Murder, an evil doppelganger and narrow, foggy streets – even though Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic horror novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde consists of rather simple ingredients, its success has not decreased a bit since its publication in 1866. And even though it is supposed to be set in London, whoever reads it will be unable to deny that Stevenson was at least a little inspired by his hometown of Edinburgh.
And Stevenson is not the only one: the works of authors like James Hogg and Arthur Conan Doyle have helped immensely with uniting Edinburgh and horror literature. And who can blame them? With old spooky houses, dark winter nights that start at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and an impenetrable haar that sets down over the capital every now and then, Edinburgh offers everything needed to inspire authors for a scary story. And the town does not hesitate to embrace its spooky image: ghost tours take place everywhere in town, and bars like Frankenstein celebrate the uncanny atmosphere by inviting their guests for pints in a spine-chilling environment.
This year, right on time for Halloween, the first ever Edinburgh Horror Festival has been introduced to city dwellers. From Friday 28th to Monday 31st October, there will be shows in several locations around town, celebrating the connection Edinburgh has with gothic and horror culture.
The genre goes way back: the first gothic novel was published in 1764 by Horace Walpole, the haunted castle becoming the background and inspiration for many gothic writers. What may now earn a yawn from modern readers shocked the contemporary public, and hence the new-born genre started spreading in Europe. German writers like E. T. A. Hoffmann picked it up, developed it, and later it began to spread to other continents, with Edgar Allan Poe introducing it in the USA. In the UK, female authors like Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley helped make the genre even more popular: Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho set out to challenge the sensibility that was associated with the gothic genre and its largely female readership. But with the rise of modernism, gothic and horror literature was doomed to die out. Instead, rebirth was offered via gothic culture experiencing a comeback in the late 1980s with the rise of Goth subculture. Gothic aesthetics, clothing and make-up were en vogue again. Surely this culture storm must again die down at some point? So where does gothic culture stand today, in the age of Netflix and whatnot?
Alec Beattie and Max Scratchmann are active in trying to keep horror and gothic culture alive. Together, they perform the show Edinburgh in the Shadows at the Edinburgh Horror Festival, a compilation of lesser-known horror stories about the town. “We wanted to tell the stories that are not in the tourists’ guides”, the two say about their show. So they started their research, and dug up terrifying tales. Part of the show is what Beattie and Scratchmann call “Edinburgh’s most controversial cold case”: the death of George Meikle Kemp, designer of the Scott Monument. Not particularly liked by his architectural colleagues, particularly due to his depressive traits and being a simple carpenter, Kemp entered the competition for the design of the monument under a pseudonym. However, he was found dead not long after he was pronounced the winner. Without wanting to reveal too much: Beattie and Scratchmann have some insight on how elements of the public narrative regarding Kemp’s death fail to add up. Besides this, tales of witchcraft, a murderous doctor and several dead bodies make an appearance in their highly humorous and equally mortifying one-hour-show.
Beatie and Scratchmann are going to perform it again on Sunday and Monday at 19.30 at Otherworld Books. If this doesn’t sound to your liking, don’t fear, for there are plenty of other events for everybody who is eager for some goose bumps. Gothic Vaudeville, the “festival’s flag ship show”, is played on Sunday and Monday at 19.20 at The Tron and features several acts from the festival’s programme. Literature fans will be happy to hear about the stage adaptation of Poe’s tale The Devil in the Belfry on Sunday and Monday at 19.30 at The Tron. If you have always wanted to discover the afterworld, you also have the possibility to attend a séance on Sunday at 22.00 at Banshee Labyrinth.
Finally, the best news: almost all of the festival’s events are free. But whichever you choose – be careful not to run into Mr Hyde on your way back home!
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