Classic Remarks: Spooky Classics

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.

Photo by Ryan Miguel Capili on

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.

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

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.

This Mina could defeat vampires simply be being so completely adorable

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

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.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)

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

Eva Green as Vanessa in Penny Dreadful (Episode 101). – Photo: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME

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.

Photo by Vural Yavas on

13 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Spooky Classics

  1. I’m currently reading Dracula and it’s so good!! I honestly didn’t expect it since classics don’t really work with me, but I can’t put this one down!
    It’s pretty creepy and atmospheric, expecially the part where I’m at, with Lucy. And I agree, Mina is just amazing!!
    I really need to read more spooky l classics. Expecially The Picture of Dorian Gray, I’m so interested in that one.

  2. Glad to hear you’re enjoying Dracula! It’s always the atmosphere that draws me in. I hope you enjoy the rest of it. And definitely give Dorian Gray a try. It’s and odd little book, but I like it more every time I read it.

  3. My tastes in horror have shifted over the years. When very young I loved all the classic monster horror movies, as cheesy as they’d likely be if I were to watch them now. Then I got into reading Stephen King, Clive Barker and others, some of which could get very graphic. But over time I’ve gotten tired of the more graphic and lately prefer the more atmospheric and psychological, though I don’t read or watch nearly as much horror as I used to. Dracula and Frankenstein are favorites of mine, I loved them both, especially Dracula. It’s probably time for a reread soon, perhaps in audio format this time. And I have an audio version of The Picture of Dorian Gray that I’m looking forward to trying one day. I’ve heard enough good things about it to want to try it myself. I’m currently listening to an audio of The Turn of the Screw, and would love to read The Haunting of Hill House and some of the other classics I never got around to.

  4. The Babadook really was a fantastic horror movie! I do cringe and find a lot of Hollywood horror movies today lame, especially those with no substantial plot or focused mostly on jump scares. You really have to dig deep to find the good ones (e.g. Rosemary’s Baby is a fantastic example of horror done right without a single drop of blood!).

    Excellent picks for this post too. I still need to read Dracula. It has been on my list forever! 😀

  5. The constant jump scares are half of why I don’t like modern Hollywood horror. It just relies on making you jump, which is lazy. They barely build up suspense. The horror I go for is the more Gothic stuff, which I’m not sure is classified as horror. I love Crimson Peak, and Penny Dreadful.

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  7. I’ve actually read all those books! And your one line summaries are totally on point. I love it.

    Like you, I tend to read gothic books. I avoid horror and thriller of (almost) all varieties. Heck, I read a middle grade thriller book recently, Dead Voices, and it spooked me so badly. Yeah, if I cannot read a middle-grade thriller I will not be reading adult thrillers.

    I’m sad my fingers were all busted up for this Classic Remarks post. I also was going to include Dracula and Frankenstein. But in addition, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Beloved.

  8. Thanks! Coming up with the summaries was so much fun! They still crack me up.

    Horror novels don’t really scare me, and the longer ones get tedious after a while. Though The Haunting of Hill House creeped me out, as did a story from ‘Taaqtumi’, which was a book of Arctic horror stories, mostly by First Nations Canadians.

    I was going to include The Haunting of Hill House, but I got on a roll with the Penny Dreadful connection, so I went with that.

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