Classic Remarks is a meme hosted by Krysta and Brianna at Pages Unbound. Each week, they pose a question about classic works of literature in order for readers to engage in a continuing conversation about elements of classic literature, the literary ‘canon’, and the timelessness of story. If you’re interested in participating, you can find the schedule here.
I’m not a fan of horror stories, whether they are on film or in books. I stopped watching the Netflix show, The Haunting of Hill House after a few episodes because the characters annoyed me and they telegraphed the spooky moments so far in advance (to me, anyway) that they lost their impact. I laughed at what was (apparently) one of the scariest scenes in the 2013 film The Conjuring, and I was mostly bored when a friend and I went to see Paranormal Activity in the theater (I still wonder why, when the ghost knocks the keys off the counter, it’s scary. But when I knock the keys off the counter, I’m clumsy). There have been two horror films that genuinely had me on edge: The Woman in Black (2012) and the superb The Babadook (2014).
When it comes to books, I prefer my spooky stories to be more atmospheric (Gothic novels) or suspenseful (psychological thrillers) than straight-up horror with its bloody tendencies and monsters.
Creepy Carpathian count hires English lawyer to complete long distance real estate transaction. Mayhem ensues.
Though Stoker did not begin the vampire craze, his immortal tale brought it into the limelight with this epistolary novel about a medieval Wallachian prince who turned against God and survived the centuries to bring death and terror to an English town in the late Victorian era. I’ve been reading this book since I was a teenager, and though it never scared me, I’ve always found the narrative compelling, even if I want to whack the male characters upside their heads for being dolts.
Bonus points: I named my cat after the heroine of this novel, who has the most intelligence and courage of anyone in the story.
Obsessed scientist declines to take responsibility for his actions. Mayhem ensues.
Obviously, Mary Shelley’s masterpiece (written when she was all of 19) is more complex than that. Regarded as one of the earliest science fiction novels, Frankenstein takes on the cutting edge science of the times, electricity, and asks what would happen if someone could be brought back from the dead, but imperfectly. What would this new creature be like? What would they learn? And what would humanity do to it? Though it’s generally shown as a horror story, Frankenstein does more than simply tell a scary story about a murderous monster. It asks us what the cost of obsession truly is, and what exactly makes a good person.
Handsome man decides he really is as pretty as they say he is. Mayhem ensues.
In this odd little story, the wealthy and beautiful Dorian Gray falls prey to his friends’ incessant flattery and wishes that his youth and beauty would never fade. Incredibly, his wish comes true and the flaws of age and his growing cruelty are transferred to his painted portrait. There is a moral lesson in this story, but Dorian Gray’s corruption was scandalous to the outwardly moral Victorian society of the 1890s.
Or…. If you’re in the mood to see all of these stories blended together in the most extravagantly Gothic television show out there, try:
Penny Dreadful (Showtime, 2014-2016, streaming on Netflix, TV-MA)
Starring: Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Rory Kinnear, Reeve Carney, Josh Hartnett, Harry Treadaway, Billie Piper, Simon Russell Beale, Danny Sapani, Helen McRory
Created by: John Logan
The mysterious Vanessa Ives joins famed explorer Sir Malcolm Murray in order to find Sir Malcolm’s daughter, Vanessa’s childhood friend, Mina after she is kidnapped by a strange creature. They are joined by the obsessive Dr. Victor Frankenstein and an American sharpshooter named Ethan Chandler, who has a dark secret of his own.
And, because it is featured in Penny Dreadful, and because it’s wonderfully and melodramatically spooky, check out this selection from John Keats’s poem, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:
“Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.”
You can find the entire poem at The Poetry Foundation.