Monsters Ink: Two Hundred Years after the Heyday of the Gothic Novel, People Still Want to Scare Themselves. We Read Tales of Murderers and Vampires Because We Crave the Sensation of Fear We So Rarely Feel in Everyday Life. by Kate Williams

Article excerpt

In 1816, just after the end of the Napoleonic wars, four young writers staying in the Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva, decided to invent hideous stories for each other. Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and John Polidori took their turn, but the most successful was the 19-year-old Mary Shelley. She terrified herself with her story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster, and would soon frighten the rest of the world.

Life in the western world today is increasingly less "nasty, brutish and short", as Thomas Hobbes put it. Yet we are entranced by representations of horror and preoccupied by gothic representations of the terrible killer. Murder films and books abound. Frankenstein still exercises great power over us and last summer a stage adaptation of the novel entertained audiences at the National Theatre in London. We cannot resist a gothic demise.

Today, most of us would be more likely to kill ourselves than be murdered - we die from overeating, drinking, smoking, or lack of exercise. But we do not terrify ourselves with artistic representations of giant cigarettes or bottles of whisky, or demand art that explores the conditions that will destroy us - cancer, obesity and heart disease. Instead we want to see death in its most outlandish forms. Harold Shipman might have been Britain's most prolific serial killer, but portrayals of murderous doctors are rare. We tend not to imagine dread of lovers or colleagues, even though they are, statistically, most likely to deprive us of our lives. Instead we relish fear of the stranger - the mysterious murderer, the monster running untamed.

Fascination with the murderous arts is a modern phenomenon, growing at the same rate as improvements in life expectancy and living standards. Like those in the Villa Diodati in 1816, we are hunting for the sensation of fear because we lack it in life. A learned response usually created by vicarious experience or instruction, fear alerts the human to danger and the need to "fight or [take] flight". It is no coincidence that Byron and his friends were searching for sensation just as the bloodiest European conflict in years finally ended.

For 18th-century writers, an individual's experience of terror was a route to potential greatness. As Edmund Burke wrote in 1759, the "terrible", or whatever excited the "ideas of pain, and danger", was a source of the sublime, the "strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling". Such sensation, he suggested, was produced by contemplating vastness or infinity. Vastness and infinity were not easy to represent in fiction, however. Horace Walpole in his novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) communicated the "terrible" with more prosaic props - ancestral curses, secret passages and fainting heroines. Writers enthusiastically copied his plots, and so the gothic novel was born.

Named after the medieval architecture of abbeys and castles in which the novels are set, the form generated a thrilling dread in the reader by means of sinister suggestion and the conjuring of an eerie atmosphere. Those who see Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, published posthumously in 1818, as lampooning Ann Radcliffe's works miss the point: Catherine Morland finds terror in normal life because she fails to finish The Mysteries of Udolpho and thus never reads Radcliffe's pragmatic explanation for all the clanks and chains - the fake Italian nobleman's ambition to steal the protagonist Emily St Aubert's legacy.

Not only was the supernatural explained in the gothic novel, it was presented as beneficial. As Radcliffe wrote in 1826, bald representations of atrocities annihilate perception, but true terror, a product of obscurity and indeterminacy, works to expand the soul and awakens the faculties "to a higher degree of life".

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Frankenstein was very different. With a desperate monster and the notion that the greatest horror was our own creation, Mary Shelley undermined confidence in rational explanation. …