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A SCARE-lariously Baleful History of Horror

Hosted by The Thrift Keeper!

By Terry Fleming • September 27, 2022

Hello BOILS and GHOULS, and WELCOME to the ThriftBooks Grand Historical Tour of the Horror Genre! I'll be your guide for the evening, the THRIFT KEEPER (named for my devilish ability to find the Best Bargains among Blood-Curdling titles!), here to lead you towards some scintillatingly sinister selections, and away from any open graves, bear traps, bottomless pits, deadfalls, giant carnivorous plants, nests of radioactive rats, and other dark places where a slavering beast might mistake you for a chocolate bon bon! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Uh, sorry, had to get that out of my system...

You might be wondering why we're giving you this tour in September and not October, well, it's because we wanted to get the JUMP SCARE ON HALLOWEEN, HEE HEE! So come with me as I lead you astray – I mean, gently guide you towards your destruction – that is, um, show you some mouthwateringly morbid morsels…

Horrific History: How It All Started

You might be asking yourself, where did the concept of horror, as a pleasantly petrifying putrid pleasure, first come from? Well, mythology adores its ghastly creatures – let's begin there! I, for one, have always had a stone spot in my heart for Medusa, the former maiden turned monstrosity by the vengeful gods (the best kind of deity, by the way—those "loving" and "forgiving" immortals always rubbed me the wrong way)! What could be groovier than Medusa's head of gorgeous, serpentine curls?! And I hear her gaze is TO DIE FOR! To learn all about this original IT Girl, the star attraction of any Viper Room, check out The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. And if you like the idea of winged, electrified amazons and giant, ravenous wolves (and who wouldn't, especially for children's parties!), then give Norse Mythology a try!

Moving on from antiquity, while the Smithsonian (an organization run by creepy collectors of old bones—just like me!) claims that the oldest depiction of a ghost is a 3,500-year-old Babylonian tablet (and it was a hieroglyphic how-to on exorcising them, no less!), I like my spectres sans tunics! And if you want stories with characters as haunted as their homes (or castles!), look no further than the Edgar Allan Poe Collection.

From Poe's The Raven:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Hot stuff!

Of course, of course, my deranged, deleterious companions who howl at night for a taste of terror and blood, I could mention Dracula, and Frankenstein, and that dire updating of the lycanthrope myth (reality?) — not to mention inspiration for The Incredible Hulk - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And I could raise a glass of crimson-red absinthe to my dear friend Jack the Ripper (or "Saucy Jack" according to Spinal Tap), for being an innovator of sorts (like Steve Jobs, in that they both wore black and cooked up ridiculous mission statements — though Jack's was on alley walls, not websites), not to mention, give a hale and hearty hello to other writers of the era like August Strindberg whose minds were a blazing inferno of mad desire and the stygian ramblings! And speaking of infernos, let's give Dante Alighieri (I know, he was 12th century, shush!) a little shout out for being super inventive in the way he obsessively devised tortures for the damned! Good for you, Big D!

Modern Monster Mash: Entering The 1900s

Yes, yes yes — I could babble on about all that, but let's please leave the moldering confines of the nineteenth century and enter the modern era to explore some real inventive horror! First stop, as you've doubtless surmised, has to be H.P Lovecraft. A bit of a puny, pale, rabbity-eyed sort, scrimped of shoulder and lipless of fortitude, he nonetheless managed to be a conduit for nightmares so immense and gloriously tyrannical that their shadows cast a grotesque pall over the next hundred years of macabre speculation! Here was a man who sat in a drab room in a drab suit and with a drab manner but was so... defenseless to horrific visions of a cosmic dimension that he had no choice but to lean back and allow glimpses of omnivorous octopus gods and miasmic pools of eyes and teeth and fingers and slashing tongues and digestive tracts and collapsing faces endlessly bubbling in the caverns of the purest slime-soaked appalling otherworldly indecency!

Well, he sounds like Scout Master material to me!

(By the way, check out Lovecraft Country the book and Lovecraft Country the show for a new, nasty take on the ideas of that old buzzard)

Graphic Novel Grotesqueries: Horror in the 1950s

From there the world, the very world, exploded with what could only be called a tsunami of tentacled depravity (now THAT'S a legacy!)! But let's skip ahead to the 1950s, where a different sort of horrific speculation captured the public imagination — comic books! The shared maniacal delusion of that decade was it was a delirious landscape of manicured lawns and white picket fences and jolly families wearing their Sunday best every day of the week, laughing — endlessly laughing in warm tones — in each other's company, but was that true? Or was there something more delightfully dreadful percolating beneath the surface?

Yes! I will answer my own question! And look no further for evidence than EC Comics!

EC, which originally stood for "Educational Comics" (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!), kicked off the 1950s with a bang in the first year of the decade with their Vault of Horror comic! From there, they were on a roll (like the kind a guillotine might inspire) and released Weird Science and The Haunt of Fear. In fact, EC was so INSPIRATIONAL they not only caused the government to crack down on comic book subject matter, but more than seventy years later, new funky freaks have devised their own revolting versions of horror comics, such as DC's Soul Plumber and TidalWave's Classic Horror Comics.

And UNNATURALLY, since we're speaking of the grimy underbelly of the 1950s, we have to spotlight rock and roll (the devil's music!) unhinging the hips of soon-to-be juvenile delinquent teenagers, not to mention the Cold War and all the atomic monster movies it inspired (Godzilla, Them!). Therefore, I highly recommend The 1950s' Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Rock & Roll Rebels, Cold War Crises, and All American Oddities! (I especially like the oddity part). Yes, potential nuclear war with the Soviet Union was on everyone's minds, so movies like War of the Worlds (1953) helped stoke those fears (here, aliens stand in for Communists)! And who could speak of horror of that era without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock?! Oh, Alfie, you're my long-lost brother! Your dedication to amplifying social anxiety was absolutely precious! And let's not forget your gloriously scare-ifying films, like Strangers on a Train, Rope, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds, and my personal favorite, Psycho! After all, the only Motelier who was more fun than Norman Bates was H. H. Holmes (though Gerald Foos makes for an amusing Bronze medalist!)!

Screams On Screen: Into the 1970s and Beyond

Hot on the heels of Hitchcock, making his deadly debutante debut in the 1970s, yes, we have to mention Stephen King. Stephen, you've given us many a frantic night of suffocating fear, making us psychotic from lack of REM sleep! This is the very essence of a national treasure. And let us not fail to mention your frequent writing partner, Peter Straub, whose Ghost Story is a classic, and of King's oeuvre, give Creepshow a try, a horror comic with a host almost as handsome as me!

And keeping neck-in-chopped-neck with King in the cinematic world is John Carpenter, whose trio of terror Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing defined the horror genre to present day. Before John, films like The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby and The Omen were the horror du jour. But once the eighties kicked into high gear, we went slasher crazy! Friday the 13th, Terror Train, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Prom Night, He Knows You're Alone, and Sleepaway Camp were top titles. Then the nineties brought us the Scream series and an Oscar winning exploration of a most learned gourmand with Silence of the Lambs and its super creepy follow-up Hannibal. The new millennium has seen a renaissance of Horror cinema, with instant classics like the SAW series, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, Ari Aster's Hereditary and Midsommar, John Krasinski's A Quiet Place and A Quiet Place II, along with many Blumhouse favorites like Freaky and the new Halloween franchise: Halloween and Halloween Kills. If you're a snooty Sam or Samantha, you can try more artsy-fartsy renditions of murder and/or mayhem, like: The Witch, Gretel & Hansel, Antichrist, and The Lighthouse.

But I'm not here to merely discuss the popular depraved faves, but the WEIRDER selections along the primrose horror path. Luckily for all of us, Grady Hendrix has documented some of the more bizarre titles in his marvelously malevolent tome Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction. Hendrix, a horror writer himself and obvious fiend of the basest water (they make for the best pen pals!), has taken the time to pour through the most intensely odd horror titles from those wonderfully decadent decades to lend us his, um, expertise (let's call it that) about them. Eerie reads like The Auctioneer, Nightblood, and When Darkness Loves Us. And while we're at it, let's call out Hendrix's masterwork of merry malfeasance Horrorstor, about a haunted furniture outlet (talk about the couch CLASHING WITH the drapes!)!

I hope you've enjoyed our little trip down Mutilation Lane! Do visit me again, and next time, bring a friend. I like to have multiple courses —I mean, guests— for supper...

Read more by Terry Fleming

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