Gothic chapbooks and Horror Comics

Posted by Franz Potter on April 18, 2009 in Dr Franz Potter, Guest Blog tagged with

For several years now I have incorporated chapbooks or bluebooks into my courses on Gothic Fiction. These short tales of terror have been extraordinarily popular with my students, not just for their brevity and accessibility, but also for the garish illustrations which often accompany them, and quite frankly, their horror. It is not that students don’t enjoy reading full length Gothic novels…. Lewis’s The Monk is a perennial favourite as is Radcliffe’s The Italian….but Gothic chapbooks seem to capture their imaginations if not their attention. The reason for this is really quite straightforward …they see Gothic chapbooks as simply old horror comic books. Seriously?

Gothic chapbooks are an integral though often marginalized feature of the Gothic genre. The chapbook in part satisfied the demand for Gothic fiction which followed the popularity of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. The success of these short 36 to 72 page productions was enormous. They were enjoyed by thousands of readers of all classes, eager to read tales of terror in a straightforward and unsophisticated form. After all, Gothic novels were often quite lengthy, some upwards of 5 volumes. These tales had the additional benefit of being inexpensive—sixpence or a shilling—or a mere penny a night from the local circulating library which held numerous sensational offerings.

I share my students’ fascination with these literary mushrooms of the Gothic novel and have spent years researching them. I love their disreputable reputation, their scarcity and their explicit sensationalism and melodramatic illustrations. Their double-barreled titles like Spectre Chief; or The Blood-Stained Banner, Father Innocent, Abbot of Capuchins; or, The Crimes of the Cloisters, The Secret Tribunal; or, The Court of Wincelaus and Tomb of Aurora; or, The Mysterious Summon were designed to attract not only the notice of readers, but to advertise the horrific content of their wares and shocking it was. Where some Gothic novelists like Ann Radcliffe and her imitators moderated their use of terror, chapbook authors were often horror-mongers. They filled their pages with continual scenes of horror, or as Fred Frank pointed out, “Horror, sensibility, shadowy terror, and the raucous equipment of the haunted castle were all crammed into the compressed Gothic, then thrust all at once upon that type of reader who had neither the time nor the taste for a leisurely Gothic experience.” There is an intensity in Gothic chapbooks, one wanders about dark corridors at a breathless pace only to discover you are walled in.

Like my students it is also the publisher’s use of graphics that I find fascinating. The illustrations demonstrate the reader’s predilection for shocking and horrible scenes. Some illustrations were pullouts garishly colored with daubs of red, yellow and blue paint. One particular graphic found in an adaption of Lewis’s The Monk now titled The Bleeding Nun of the Castle of Lindendorff; or, The History of Raymond and Agnes is an elaborate display of the most horrifying scenes in the chapbook and offers readers a visual guide to important points of the plot. Comprised of four panels each representing a scene from the chapbook, the pullout includes the ‘Death of Baptiste.’, ‘Raymond & Agnes discovered by the Aunt.’, ‘The Bleeding Nun appears to Raymond.’ and ‘Agnes with her Child in the Dungeon.’ with the Bleeding Nun herself appearing in the center holding a taper and a knife.
For many students this type of illustration establishes a clear link between the ‘hasty and relentless horrors’ of chapbooks to horror comics of the 1940s and 50s. In 1943 Comic Classics released the first horror comic with their adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde setting into motion a series of comic books which adapted old tales of terror that included Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Stoker’s Dracula. Like the chapbooks some 150 years before, the success of such adaptations spawned many imitators. Comic books with names reminiscent of Gothic chapbooks soon emerged including The Crypt of Terror, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Chambers of Chills, and Tomb of Terror, which proclaimed “Tales Beyond Belief and Imagination” and offered chilling tales of terror for mere pennies. It was the Golden Age of Comic books and Gothic tales like No Rest for the Dead, The Corpse That Wouldn’t Die!, Dungeon of Doom, The Living Dead and The Horror of the Walking Corpse flooded the marketplace. Opposition to these ‘hasty and relentless horrors’ culminated in America with the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency hearings in 1954 which resulted in the formalization of the Comic Code limiting excessive blood, gore and horror. While restricting the amount of horror (and even the very word), the code did not remove the supernatural from the comics. Indeed, it is clear that tales of terror continue in graphic form today and we see them expanding their presence into the longer graphic novels like V for Vendette, Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. But are Gothic chapbooks really comparable to horror comics? Are graphic novels like Steve Niles & Ben Templesmith’s 30 Days of Night or Kohta Hirano’s Hellsing really very Gothic?Some of my students see a clear link, but I am left wondering how closely related chapbooks and horror comics really are.
Any thoughts?

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