The classics of cinema were born in fiction in the 1800s along with Shelley’s classic; with The Mummy: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century by Jane Webb Loudon (1828), The Man-Wolf (1831) by Leitch Ritchie and later, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Stoker’s novel is the precursor of every vampire film ever, from Nosferatu (1922) to the Underworld series. Films and books have long have been partners in horror, and here are some terrifying pairings for the horror aficionado…
In Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s new novel HEX a 17th century witch haunts a small New England town. They hide her existence from the outside world, but inevitably the town’s teenagers rebel against the rules set to protect them, and everything falls apart. It is a proper old-fashioned horror story, full of wit and imagination. For more witchy scares, watch horror classic Black Sunday (1960), an exemplar of gothic horror and revenge. Barbara Steele plays the witch Asa Vajda, who is burned at the stake in 1630 but vows revenge. As with HEX, the focus of the story is later than creation of the witch, but the impact and horror come from historical crimes. It was thought shocking in 1960 and is pretty close to the bone today.
Cabins in the woods
Most people know the terror of witches from The Blair Witch Project (1999). An innovator at the time, the Burkittsville witch reminded a post-modern audience (after Scream in 1996) that the woods really are a terrifying place. One of the best books about terrifying woods is The Ritual by Adam Nevil (2011). Set in woodland near the Arctic Circle, the protagonists (like their fellow explorers in Blair Witch) are forced to deal with real physical and psychological pain as the get lost in the wooded unknown. They eventually find a shack full of weird ancient artefacts, and realise they are not alone. Not unlike the cabin in the grand-daddy of lost-in-the-woods films: Evil Dead (1981), where we first meet the lovable Ash, the not-so-lovable deadites and the Book of the Dead. With a knowing look in its eye and fond but devilish smile, the true modern successor to Evil Dead is Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s genius Cabin in the Woods (2012). This is a wonderfully satirical swipe at the convention of horror, yet genuinely scary from the outset. The college kids go to the titular cabin and find a mixture of Evil Dead and The Ritual style artefacts. Only when the conceit is revealed does the apparent cliché become something new and smart.
Houses don’t need to be in the woods or populated by witches and demons to be scary. Have you read House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski? Creepy beyond words! It has the meta-contextualisation and satire of Cabin in the Woods, but minus the laughs. Without giving too much away, a successful family move into a new home, which starts changing. Doors where none were before. Space where no space should fit. Framed by an account of the discovery of a manuscript about the house, Danielewski’s novel really is something special. It deserves to be read and reflected on and read again.
Perhaps the most famous scary houses in cinema feature ghosts. In The Amityville Horror (1979) the haunting of the house is based on alleged true events. A couple move into a new house and all hell breaks loose. Of course, one should never move into a new house built on a burial ground, as both the Amityville series and the Poltergeist series attest. In Poltergeist (1982) a series of increasingly spooky goings-on culminate in the disappearance of Carol Anne into the TV.
If you enjoy a good ghost story but are looking for something a little unconventional, read The Silent Land (2011) by Graham Joyce. Following on from films such as The Others (2001), where the nature of the supernatural forces is ambiguous, Joyce’s fine novel features skiers who are trapped by an avalanche. When they dig their way out, they find everyone gone and the ski resort has an eerie silence to it. Even their phones no longer work. Joyce describes the snow covered wastes with a haunting beauty second to none. Although if frozen wastes are your thing, and you don’t already know, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) features scenes in the North Pole, often left out of most cinema adaptations.
Of course, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the perfect metaphor for growing up and vampires are often used to explore ideas of lost innocence and change, but they’re not the only supernatural creatures that go through changes. The wonderful and under-rated Ginger Snaps (2000) uses lycanthropy to explore the terrors of high school and the messiness of puberty. The story follows two teenage sisters fascinated with death. One, Ginger, begins to menstruate and is bitten by some creature. As all teenagers do, Ginger, starts changing both physically and emotionally. Is she becoming a werewolf, or an adult? A horror film to be enjoyed on several levels, the satire is biting and the observations acute. The same can be said of the brilliant Lonely Werewolf Girl (2007) and its sequels, by the immensely talented Martin Millar. Kalix is another troubled teen, who’s also a werewolf. This time, however, she just wants to be left alone. Her friends (students, and a fire elemental), family (a great werewolf clan, some of whom have positions or prominence in London – a fashion designer and members of a punk band) and assorted enemies have other ideas, as ancient feuds keep getting in the way. Not so much scary as horrific and brutal, Kalix struggles to grow up and to understand the world around her.
In Andrew Michael Hurley’s debut novel The Loney (2015) a family visits shrine on a desolate strip of coastline, hoping to find a cure for their son’s illness. The locals fiercely guard its secrets but, as the tides ebb and flow, the skeletons of the past are revealed. Set around the titular eerie place, this is a haunting novel about the desolation of growing up and the fear of the unknown. Nasty local types are of course exemplified in the 1971 classic shocker Straw Dogs. Set in Cornwall, and featuring Dustin Hoffman as an American living with his Cornish wife (Susan George), and a bit like the Slaughtered Lamb scene in the other must-see werewolf movie – An American Werewolf in London (1981) – Straw Dogs is the very definition of “you’re not from ‘round here!” Not a traditional horror, and with that very difficult to watch notorious scene when the locals break into the family home, this movie highlights the main theme of a lot of horror fiction – humans are the worst monsters.
There is a narrative path to be walked between the greatest horror books and the greatest horror films. Themes flow like a river through the dark, spooky woods. Dare you try to follow it?