The MacabreMary Shelley (1797-1851)
Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849)
Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873)
Bram Stoker (1847-1912)
Arthur Machen (1863-1947)
William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918)
Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
While the bulk of ‘gothic’ writing evolved in the direction of realistic but creepy novels that involved elements of madness (as in the works of the Brontë sisters), some of it evolved in a more explicitly fantastic, and dark, direction. One of the most important early figures was Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein was a key foundational work of both horror and science fiction – she went on to write the apocalyptic SF novel The Last Man, though it was not greatly influential at the time. In America, meanwhile, Poe was likewise pushing the gothic genre into macabre and sometimes supernatural directions, while also often incorporating the latest scientific and pseudoscientific hypotheses; just as importantly, as a critic, he harangued those who relied on over-obvious allegory, helping to create a space for fantastic tales that were not simple ciphers for political and religious views.
Le Fanu, likewise, was a writer of short macabre stories. His most important work was probably as a writer of ghost stories, in which he established and codified the genre, even if he hadn’t invented it; he’s now most famous, however, as the creator of the modern vampire, in his Carmilla. In Carmilla, vampirism is a not-so-subtle metaphor for lesbianism, and the sexual overtones, if not the details, are carried over into the most famous vampire novel of them all, Stoker’s Dracula, which combines the macabre and orientalist traditions to set modern, rational englishmen against an ancient, accursed, decadent and deviant evil from the east.
Another element of horror and dark fantasy came to the fore with Arthur Machen, who combined the macabre with the tradition of fairy tales, turning those fairy tales into an invasive force of darkness and illogic into modern settings. In doing so he not only proved a great influence on horror and dark fantasy, but more generally helped to legitimise the fairy tale as containing something for ‘grown-ups’, and as something potentially destabilising.
William Hope Hodgson, on the other hand, took horror in a different, more otherworldly direction, merging it with fantasy and science fiction to produce nightmarish visions of the far future, and of worlds on the verge of assaulting and consuming our own.
Finally, Kafka brought the gothic into the twentieth century, and married it with a mystical and irrational – and unexplained – supernatural element, laying the foundations for Borges and the Magic Realists, as well as many horror writers.