The books behind today’s TV horror resurgence

From The Strain to Penny Dreadful, Hannibal and more, we celebrate some of the books behind TV’s golden age of horror…

There has rarely been a better time to be a fan of the horror genre on television with a bumper crop of horror shows currently hitting our screens. Some shows like Supernatural or American Horror Story weave something original out of various different sources such as old folk tales, mythology and horror films. Then there are the others which are rooted in literary fiction, taking their monsters from the page and bringing them vividly to life on screen.

Whether it’s a story of serial killers, monsters or things that go bump in the night, we’re taking a look at the books that inspired several of today’s horror shows…


The Strain – Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain Trilogy

Guillermo del Toro had originally intended The Strain’s storyline for television but was unable to find a home for the vampire virus thriller, instead evolving the idea into a series of novels with writer Chuck Hogan, creating The Strain Trilogy, consisting of The Strain, The Fall and The Night Eternal. The brilliance of the books ensured that del Toro’s original idea of a television series was soon realised. At the heart of the story is a human battle for survival but this would be nothing without suitable foes. The trilogy puts an innovative spin on vampire mythology by granting the fanged ones a sense of enormous power and menace. These vampires don’t sparkle, nor do they fall romantically in love with teenagers from afar. They are thoroughbred killers, spreading their contagion as quickly as possible across the population and reminding everyone why vampires were scary in the first place.

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Penny Dreadful – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

As a series, Penny Dreadful is absolutely steeped in the gothic literature of the nineteenth century from the cheap fiction from which it takes its name, to the pinnacles of the genre like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, the closest narrative adaptation so far is that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A dark tale about the dangers of playing God, Shelley’s novel follows the eponymous scientist’s story as he discovers the key to creating life and produces a hideous creature in the process. Much of the narrative is based on their respective struggles in the wake of Frankenstein’s actions. He wrestles with his guilt and the Creature is forced to find his own way in the world, corrupted by his treatment at the hands of both his creator and the wider society. Long considered the first novel of the science fiction genre and influential to many that followed, Shelley’s novel has lost none of its power over nearly two hundred years.


Bates Motel – Robert Bloch’s Psycho

There are few characters who are as ingrained in popular culture as the figure of Norman Bates, brought chillingly into life by Anthony Perkins in the Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with Freddie Highmore now portraying his adolescent years in Bates Motel. Hitchcock’s film is one of his most famous, but Robert Bloch’s source novel is alas a frequent addition to ‘Movies You Didn’t Know Were Based on Books’ type lists. According to a popular anecdote, Hitchcock even went around buying up copies of the novel, published a year before the film’s release, in order to keep the plot a surprise for his audiences. Knowing the plot of Psycho does nothing to undermine Bloch’s work however as the author imbues the novel with a delicious sense of dramatic irony, offering the perspectives of both heroes and villains throughout.


Hannibal – Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter Series

Like Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter casts a long shadow over popular culture, but has found himself reinvigorated and as terrifying as ever in the Hannibal television series. The series begins as sort of a prequel to Thomas Harris’ books using the events of the novels to inform the characters and the developing plot. The novels’ Lecter is a much more mercurial figure, operating largely in the background of Red Dragon before becoming more central to the proceedings as the books progress. Thomas Harris’ novels are suspenseful in the extreme and with the kind of atmosphere that induces goosebumps. Red Dragon in particular is an incredible piece of work, aligning the reader with both the investigation and the Tooth Fairy killer. Hannibal himself may only appear for a few scenes in the book, but the power he exerts as a character over the proceedings and the reader is something quite special indeed.

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Sleepy Hollow – Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The television series Sleepy Hollow brings Ichabod Crane forward in time, as well as the infamous Headless Horseman, to the present day town and unleashes a plot that involves, amongst other things, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the American War of Independence and the Freemasons. In short, it uses Washington Irving’s short story as more of a jumping off point. The story itself is much more insular, revolving around the life of schoolteacher Ichabod Crane and his rival with local man Brom Bones for the hand of Katrina van Tassel. What follows is an amusing and lightly gothic tale of Brom’s pranks to scare Ichabod away. All the while, the ghostly glen of Sleepy Hollow is full of old Dutch wives’ tales, of which the Headless Horseman is one. It’s not long before the Horseman himself appears, but there is a neat twist at the end of this tale.


The Last Ship – William Brinkley’s The Last Ship

The Last Ship has already aired its first season in the States which arrives in the UK later this month, taking its inspiration from William Brinkley’s novel of the same name. Whilst the television series finds the titular vessel surviving in the wake of a global pandemic, the novel sees the crew left behind after all-out nuclear war. Brinkley uses the Captain as his narrator, delivering something that at first seems quite cold and detached from the horror of the situation. As the novel progresses, this detachment fractures when faced with the grim reality of survival in a nuclear holocaust. It’s an elegiac look at a world lost through humanity’s own actions, and Brinkley never flinches from commenting on the folly of it all. The characters in the crew are memorably individual, building a collection of people you become invested in as you’re drip-fed information about their past. Their daily concerns, such as finding supplies uncontaminated by radiation, soon give way to more pressing ones of humanity’s survival, but the story never loses that deeply personal focus.


The Walking Dead – Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is now heading into its fifth season of the zombie apocalypse, following the characters as they attempt to survive in both a world populated by the undead and the crumbling remainder of humanity. The comic books on which the series is based remains immensely popular, putting both its characters and its readers through the ringer at every opportunity. The monochrome panels are beautifully constructed, like the haunting image of protagonist Rick arriving in an abandoned Atlanta on a horse, and the story itself remains consistently gripping as the narrative ebbs and flows. Lulled into a false sense of security every now and again as events become calm, Kirkman soon has a shock waiting for you, often on the next page. These shocks make all the more impact thanks to Kirkman’s vivid characters. Resourceful, terrified and flawed, these characters may be heroic or villainous, but they still feel very human despite the escalating series of events they find themselves caught in.

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The Strain starts on Wednesday the 17th of September at 10pm on UKTV’s Watch (Sky TV 109 & Virgin TV 124)

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