By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce, Yagmur Dur, Lucy Carr and Serena Kerrigan-Noble
When we think about Halloween and classical literature, the first thing that comes to mind is classical supernatural fiction. For years, stories of supernatural creatures such as vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, demons and angels, as well as many other spine-chilling creatures, filled our pages with fright and terror. Unlike many modern horror stories, classic supernatural literature attempts to frighten the reader by focusing on the unexplainable supernatural elements of life that do not fit within the boundaries of our living world in a more poetical and thought-provoking manner. Classical supernatural stories intertwine elements of nature, religion, spiritualism, suspense, mystery and psychology, leaving readers to ponder deeply about life after death as well as evoking feelings of eeriness towards our world, and the life that exists beyond our human world.
Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu and The Vampyre by John Polidori
We start our list with the first female vampire Carmilla (1872) is a gothic novella that follows the titular character as she arrives at Laura and her father’s castle after her elderly companion leaves for business. In their company, Carmilla hides her identity and forms a strong bond with Laura. As events unfold they learn the legend of the vampire. Le Fanu also alludes to homosexuality without explicitly stating so. Carmilla predated the iconic Dracula and is often overshadowed by Bram Stoker.
Another work of early vampires that should not be overlooked is Polidori’s The Vampyre. It was written in 1819 after the infamous group of writers, Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and Polidori challenged each other to write horror stories. It is widely acknowledged that the main character is inspired by Byron, and that he even published Polidori’s work in his own name. This short story paved the way for the popularity of vampires in fiction as the fascination was recorded and reproduced. It is thought that Polidori wrote the first character resembling a vampire archetype. Certainly, both Carmilla and The Vampyre are highly deserving of recommendation this Halloween.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) tells the story of an unnamed governess charged with looking after two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, at their uncle’s grand, remote country estate. As the plot unfurls, the governess, convinced the grounds are haunted after a series of unsettling encounters, becomes increasingly desperate to protect the children from evil forces – a desperation that, ultimately, has devastating consequences.
James’ novella has many qualities of the uncanny; it is an eerie, disquieting story that evokes all of the emotions you’d expect to feel after reading a well-crafted ghost story. The ambiguity around the story’s meaning has captured the attention of academics for over a century, but most importantly, its themes of corruption of innocence, secrecy, repression and the supernatural make it a chilling classic and a compelling read.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Ghostly tales and Dickens appear synonymous, since Dickens’s novels and short stories are replete with chained ghosts, broken clocks and haunted houses. However, it is with the haunted conscience which Dickens’s 1852 novel Bleak House concerns itself. The novel’s title is a sleight of hand invoking the gothic trope of the haunted house, when it is the stagnant Court of Chancery which is the centre and the cause of the various haunted consciences in the novel.
The interminable case of Jarndyce draws characters from all ends of society inexorably into its spider’s web of corruption and moral degeneration. In a socially astute twist on the gothic haunted house trope, Dickens destabilised the Victorian dichotomy between the public and private. This is mirrored in the mud and fog circulating Chancery spreads itself, like a ghostly hand, to “decaying houses and blighted lands in every shire,” as moral corruption transcends class divisions in the novel and spreads from the lowest to the highest levels of society. Bleak House is the perfect Victorian gothic read for the spooky season, substituting haunted houses and vampires for broken social institutions and avaricious lawyers who make “a lingering meal” of their clients.
The Sirens by James Russell
The Sirens is a poem by James Russell Lowell which takes its inspiration from the mythology of mermaid-like figures whose voices and song lure men into the sea. Russell Lowell was an American Romantic poet who uses the convention of the sublimity of nature to highlight the weakness and weariness of the men in the poem. At the beginning “the sea is lonely [...] dreary” but by the end, the “water gurgles longingly” which conveys the hypnotic effect of the sirens as they entice the men to their watery demise. Nature and the sirens are depicted as beautiful yet deceiving, and the sirens' pleas are regularly placed in the poem to mirror the repetitive bobbing of the waves. The Sirens is often overlooked in literature but they represent the danger of trusting appearances and the terrifying idea that even that which seems beautiful and good can be monstrous and deadly.