Historian of Horror : Unnatural and Unkind


Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves 

And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors, 

Even when their sorrow almost was forgot. 

And on their skins as on the barks of trees, 

Have with my knife carved in Roman letters, 

“Let not thy sorrow die, though I am dead.” 

The old question of who wrote the works of William Shakespeare has a simple answer: It was a guy named William Shakespeare. Although there are a few plays on which he might have had some help from a collaborator or a mentor, the vast majority of his oeuvre is his and his alone. The base canard that Francis Bacon or Ben Jonson or someone else wrote his stuff was made up out of whole cloth a century and a half after he died and was thoroughly discredited by the 1950s. His contemporaries, including the insanely jealous yet utterly adoring Jonson, certainly thought he himself wrote the thirty-nine plays.

That said, there is at least one for which a collaborator does seem likely. His sixth play, Titus Andronicus, is so unlike any of the other tragedies that it almost seems as if he did make use of a partner with a special interest in what centuries later would be regarded as Grand Guignol theatrics. Not that the others weren’t bloody affairs with graphic deaths aplenty, but there is a gruesome mean-spiritedness about Titus that sets it apart from the relatively restrained Hamlet or Macbeth.

As well, its ridiculously convoluted plot seems more in keeping with some of the comedies, in so far as time and space and even perception seem to have a malleable quality that forces events into a structure that is not altogether reasonable. War, conquest, human sacrifice, a contrived marriage, murder, mutilation, the framing of innocent victims, and a back-and-forth of revenge and counter-revenge culminating in the villainess dining upon the corpses of her sons baked into a pie comes across as less Richard III and more Theatre of Blood. And indeed, food critic Robert Morley suffered much the same fate as the Empress Tamora in that classic Vincent Price film. Thankfully, Diana Rigg escaped the fate poor Livinia had inflicted upon her in Titus Andronicus.

Scholars suspect that one George Peele, a dramatist known for excessively gory plot contrivances in his own plays, was Shapeapeare’s partner for this Roman bloodbath. Given the state of copyright protection in Elizabethan England, in that it did not exist, there is no way of knowing how much, if any, of the mayhem was contributed by Peele, or even if Titus is more Peele than Shakespeare. Meticulous records simply weren’t kept, as there was no financial incentive to do so.

In terms of a more modern comparison, think of what might have resulted had James Fennimore Cooper collaborated with Edgar Allen Poe. Or David Lean with David Lynch, or Spielberg with Cronenberg. Seemingly discordant combinations, granted, but given the talents involved, not without interest.

I suggest the populace decide for themselves. Director Julie Taymor’s 1999 film Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, is available on YouTube. In the manner of many Shakespearean adaptations of that decade, Titus is set in an ambiguous period filled with anachronistic artifacts and has a very stylized presentation, so be ready to have your notions of what is and is not Shakespearean challenged. Which is a good thing. Don’t bother listening for grand declarations a la Hamlet’s Soliloquy. The best lines go to the very bad person Aaron, Tamora’s Moorish consort, who relishes his myriad misdeeds maybe a little too much. Indeed, his cheerful villainy presages Othello’s Iago, although that unworthy at least required an actual motive to rain down chaos and death upon the unsuspecting head of the Moor of Venice. Aaron is a firm believer in evil for evil’s sake. 

In Hamlet, Shakespeare managed to winnow the large cast down to only two named survivors, Horatio and Fortinbras. In this much earlier play, there were three – Titus’s brother, one surviving son, and young grandson Lucius. I suppose the Bard needed more experience to get rid of that additional victim. 

I bid the populace to return to this space in a fortnight’s time for an overview of the history of French publisher, Editions Fleuve Noir, and their horrific output by authors such as Maurice Limat, Dominique Arly, and Benoit Becker back in the 1960s. I might have to brush up on mon Français, as the last time I studied that language was in 1971. I will, however, endeavor to persevere. I do hope the populace appreciates the lengths your Historian of Horror is willing to go to to bring you enlightenment, education, and entertainment.

Anyhow. 

Until next time, my fellow tourists in the tombs…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Guest Blog: Shakespearean Horror / It’s a Thing by L. Marie Wood

Shakespearean Horror: It’s a Thing

By L. Marie Wood

Shakespeare is a pioneer of what we now consider horror fiction.

That’s right.  

I said it.

Before you recline away from your laptop or iPad or whatever you are using to read this article, consider this… the realism that Shakespeare infused in his work – his use of ghosts, his regard for psychological torment, even his sporadic employ of physical pain – is indicative of the horror genre and its many sub-genres, tropes, and tenets.  

Curious, no?

Many think that Shakespeare’s alignment with the horror genre is coincidental, however, I posit that it is a natural kinship. Shakespeare does what all writers do, both in literary and genre fiction: Shakespeare reports the state of the world through his writing. This is the very definition of art imitating life. 

Shakespeare was not the first to do it. Even before his most graphic depiction of what would be considered visceral horror by modern sub-genre definitions, Titus Andronicus, Sophocles had introduced audiences to psychological and physical torture in Oedipus the King (circa 430 BCE) and an unknown poet had dredged a mythical beast from a dark corner in the universe in Beowulf (circa 8th century). Indeed, some might suggest that the Christian Bible is rife with depictions of horror and trauma to rival later genre offerings.

The horror genre lends itself quite neatly to these suggestions; the genre is a veritable playground for campaigns of all kinds.  The unique canvas it provides allows for revealing social injustice and calling for change to be laid out at its most base level and in gruesome detail.   Shakespeare’s connection with the unnamed, burgeoning genre that would gain a stronghold centuries after his death is evident in his proclivity for speculative writing, which leans decidedly towards the supernatural rather than the cosmic. 

Shakespeare’s depiction of human nature and its consequent relationship with what we now call horror is more a sign of the times than literary coincidence.  The psychological warfare that Shakespeare engages his characters permeates his body of work, most notably illustrated in Iago’s manipulation of Othello. On close review one can find reflections of this kind of turbulent undercurrent in many modern horror works, whether using the mind against itself or man against man – an example of this is the slow build in The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike.  Books of this nature reflect inner turmoil, blatant manipulation, and, sometimes, a ghost of two.

Sound familiar? 

Shakespeare is a pioneer of what we now consider horror fiction… When I said it this time it didn’t sting as much, did it?  This paper made you see his writing through a different lens – at the very least, made you think about the possibility of its truth, didn’t it?  For you Shakespeare fans, perhaps this assertion pushes the horror genre into review as more than just a genre intended to frighten or one focused on social commentary and/or judgment without redemption; maybe this will entice you to peel the onion a bit.  For you horror fans, I know… we already knew.


L. Marie Wood is an award-winning psychological horror author and screenwriter. She won the Golden Stake Award for her novel The Promise Keeper. Her screenplays have won Best Horror, Best Afrofuturism/Horror/Sci-Fi, and Best Short Screenplay awards at several film festivals. Wood’s short fiction has been published widely, most recently in Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire and Bram Stoker Award Finalist anthology, Sycorax’s Daughters.

http://www.lmariewood.com