Recommended Reading: Classic Novels and Short Stories

Yes, there are plenty great authors in modern times or even in the intervening years, but if you're a horror fan, it's incumbent upon you to go back to some of the source material that went on to define the genre.  Learn your history and see how we got where we are.  There are plenty of surprises!  Here are some of those novels and my thoughts on them...


Some Novels
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1823) by Mary Shelley.  Regarded as the first science fiction novel, it had spawned numerous adaptations (plays, films) both before and after the iconic 1931 film version starring Boris Karloff.  While the Karloff depiction (beneath Jack Pierce's make-up) influenced all that followed, the characterization in the novel differs markedly in everything from appearance to tone and motivation.  Additionally, the plot of the story (beyond its most fundamental premise) follows a completely different arc that bears little resemblance to the more familiar film.
Full text online: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/84

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Again, the premise and character(s) is(are?) familiar to everyone, but the story is very different and is presented as much more of a mystery in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle.  Further, the Mr. Hyde of the original novel is surprisingly different than the hulking (or Hulk-like, obviously) incarnation usually found in film.
Full text: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42

Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker.  It may be heresy, but I wasn't thrilled with this novel in terms of plotting.  It seemed that the characters spent more time waiting and talking than actually taking action against a known threat.  However, it is worth reading for two main points.  As with the two classics covered above, the title character is very different than the Bela Lugosi performance from which all else has followed to some extent.  And on top of that are the powers associated with vampires, as outlined in the novel.  It is interesting to see which components from legend were incorporated into the novel and have continued in horror media to this day.
Full text: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/345

The Invisible Man (1897) by H.G. Wells.  Unlike The Time Machine, I didn't find this work as engrossing.  It's very much the story of the title character over a short period.  I was expecting more in terms of scope or at least that it might touch more explicitly on broad themes the way other Wells' stories/novels did (Note: many of his stories are lesser-known but excel at this).  However, one of the most exciting segments of the novel provides a fairly convincing explanation of how the invisibility was achieved.  It is remarkable how well it holds up for a lay reader in the 21st century!
Full text: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5230

The Time Machine (1895) by H.G. Wells.  For a relatively short work, this is actually a very compelling story.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, even after having seen three different film adaptations (meaning there was absolutely no mystery about where the plot was going).  If you are interested in exploring Wells' works, I would highly recommend this one as a place to start.
Full text: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/35

At the Mountains of Madness (1931) by H.P. Lovecraft.  While this remains the only story (I can't even call it a novel, though it is sometimes found as a stand-alone publication) on this list that has yet to receive a film adaptation (though Guillermo del Toro has tried for quite a few years to get one together), it's a great "novel" that is now officially regarded as a classic (e.g., it has actually been printed as part of the Penguin Classics series).  The story is well-told and thoroughly engrossing.  Additionally, I recommend you read an annotated edition if possible, as that helps place the events in the story in the context of the contemporary events that inspired the fiction.  (See my Lovecraft library page for suggestions.)


Short Stories

Rather than list individual stories, I'd rather just give an overview of some general impressions of these authors.  I think that's more convenient since anyone seeking out stories will likely end up with short story collections that will contain the author's "greatest hits."
Edgar Allan Poe.  There is certainly some variety in Poe's work, but I didn't particularly enjoy reading works written his now much-parodied style.  It's somewhat distracting when all too often there's the first-person narration full of melodramatic emphasis.  All writers have their signature devices, but many of Poe's works rely on conventions that are distracting once you're familiar with them.  That said, he is also the father of the detective story, so if you don't want to read all the terrified ranting/screaming of the narrator of, say, "The Black Cat" or "The Pit and the Pendulum," then there are works like "The Gold Bug" or "Murders in the Rue Morgue" that appeal more to reason than to your limbic system.  Either way, these are the seminal works of horror, so they are worth (re)visiting (assuming you read some in middle school along with the rest of us).

H.G. Wells.  I haven't read that many Wells stories, but I've enjoyed those I have.  For one thing, they seem very direct in making their point, much like in those of Isaac Asimov.  The story isn't ambiguous or a passive meditation on a vague notion.  Wells always goes right after the point.  Sure, there's suspense built over the course of the narrative (i.e., he doesn't do what Vonnegut did in the latter half of his career where he'd always tell you the end at the beginning), but the stories always seem purposeful.

H.P. Lovecraft.  Almost all of Lovecraft's work could be considered short stories.  Even his "novels" are barely long enough to be called novellas, so really I'm forced to summarize everything here, and that's very difficult.  Lovecraft himself realized he tended to write from more than one style, influenced independently by both Poe and Lord Dunsany.  The former stories dealt more with horror, whereas the latter comprise the Dreamlands stories, which are fantasy with some elements shared with other tales in the so-called Cthulhu Mythos.  I don't particularly like the fantasy works, but that's true across the board, not just regarding Lovecraft; I just don't like fantasy.  However, his Cthulhu Mythos (Note: Lovecraft didn't coin this term, not did he advocate its use) contain stories which feature the emotions of horror coupled with elements of science fiction.  They are the best in the genre.

The stories are great, but they aren't always told well.  As Stephen King once put it: Lovecraft couldn't write a scene to save himself.  There's virtually no dialog in Lovecraft's works.  All conversation occurring within a given story is summarized in the narration.  He may describe settings in great detail, but he couldn't be bothered to relate an exchange between characters.  In spite of this, the tales themselves are incredibly entertaining, and it isn't hard to see why a cult has grown up around the author and the elements within his most popular stories.

   

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