Content warning: This article describes abusive relationships.
The horror genre relies on the discomfort of its readers. Successful horror stories keep readers guessing — which means artists of all mediums must be particularly creative, constantly reimagining ways to upset, repulse, and scare their audience so they don’t get too comfortable. In the literary world, two authors stand out to me as trailblazers in the horror genre: Mary Shelley and Carmen Maria Machado.
Mary Shelley, best known as the author of Frankenstein, is one of the most influential horror writers to date. Unlike other iconic halloween monsters like zombies and vampires that have their origins in folklore, Shelley conceived of Frankenstein’s monster when her friend challenged her to see which of them could come up with the best horror story. Shelley’s story, named after scientist Victor Frankenstein, the creator of the infamous monster, was published as a novel in 1818 and has since made its way into popular culture, and served as source material for many contemporary movie and television adaptations.
Carmen Maria Machado is a contemporary author revolutionizing the horror genre, coming up with new conceptions of the monstrous. Her Body and Other Parties, Machado’s debut short story collection, was published in 2017 to critical acclaim, and in 2019, she published her memoir titled In the Dream House.
In her memoir, Machado uses the tropes inherited from Shelley and other classic horror writers to tell the story of her abusive relationship with her ex-girlfriend. Each chapter continues the narrative through the lens of a new literary trope: haunted mansion, man versus nature, and murder mystery are some examples. By crafting a disjointed story where each chapter shifts in style, Machado draws the reader into the disorientation she experienced in her relationship.
Both Frankenstein and In the Dream House are remarkably inventive, stretching the limits of genre. Shelley not only arguably invents science fiction but also combines it with gothic horror and tragic romance. Machado completely subverts the memoir genre and incorporates essays and folktale motifs. This genre-bending speaks to the authors’ skill and creativity as writers to create something completely new out of the preexisting tradition of their genre.
What I think is really effective about these texts is that, unlike in other horror stories, readers can’t close the book and walk away with the comforting knowledge that the monsters they read about don’t exist. Even though there are fantastical elements to Machado’s storytelling, we are reminded that it is grounded in reality. The first chapter is called “Dream House as Not a Metaphor,” where Machado establishes that the Dream House — the house she shared with her abusive ex — is not fantasy but a real place. Furthermore, although Frankenstein is fictional, the scientist and his monstrous creation embody real human hopes, fears, and flaws. Abusive relationships and biologically engineered humans are eerily closer to our own reality than zombies and vampires.
One sign of a great novel is when its themes stand the test of time. Frankenstein and In the Dream House capitalize on our universal fear of powerlessness. The characters in Machado’s and Shelley’s books are stuck in a difficult situation for most of the narrative. As they struggle to escape the monsters haunting them, the reader struggles with them, experiencing repetitive and cyclical events through the form of the book.
In Frankenstein, after Victor abandons his creation and loses track of him, he is stuck in a cycle of simultaneously hunting the Creature and being hunted by him. Shelley includes many long descriptions of setting and location, showing how far the characters travel, only for their situation to remain the same. Machado also plays with formal elements in a way I had never experienced before. She illustrates the cyclical nature of abusive relationships through a chapter called “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure.” Unlike traditional Choose Your Own Adventure books, there is no way to move on to the next chapter. Instead, every choice readers make for Machado’s character is somehow the wrong choice, sending them back to pages they’ve seen before. Both Victor and Machado’s characters realize that they will never feel safe again unless they manage to escape the cycles they’re in — a seemingly impossible task.
Another way some horror authors inadvertently provide comfort to their readers is by using archetypes. Archetypes are comforting, even monstrous or villainous ones, because they feel familiar to audiences and can help them predict where the story will go. But by doing away with archetypes and creating nuanced protagonists with conflicting desires and motivations instead, Machado and Shelley don’t provide their readers with the comfort of having black-and-white notions of good and evil.
While Machado does engage with tropes and archetypes, she subverts expectations, using them in inventive ways the reader may not have previously encountered. As Machado makes sense of what happened in her relationship, she sometimes doubts that her ex-girlfriend was her abuser and not the other way around. Because she doesn’t have physical evidence of the abuse she endured, other people don’t believe her side of the story, so she starts to doubt what really happened.
In Frankenstein, there is also ambiguity and tension as to who the real villain is: Victor, or his creation. Despite the common notion that Frankenstein’s creature is an evil monster, in the original novel, both characters are morally dubious. Although the Creature has a frightening outward appearance, he is initially friendly and sensitive. It is only when he is rejected by society and by Victor — the closest thing he has to a parental figure — that he seeks revenge. While Victor is often depicted as a scientist who was in over his head after the creation of his monster, he does not take responsibility for his creation and stands by while innocent people take the fall for his actions.
As storytellers themselves, both authors naturally guide their protagonists towards storytelling as a way to regain their power in moments of despair. Victor’s process of creating the monster is shrouded in secrecy. After he creates the monster and it begins wreaking havoc on Victor’s family, he keeps the secret out of guilt until he finds a confidant in Walton, who records Victor’s story in his letters. Similarly, Machado was forced to keep many elements of her relationship a secret to others and herself. She includes a demand her abuser made, which is particularly telling: “You’re not allowed to write about this… Don’t you ever write about this. Do you fucking understand me?” Machado, in the story, promises to comply. Then Machado, the narrator, says, “Fear makes liars of us all,” highlighting that by choosing to tell her story in her memoir, she has regained the power over her abuser.
The idea of storytelling as salvation is an idea I often see explored in literature, and it’s one of my favourite ideas to encounter because it gives me a window into the author’s experience. Why did they put this story to paper? Why does anyone write a story? Shelley and Machado remind us why literature is powerful and why so many people enjoy reading and writing.
Mary Shelley and Carmen Maria Machado’s contributions to the horror genre have been extremely influential, and it’s particularly exciting to see Machado make such big strides relatively early in her career. The horror genre needs constant reinvention, and it is thanks to the creativity of authors like Shelley to provide a solid foundation and authors like Machado to reimagine this foundation in a contemporary context that it may continue to unsettle and disturb readers for times to come.