The Tale of Terror: The history of early horror writing

If you are an avid horror reader, and want to mine the early authors in the genre, I highly recommend this book. It was a thesis, so it’s not as lengthy as a modern reference book. Read aloud it is only seven hours long. Much of its content was taken (with attribution) by H.P. Lovecraft for his influential essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, so if you have already rummaged through that for recommendations, you may find this covers similar territory. That being noted, Birkhead has a different approach and philosophy to Lovecraft.

The Tale of Terror traces the history of a particular style of horror writing, starting with the Gothic Revival and The Castle of Otranto. It then works its way through the works of Mrs Radcliffe, claiming a feminine progenitor for the genre in a way I’ve not seen in other scholarship. The next chapter discusses The Monk and Melmoth the Wanderer. It then winds its way through oriental romances, short stories, and American writers.

I found its treatment of Mary Shelley, in particular, refreshing.So much writing about her seems to want her to be a child-genius who redeems the sci-fi genre from perpetual blokishness. Her father’s work is given an entire chapter, and the links between it and Frankenstein are described. The flaws in Frankenstein are addressed candidly. Her dystopian novel, The Last Man, is given more space than usual which makes Birkhead’s work surprisingly topical, given how common dystopian fiction has become. Birkhead weaves all of the authors into a continuing tapestry, showing how the genre develops as they borrow from their contemporaries and predecessors.

Part of our reading challenge for this year is to read a book aloud. Reading aloud is a wonderfully different experience, and I’d like to advocate it strongly for those of you who have not tried it. I’m not suggesting you read every book aloud, but there are some which are excellent for this. That’s better as the subject for another post, so I’ll leave my usual paean to reading aloud there.

I recorded this book for Librivox, so it is available in audio. The audio’s webpage also has links to free .e Tale of terror coverpub and HTML versions of the text, available through Project Gutenberg.