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= Thrillerology =

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3. Thrillerology Historical Sketch (to 1900)

Some Long Ago Masters. If we search for a starting point of the thriller, we won't find one. We can go back as far as we wish, for example as Gilgamesh and Enkidu journey into the great howling forest of darkness in search of the giant monster Huwawa; I still get chills just thinking about it. That's no different from early Roman writers describing the perceived horrors of their own dark forest (Silva Cimina) to the north, or impenetrable Pomptine Marshes (Pomptinae Paludes) to their south. To me, the horrors of these Roman nightmares seem congruent with those of the great forest of Huwawa thousands of years earlier, or thousands of years later, the terrifying island on which Robinson Crusoe finds himself in Daniel Defoe's 1719 thriller (not a Walt Disney fuzzy-bunnies cartoon for children, as too many people think, who have not read the real novel, which interestingly is a sectarian, gloomy religious rant, so talk about purposed thrillers!). In a word, thrillers are timeless.

More Recent Masters. Our journey in search of thrillerology brings us into the 19th Century (1800s), and into the dark spaces of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and many a Penny Dreadful. Why is the 19th Century particularly significant? Because it marks the rise of urbanization, greater literacy, and many other factors concomitant with the Industrial Revolution—above all, a population explosion signaling recovery from the devastating plagues and pandemics of earlier centuries. Cholera in the urban setting of London is eradicated by identifying the mixed curse of public water pumps and poor sanitation, and creating a new sewer system (inhabited, to be sure, by new monsters and phantoms to ruffle our thriller hackles). Suffice it to say that these three masters are but a few of the thriller-spillers of their time. Think of Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and Dr. John Polidori (The Vampyre) meeting with Lord Byron at his Villa Diodati on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland—that was in 1816, a 'year with no summer' around the world owing to a volcanic winter spewed up by the massive, Plinian explosion of Mt. Tambora on the other side of the globe in 1815. Tambora is a stratovolcano in Indonesia; its explosion, the largest in nearly 2,000 years, made church bells in London ring at an odd hour that nobody for a long time could explain. In that darkness, that chill and drizzle, the English group gathered for a night's thrilling story-telling frightened themselves out of their wits and ran out of the house together, to clutch each other in panic on the lawn until their hearts resumed normal tempos. There is much more to tell about that incident alone, but that story must keep for another day and time. I promise to tell it, and you will again be amazed; but I digress…

Charles Dickens created human monsters in his poverty-wracked new industrial mega-city of London—where 'rookeries' prefigured modern ghettos, and phantoms from Springheeled Jack to Jack the Ripper (1888) plied their bloody trade by lamplight. The first gas lamp in London is credited to about 1816 (coincidentally, during that ominous year without a summer). From Polidori's 1816 Vampyre to Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula was but a dream and a scream away. Ultimately, the 19th Century is so laden with suspense and thriller fare that a list becomes unwieldy. We leave the century of Willkie Collins' 1860 The Woman in White and Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Edgar Allan Poe's 1838 Ligeia (to pick but a few out of thousands), as we migrate into the more recent century.

Suspense and the faster-paced thrillers have been with us since time immemorial, when Paleolithic hunters came home with lunch, and entertained their spell-bound clan members with tales of (well, the fish was actually thiiiiiis big, farther than I can spread my arms) and we can imagine the listeners' mouths hanging open, and firelight dancing in their wide eyes. Certain types of stories (archetypes) go back eons, and beg to be retold. The background of Valley of Seven Castles, a Luxembourg Thriller lies with an early 20th Century thriller, an archetype, published in 1915 by British writer John Buchan. Let's get into the 20th Century next.


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