightmares. Benson’s protagonists also tend to be more modern than James’s, often being young, caddish, and confident men instead of James’s nebbish and neurotic academics.
Those interested in queer literature may also want to take a look at his work, as Benson was quietly gay and the tensions of homoerotic desire and life in the closet are visible in some of his best stories. This is also apparently true of James, though I don’t know if his sexuality has ever been definitively proven. If you give Benson’s work a chance, look into “The Horror Horn,” “The Room in the Tower,” and “The Man Who Went Too Far,” which Lovecraft singled out for high praise.
Algernon Blackwood has, in my opinion, possibly the coolest name ever. A prolific author who produced almost 100 short stories, he also found time to write 14 novels, several children’s books, and to be a journalist, a radio broadcaster, a mystic, and a spy. His mysticism, which ranged from an avid interest in Buddhism to a membership in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, plays a significant role in his supernatural stories. Unlike with the atheist H. P. Lovecraft (who was a big fan), Blackwood’s fiction comes from a place of genuine spiritual curiosity, though not naive credulity. That may explain why the cosmic forces he posits aren’t always the grim and destructive entities Lovecraft is known for.
Blackwood influenced writers as diverse as Henry Miller, J. R. R. Tolkien, Caitlin Kiernan, and Graham Joyce, along with the usual suspects of the modern horror canon. He’s largely responsible for inventing and popularizing the idea of the occult detective through his stories about the gentleman psychiatrist, investigator, and ghostbuster John Silence. His fiction can sometimes throw new readers, as he most often aimed for subtle and atmospheric effects, striving for a dark awe rather than “horror” per se. But if you let yourself be immersed in classics such as “The Willows,” “The Wendigo,” or “The Glamour of the Snow,” you will likely find his distinct brand of weirdness seeping into you. Blackwood’s fiction is particularly recommended for those who find both wonder and dread in Nature, as well as for those with pantheistic leanings.
Walter de la Mare
The stories of Walter de la Mare, while often working over similar territory to that explored by E. F. Benson, Henry James, and M. R. James, has a particularly strange flavor to it. There aren’t just ghosts, curses, and demonic beings here, but also a dreamlike, even surreal logic underlying his plots. It’s no surprise he’s strongly influenced masters of the stranger horror tale such as Robert Aickman, Ramsey Campbell, and Reggie Oliver. Among his other admirers, de la Mare can claim T. S. Eliot, Robertson Davies, Virginia Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West, and the author of Watership Down, Richard Adams. Something I only discovered while researching this entry is that C. K. Scott Moncrieff, the first major translator of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (which Moncrieff titled Remembrance of Things Past), took his title for the sixth volume of Proust’s massive novel, The Sweet Cheat Gone, from a poem by de la Mare.
Some great places to start with his work include the short stories “Seaton’s Aunt,” “Out of the Deep,” “The Green Room,” and my favorite, the nightmarish and enigmatic “All Hallows,” about a sightseer and a crumbling rural cathedral.
William Hope Hodgson
Dead at 40 in the trenches of World War I, William Hope Hodgson had a much shorter career than anyone else on this list, most of whom lived into their seventies. Despite this, Hodgson had a strong influence on most of these authors, as well as on future generations of horror, fantasy, and science fiction authors, including Greg Bear, Olaf Stapledon, and the incomparable China Miéville. There’s an argument to be made that alongside Arthur Machen, Hodgson is chiefly responsible for dragging horror out of the by-then withered and outplayed Gothic era and into something more like the modern genre. From what I can tell (again, along with Machen), he is the first author who can be said to have written “Cosmic Horror.” That he did all this innovating through only a handful of novels and short story collections is all the more impressive.
The place to start with Hodgson is probably his weird haunted house novel, The House on the Borderland, which I cover in more depth in my list of my favorite books of that sub-genre. Monstrous pig-men and voyages across the universe distinguish this novel from its predecessors, most of which centered on ghosts and familial curses. The Night Land (covered in my list on apocalyptic novels) is a more troublesome book, combining an often tedious and faux-archaic prose-style with amazing visionary horror. His tales about the occult detective Thomas Carnacki, along with Blackwood’s John Silence stories, basically created the supernatural detective genre, but I haven’t read the former yet, so I can’t say much about their quality.
Baron Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, now almost exclusively referred to as Lord Dunsany, is one of the major precursors to modern fantasy fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien, Jorge Luis Borges, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Neil Gaiman were all influenced to some degree or another by Dunsany, as were science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Gene Wolfe. It was his effect on H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, however, that trickled down to future horror fictions. While Dunsany wrote many entertaining and grim horror stories set in something like the modern world, it was the stories found in The Gods of Pegāna and Time and the Gods that proved to be truly innovative.
These stories are some of the first literary instances that I know of in which an author invented a pantheon of gods entirely on their own, a genre of fantasy later dubbed “mythopoeia” by Tolkien. William Blake, in his epic poems Jerusalem, Milton, and Vala, or The Four Zoas did something comparable, but Blake’s mythology is so complex and shifting that it was only to have strong literary descendants much later. Dunsany’s stories are short, often fable-like, and describe a host of major and minor deities, as well as their effects on the world of Pegāna. I find them to be alternately funny, sentimental, and darkly ironic, as if you’re reading the wry Scriptures of some alien religion. Lovecraft’s “dream cycle” stories wouldn’t have existed without Dunsany’s work.
Clark Ashton Smith
Last chronologically but certainly not least, came Clark Ashton Smith. A friend of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, and even Anton LaVey, the author of The Satanic Bible, Smith was a fascinating and creative guy, working in everything from the visual arts to fantastic poetry. Smith’s primary work (well over 100 short stories) represents a late flowering of the initial phase of Weird fiction, tales in which he combined and recombined many of the new tropes and techniques created by the other men on this list. These stories range all over the genres of the fantastic, from interplanetary adventures to tales of high sorcery to horror stories set in his era. Many of Smith’s stories take place in one of several fantastic worlds he created: Averoigne, a French province during the Middle Ages filled with sorcerers, witches, and medieval heroes; Hyperborea, a pre-Ice Age world in which Tsathoggua, an underground entity whom Lovecraft later borrowed for his Cthulhu Mythos rules over semi-human barbarians; Poseidonis, the last surviving bit of Atlantic; and Zothique, a post-apocalyptic landscape set in Earth’s distant and monstrous future.
I find Smith’s writing to be lyrical and colorful, a little less overheated than Lovecraft’s purple prose but florid. In comparison with HPL, Smith is also noticeably less xenophobic, avoiding most of Lovecraft’s racism and showing more awe, even desire, in the face of the alien Other. Don’t be surprised if some of his protagonists fall in love with multi-armed extraterrestrial princesses. And finally, regardless of whether they’re set in the distant past or the grim future, there is almost always a strong element of the horrific in these stories. Smith was criticized during his time for being “morbid,” and his stories certainly have more “gore” than those of the other authors on this list. Dark fates await many of his characters, as does dark pleasure await his readers.
Smith to start with: “The City of the Singing Flame,” “The Dark Eidolon,” and “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros.”