One can’t miss the signs – pumpkins perch on doorsteps, zombies stalk front yards, witches fly from porches and faceless ghosts dangle from trees. In my neighborhood, an eight foot purple ghoul with glowing green eyes hunches menacingly over a field of cardboard gravestones. Halloween is approaching.
There’s no better place to celebrate Halloween than in New England. The region has a long and extensive history of the mysterious and unexplained, reaching as far back as the 1692 witch trials in Salem. New England is full of crumbling cemeteries, haunted inns, ghost ships, abandoned settlements and haunted bridges. Authors of horror stories such as H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King most certainly have taken inspiration from their New England backgrounds to create tales of the macabre and fantastical.
The horror fiction that has been so popularized by Lovecraft and King has ancient origins with roots in folklore and religious traditions that stretch back to pre-Roman times. Stories that focus on death, the afterlife, evil and the demonic have been common for centuries in many countries and cultures. The vampire, for example, can be traced all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, while some scholars believe the werewolf made its debut in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known work of written literature.
Horror fiction blossomed in the nineteenth century with the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and Dracula by Bram Stoker. Edgar Allan Poe contributed to the genre with short stories such as The Tell-Tale Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum. Horror fiction continues to flourish and thrive today with writers such as Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Anne Rice, Peter Straub and many others.
What makes horror stories so enduring and so appealing? The simple answer would be that people enjoy it for the thrill of being scared. H.P. Lovecraft explained it best, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest fear is fear of the unknown.” Reading horror fiction is like a roller coaster ride with all its thrills, chills and heart-stopping moments. It offers plot twists, cliff hangers, false leads and glimpses into an eerie world of the unknown and unexplained. Horror fiction reminds us that the world may not always be as safe as it seems. It forces us to confront ideas and images we’d rather not think about. And, just as we experience exhilarating relief as we step off the roller coaster, as we close the pages of the horror story, we revel in the realization that we, as least, are still alive and unharmed.
Horror fiction is on display this month at the library. Browse the collection, make a selection and prepare yourself for an electrifying experience. Just remember to read with the lights on.