The books that follow are the ones that have most inspired me to write. They were either produced in the Victorian/Edwardian eras, or are set in those eras. They contain information, conflicts, characters, themes and/or atmosphere that continue to feed my passion for all things Victorian, and influence my writing style. There are other, more important works of the period, and others that I love more than the ones on this list; but without these five, my writing would be very different.
Without further ado, here's the top five:
1. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
M. R. James
It's well documented that M. R. James is one of my favourite writers; it's not Victorian, but it might as well be given its style. This collection comes top of my inspirational texts due to its subtle yet effective use of the supernatural. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea that terror feels more terrifying if you first make the mundane world a real, living place. James lulled his readers (or listeners, really, as his stories were intended to be read aloud) into a false sense of security, by telling tales of crusty old academics studying crusty old books in musty old libraries. And then BANG! A completely inexplicable, sanity-blasting ghost appears, and turns the world upside down. The sense of isolation usually suffered by James' poor protagonists is somehow shared by the reader - there is no help available, and if there were, it probably wouldn't do any good.
2. The Woman in Black
'For a long time, I did not move from the dark, wood-panelled hall. I wanted company, and I had none, lights and warmth and a strong drink inside me, I needed reassurance. But, more than anything else, I needed an explanation. It is remarkable how powerful a force simple curiosity can be. I had never realised that before now. In spite of my intense fear and sense of shock, I was consumed with the desire to find out exactly who it was that I had seen, and how, I could not rest until I had settled the business, for all that, while out there, I had not dared to stay and make any investigations.'
A fairly modern book, set in a fictional part of Edwardian England, this classic ghost story features my three favourite Gothic story elements: superstitious villagers, a claustrophobic old house, and a terrifying phantom. It's a story of an evil that cannot be destroyed, and of a terrible revenge enacted from beyond the grave. The most famous of Hill's ghost stories, it's written quite accurately in the period style, and draws from Wilkie Collins and M. R. James as inspiration. The Woman in Black is arguably the most successful attempt to capture the spirit (no pun intended) of the old-fashioned ghost stories, and is a masterclass in atmosphere. The stark beauty of the North in winter; the fog-shrouded causeway; the sinister sense of oppression of Eel Marsh House; and the isolated village of Crythin Gifford are all incredibly well realised. The plot is surprisingly simple, and the book very short, but the lasting effect it has on the reader is profound. If you've only seen the Daniel Radcliffe movie, then you're doing the book a disservice.
I've covered Bram Stoker's classic tale in a previous post, so I won't revisit old ground. Needless to say, it blends documentary level details about language, people, places and technology with a rip-roaring story of supernatural terror. The action-oriented style and historical record contained in this book make it essential reading for anyone who wants to capture the spirit of Victorian horror in their writing.
4. The List of Seven
Attack him with inexplicable night sounds, will-o'-the-wisps, macabre scarecrows by the sides of train tracks, incite the stuff of his own nightmares, and the suggestive vagueness of it alone could send him reeling into lunacy.'
5. The Hound of the Baskervilles
Arthur Conan Doyle
"A man's or a woman's?"
Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered: "Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"
A haunting, wind-blasted landscape. A drug-taking savant as the hero. An evil antagonist and an ancient family curse. This is the story that introduces most modern readers to Sherlock Holmes, and is still one of the very best adventures of the great detective. It demonstrates that the supernatural isn't always as scary as man's capacity for cruelty, and represents a masterclass in writing the classic mystery story.
The Runners Up: A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens); The House on the Borderlands (William Hope Hodgson); The Dark Water (David Pirie); Frankenstein (Mary Shelley); Short Stories, 1895-1926 (Walter de la Mare).
That's it for another blog. In the future I'm going to talk more generally about my favourite books of all time (three of which made this list). If you think I've missed anything off this list, or if there's some inspirational texts you think I should check out, then do let me know!