Where would get your vote for the greatest horror novel setting of all time? Castle Dracula? The Overlook Hotel? There are many possibilities, but there’s a good chance your answer would fall into the category of ‘old, scary building’. Buildings, as containers for fear, are absolutely crucial to the darker side of literature.
Recently, I read the book that started it all. And it’s not Frankenstein or Dracula. It was written more than 80 years before Bram Stoker was born. And its author was, of all people, a Member of Parliament. Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto gave us the prototype for every old, scary building that came after.
From page one, its inhabitants are terrified by surreal goings on in its shadowy chambers. The dark corridors and echoing crypts are full of whispers and shrieks of alarm. The castle is not only a setting for inexplicable and disturbing events but almost seems to be an accomplice to them.
The Castle of Otranto caused a sensation and this one short book launched an entire genre – the gothic novel, the forerunner of all horror and paranormal fiction. The gothic castle would remain the preferred setting for this kind of macabre entertainment well into the 19th century. And it’s still a powerful archetype today, even if sometimes in a tamer, friendlier form; isn’t Hogwarts just the Castle of Otranto echoing to the shouts of a rowdy school party?
Over time, the action moved into more modest, domestic surroundings. Which was lucky for writers in countries like America, where the only castles are the concrete and fibreglass ones belonging to Mr Disney. The vampires, spectres and monsters deigned to slum it in houses – as long as they were large, old and rambling. In Salem’s Lot, Stephen King places the Marsten House at the absolute heart of his narrative. It becomes almost a character in its own right, influencing events. This “beacon of evil” is not just the place where the vampire Barlow happens to end up – he has been drawn there, attracted by this powerful magnet of darkness.
So by the late 20th century horror had largely move out of the castle. Terror had down-sized. That’s perhaps because while the writers (and many of the readers) of 18th and 19th century gothic novels had occupied the upper echelons of society, modern writers tended to be ordinary people, living in ordinary houses, in ordinary towns.
This democratising of dark fiction had one very important and powerful side-effect: it brought it closer to us all; it brought it to streets and houses like our own, to our doorstep. And any psychologist will tell you that fictional narratives have a much greater impact on audiences if they happen against familiar backdrops.
Ancient battlements and secret passageways are all very well but they are not part of everyday experience for most of us. The horror that dwells in that empty house on the edge of your town is much more potent, relevant and harder to forget.