The horror genre is known for its loyal fans and artists who stick with a good scare despite the genre’s fluctuations in popularity. Over recent years we’ve seen bookstores and libraries eliminate horror sections. We’ve also seen new life breathed into the genre through film, and perhaps more so, television. Many of these modern works wouldn’t be possible without the horror stories that came before.
Horror authors of the past often revolutionized literature with their works, and their stories remain as entertaining and influential today as they ever were. Though not all of these authors achieved fame and success during their lives, their legacies live on as many of their tales have withstood the test of time.
Let’s take a brief look at the lives of ten early masters of horror who might have influenced some of your favorite modern horror writers, directors, and other artists. If you’re unfamiliar with any of them, reading selections are included to introduce you to their work.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe lived a life full of tragedy, which perhaps influenced some of his dark poems and short stories. He was orphaned by the time he was only three years old. His father deserted the family. His mother died shortly after. And it is believed that his father passed away around the same time. After Poe lost his parents, he was sent to live with the Allan family, being separated from his brother and sister.
Poe briefly attended both the University of Virginia and West Point but failed to complete either one. His brief stint in the military academy came in 1829, by which point he had already spent time in the army and published two books of poetry. While waiting to attend West Point he moved in with his aunt and young cousin, Virginia Clemm, whom he married when she was only 13 years old. She died from tuberculosis when she was just 24.
Poe’s career took off after receiving an editorial position at the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835. He continued on to be an editor at several other literary journals while establishing himself as a poet and author. He struggled even in his editorial career though, as his own intended literary journal, The Stylus, was never published before his death.
Poe died in 1849. He was found in Baltimore, supposedly delirious on the streets. He was taken to the hospital where he died four days later. The cause of his death has never been determined as all medical records and his death certificate were lost. Theories range from claims that he was an alcoholic (which are heavily disputed) to medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, a brain tumor, and syphilis.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Rhode Island. He was an only child, and when he was three years old his father was committed to a psychiatric hospital where he died five years later. This left Lovecraft to be raised by his mother, two aunts, and grandfather. Due to poor health, he didn’t attend public school for long, instead spending much of his time at home where he was an avid reader. He did attend high school for some time but left after a nervous breakdown. His grandfather’s death didn’t help the family situation either. They were forced to move to a smaller home due to problems with the management of his grandfather’s estate.
While Lovecraft wrote poetry in his youth, he really prioritized his writing career when he joined the United Amateur Press Association. He began submitting many of his stories, poems and essays to magazines. His first professional publication was in 1919, the same year his mother was committed after suffering from depression and hysteria.
Lovecraft found much of his success in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, in which he was first published in 1923. He was briefly married and moved to New York City but financial difficulties led to him returning to Rhode Island after an amicable split with his wife. He continued to write throughout his life, seeing his most prolific period during the last several years of his life. He died from intestinal cancer in 1937. Even though Lovecraft might not have seen immense financial success during his lifetime, later writers have been greatly influenced by his work.
Ambrose Bierce was the tenth of thirteen children. While he came from a family of modest means, his parents were big believers in encouraging their children to embrace reading and writing.
Bierce left home to become an apprentice at an abolitionist printing press when he was 15 years old. He fought on the side of the Union army during the American Civil War, and he later settled in San Francisco where he kicked off his writing and editing career. He also spent several years living and writing in England. Horror stories are far from Bierce’s only pursuits as a writer. He wrote extensively about the Civil War, was a crime reporter, columnist, and satirist.
The death of Bierce is a mystery. At the age of 71 he left for a tour of Civil War battlefields and never returned. It is believed that he went to Mexico to join Pancho Villa’s army as an observer during the Mexican Revolution. After a letter to a friend in December of 1913, he was never seen nor heard from again.
Algernon Blackwood was a successful author who did not begin writing seriously as a career until his late thirties. He was born in Kent, England to a strict Calvinist family. As a child he dreamed of becoming a doctor but only attended the University of Edinburgh for a year before dropping out. Afterwards he began traveling. Blackwood spent time in Canada and New York working a variety of jobs, including as a reporter for The New York Times and other periodicals. He also tried his hand at running a dairy farm and a hotel, neither of which worked out for him.
Later in his life, Blackwood returned to England where he focused again on writing. His first collection of short ghost stories was published in 1906. The settings for his stories were often inspired by places Blackwood had spent time, which included the Canadian backwoods, the Caucasus Mountains, and Egypt. Blackwood continued writing until his death in 1951 after a series of strokes. He was a very prolific author, publishing over ten collections of short stories, fourteen novels, and an autobiography.
Montague Rhodes James was a medieval scholar, but it’s his ghost stories that he’s most remembered for. He was born in Kent, England and from a young age was interested in medieval books. His father was a reverend which gave him access to medieval texts in church libraries which he spent much of his time in before being educated at Eton. James’ interest in medieval literature stuck with him throughout his life leading to a distinguished academic career. He spent time as Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and Provost of King’s College and Eton.
Besides his many academic papers, James began writing ghost stories. He revolutionized the genre by including contemporary settings with the goal of making the reader better relate to the characters in his stories. Though his settings were modern, the stories often included some ancient element that played a key role.
Lord Dunsany, Edward Plunkett, was an Irish writer who is regarded as one of the originators of the fantasy genre. The Plunkett family was very wealthy and Edward spent his early years on their properties, including Dunsany Castle, before being educated at Eton and The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He spent time in the military fighting in the Second Boer War, the First World War, and even signed up for local defense forces during the Second World War.
Lord Dunsany published his first collection of short stories, The Gods of Pegana, in 1905. It was well received and he quickly followed it up with more short story collections. He followed up his short story work with novels, plays, and poetry. Many of his plays were very popular during his life and were performed on Broadway and the West End. He had more than eighty books published throughout his life. He died of appendicitis in 1957 at the age of 79.
Mary Shelley was born in 1797 to Mary Wollstonecraft, a well-known feminist, and William Godwin who was a philosopher and political writer. Her mother died just days after Shelley’s birth. In 1812 Mary met a married poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. A couple of years later Mary fled with Percy to travel Europe along with her stepsister, Jane. They did not marry until after his estranged first wife committed suicide in 1816.
Shelley is best-known for her novel Frankenstein which she wrote when she was only nineteen years old. Frankenstein is more than a monster tale. It’s sometimes credited as being the first modern science fiction novel. It was first published in 1818. She went on to write several other novels, short stories and essays as a way to support herself and her son after her husband drowned in 1822.
Bram Stoker was an Irish author best known for his classic vampire novel, Dracula. He was born in Dublin in 1847 as the third of seven children. His father was a civil servant, the same career Bram took up after graduating from Trinity College with a mathematics degree.
He then began a career in the theater, starting as a theater reviewer for the Dublin Evening Mail. In 1878 he married Florence Balcombe and moved to London with her where he became the acting manager of the Lyceum Theater.
Living in London, Bram Stoker began writing novels. As a part of his duties as theater manager he traveled around the world and found inspiration for his stories in many of the places he visited.
Dracula, published in 1897, was by far the most successful of Stoker’s works. However, during his lifetime he was more known for his work in the theater. Including Dracula Stoker penned 12 novels as well as numerous short stories.
Mary Wilkins Freeman
Mary Wilkins Freeman was born in 1852 in Massachusetts. She lived there until she was fifteen, when her family moved to Vermont. Her father opened a shop there, but business didn’t go as well as they’d hoped. With the store unable to support the family, Freeman’s mother took on the job of housekeeper for the town minister and the family moved into the servant’s quarters of his home.
Before becoming a writer, Freeman attended college for a year and tried her hand at teaching. Her teaching career didn’t work out. She lost a sister. She later lost her parents. So she moved back to Massachusetts to stay with a friend. While there she began writing and publishing children’s stories and poetry.
Freeman found success as a writer, focused largely on short stories (although she also wrote novels, plays, and poetry). She was able to support herself through her writing — mostly realistic short stories set in New England that focused on women’s lives. She became famous as a regional writer but her ghost stories were not very well known during her life. She remained living in Massachusetts until she married in 1902 at the age of forty-nine and moved to New Jersey with her husband, Charles Freeman. She remained living there until her death in 1930.
Gertrude Atherton was born Gertrude Franklin Horn in 1857. Her parents separated early in her life, and she was sent to live with her grandfather, Stephen Franklin, who encouraged her love of books. At nineteen, she married George Atherton, the son of a wealthy business owner. She and her husband had two children — a son and a daughter.
Her tragedy didn’t end with her parents’ abandonment. Her son died from diphtheria when he was only six years old. A few years later her husband died of kidney failure at sea while traveling to Chile. During her marriage Atherton lived at her mother-in-law’s home in San Francisco, but after George’s death she moved across the country to New York City, also traveling in Europe. She left her daughter with her mother-in-law until the woman’s death.
Atherton had a strong interest in feminist issues. One of her reasons for visiting Europe was to explore the suffrage movement in England. These events influenced her work, with her writing numerous essays about her experiences abroad. One of these essays, The Living Present, addressed the role of women in wars — something Atherton saw first-hand serving in hospitals in England during World War I.
Atherton wrote under the pennames Asmodeus and Frank Lin. She began her writing career before her husband died but the family wasn’t supportive of her work and the way she portrayed women. They were embarrassed by the feminist leaning of her writing, with strong independent women in touch with their sexuality.
Despite the lack of approval from her family, Atherton went on to be a prolific author. She wrote 60 books, articles, and short stories. While she is most known for her historical works, she also crafted several gothic stories that put her equally at home in the horror genre.
Is your favorite horror author included here? If so, why do you love their work (and which story did you enjoy the most)? If not, tell us about your favorite early master of the horror genre in the comments below, including some recommended works you think people should check out.