From the time I was 7 or 8 until I was about 11, my favorite Saturday night activity was tuning into Creature Feature or Chiller Thriller. These weekly shows featured movies about Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, Godzilla, and more obscure monsters. As I grew older, I couldn’t get enough of horror novels: Shelly, Stoker, James, Jackson and later King and Straub. I continued to adore horror films: the head-turning Exorcist, the spooky Omen, and the frightening Shining. Decades later I applauded The Others, The Ring, The Woman in Black, and some of the found footage movies.
For the past five or six years, I’ve eschewed the horror genre. Partially that’s because good horror writing has disappeared. Stephen King became philosophical, his son, Joe Hill, is not up to snuff, and Peter Straub never repeated his best. Clive Barker and Dean Koontz never managed to grab me.
I’ve also abandoned the horror genre because I started to see something silly about the self-inducement of nightmares. I’d like to watch the critically acclaimed It Follows, but I’m pretty sure it will leave me grasping my covers and too afraid to be alone in the basement.
But the most important reason behind my relinquishment of the horror genre is because I’ve supped full of horror. There are enough scary things in the natural world without seeking the supernatural. I’ve seen profound birth defects, lost loved ones, and observed the ravages of disease in both old and young. I’ve watched on television the devastation caused by earthquakes and tsunamis, I saw the twin towers fall, I’ve read about recurrent acts of terrorism and viewed footage of deadly car and train accidents. I also can’t stop thinking about the horrors yet to come—the destruction of the planet due to climate change and the inability of government to effectuate more preventative measures due to an electorate that is oblivious and disdains self-sacrifice.
Rather than read a conventional horror novel, I went gothic and epic with Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale and the ancient heroic epic Beowulf.
Gothic novels have many familiar themes: dark and stormy nights, isolated settings, crumbling mansions and castles, illicit relationships, an impressionable heroine, and unexplained mysteries attributed to the supernatural but whose resolution may be explicable by natural causes. The Thirteenth Tale embraces each of these elements as Margaret Lea learns about the mysterious background of famed writer Vida Winter who has retained Margaret to be her biographer. Winter tells Margaret a tale of feral twins born at a decrepit estate in the moors known as Angelfield. There are unexplained happenings: doors open and close, possessions appear and reappear, an assault occurs that is attributed to the twins’ insane mother— a nod to Jane Eyre— a mystery mirror, and sightings of what may be a ghost. Not to be left out are incest and rape. The Thirteenth Tale is not a great novel, but it’s fun one that the reader can’t put down.
Wouldn’t it be grand to see Halloween costumes based upon literature? True, Frankenstein and Dracula are literary creations, but how about Miss Haversham or Mr. Darcy? How about replacing Superman and Batman with epic heroes like Achilles, Odysseus, and Beowulf? Or perhaps costumes based on older, literary monsters like the Cyclops or Grendel.
Beowulf is the longest poem–3000+ lines—in Old English. No one knows who wrote it or when, but estimates are that it was written sometime between the middle of the seventh century and the end of the tenth century. It survived in a single manuscript that also contained other medieval texts. This manuscript is stored in the British Library.
Beowulf is a prince of the Geats, a tribe living in Southern Sweden. He arrives in Denmark to dispatch Grendel, a demon or monster, spawn of Cain, who for years has molested the King of Denmark’s people, arriving nightly to kill the King’s followers in Heorot, the King’s mead hall. Beowulf brings with him an impressive skill set and resume: he has the strength of thirty men and has slain nine sea monsters. So far no one has succeeded in killing Grendel, who can’t be wounded with a sword. Beowulf fights Grendel without weapons in hand-to-hand combat and tears off one of Grendel’s arms. Mortally wounded, Grendel flees his home to die.
It turns out that Grendel has a mother, and she comes back for revenge. After she murders some Hearot dwellers, she escapes to her home under a swamp. Beowulf chases her and engages her in an underwater battle. His sword is useless. Nearby he spies a sword forged by giants, which does the trick.
Returning home, Beowulf reigns as King of the Geats for 50 years until he faces a third challenge. A great dragon sits on a hoard of treasure. After a peasant steals a jeweled cup from the hoard, the dragon begins avenging himself on the Geatish countryside. Beowulf charges alone into action. As his waiting knights disperse into the forest, Beowulf makes little headway in his assault on the dragon and is grievously wounded. A young knight Wiglaf joins him and scores the first blow. Beowulf wields the death blow, but dies from his wounds.
Beowulf is about monsters and heroes. It recounts a hero’s search for glory, the obligation of good kings to reward their followers with gifts of gold, jewels (especially rings), steeds, and land, and the despair caused by blood-feuds. I read a translation by Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Laureate. It was beautifully done, but I have doubts that Beowulf would have made it into the canons of compulsory English literature if it hadn’t been, as it were, a one-of-a-kind survivor.
Beowulf inspired one person in particular, an Oxford don who taught the poem to undergraduates for decades and even translated it. Dragons, treasure, and especially rings populate the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.