The beginning of horror fiction stretches all the way back to the ancient world. The earliest writers in the genre found inspiration in religion, folklore, and myths, some of which date back to the Greeks and to the foundation of Rome. From 15th century woodcuts to the birth of the Gothic novel in the 18th century, the horror tale slowly wound its way to a fresh horizon: The New World of the American colonies. By the 1800s, American horror stories were in full swing, and as of 1821, one of the places that you could occasionally find them was The Saturday Evening Post. From Washington Irving to Edgar Allan Poe, on up through the likes of Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson, America’s horror history unfolded in the pages of the Post. Here’s a tour of the highlights.
Washington Irving (1783-1859): One of Washington Irving’s best-known stories is the whimsical “Rip Van Winkle,” about a man who sleeps for years and wakes up to find that everything has changed. His other is one of great importance in the horror genre: 1819’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Both were published in the collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. and while “Winkle” is generally known, it’s popularity is far outstripped by “Sleepy Hollow” and its antagonist, the Headless Horseman. Irving wrote many stories that dealt with ghosts and Gothic subject matter. In 1836, the Post published another story from The Sketch Book; it was a tale of doomed romance titled “The Pride of the Village,” but its actual name was “The Ruined One.” In 1881, the Post also ran an uncollected short story of Irving’s, a ghost tale called “A Haunted Ship.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864): The real horror of Hawthorne’s contributions to The Saturday Evening Post is that . . . we don’t know exactly what they are anymore. Multiple sources indicate that Hawthorne published in the Post, but that coincides with the period in the early 1800s where issues are sadly missing from the magazine’s historical record. The April 28, 1900, issue (which does survive) includes a lengthy piece on the writer. Hawthorne is perhaps best-known today for 1850’s The Scarlet Letter and 1851’s The House of the Seven Gables, both of which traffic with supernatural elements. Several of Hawthorne’s shorts stories, including 1835’s “Young Goodman Brown,” 1837’s “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” 1843’s “The Birth-Mark,” and 1844’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” have been particularly influential in the Gothic and horror fields. It’s been suggested that Hawthorne’s interest in these themes grew out of the way that he felt haunted by his great-great-grandfather John Hathorne’s role as a presiding judge in the Salem Witch Trials; Hawthorne added the “w” to his last name as a way to put more distance between himself and that legacy.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849): Poe crammed a lot into his 40 years on Earth. He refined the sensibilities of the short story form. He created detective fiction. A few of his stories helped to lay the groundwork for modern science fiction. And he was a towering influence on horror. He was a master of building dread and wasn’t afraid to smash through taboos, diving into topics like spousal murder and premature burials. Poe had a long-time professional relationship with The Saturday Evening Post; his poem “To Helen” was published in its pages for the first time, as were pieces of his literary criticism. In fact, it’s possible that a few other anonymous pieces were written by Poe. However, what’s known for certain is that his blood-curdling classic, “The Black Cat,” first ran in the Post in 1843.
Shirley Jackson (1916-1965): Shirley Jackson has been the subject of a well-deserved rediscovery in the past few years. Her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle was made into a film in 2018, and the latest adaptation of the twice-filmed The Haunting of Hill House was a Netflix mini-series that same year. A feature film based on her most famous short story, “The Lottery,” is currently in development. The appeal of Jackson is easy to understand. A sorceress of plot mechanics that manage to combine outright terror and biting wit, her work influenced an untold legion of writers, but notably Richard Matheson, Neil Gaiman, and America’s master of horror, Stephen King. Jackson received several major awards during her lifetime, including a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Short Story for “Louisa, Please Come Home” in 1961 and a National Book Award nomination for Hill House in 1960. The prolific Jackson published over 200 short stories and six novels in addition to children’s books and three memoirs. In 1965, the Post had pleasure of publishing Jackson’s “The Bus.”
Ray Bradbury (1920-2012): Widely considered to be one of the finest writers of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, Ray Bradbury won awards, inspired generations of writers, and brought critical legitimacy to genre fiction. He moved as easily between fiction, comics, and screenwriting, and delighted audiences of all ages. His inner child led him to write touching tales for children like The Halloween Tree, but he was just as capable of writing white-knuckle horror; his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes somehow combines both of those skill sets, telling a harrowing and emotional coming of age story. Bradbury had a long-standing relationship with The Saturday Evening Post, publishing 13 short stories here over the course of 49 years.
With more than 400 short stories and novelettes to his credit, Bradbury remains one of the most prolific visionaries of any genre. In 1951, the Post published his short story, “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” also known as “The Fog Horn.” This sea monster story would be made into a film in 1953, and that movie would trigger the giant monster movie fad of the 1950s. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was directly inspired by Bradbury’s story, and together with writer/director Ishirō Honda and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, he co-created Godzilla.
Another Bradbury story that ran in the Post, “The World the Children Made” (also known as “The Veldt”) is a deeply unsettling speculative fiction tale that shows how well Bradbury understood both the good and bad of kids. As one of the most honored and awarded writers to ever contribute to the Post, Bradbury is a major part of the magazine’s literary legacy and a foundational figure in shaping the modern horror genre.
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