Collecting Classic Horror Books—Tales that Scared Our Great-Great-Grandparents

Illustration by Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for the first edition of “Goblin Market and Other Poem,” 1862.

Illustration by Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for the first edition of “Goblin Market and Other Poem,” 1862.

“Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry
‘Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy’ ”

Thus begins Christina Rossetti’s 1859 epic poem, “Goblin Market.” This tale of horror (first published in 1862) describes how two innocent girls are lured to near death by beastly goblins, who entice them with descriptions of exotic, forbidden fruits. The luscious, lyrical verse is steeped in religious symbolism, erotic desire and denial—and eventual terror when the hissing goblins attack and the taste of the fruit sears their lips.

Collecting early gothic classics can be a fascinating endeavor. The rewards are great, especially when the oldest versions of the books can be found, with pictures by the very first illustrators. “Goblin Market” was eventually illustrated by scores of famous artists, including Warwick Goble and Arthur Rackham. But it’s always most interesting to see the first visual interpretation of an author’s work. A rare first edition of “Goblin Market,” with illustrations by Rossetti’s brother, is now worth thousands.

“Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus” was first published anonymously in 1818. The idea for the story came to 19-year-old Mary Shelley in a dream.

In many ways, Shelley’s life was as horrific as her most famous book. Her mother died when she was only two weeks old and as a young teen, she ran away to be with the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who left a wife and two infants behind. Amid the scandal, Percy’s abandoned wife drowned herself. And before even a decade had passed, Mary would lose three children to sickness, her beloved half-sister committed suicide and Percy himself drowned in a tragic boating accident. Her book became famous and she was recognized as its author in the 1823 second edition. But the book was not illustrated until 1831 (by Theodore Von Holst). The value of a first edition? A volume sold recently for at much as $175,000.

First illustration of “Frankenstein,” 1831.

First illustration of “Frankenstein,” 1831.

The earliest fore-runners to today’s werewolf tales include “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains,” written in 1839 by Captain Frederick Marryat and “The Were-Wolf,” written in 1896 by Clemence Housman. Both grisly (and truly frightening) tales are about women werewolves who entice their unknowing male victims with their seductive beauty.

Illustration for “The Were-Wolf,” by Laurence Housman (Clemence Housman’s brother), 1896.

Illustration for “The Were-Wolf,” by Laurence Housman (Clemence Housman’s brother), 1896.

And what is Halloween without Dracula? The greatest English horror story ever told was written by Bram Stoker. The plot came to him “in a nightmarish dream after eating too much crab,” but many scholars believe that Dracula was a veiled reference to Stoker’s egocentric employer, the famous stage actor Henry Irving. Originally titled “The Un-Dead,” it was published in London as “Dracula” in 1897. The story was not illustrated until 1901, when the first paperback edition appeared.

First illustration of “Dracula,” 1901.

First illustrated edition of “Dracula,” 1901.

Examples of early horror collectibles are endless. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) are two classic stories with a great history of vintage illustrations. Poems and short stories by Edgar Alan Poe (1809-1849) are also highly collectible (see The King of the Macabre: Edgar Allen Poe Offers Various Avenues of Collectibles), but it is most challenging to find the earliest Poe illustrations because much of his work was published in various periodicals before it was collected into books. Many of these early magazines and papers are very difficult to find and most used anonymous artists to illustrate their stories.

It takes some digging, but it’s ultimately quite rewarding to find those very early versions of these classic stories.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.

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