Written by: Emmet O’Cuana
Being a ‘hero’ in a horror novel is a bit like trying to have a rational conversation on the internet, or wandering out into the middle of a demolition derby track and flagging down a passing vehicle. It is going to get messy fast. The fear of death is a constant in horror fiction, so either the protagonist themselves die, or they fail to defeat the monstrous threat. This is why there are no books by H.P. Lovecraft featured on the list below. His characters are doomed from the first sentence – heroism being effectively non-existent in his stories of cosmic nihilism.
Not all of the names below save the day, get the girl/boy, or ride off into the sunset as we have come to expect from our heroes – but they made a difference. There will be some surprises and certain old favourites too.
Mary Shelley’s romantic scientist was a trailblazer in more ways than one. In bringing a corpse back to life he bent God over his knee and gave him a good spanking, ecumenically speaking (inspiring the original subtitle ‘The Modern Prometheus’). In addition Victor Frankenstein is the first of a new breed – the mad scientist. Shelley single-handedly created a new literary genre in science fiction and instituted a number of tropes that persist to this day.
The sense of horror in Frankenstein comes from Victor refusing to deal with the consequences of his classical hubris. The Monster is at times inscrutable, alien – but also deeply sympathetic. Unlike the mumbling, shuffling creation of Hollywood and James Whale, Shelley portrays It as a passionate Byronic figure. Without the club foot and STDs. In a sense Victor has not only managed to replace his God, but gone and created his own Lucifer as well. Frankenstein remains a compelling read, its hero slowly realizing that he himself has become a monster.
Arthur Gordon Pym
This entry is something of a cheat, as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was identified by H.P. Lovecraft as a key influence on At The Mountains of Madness. So consider Arthur an honorary member of the Lovecraft club.
Poe’s story draws upon the diary of an unfortunate seafaring traveller, making it something of a 19th century Blair Witch Project – although the epistolary horror novel was a popular device during the period. This allows Poe to have Pym describe in gripping detail the effects of starvation and desperation on himself and his dwindling crewmates as they travel towards the unknown regions of the South Pole. In a certain sense, Pym sees himself as an instrument of science, not only accounting for everything he witnesses, ensuring that he leaves behind evidence of his passing for another to discover. Yes this story does not have a happy ending. It also took advantage of the reading public’s lack of knowledge about this part of the world. The author could afford to introduce the weird wonders featured here. In that sense Pym is one of a dying breed, an explorer of the unknown.
Bram Stoker introduces the final attempt to save the life of Lucy Westenra by having a gathering a devoted men – Lord Godalming, Quincey Morris, John Seward and Van Helsing – donate their blood to help her fight the vampire infection. The Dutch nosferatu hunter jokingly describes this as a marriage contract to Seward – the men are all now bound to Lucy. Stoker’s unusual notion seems to be that each of the men are now betrothed to Lucy in a sense, so that if she should die she will not die in sin. It is a bizarre idea, but points to the time of its writing. The Christian values of Victorian Britain focused the reader’s attention on the state of Lucy’s soul, with Dracula representing both a physical and spiritual threat to her.
Van Helsing himself jokes that he is now a bigamist, as his dead wife is waiting for him in Heaven as part of his binding contract with the Church. As a character he is the grandfather of every vampire slayer that follows after Dracula’s publication – but he is also pitched perfectly between the superstitious past and the unwitting future of teens with stakes in their handbags and sparkly vampires. Van Helsing is simultaneously a relic and a horror fiction pioneer.
Henry James’s prose has a difficult reputation for being dense and over-descriptive. Portrait of a Lady has great moments that make the slog through endless exposition well worth it – but it is a slog nonetheless. Which is why The Turn of the Screw is such a relief to read. A tense and psychologically nuanced novella by James, it manages to be both an unforgettable ghost story and an excellent piece of writing.
The nameless twenty-something narrator of this story is troubled by the growing realization that the two children in her care are being visited, possibly even molested, by a pair of ghosts. Due to the first person narration readers have long debated whether the heroine is actually insane, imaging the events described. William Archibald and Truman Capote worked on the screenplay for the film The Innocents, which explored this idea quite well. Even the shocking ending of the story is ambiguous, the reader left just as bereft as the Governess herself.
A century before the world went mad for The X-Files, William Hope Hodgson had nailed the concept of the skeptical ghost catcher. In fact Carnacki manages to be something of a two-for-one offer, having traits of both FBI agents. He is a relentless investigator of supernatural con-men, but also happens to believe in ghosts and magic.
Though only featuring in six stories by Hodgson – himself in life a fascinating character – Carnacki is an icon of horror literature. His stories begin with a group of acquaintances joining him for a drink and a smoke as he prepares to tell them about his latest adventure. It’s a given that Carnacki himself will survive – the suspense comes from whether the people he meets will have an unpleasant end at the hands of a spirit, or a devious fraudster hoping to frighten them to death. Hodgson’s imaginative use of the public’s fascination with technology – Carnacki uses an ‘electric pentacle’ to capture ghosts – cleverly played to modern concerns while also elaborating on established supernatural themes. Your Felix Castors, Harry Dresdens and John Constantines can all be traced back to this diffident Edwardian gentleman.
And here is one of Van Helsing’s descendants. Neville is the scientist besieged in his home each night by his friends and neighbours turned vampires. During the day he hunts them in their nests and stakes the sleeping fangsters. Richard Matheson’s novel perfectly captures the loneliness and paranoia of his protagonist, with no small amount of humour in amongst the horror. For example after meeting the first living woman he has seen in years, the two talk about their likes and dislikes, with Neville internally sneering at her love of Rachmaninoff. She’s the only other live person you’ve met and you’re being a snob! You fail at the Last Man on Earth sex fantasy Neville!
I Am Legend is a tense, claustrophobic story of one man’s refusal to give in to depression and madness. As a novella it remains as compelling as when it was first published. As a hero, Neville continues to endure.
Colonel Christina Eliopolis
Strictly speaking the ‘hero’ of World War Z is its interviewer Max Brooks, who travels the world meeting the survivors of the zombie apocalypse. This is one of the many reasons the upcoming film looks terrible, as by seemingly missing this key note of horror from the book it is transformed into an action film with hints of horror. The book instead questions what would you have to do to survive such an apocalyptic event? And how could you live with yourself?
Eliopolis’s story is one of the most powerful in the collection of personal accounts – one which would have been great to see on the big screen. Stranded in a zombie-filled swamp, with only a lone voice on her radio to guide her, Eliopolis shares a similarly indomitable personality as Robert Neville. Brooks then introduces a fascinating note of ambiguity that leads the reader to question her recollection of events. There’s plenty to enjoy in World War Z, but this particular story combines thrilling action and explores the psychological cost of survival.
Will is one of three principal characters in the mind-bending novel House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. First there is Zampanò an elderly man who is already deceased at the beginning of the story, but whose voice remains in the margins (literally) of the book we are reading. Then there’s Johnny Truant, a petty criminal and junkie who becomes obsessed with Zampanò’s research. Will Navidson is the unknowing focus of both men’s obsessions. He is the ‘hero’ of the book, because it is his story that lies at the heart of House of Leaves.
Danielewski’s book is a modern-day take on Poe’s Pym, but with today’s multimedia fixations – the book was accompanied by an album released by the author’s sister named (wait for it….) Poe, with Haunted a companion piece to its fraternal novel. Navidson films the strange events that happen to his family and then his bizarre journey into the TARDIS-like interior of their home. The book’s own text formatting becomes strange and aggressive, brilliantly creating the impression in the mind of the reader of Navidson’s delirious mental state. House of Leaves is one of the great horror novels and Navidson – the thrill-seeking war-photographer turned loving family man – is its very human heart.
John Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In is one of the best vampire novels ever written. Oskar, the vulnerable young boy who befriends the child-vampire Eli, is its dubious hero. Is he a lovestruck kid, helping this ‘girl’ due to his own loneliness? Or is he a Renfield in-the-making, helping to protect a monster?
Oskar is not only baffled and depressed by his parents’ divorce. He is growing up in Sweden during the 80’s with rumours of Soviet subs prowling off the coast. Before he even discovers the existence of vampires the world is already a terrifying and loveless place. Eli becomes his escape from a life that he has already grown to hate, with Lindqvist brilliantly realizing the boy’s frustrated anger.
What? Twilight!? Well yes…cards on the table, these are terribly written books, with plots that barely deserve to be called such – but! Stephenie Meyer unleashed horror publishing phenomenon. Horror itself was changed, with a multitude of books – call them Paranormal Romance or Dark Fantasy titles or whatever you like – aping the simple cover aesthetic of the Twilight series and captivating an entirely new demographic. Cash-registers round the world were set a-ringing to a pitch not heard since Stephen King’s 80’s heyday.
At the centre of all this fuss is the Mary Sue-like Bella, a character who is defined by her lack of qualities – easier for fans to therefore exchange their place with her then – as well as her klutzy nature. This physical ineptitude is revealed to be a sign she was meant to be made a graceful vampire. It’s such a striking inversion from Lucy Westenra’s gratefully thanking Van Helsing for his watchful actions at her deathbed, to Bella gleefully embracing vampirism, with the author making clear ‘this is a good thing’. Call it the great anti-feminist statement of our time, but her iconic status clearly indicates where wish-fulfillment today lies. Bella is a poster-child for readers who want to retreat from the modern world.