The Horror! The Horror!

William Hunt’s painting of Isabella

Why are horror stories and horror films so popular? Why do so many of us willingly allow writers to drag us down dark alleyways or up winding staircases where heart-juddering shocks and the cold wash of fear await? Is it just that we derive basic thrills from triggering the rush of adrenalin which terror brings, or do horror stories serve a wider moral purpose, reinforcing the rules and taboos of our society and showing the macabre fate of those who transgress?

Charles Dickens was skilled in the art of scaring and used elements of the horror genre to great effect in his work. He wove his dark moments carefully – selecting grimly realistic details of description, choosing words with dreadful associations, withholding information while leading the reader to anticipate what is coming. The following extract is a good example. Our Mutual Friend opens with this scene. In the gathering twilight, a lone rowing boat is crawling across the surface of the River Thames. The oars are in the hands of a young girl: the other occupant of the boat, a man, peers intently into the ripples. Dickens doesn’t tell us why they are out on the water under the cover of darkness, nor what the man is searching for, but he leads us to suspect, from the outset, something horrific.

From Our Mutual Friendby Charles Dickens

Trusting to the girl’s skill and making no use of the rudder, he eyed
the coming tide with an absorbed attention. So the girl eyed him.
But, it happened now, that a slant of light from the setting sun
glanced into the bottom of the boat, and, touching a rotten stain
there which bore some resemblance to the outline of a muffled
human form, coloured it as though with diluted blood. This caught
the girl’s eye, and she shivered.

‘What ails you?’ said the man, immediately aware of it, though so
intent on the advancing waters; ‘I see nothing afloat.’

The red light was gone, the shudder was gone, and his gaze, which
had come back to the boat for a moment, travelled away again.
Wheresoever the strong tide met with an impediment, his gaze
paused for an instant. At every mooring-chain and rope, at every
stationery boat or barge that split the current into a broad-
arrowhead, at the offsets from the piers of Southwark Bridge, at the
paddles of the river steamboats as they beat the filthy water, at the
floating logs of timber lashed together lying off certain wharves,
his shining eyes darted a hungry look. After a darkening hour or
so, suddenly the rudder-lines tightened in his hold, and he steered
hard towards the Surrey shore.

Always watching his face, the girl instantly answered to the action
in her sculling; presently the boat swung round, quivered as from a
sudden jerk, and the upper half of the man was stretched out over
the stern.

The girl pulled the hood of a cloak she wore, over her head and
over her face, and, looking backward so that the front folds of this
hood were turned down the river, kept the boat in that direction
going before the tide. Until now, the boat had barely held her own,
and had hovered about one spot; but now, the banks changed
swiftly, and the deepening shadows and the kindling lights of
London Bridge were passed, and the tiers of shipping lay on either

It was not until now that the upper half of the man came back into
the boat. His arms were wet and dirty, and he washed them over
the side. In his right hand he held something, and he washed that
in the river too. It was money. He chinked it once, and he blew
upon it once, and he spat upon it once,–‘for luck,’ he hoarsely said
–before he put it in his pocket.


The girl turned her face towards him with a start, and rowed in
silence. Her face was very pale. He was a hook-nosed man, and
with that and his bright eyes and his ruffled head, bore a certain
likeness to a roused bird of prey.

‘Take that thing off your face.’

She put it back.

‘Here! and give me hold of the sculls. I’ll take the rest of the spell.’

‘No, no, father! No! I can’t indeed. Father!–I cannot sit so near it!’

He was moving towards her to change places, but her terrified
expostulation stopped him and he resumed his seat.

‘What hurt can it do you?’

‘None, none. But I cannot bear it.’

‘It’s my belief you hate the sight of the very river.’

‘I–I do not like it, father.’

‘As if it wasn’t your living! As if it wasn’t meat and drink to you!’

At these latter words the girl shivered again, and for a moment
paused in her rowing, seeming to turn deadly faint. It escaped his
attention, for he was glancing over the stern at something the boat
had in tow.

John Keats employs similar techniques in Isabella or the Pot of Basil. Based on a story from the Boccacio, the poem tells of Isabella and Lorenzo’s love for each other and the outraged disapproval of her brothers who cold-bloodedly murder of Lorenzo. Isabella, bereft, has a vision, in a dream, of the place in the forest where Lorenzo is buried. Isabella and her aged nurse go there in secret. The following extract is from the moment they reach Lorenzo’s shallow grave.

From Isabella, or the Pot of Basil by John Keats


Who hath not loiter’d in a green church-yard,
And let his spirit, like a demon-mole,
Work through the clayey soil and gravel hard, 355
To see skull, coffin’d bones, and funeral stole;
Pitying each form that hungry Death hath marr’d,
And filling it once more with human soul?
Ah! this is holiday to what was felt
When Isabella by Lorenzo knelt. 360


She gaz’d into the fresh-thrown mould, as though
One glance did fully all its secrets tell;
Clearly she saw, as other eyes would know
Pale limbs at bottom of a crystal well;
Upon the murderous spot she seem’d to grow, 365
Like to a native lily of the dell:
Then with her knife, all sudden, she began
To dig more fervently than misers can.


Soon she turn’d up a soiled glove, whereon
Her silk had play’d in purple phantasies, 370
She kiss’d it with a lip more chill than stone,
And put it in her bosom, where it dries
And freezes utterly unto the bone
Those dainties made to still an infant’s cries:
Then ’gan she work again; nor stay’d her care, 375
But to throw back at times her veiling hair.


That old nurse stood beside her wondering,
Until her heart felt pity to the core
At sight of such a dismal labouring,
And so she kneeled, with her locks all hoar, 380
And put her lean hands to the horrid thing:
Three hours they labour’d at this travail sore;
At last they felt the kernel of the grave,
And Isabella did not stamp and rave.


Ah! wherefore all this wormy circumstance? 385
Why linger at the yawning tomb so long?
O for the gentleness of old Romance,
The simple plaining of a minstrel’s song!
Fair reader, at the old tale take a glance,
For here, in truth, it doth not well belong 390
To speak:—O turn thee to the very tale,
And taste the music of that vision pale.


With duller steel than the Persèan sword

They cut away no formless monster’s head,
But one, whose gentleness did well accord 395
With death, as life. The ancient harps have said,
Love never dies, but lives, immortal Lord:
If Love impersonate was ever dead,
Pale Isabella kiss’d it, and low moan’d.
’Twas love; cold,—dead indeed, but not dethroned.

If you would like to read more of Keats’s delectably creepy poem, follow the link. What is the significance of the poem’s alternative title? Read the poem to discover the awful truth.

However, for those of you who read the last page first, the image of Isabella by the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt may tell you all you need to know.


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