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Supernatural Fiction

When did you hear or read your first ghost story? Or your first story about vampires? Zombies? Not everybody likes scary stories, yet they have been told since ancient times. There is something about drawing around a campfire or fireplace, or at the end of a party, and thinking up spooky tales to share, that holds timeless appeal. Most if not all of these stories have their roots in early mythology, and in recent times have become big business in publishing, covering a broad range of genres.

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Supernatural Fiction

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When did you hear or read your first ghost story? Or your first story about vampires? Zombies? Not everybody likes scary stories, yet they have been told since ancient times. There is something about drawing around a campfire or fireplace, or at the end of a party, and thinking up spooky tales to share, that holds timeless appeal. Most if not all of these stories have their roots in early mythology, and in recent times have become big business in publishing, covering a broad range of genres.

Supernatural Fiction definition

‘Supernatural’ means ‘beyond (or above) natural’: it is beyond science to explain. The term supernatural is used to refer to any manifestation or incident that cannot be explained rationally by applying the laws of science.

Supernatural fiction origins

Supernatural fiction has its roots in ancient folklore and mythology across the world.

The earliest known ghost story in the West comes from Ancient Greece; phantoms and magic were a part of Ancient Egyptian culture and ritual; vampires can be traced back to ancient China. The werewolf, the shapeshifter, exists in cultures from Indo-Asia and Ancient Rome to Native America. Oral tradition handed down tales of the unknown and the inexplicable as a way of reminding us how safe we are by the warm fire, and also as a warning to the curious.

The earliest written ghost stories in English literature begin with the gothic novel. The first known gothic novel was by Horace Walpole, who wrote The Castle of Otranto in 1764. Gothic fiction became popular from the late 18th century. It offered an escape from the increasingly industrialised world and is the parent to mystery novels, ghost stories and supernatural fiction.

Purpose of supernatural fiction

Supernatural fiction, like most fiction, is written to entertain, to divert attention from the everyday. It is escapism from the ‘realities’ of life, to explore the dark shadows and the unknown. Its supernatural character adds atmosphere and can create a special kind of energy; the kind of energy that makes the spine tingle or the brain more alert.

Supernatural fiction is also a flexible genre: it can include horror, fantasy and even some types of science-fiction (usually this will be the result of cross-genres)

Supernatural Fiction Elements

Another word for supernatural is paranormal. So anything you read that contains ghosts, vampires, werewolves, special powers like telepathy, and so on can be called ‘supernatural fiction.’

Elements of supernatural fiction will include

  • suspense and mystery
  • the uncanny
  • the monster as the 'other'
  • a 'spooky' or intriguing atmosphere
  • a ghost, 'undead' or shapeshifter, or combination of these

Interestingly, zombies, ghosts, vampires, and werewolves, among other beings, can also be identified as 'the other.' 'The Other' is a concept where an individual is identified as not belonging to the dominant group. In supernatural fiction, the supernatural entity is identified as the other in the sense that it is not human, as most of the characters in the novel might be, and sets it apart, thus also exemplifying its non-human traits.

Supernatural fiction genres and supernatural fiction examples

Supernatural fiction is also a flexible genre: it can include horror, fantasy, and even some types of science-fiction, as long as it contains supernatural elements.

To get a better idea, let’s take a look at some of these types of supernatural fiction:

  • Ghost novels
  • Vampires
  • Werewolves
  • Zombies

The ghost novel in supernatural fiction

A ghost story is about the spirit of somebody who has passed on. They may have died peacefully, or violently, but they will have unfinished business to attend to in the world of the living. They come back to haunt the living in order to resolve this unfinished business. The person being haunted may be connected to the ghost, or maybe a complete stranger who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. (Or the wrong time, depending on how you view ghostly experiences…)

A vengeful ghost can be the most terrifying: they will act as a nemesis on the living. This means they will often be relentless in carrying out their revenge and thirst for justice.

An important aspect about the ghost novel is that it speculates about the afterlife. It explores the unknown, i.e. what happens after death, and also evokes the sense of 'uncanny.'

The 'uncanny' refers to a feeling of strangeness and mystery evoked in the reader or audience. This is associated with a hint of 'creepiness' or a feeling of menace. For example, inanimate objects suddenly moving by themselves feels uncanny.

The Grudge film franchise has its roots in early Japanese mythology, which includes the Onryō, a vengeful spirit or ghost that feeds off its own grudge. According to legend if someone feels an intense emotion (like anger or jealousy) strongly enough when they die, this emotion will turn into an Onryō. The Onryō will seek revenge for a wrong it suffered in life, attacking whoever happens to cross paths with them.

Not all ghost stories have to be terrifying: the spirit of a dead person may return to a place they have happy memories of, and reconnect with someone still alive.

The Canterville Ghost (1887)

Ghost stories can also be funny: the ghost may have foibles or flaws (such as vanity or phobias) or a mischievous sense of humour. A classic example is Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost (1887). An American family buys an old manor house in England which is reputed to be haunted. They treat the idea of a ghost with scorn: when the ghost actually appears, the sons torments it with pillows and peashooters:

The next day the ghost was very weak and tired. The terrible excitement of the last four weeks was beginning to have its effect. His nerves were completely shattered, and he started at the slightest noise.

(Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost 1887)

Eventually, the family, led by the daughter Virginia, discovers the ghost’s skeleton and lay him to rest.

The Canterville Ghost has been adapted for film several times, the earliest dating from 1944 (dir. Jules Dassin) and the most recent 2016 (dir. Yann Samuell)

Atmosphere is crucial for a ghost story, and atmosphere will depend on where the story is set: a haunted house or building, a ruined castle, a hospital, a library and so on. Each of these places will have its own feel or mood which the writer then has to get across on paper.

Famous modern examples of ghost novels include

  • Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983)
  • Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983)

Pet Sematary (1983)

King’s Pet Sematary uses an ancient burial ground as a place of resurrection. The burial ground lies behind the Pet’s Sematary, a graveyard created by local children for their dead pets. The ancient burial ground has magical properties. A man loses his son in an accident and in his despair buries the child in the ancient burial ground. The child returns, only not as it was. Events spiral out of control until the boy’s father burns the house to the ground and escapes.

The original ‘sematary’ did in fact exist. Some incidents inspired King to go down the route of ‘what if’ and he wrote Pet Sematary as a result. When he read it after finishing he found it ‘so startling and so gruesome that I put the book in a drawer, thinking it would never be published.’

(King, Introduction to Pet Sematary, 2000)

Pet Sematary has been adapted for film several times:

  • Pet Sematary, 1989 (dir. Mary Lambert)

  • Pet Sematary II, 1992 (dir. Mary Lambert)

  • Pet Sematary, 2019 (dir. Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer)

The Woman in Black (1983)

Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983) is a ghost novel in the gothic tradition about a malignant phantom that haunts a small coastal town in England. Whenever the ghost is seen, it means a child will soon die. She is seen several times by a young solicitor who has been sent to finalise the paperwork and estate of a deceased client. Deaths of the children soon follow, and the solicitor is caught up in unravelling the connection with the deceased client and the phantom of the Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black has been adapted for radio, television, film and stage; the stage version is so far the second-longest running play in the West End. (The longest-running is Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap).

Vampires in supernatural fiction

Dracula (1897) is one of the most filmed supernatural novels and an icon in supernatural fiction. Yet it didn’t all start with Bram Stoker.

The Vampyre (1819)

Polidori’s The Vampyre was published in 1819 and became enormously popular. Its character Lord Ruthven is described as unusually pale with dead grey eyes; he also has a negative effect on the people around him: friends become bankrupt, and those he helps end badly.

To escape debtors and multiple affairs, Ruthven goes on a tour of Europe accompanied by a bored young aristocrat called Aubrey. They are set upon by bandits in the mountains of Greece and Lord Ruthven dies. The next morning his corpse has disappeared, and Aubrey returns home. To his horror, he sees Lord Ruthven at a social gathering. Aubrey collapses, haunted by visions of the phantom. His sister becomes engaged to Lord Marsden, whom Aubrey recognises as Lord Ruthven. Feverish and powerless, he sinks to an early death, warning his sister’s guardians of her danger. His warning is too late, however; they reach his sister only to find her dead, and Marsden (Ruthven) vanished.

Note: The Vampyre was born out of a writing contest that also produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Lord Ruthven is partly based on Lord Byron.

Carmilla (1872)

In 1872, Sheridan le Fanu’s Through a Glass Darkly was published and included not only some of the best ghost stories ever written but also a story called Carmilla.

Carmilla is set in Styria. Laura the narrator is, she tells us, English, although her mother was descended from the Karnsteins, whose ruined castle lies in the area. She and her father live isolated in another castle with an abandoned village. The villagers, fearing vampires, have left.

Meanwhile, a carriage accident occurs outside the castle; its passengers are a young girl called Carmilla and her mother. Carmilla is injured and is left in the care of Laura and her father while Carmilla’s mother continues on her urgent journey.

The mysterious Carmilla reveals nothing about herself and has a tendency to sleep all day and sleepwalk at night. Laura falls ill, and the doctor observes two puncture marks on her neck and warns her father. They meet up with the General, a family friend who explains his niece had been the victim of a vampire. His description matches Carmilla’s; they find the tomb of Carmilla (who is Mircalla, Countess Karnstein) and destroy the body after driving a stake through her heart and beheading her.

Much of Carmilla contains the tropes later used by Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula: the isolated castle, the beautiful female vampire, the stake, the beheading.

Dracula (1897)

Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor, travels to Transylvania to settle a sale of land with a client called Count Dracula; he discovers that Dracula is a vampire, capable of turning into a bat. Harker narrowly escapes the Count’s clutches and falls into a fever at a convent, where his fiancee Mina joins him. They travel back to England, only to discover that Dracula has bought the old Abbey near Mina’s home. Mina’s friend Lucy comes under the influence of Dracula and is ‘turned’ into a vampire herself. She dies as a human, but returns as a vampire. Aided by Dr van Helsing, a vampire hunter, they dig up Lucy’s body and decapitate her. Harker, Mina, and three of their friends unite with Dr Helsing in bringing down the Count.

Stoker built a complete and detailed world for his novel, based on considerable research both of Slavic myth and western traditions. In his world, vampires are human by day, and change at night, garlic is a weapon of defence against them, while sunlight burns them.

In the cult of vampire films and TV series that have evolved since, these ‘rules’ continue to be adhered to. Vampire fiction has continued into the millennium:

  • The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer (2005 - present day)
  • Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (2010)

Twilight (2005) by Stephenie Meyer is set in a small town in Washington. A recent arrival, Isabella, meets Edward, a vampire. As their relationship develops, Edward has to protect both his identity and Isabella’s safety.

Twilight has developed into a long-running series that follows Isabella and Edward as they escape other vampires, get married and have a child.

The novels have been adapted for film and television, and further sequels are said to be in progress.

Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is written as a journal kept by Lincoln from childhood, when he discovers that vampires are real. Vowing to rid his country of them, Lincoln becomes a vampire hunter and succeeds in chasing them out to South America and Asia. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the novel moves forward to 1963 to find Lincoln still writing in his journal. He has been turned into a vampire himself.

A film version was released in 2012 (dir. Timur Bekmambetov).

The Werewolf in Supernatural Fiction

Ancient Roman culture recognised shapeshifters, or beings that could change their outer form at will, and a belief in the werewolf was a part of this culture. The werewolf, like the vampire, has associations with night and the moon, in particular the full moon, which is when the wolf spirit takes over the human and completely transforms them into wolf-form.

The fairy tale Beauty and the Beast may be a memory of some of these early beliefs. The werewolf also has its origins in Native American and Indian folklore. Algernon Blackwood’s Running Wolf (1920) reflects the Native Indian tradition of the spirit wolf: it is not a real wolf, but nor is it human.

Werewolf novels

The Werewolf of Paris 1933 by Guy Endore. The werewolf of the title is Bertrand Caillet. The novel is set in France in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war.

Bertrand escapes his home after mauling a prostitute during one of his ‘changes and travels to Paris. He attempts to control his werewolf nature but his step-uncle finds him and takes him to an asylum, where Bertrand commits suicide. The book is noted for its haunting dreams and sense of compulsion.

The Werewolf of Paris was later adapted by Hammer as The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, dir. Terence Fisher)

Other examples of werewolf novels include:

The Howling by Gary Bradner (1977)

A young couple comes to live in a small village in California, seeking peace and quiet. However, people start disappearing, there are sudden deaths and the couple discovers there is a community of werewolves living off the village.

The Howling is the first of a trilogy and inspired the Howling film franchise (1981 -1995)

Sharp Teeth Toby Barlow (2007)

Sharp Teeth is a werewolf novel written in free verse. It is set in Los Angeles and is about the relationship between a dogcatcher and Sasha who is a secret werewolf, surrounded by packs of lycanthropes. Sasha will do anything to protect her secret, including murder.

Zombies in supernatural fiction

Zombies, like vampires, are undead (also referred to as the Walking Dead). They may be driven by a thirst for blood, as in I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson; they may be able to reattach themselves as in The Plague of the Living Dead (1927) by A.Hyatt Verrill.

Zombie fiction is the most recent member of the supernatural canon. It may have originated from the voodoo rites of Haiti. William Seabrook's The Magic Island (1929) is a travelogue of his journey through Haiti, observing voodoo rituals. Seabrook also claimed to have seen ‘undead’ workers in the fields. The Magic Island, whether based on fact or fiction, spurred other works of fiction and film into being.

  • The Plague of the Living Dead (1927) by A.Hyatt Verrill
  • I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson

The Plague of the Living Dead (1927)

The Plague of the Living Dead (1927) by A.Hyatt Verrill begins as a story about eternal life. Its main character, Dr Farnham, is a biologist seeking an elixir for immortality. Scorned for his ideas, he carries out his experiments on an island in the Caribbean. Farnham discovers a solution that not only prolongs life, but makes people indestructible, with disastrous consequences. The Walking Dead begin to take over the island until a military operation creates an artificial volcano to blow them into outer space.

Verrill’s story contains a prototype for the zombies that appear in modern films: mindless, indestructible, and with a thirst for violence and destruction. If caught, they physically tear themselves free and their detached limbs continue to ‘live’.

I Am Legend (1954)

I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson describes the life of one man who seeks a cure to the virus of ‘undead’ that has engulfed the world. I am Legend was filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1963 (dir. Ubaldo Ragona). A second film version in 1968 (dir. George Romero) was called Night of the Living Dead and has been considered a turning point in zombie culture.

Zombie fiction has been considered the lower end of the literary scale but continues to be commercially successful both in fiction and in film.

Supernatural fiction can also contain pastiches or parodies of earlier classics. For example, some of Jane Austen’s novels have been ‘re-written’, set in a parallel world inhabited by zombies and/or sea monsters.

Zombie and monster versions of Jane Austen’s novels include:

Supernatural Fiction - Key takeaways

  • Most supernatural fiction has its roots in early mythology
  • ‘Supernatural’ means anything that cannot be explained rationally by applying the laws of science
  • Another word for supernatural is paranormal
  • Fiction containing ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and so on can be called ‘supernatural fiction.’
  • Supernatural fiction adds atmosphere and can create a special kind of energy
  • Supernatural fiction is also a flexible genre: it can include horror, fantasy and even some types of science-fiction (usually this will be the result of cross-genres)
  • Typical types of supernatural fiction include
    • Ghost novels
    • Vampires
    • Werewolves
    • Zombies

Recommended reading: Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2012) by S.T. Joshi

Frequently Asked Questions about Supernatural Fiction

Any fiction about things that cannot be explained scientifically or rationally.

To entertain, create atmosphere and energy; to enliven the brain.

The Canterville Ghost (1887), The Woman in Black (1983), Dracula (1897), I am Legend (1954) etc

Ghost stories, vampire novels, werewolf and zombie fiction etc.

Supernatural fiction has its roots in mythology and folklore.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Choose: King’s Pet Sematary uses … as a place of resurrection.

Choose: Pet’s Sematary is based on

 Choose: The Vampyr was written by :

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