Supernatural fiction is a term that refers to various literary genres including imaginary creatures, settings outside of this world and events that defy natural laws. A comprehensive and precise classification of supernatural fiction has not been made but it is generally accepted that genres like horror stories, ghost books, fantasies and tales of vampire are included in this category. Supernatural elements have been part of storytelling from its very beginning, with legends being passed down though families from one generation to another.
One of the first examples of the supernatural in what is considered to be ‘proper English literature' is Gothic literature. This genre was seen as a reaction against the realism and rationalism of early 18th century literature. In the late part of the century, English author Horace Walpole started the Gothic tradition when he wrote the classic tale of The Castle of Otranto (1764).
Soon the "terror tales" grew in popularity and other writers took up the challenge. Many of the 19th British classics can be defined as supernatural fiction. These include The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Anne Radcliffe and Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley. Other classic works were Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson. In addition, influential books include Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker and The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James.
In the United States, prominent authors like Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers also explored the supernatural in their works. In his most popular short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890), Bierce tells the story of a soldier who is about to get hanged but the moment he is dropped from the bridge and dives into the water, he develops superhuman skills. The soldier manages to dodge the bullets fired by his executioners and frees himself from the noose. Then, in a dramatic twist to the story, he realizes the whole story happens in his mind as he is being hanged. Chambers' collection of short stories, The King in Yellow (1895), is one of the most influential works in American horror fiction.
H.P. Lovecraft, who is widely regarded as the most important American supernaturalist since Poe, wrote an essay entitled Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927). Amended versions of this classic work were printed 1933 and 1935. In it Lovecraft declares: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
Supernatural fiction has become most popular with the sub-genre of fantasy. It centers on magic and folklore as primary elements in plot and setting. Fantasy fiction was initially considered a part of children's literature but gradually it gained a highly respected status, mainly due to the elaborate plot, numerous characters and complex relations. Fantasy fiction comprises a great variety of works, authors and themes but the most successful are The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1955) by J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett's Discworld series and J.K. Rowling's seven novels about a teenage wizard, Harry Potter (1997-2007). Rowling's books have become the biggest best seller of literary work, with the exception of the Bible. According to 2008 figures, the Harry Potter series has surpassed 400 million copies sold worldwide and its popularity continues to grow, boosted by the films of the young wizard's adventures.
Another sub-genre that enjoys wide popularity is vampire fiction. Vampires in literature date back to the 18th century and Gothic literature. Bram Stoker's masterpiece, Dracula (1897), popularized and introduced the genre to the public. Prominent examples of vampire fiction of the 20th century include Anne Rice's series The Vampire Chronicles (1976-2003) and Stephen King's Salem's Lot (1975).
Vampire fiction traditions continue in the 21st century, most notably with Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga (2005-2008) , L.J. Smith's The Vampire Diaries (1991-2011), Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files (2000-2011) and Charlaine Harris' The Southern Vampire Mysteries (2001-2011). All of these series have helped the change the "image" of literary vampires from malicious, terrifying creatures to trendy and admirable members of society.