THE ‘GERMAN’ SCHOOL OF HORROR


Anna Laetitia Barbauld, trying to account for why Ann Radcliffe wrote no more novels after The Italian (1798), observed (in her Preface to The British Novelists, 1810): ‘if she wishes to rise in the horrors of her next, she must place her scene in the infernal regions’ – this was left to the School of Horror.
          Novels of sensibility (such as Goethe’s Werther) flowed into the channel of terror earlier in Germany than in England, and developed into the well-defined sub-genres Ritter-, Räuber- und Schauerroman (novels about knights or robbers, and shudder-novels). Schiller’s tragedy Die Räuber (1781, translated into English in 1792 as The Robbers) and short novel Der Geisterseher (1784, partly translated into English in 1795 as The Ghost-Seer, or Apparitionist) were very influential on English works, and some of the Gothic novelists, especially Matthew Gregory Lewis, were well versed in German folk tales and ballads of the supernatural. It is especially useful to distinguish the Lewis School from the Radcliffe School by calling it the German School. The sources and settings are often German, sometimes Spanish, sometimes English, whereas Radcliffean novels of terror are often set in Italy or France.
          Nearly everyone who attacked the school of horror defined it as ‘the German school’, though as Coleridge pointed out, this was partly a false English construction. Montague Summers in his introduction to a modern edition of Horrid Mysteries (1797) observes that Gothic novels frequently declared themselves on the title page to be ‘Translated from the German’, ‘Taken from the German’, ‘A tale adapted from the German’: ‘but it seems that in some instances the German ascription was made solely to enhance the popularity and give a fashionable cachet to the work’. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, many critics echoed the sentiments of the editors of Flowers of Literature; for 1803: ‘We would wish to see banished from our literature those hobgobliana, which the German school first suggested, and which Mrs. Ratcliffe, by her superior talents, rendered popular.’
          Sensationalistic ‘raw head and bloody bones’ are more characteristic of the School of Horror, and partly help to define it. Full-bodied demons have replaced the filmy spectres of the School of Terror. Incest and rape become almost commonplace, and scenes of torture and death are portrayed in lurid physical detail. Chapbook condensations helped to intensify such horrors, for they spared no room for the niceties of landscape description or character development. But even long, leisurely novels such as Maturin’s Melmoth achieve an almost unbearable pitch of intensity and are full of graphic images such as descriptions of being burned alive and eyes melting in their sockets. With Maturin and Poe, ‘the intense school’ achieved a level of horror that would characterize the development of the second wave of the Gothic.
          Paradoxically, horror Gothic is also characterized by having more metaphysical or philosophical interests than the sentimental terror Gothic. Again, this may be partly due to its roots in German literature; hence the frequency of novels about the Illuminati, black magic and Satanic ritual, and the pseudo-sciences of astrology and alchemy. Radical politics and demonic metaphysics often worked hand-in-hand in this tradition, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
          Another woman, Charlotte Dacre, was also a leading practitioner in the School of Horror, which some critics classify too reductively as ‘the male Gothic’. The central defining feature of this tradition was the influence of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s novel The Monk, his play The Castle Spectre, and his ballad Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogine. Most horror novels, dramas and ballads contain passages inspired if not borrowed directly from Lewis. In the work of Lewis and his followers, evil becomes an attractive force, and story and character are constructed in such a way that the reader is tempted to identify with the ‘Hero Villain’, a brooding social outcast. In these novels, morality is debunked as mere prejudice, or what today might be called a social construct; clear moral standards are undermined by moral ambivalence: hence the genuine subversiveness of these works.

(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)


The German School of Horror

1794 The Necromancer trans. Peter Teuthold
1794 The Adventures of Caleb Williams by William Godwin
1796 The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis
1797 Horrid Mysteries trans. Peter Will
1798 The Midnight Bell by Francis Lathom
1802 Koenigsmark the Robber by Victor Jules Sarret
1806 Zofloya, or, The Moor by Charlotte Dacre
1808
The Midnight Groan
1812 Tales of the Dead trans. Sarah Brown Utterson
1818 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
1819 The Vampyre by John Polidori
1820 Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin
1824 'The Adventure of the German Student' by Washington Irving


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