Fiction, English Occult
The literary form of English-language occult fiction
emerged from the folklore of supernatural beings and heroic
events and was made possible by the secular understanding of
the ancient mythology of gods, devils, and heroes. During the
Elizabethan Age, penny balladsheets and prose chapbooks told
of sorcerers, ghosts, monsters, and warning signs in the heavens
against the sins of the day. A favorite story was that of the
sorcerer Dr. Faustus and his pact with the devil. The great
witchcraft persecutions from the Middle Ages on provided archetypal
themes of terror, wonder, and the eternal play of good
Themes of magic and enchantment from earlier Arthurian
legends were developed in Malorys Morte dArthur. There were
also magic elements in some of Chaucers stories The Franklins
Tale, The Squires Tale, and The Wife of Baths Tale.
Dragons and enchantment occur in Spensers Faerie Queene. Supernatural
elements were common in drama from Elizabethan
times on, as amply illustrated by the ghost in Hamlet, the witches
in Macbeth, and Marlowes Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus.
Early collections of ghost stories include Ludwig Lavaters
De Spectris (1570), translated in 1572 as Of Ghostes and Spirites
Walking by Nyght and of Strange Noyses, Crackes, and Sundry Forewarnynges
and Thomas Nashes The Terrors of the Night, or, a Discourse
of Apparitions (1594). An influential work was Joseph
Glanvils Saducismus Triumphatus, or, Full and Plain Evidence
Concerning Witches and Apparitions (1681), which includes the famous
poltergeist story of the Drummer of Tedworth.
It was in the eighteenth century that occult fiction came into
its own in the creation of the Gothic novel genre. Horace Walpoles
The Castle of Otranto, first published in 1764, was subtitled
A Gothic Story. Walpole was obsessed with the Gothic. In
1747 he leased the Strawberry Hill estate near Twickenham,
where he spent a decade building what he called a little Gothic
castle. He lived in a dream world of revival Gothic architecture
and mock medievalism. Other country gentlemen followed
Walpole in remodeling their estates with mock castles, follies,
and grottoes. Some even employed old men to live as hermits
in artificially constructed cavernsa kind of Gothic Disneyland.
Walpoles novel launched a thousand imitations and variations.
After Otranto came Clara Reeves The Old English Baron
A Gothic Story in 1778, Ann Radcliffes The Mysteries of Udolpho
(1794), and Matthew Gregory Lewiss successful sensation The
Monk (1794). Such horrid mysteries became the mainstay of
the rapidly developing circulating libraries that were replacing
the old-time ballad and chapbook peddlers in every large town
and city in England.
Stock ingredients of the Gothic novel were such plot elements
as pure young virgins and chivalrous heroes embroiled
with scoundrels of Continental origin (usually Italians), base
monks, cruel Inquisitors, and ruthless bandits. They struggled
in a fantasy medieval world of gloomy castles, ruined abbeys,
dismal dungeons, bloodstained daggers, skulls, sliding panels,
secret rooms, magic books, and animated portraits, all in a twilight
setting of dark forests, pale moonlight, and nameless terrors
lurking behind rocks. Walpole wrote Otranto as a reaction
against realism in literature. He initiated a literary form of fantasy
fiction, combining mystery, romance, supernaturalism,
and sentimentality in a setting of mock medievalism.
The success of the Gothic novel among the upper and middle
classes in England soon led to their merchandising at a
more popular level, in abridged and pirated versions in cheap
paper-covered pamphlets. These forerunners of todays paperback
books sold at sixpence or a shilling each and were known
as bluebooks (from the blue paper covers) or shilling shockers.
Shilling shockers went out of fashion around the opening of
the nineteenth century, largely through sheer exhaustion of
their stereotyped characters and plots. Meanwhile the Gothic
impulse had also passed into serious literature in the romantic
movement, which in Britain included poets like Shelley, Byron,
Wordsworth, and Coleridge and novelists like Sir Walter Scott.
For example, in Scotts The Monastery, a mysterious sylph rises
from a fountain; astrology is introduced into Guy Mannering,
The Fortunes of Nigel and Quentin Durward; a ghost story is told
in Redgauntlet; and ghosts figure in Woodstock. In The Bride of
Lammermoor, Scott deals with the Scottish belief in prophecy,
and in Waverley a Highland chief is awestruck by a peculiar
Perhaps the most influential expression of the Gothic impulse
in English literature was formed at that strange opiumsoaked
literary house party of Shelley, Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft
(later Shelleys wife), Claire Clairmont (Marys stepsister),
and J. W. Polidori, at the Villa Diodati, Geneva, in the
summer of 1816. Byron had been reading a book of ghost stories
by Jean Baptiste Eyriès titled Fantasmagoriana (1812) and
proposed, We will each write a ghost story. Byron himself
drafted a fragment that Polidori later expanded into The Vampyre;
Polidori produced a trifle about a skull-headed lady who
was punished for peeping through a keyhole, but Wollstonecraft
began her masterpiece published in 1818 as Frankenstein
or the Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein relied less upon
Gothic ruins than emotions of wonder and terror generated by
the mysterious powers of nature and science, and so led the
Gothic novel into a science-fiction genre. Meanwhile folklore
themes of monsters and vampires became new stereotypes of
the Gothic impulse. In the twentieth century these gave birth
to hundreds of horror stories and sensationalist movies.
Another offshoot of the Gothic imagination during the
nineteenth century was the mystery novel of such writers as Wilkie
Collins. In The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone
(1868), a Gothic architectural setting was metamorphosed into
a Gothic atmosphere of strange hidden mysteries, motives,
crime, and sensational suspense. Out of this was born the roEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Fiction, English Occult
mance of large country mansions, culminating at the end of the
nineteenth century in such Gothic novels as Daphne du Mauriers
Rebecca. The country house detective thriller of writers
like Agatha Christie also has roots in the Gothic story as developed
by writers like Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe.
In The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum,
and Premature Burial, all published in the 1840s,
Poe reverted to a classic Gothic format expressed in the short
story rather than the full-length novel.
Three Irish writers made a notable contribution to the Gothic
novel with supernatural elements Charles Robert Maturin
(17821824), Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (18141873), and
Bram Stoker (18471912). In Maturins novel Melmoth the Wanderer
(1820) there is strong emphasis on episodes of terror, but
the complex plot structure hinges upon the classic theme of a
pact with the devil. Le Fanu wrote several short stories on supernatural
themes, Green Tea being one of the most outstanding,
but his Gothic masterpiece was undoubtedly the longer
story Carmilla, in which he developed the vampire
theme. It is a story of a female vampire, with a strong suggestion
of lesbian love, set in a dreamlike landscape in an old castle
in Styria, a region in Austria. Carmilla, first published in
1871, was read by another Irishman, Bram Stoker, when he was
a young part-time drama critic in Dublin. It was to stay in his
mind for 25 years before he wove the vampire theme into his
own masterpiece, Dracula, first published 1897. Stokers novel
has since had a lasting influence on stories, plays, and movies
all over the world.
Other nineteenth-century British writers of notable occult
fiction include James Hogg (17701835), Frederick Marryat
(17921848), Bulwer Lytton (18031873), Charles Dickens
(18121870), William Morris (18361896), and Robert Louis
Stevenson (18501894). Hogg, known as the Ettrick Shepherd,
was a peasant poet and protégé of Sir Walter Scott.
Hoggs The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
(1824) is a strange and powerful story of diabolical split personality.
Frederick Marryats Snarleyyow, or the Dog Fiend (1836)
contains an episode dealing with a werewolf, often reprinted as
a self-contained story; The Phantom Ship (1839) is based on the
Flying Dutchman legend.
Lytton published some classic supernatural stories, including
the thrilling The Haunted and the Haunters (1859),
originally titled The House and the Brain. His book Zanoni
(1842) is concerned with a secret occult society; The Coming
Race (1871) portrays an underground race.
Dickens wrote a number of short stories on supernatural
themes, such as A Childs Dream of a Star (1850), The
Haunted House (1849), No. 1 Branch Line The Signalman
(1866), Nurses Stories (1860), and of course the immortal A
Christmas Carol (1843).
Morris, a founder of the pre-Raphaelite art movement,
translated Scandinavian sagas and also published such fantasy
stories as The Wood Beyond the World (1894), The Well at
the Worlds End (1896), and The Water of the Wondrous
Stevenson, a brilliant stylist, published some excellent stories
of the supernatural, including the renowned The Strange
Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1888). Less well known but
equally brilliant are his short stories Thrawn Janet, Will o
the Mill, and Markheim. In the latter story, Stevenson
touches a deeper metaphysical note.
The popular novelist H. Rider Haggard (18561925) was
celebrated for his great adventure stories like King Solomons
Mines, but there are themes of fantasy and reincarnation in his
stories She (1886) and Ayesha (1905).
Another great nineteenth-century writer was the playwright
Oscar Wilde (18541900), who also wrote a whimsical ghost
story, The Canterville Ghost (1887), and the terrifying Gothic
story The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).
The ghost short story flourished during the nineteenth century,
encouraged by numerous magazines and Christmas supplements.
The journal All the Year Round, founded by Dickens,
published a number of stories of the supernatural.
At a more popular level, writers like G. W. M. Reynolds (with
Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf and The Necromancer) and Thomas Preskett
Prest (with Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood) had replaced
the old sentimental Gothic romances with extravagantly
written full-length shockers.
Other writers of the period included Mrs. J. H. Riddell (with
Weird Stories, 1884, and The Banshees Warning, 1894), and Margaret
Oliphant (A Beleagered City, 1880, and Stories of the Seen
and Unseen, 1889). On a lighter note, F. Anstey (18561934)
created his own characteristic genre of humorous fantasy with
Vice-Versa (1882), The Tinted Venus (1885), and The Brass Bottle
(1900). Another innovative writer was E. Nesbit (18581924)
with her fairy-tale fantasies for children The Phoenix and the
Carpet (1904) and The Enchanted Castle (1908). She also published
three adult fantasy collections Something Wrong (1893),
Grim Tales (1893), and Fear (1910).
American writers who made important contributions to the
English language supernatural story include Washington Irving
(17831859), F. Marion Crawford (18541909), Ambrose
Bierce (1842ca. 1914), Henry James (18431916), and Lafcadio
Irving was persuaded by his friend Sir Walter Scott to publish
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (181920), which included
Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Other favorite Irving tales include The Spectre Bridegroom
(1819) and The Devil and Tom Walker (1824).
Crawford was justly celebrated for his uncanny and horrific
short stories such as The Upper Berth, For the Blood Is the
Life, and The Screaming Skull from the late nineteenth
century, collected posthumously in Wandering Ghosts (1911).
His first novel, Mr. Isaacs (1882), was based upon a real-life
wonder worker in India; The Witch of Prague (1891) was concerned
with the misuse of hypnotism.
Bierce was famous for his psychological explorations in
short story format The Death of Halpin Frayser, The
Realm of the Unreal, and The Middle Toe of the Right
Foot. His collections include Can Such Things Be (1893) and
In the Midst of Life (1898).
The great novelist Henry James wrote a classic ghost story
in The Turn of the Screw (1898). A posthumously published collection
is The Ghostly Tales of Henry James (1948).
Hearn published several strange and macabre stories, many
of which were collected in Fantastics (1914).
Into the Twentieth Century
Writers who bridged the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (18591930), Rudyard
Kipling (18651936), H. G. Wells (18661946), and May Sinclair
Many of Conan Doyles earliest short stories had supernatural
themes before he turned his attention to the deductive logic
of the great Sherlock Holmes. But after World War I, Conan
Doyle became a champion of Spiritualism and his novel The
Land of Mist (1925) fictionalizes an investigation into the subject.
An early novel The Parasite (1894), deals with a psychic
vampire. Some of Doyles short stories on occult themes were
collected in Tales of Twilight and the Unseen and included in The
Conan Doyle Stories (1929).
Kipling wrote several impressive short stories of the eerie
and supernatural, including The Mark of the Beast (1890),
The House Surgeon (1909), The Brushwood Boy (1898),
and They (1904). These are contained in his various collections.
Wells was a prolific writer of short stories, many of which
were on occult and fantasy themes, including The Red
Room, A Moth, The Apple, Under the Knife, Skelmersdale
in Fairyland, The Door in the Wall, and A Dream
Fiction, English Occult Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
of Armageddon. These are contained in such collections as
The Stolen Bacillus (1895), The Red Room (1896), The Plattner
Story and Others (1897), and Thirty Strange Stories (1897). Six
early collections were reissued in one volume as Famous Short
Stories of H. G. Wells in 1938.
Sinclair began writing novels in 1895 and later became interested
in Spiritualism. A collection of her short stories on occult
themes, Uncanny Stories (1923), contains Where Their Fire
is Not Quenched, a brilliant evocation of the afterlife.
Among minor writers of occult fiction from the nineteenth
to twentieth centuries, Richard Middleton (18821911) was responsible
for the humorous story The Ghost Ship (1912) and
the more serious On the Brighton Road in the same volume.
W. W. Jacobs (18631943), famous for his humorous Night
Watchman stories, also wrote the classic story The Monkeys
Paw, which was dramatized. M. P. Shiel (18651947) wrote
horror and fantasy tales, including Prince Zaleski (1895), Shapes
in the Fire (1896), and the posthumously published collections
Best Short Stories of M. P. Shiel (1948) and Xelucha and Others
Important writers of occult stories during the twentieth century
include M. R. James (18621936), Arthur Machen
(18631947), E. F. Benson (18671940), Algernon Blackwood
(18691951), Walter de la Mare (18731956), Lord Dunsany
(18781957), and Charles Williams (18861945).
The scholarly M. R. James, provost of Eton, wrote ghost stories
for the amusement of his friends. The stories were later
published in the collections Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904),
More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost (1919),
and A Warning to the Curious (1925). These classics of the genre
are some of the most powerful and disturbing ghost stories in
the English language. A later volume, The Collected Ghost Stories
(1931), includes most of them.
The stories of Arthur Machen are haunted by fear of natural
forces and the horror of evil from an ancient world. One of his
best stories is The Terror (1917), in which the world of nature
rebels against mans destructiveness in war, but his many
shorter stories of horror and the supernatural are also masterpieces.
These include The Great God Pan, The White People,
and The Shining Pyramid. These were reprinted in the
collection Tales of Horror and the Supernatural (1949).
Benson is justly regarded as a master of the supernatural
short story. The Room in the Tower and Mrs. Amworth are
classic vampire stories; other well-written horror tales include
Caterpillars, Negotium Perambulans, and And No Bird
Sings. These were published in the collections The Room in the
Tower (1912), Visible and Invisible (1923), Spook Stories (1928),
and More Spook Stories (1934). A representative selection was
published as The Horror Horn (1974).
Blackwood specialized in occult fiction that drew upon his
own psychic sensitivity. John Silence (1908) is based on the casebook
of an occult detective. Some of Blackwoods best stories
are The Wendigo (about a demon of lonely places), Ancient
Sorceries (about cats and their witches), The Man Whom the
Trees Loved (about the absorption of a man into nature), and
The Transfer (on psychic vampirism), but he also wrote many
other stories with psychic and ghostly themes. These are included
in such collections as Tongues of Fire (1924), The Lost Valley
(1910), Pans Garden (1912), Incredible Adventures (1914), and
Day and Night Stories (1917). His own selection, Strange Stories
was published 1929, but a later comprehensive collection is
Tales of Terror and Darkness (1977).
De la Mare was a famous poet of great sensitivity who also
published several beautifully written short stories of the supernatural,
including All Hallows, The Recluse, and The
Looking-Glass. Collections of his short stories include The
Riddle (1923) and On the Edge (1930). A later collection is Ghost
Williams was a sensitive writer of fantasy stories. War in
Heaven (1930) and The Place of the Lion (1931) deal with
demonic themes. Other stories include Descent Into Hell
(1937), Witchcraft (1941), and All Hallows Eve (1945).
The Irish writer Lord Dunsany was an acclaimed master of
fantasy fiction. His books include Time and the Gods (1906), The
Sword of Welleran (1908), A Dreamers Tales (1910), The Book of
Wonder (1912), The Last Book of Wonder (1916), The King of Elflands
Daughter (1924), and The Blessing of Pan (1927).
Another creator of fantasy worlds was J. R. R. Tolkien
(18921973) with his famous The Lord of the Rings trilogy The
Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1955), and The Return
of the King (1955). These books involve a fictitious mythology
reminiscent of Arthurian romance and generated a worldwide
There is a strong element of fantasy mythology in some of
the short stories of the American writer H. P. Lovecraft
(18901937), who appears to have been strongly influenced by
Machen and Lord Dunsany. Lovecrafts style is uneven and
mannered, but his stories of ancient evil, monsters, and horror
have secured a cult following. Many of his stories were originally
published in magazines like Weird Tales; others were collected
and published posthumously through the initiative of fantasy
writer August Derleth. Representative collections are The
Dunwich Horror and Others (1963) and Dagon and Other Macabre
One important British writer of fantasy and horror fiction
much neglected in his lifetime was William Hope Hodgson
(18771918). His terrifying short stories of the sea include
From the Tideless Sea (1906), The Thing in the Weeds
(1912) and The Voice in the Night (1907). These are included
in the collection Men of the Deep Waters (1914). His fulllength
stories The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night
Land (1912) are full of terrifying fantasy.
L. P. Hartley (18951972) was an established novelist who
also wrote some macabre supernatural short stories, notably A
Visitor From Down Under (1927). His first collection was
Night Fears (1924); his Collected Short Stories was published in
Another writer of ghostly short stories was Oliver Onions
(18731961); his best-known story is The Beckoning Fair
One. Collections of his stories include Widdershins (1911) and
Ghosts in Daylight (1924); there is also a Collected Ghost Stories
Practicing occultists who have also written fiction include Violet
M. Firth (best known under her public name, Dion Fortune;
18901946) and the famous Aleister Crowley
(18751947). Fortune was a member of the Hermetic Order of
the Golden Dawn occult society and also founded her own Fraternity
of the Inner Light. She fictionalized some of her own
psychic experiences in The Secrets of Dr. Tavener (1926). Her
other occult fiction includes The Demon Lover (1927), The
Winged Bull (1935), The Goat-Foot God (1936), The Sea Priestess
(1938), and Moon Magic (1956).
Crowley, the most outstanding magician of the twentieth
century, was also a member of the Golden Dawn before he
founded his own society, the A?A?, and became the Outer
Head of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). In addition to his
treatises on the practice of occultism, Crowley published two
volumes of occult fiction Moonchild (1929) and The Stratagem
(1929). These were inferior to some of his other prose and his
One of the most prolific writers on the subject of black magic
and occultism was Dennis Wheatley (18971977). His most
popular books were The Devil Rides Out (1935), Strange Conflict
(1941), To the Devil a Daughter (1953), The Satanist (1960), and
They Used Dark Forces (1964). As well as these and other novels
on occult themes, he edited the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult,
a series of reprints of significant occult books by other writers.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Fiction, English Occult
Although the demise of many short story magazines during
the period following World War II restricted the market for
short stories on occult subjects, the popularity of the horror
movie generated a new outlet.
Richard Matheson published many macabre short stories
before becoming a prominent scriptwriter of horror films.
Some of his most well-known stories include I Am Legend
(1954), about vampires, and A Stir of Echoes (1958), dealing with
psychic invasion of the mind. As a movie scriptwriter, Matheson
adapted some of the works of Edgar Allen Poe, such as the story
The Pit and the Pendulum and the poem The Raven, as
well as also his own novel Hell House (1971).
Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho (1959), filmed by Alfred
Hitchcock, also published many novels on occult themes, as
well as scripting his own radio and movie stories. His film credits
include The House That Dripped Blood (1970) and Asylum
The explosion of mass interest in occultism during the
1960s and 1970s slackened during the 1980s, perhaps through
literary overkill of a basically elusive phenomenon, but has generated
a romantic popular interest in fictional occultism, reflected
in blockbuster novels of the occult adapted into movies.
Typical of this trend are Ira Levins sensational witchcraft stories
Rosemarys Baby (1967) and The Stepford Wives (1972),
which became successful movies.
Stephen King became the leading novelist of horror and the
occult in America by the end of the 1970s. Beginning with Carrie
(1974) about a teenager with paranormal powers, Salems Lot
(1975), a vampire story, and The Shining (1977), about an evil
entity in a deserted hotel, King has produced a shelf of worldwide
best-sellers, many of which have been made into movies.
Meanwhile, the Dracula theme has continued to proliferate
all over the world in scores of books and movies. All this is a
long way from the leisured sentimental Gothic tales of the eighteenth
century and the cultured frisson of the Victorian and Edwardian
ghost story. If the fantasy has become more imaginative,
merging with the newer genre of science fiction, the thrills
of the movie horror film have become more sensational. The
vampire theme is the most successful single subgenre of contemporary
Gothic fiction, with more than 650 vampire movies
having been made during the twentieth century. As of 1994
more than 50 new vampire novels were being published annually.
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Elm Tree Books, 1977.
Barclay, Glen St. John. Anatomy of Horror The Masters of Occult
Fiction. London Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978.
Birkhead, Edith. The Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance.
London Constable, 1921.
McNutt, Dan J. The Eighteenth-Century Gothic Novel An Annotated
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Messent, Peter B., ed. Literature of the Occult. Englewood
Cliffs, N.J Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Scarborough, Dorothy. The Supernatural in Modern English
Fiction. New York G. P. Putnams Sons, 1917.
Sieger, James R. Ghost Stories Index. Denver Opar Press,
Siemon, Fred. Ghost Story Index An Author-Title Index to More
than 2,200 Stories of Ghosts, Horrors, and the Macabre Appearing in
190 Books and Anthologies. San Jose, Calif. Library Research Associates,
Sullivan, Jack, ed. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the
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Summers, Montague. A Gothic Bibliography. London Fortune
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Fortune Press, 1938.
Watt, William W. Shilling Shockers of the Gothic School A Study
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Fiction, English Occult