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Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror in Paradise Lost:
"And on his Crest Sat Horror Plum'd"

[This essay was presented as " 'And On His Crest Sat Horror Plum'd': Some Elements of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror in Milton's Paradise Lost" to Life, the Universe, and Everything" as Brigham Young University in 1995 and subsequently published in Deep Thoughts: Proceedings of Life, the Universe, & Everything XIII, February 1-4, 1995, edited by Steve Setzer and Marny K. Parkin, 1997.]

In discussing pre-Nineteenth Century fantasy, including rudimentary science fiction and horror, it might at first seem idiosyncratic to consider Milton's elegant and elevated religious epic, Paradise Lost. On the basis of genre, purpose, and treatment, it certainly touches on such equally elevated and traditionally related forms as Myth and (according to John M. Steadman) Tragedy, but it seems to lack many of the differentia that we would normally apply in defining Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Horror.

On the other hand, a number Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror scholars have included Milton (usually with references to Paradise Lost) into their discussions of the genres, either directly, indirectly, or inversely connecting Milton's epic with the fundamental impulses leading to the fantastic. The list of such scholars and theorists is extensive, indicating that there are indeed some important connections to be made. Among those who have used Milton to varying degrees of intensity as a touchstone in their discussions and/or definitions of the Fantastic (momentarily including all three genres under a single rubric) are:

  • W. R. Irwin, The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy (1976);
  • Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981);
  • Colin Manlove, Christian Fantasy from 1200 to the Present (1992), in which he argues for Paradise Lost as perhaps the last major Christian fantasy of its kind;
  • David Ketterer, New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction and American Literature (1974);
  • Eric S. Rabkin, The Fantastic as Literature (1976);
  • Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin, Science Fiction: History, Science Fiction (1977);
  • Patrick Parrinder, Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching (1980), with its chapter on the similar functions of Science Fiction and Epic;
  • Karl Guthke, The Last Frontier: Imagining Other Worlds from the Copernican Revolution to Modern Science Fiction. (1983; translated 1990);
  • James B. Twitchell, The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature (1981) and Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror (1985);
  • Victor Sage, Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition (1988);
  • Manuel Aguirre, The Closed Space: Horror Literature and Western Symbolism (1990).

As noted above, the intensity and the direction of their treatments of Paradise Lost necessarily differ widely. Rosemary Jackson discusses J. A. Symonds' perception of Milton's Satan as being "fantastic" in almost generic terms:

One of the namings of otherness has been as "demonic" and it is important to recognize the semantic shifts of this term, since they indicate the progressive internalization of fantastic narrative in the post-Romantic period. J.A. Symonds saw all fantastic art as characterized by an obsession with the demonic. He referred to Shakespeare's Caliban, Milton's Death, and Goethe's Mephistopheles as "products of fantastic art." (54)

W. R. Irwin writes, on the other hand, that Milton specifically avoids the kind of treatment of Satan that might have resulted in modern Fantasy: "Let me start by saying what I believe most readers will intuitively accept, that fantasy cannot contain beings that are intrinsically heroic and those whose essence is either psychic, spiritual, or passional…" (74); therefore, he continues, while "Lucifer son of the morning" does not belong in a fantasy world,

Satan, ultimately foolish and defeated despite the power he had through time owing to human folly, could be a character in a fantasy and does so appear in Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger, though here he is a nephew of the Enemy, little Satan. There is nothing intrinsically heroic, psychic, spiritual, or passional, and there is no mystery, no evil. The quality itself and those who embody it may be plumbed to the depth by reason. Milton understood this routine principle of moral theology, and this was part of what moved him to portray Satan objectively. In Paradise Lost he made no such attempt to objectify God, and little to portray the Son of God, who in Paradise Regained is properly shown because he has become the incarnate Christ. (74-75).

In other words, given his epical treatment of character and fable, Milton precludes any sense of the poem as fantasy. When those characters are treated in a different manner, and the setting is altered from mythic Eden to C. S. Lewis's equally mythic but simultaneously fantastical Perelandra, the result is fantasy (Irwin, Game 140) -- or, the result may be fantasy, since scholars such as Scholes and Rabkin refer to Lewis's Perelandra novels as religious parable or anti-science-fiction, rather than fantasy.

In considering the possibility of Paradise Lost as science fiction, Karl Guthke tacitly argues against Paradise Lost as even proto-science-fictional because of Milton's obvious theological emphasis:

Milton is another writer whose piety makes him respond less than enthusiastically to the new ideas [of science], and in the manner of his response he too is representative of his time. In 1638/39 Milton had visited Galileo, the prisoner of the Inquisition, at his house at Arcetri, near Florence. One can picture him reacting to Galileo's beliefs about cosmology, the basis of the modern concept of plurality, with a polite shrug of the shoulders.… He is moderately interested, but basically it does not matter to him whether or not God created living beings in other worlds. His convictions as a Protestant…cause him to focus his attention solely on the centrality of man in God's view -- man as descended from its first ancestors in the Garden of Eden and redeemed by Christ. (127)

Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin go even further, questioning whether works such as Paradise Lost are even to be discussed as progenitors to modern Science Fiction:

Even the literary ancestry sometimes claimed for science fiction itself might better be called, in part at least, religious fantasy. Dante, Thomas More, and Milton all ventured beyond the limits of normal terrestrial experience to generate fictions, and if to venture beyond known worlds or to leave the terrestrial globe were enough to make a work science fiction, it would be reasonable and proper to call Dante's Commedia, More's Utopia, and Milton's Paradise Lost works of science fiction. Yet of all these only More's, which is the least adventurous in its voyaging, even begins to approach the mental territory of modern science fiction. The worlds of Dante and Milton remain separate from science fiction because they are constructed on a plan derived from religious tradition rather than scientific speculation or imagination based, however loosely, on science.… They are religious fictions, and to read them rightly we must suspend any disbelief in the religious tradition that supports them. (43-44)

Still, it has been argued for at least thirty years that Paradise Lost contains some elements of science fiction because, as Colin Manlove states (echoing Marjorie Hope Nicholson), "Satan is one of the first space-travellers" (106). Manlove further argues that, while there are mentions of travel through space previous to Milton's, most, if not all, paid "scant attention to the experience of the voyage itself and its distances" (318n). He also cites Nicolson's assessment of this passage from the poem:

Nowhere in poetry do we find more majestic conceptions of the vastness of space than in the work of this blind poet, in those scenes of cosmic perspective in which we, like Satan on the one hand, God on the other, look up and down to discover a universe majestic in its vastness. (318n)

Yet while Milton does indeed portray Satan flying through space (PL III 560-571), Guthke argues that the poet consciously ignores any of the potentials for what we might see as science fiction. In Book VIII (1-178), when Adam and Raphael discuss cosmology and the universe, Milton uses the opportunity to "put all such cosmic speculation, whether for or against the plurality of worlds and of humankinds, firmly in its place" (130); according to Raphael,

To ask or search I blame thee not, for Heav'n
Is as the Book of God before thee set,
Wherein to read his wondrous Works, and learne
His Seasons, Hours, or Dayes, or Months, or Yeares:
This to attain, whether Heav'n move or Earth,
Imports not, if thou reck'n right, the rest
From Man or Angel the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
His secrets to be scann'd by them who ought
Rather admire; or if they list to try
Conjecture, he his Fabric of the Heav'ns
Hath left to thir disputes, perhaps to move
His laughter at thir quaint Opinions wide
Hereafter, when they come to model Heav'n
And calculate the Starrs, how they will weild
The mightie frame, how build, unbuild, contrive
To save appeerances, how gird the Sphear
With Centric and Eccentric scribl'd o're,
Cycle and Epicycle, Orb in Orb… (VIII.66-84)

Thus, although the Paradise of Fools episode in Book III (ll. 440-465) touches on science fiction/fantasy -- particularly the Cosmic Voyage and the possibility of life on other planets -- there is a strong sense that Milton's intentions in creating his poem would militate against the kind of speculation that would suggest science fiction, and the kind of cognitive indeterminacy that would allow for fantasy.

As far as Horror as genre goes, the case is similar; some critics find reason to exclude even the possibility of Literary Horror in Paradise Lost, while others see in the poem, and particularly in Milton's treatment of Satan in Books I and II, seminal images and motifs of contemporary Dark Fantasy and Horror. James B. Twitchell differentiates between "old horror" and "modern horror" in ways that reflect directly on the ambiguities of Paradise Lost:

The invocation of horror, the fabrication of fright, has always been present in the English tradition from Beowulf on. But what separates "old" horror from what I call "modern" horror is that, prior to romanticism, horror monsters were usually the means by which the artist held his audience's attention while he prepared his protagonist for heroism. The monster was there to be destroyed, and if could scare the readers first that was fine, because they would then appreciate the hero even more. Pre-romantic monsters were in the text, much as Sidney prescribed, to show by their destruction the power of virtú. (25)

While this description may seem apt for many early "horrors," it does not quite describe what one finds in Paradise Lost. If Satan is considered as an "old" horror, who then serves as the protagonist-in-waiting who will destroy him? Not even in Paradise Regained can Satan be literally destroyed, and certainly within the confines of the longer epic, he is imprisoned and restrained but not destroyed. If, on the other hand, Sin and Death are "old" monsters, the same is true -- they cannot be destroyed, at least not within the boundaries of either epic. In fact, it seems, Satan, Sin, and Death may share more with "modern" monsters than with "old" ones:

In modern versions we forget the victims and even the hero, but we remember the monster. Who, for instance, kills Dracula? How is the Frankenstein monster destroyed? Are we sure the werewolf is dead? Monsters have become bogeymen, and as the child in Halloween says, "Ya can't ever kill the bogeyman." Also curious is that now the monsters have become aristocrats (Count Dracula, Baron Frankenstein, Doctor Moreau, Doctor Jekyll, and so forth), and the victims are no longer "ladies in distress," but buxom young girls of the bourgeoisie. The hero is still a young man, but without much personality and with precious little virtú. (25)

Perhaps even more instructive is the extent to which much of this paragraph can be applied to Satan in Paradise Lost. We remember him; we admire and remember the magnificent rhetoric of his speeches, even when God's or the Son's words have faded. Satan is an aristocrat, one of the elevated orders of angels. His victim is more closely allied to "buxom young girl" than "lady in distress"; her hero is a young man (chronologically, at least) whose single most important act is to disobey God's commandment; and both have even been described as resembling nothing so much as a pair of English shopkeepers, albeit without trousers or gown.

In an earlier study, Twitchell explicitly connected Milton's Satan with the development of the Byronic/Gothic hero, itself an early stage of contemporary Horror. Milton's Satan is the precursor to a "growing artistic concern with the demonic and perhaps vampiric" and the Byronic/Gothic hero is "Milton's Satan reborn…" (Living Dead 75). Even more specifically, Brontë's Heathcliffe, acting as pseudo-vampire, is "a lineal descendant of the Gothic antihero who has as his grand progenitor Milton's Satan"; indeed, the first generation of readers and critics of Wuthering Heights saw Heathcliffe as an unredeemed "'fiend,' 'an incarnation of evil qualities,' filled with 'implacable hate,' as well as 'ingratitude, cruelty, falsehood, selfishness and revenge.' He was a devil, 'impelled to evil by supernatural forces'" (Living Dead 116).

Certainly these descriptions suggest the concerns of contemporary literary horror, as well as Milton's theological concerns in creating the figure of Satan. And equally certainly, it would be a wrenching of form and purpose to suggest that Paradise Lost should be removed from the "Epic" category and take its place on the bookshelf labeled "Horror" beside Stephen King, Robert McCammon, Dan Simmons, or Dean R. Koontz. Even so, there are a number of suggestions that the poem does in fact approach "horror" from an essentially modern perspective, sufficiently so that passages occasionally do elicit the same sorts of responses that King and others expect from their readers.

Milton seems to have been aware of the implications of "horror," both as word and as concept. As early as the Nativity Ode, permutations on the word appear, but generally in a context that communicates verbal rather than visceral horror. That is, in stanza twenty-seven of the Ode, Milton wants to communicate the sense of horror, but restrains himself from attempting to make his readers feel or experience the physiological symptoms of horror, of what King refers to as the "gross out." Instead, the Nativity Ode asserts horror, using the word descriptively:

With such a horrid clang
As on mount Sinai rang
While the red fire, and smouldring clouds out brake… (157-160)

Yet within a few lines, he reiterates the word, this time infusing it with a more substantive sense; we are invited not just to know that something elicits horror, but to see horror personified in that thing: "Wrath to see his Kingdom fail," Satan "Swindges the scaly Horrour of his foulded tail" (171-172). Additional references in "L'Allegro" (ll. 1-4), Comus (ll. 36-39), Lycidas (ll. 75-76) and the paraphrase of Psalm 138 (ll. 27-28) indicate that the word was a functional part of Milton's poetic vocabulary, although almost always at the level of assertion -- a thing is horrid or a horror not because the reader immediately perceives it as such, but because Milton overtly claims it to be so.

When we reach Paradise Lost, however, the sheer numerical incidence of the word increases dramatically. Variants on Horror (not to mention words such as terror and fear, which are also associated with Horror literature) occur no fewer than eight times in Book I, thirteen times in Book II, three times in Book IV, two times in Book V, seven in Book VI, two in Book IX and four in Book X (most describing the consequences of the fall), and one each in Books XI and XII; not coincidentally, the references cluster primarily at those points in the narrative that focus on Satan, the archetype of evil.*

At two points, Milton even puns on the etymology of the word (as he does so often throughout his poetry). Horror is derived from the Latin horrere, meaning 'to tremble, to bristle, to be in horror.' Most of its variants continue that sense of "bristling":

Horrendous -- from Latin horrendus, gerundive of horrere

Horrent -- from Latin horrens, present participle of horrere.

Horrible -- from Latin horribilis

Horrid -- from Latin, horridus

Horrific -- from Latin horrificus

Horrify -- from Latin horrificare, to bristle

Horripilation -- from Latin horripilatus, past participle of horripilare, to bristle with hairs

Similarly, Milton would have been aware of the etymology of comet, coming from both Greek and Latin as meaning 'long-haired star'. Thus it is surely intentional when Milton asserts in Book I that the arrogant Satan stood

Unterrifi'd, and like a Comet burn'd
That fires the length of Ophiucus huge
In th'Arctic Sky, and from his horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and Warr. (707-710)

Satan's hair is horrid because it is comet-like, bristling and streaming out from his head; but it is also horrid because it is Satanic, evil, capable of inspiring depths of terror and fear. In a subsequent reference, Milton compounds the pun and moves his definition of horror a step further when he again uses the word in two senses simultaneously -- the first, its etymological one; and the second, its moral one. As Satan and Gabriel square off for heroic battle at the end of Book IV, Milton describes Satan:

On th'other side Satan alarm'd
Collecting all his might dilated stood,
Like Teneriff or Atlas unremov'd;
His stature reacht the Skie, and on his Crest
Sat horror Plum'd… (IV. 985-989)

In these two references, Milton has both indicated his interest in the possibilities inherent in the word, and suggested that as he uses it he is subtly altering its meaning. The first reference is assertive; Satan's hair horrifies because it is horrible. Essentially, in spite of the pun, the line is a tautology, ignoring the possibility of description to elicit a horrified response in favor of instructing the reader simply to be horrified. In the second, however, horror is now external to Satan, an entity of some sort, plumed and prepared for battle, that the reader is invited, however vaguely, to envision.

Essentially, such a differentiation suggests the two primary modes of communicating horror in contemporary literatures. Assertive horror instructs the reader. Often, specific writers depend on a key word to signal the approach of Horror; with H. P. Lovecraft, for example, the touchstone word is 'eldritch.' Although the word merely means 'strange,' 'unearthly,' or 'weird,' with a possible link to an Anglo-Saxon word meaning 'fairyland,' in Lovecraft's fictions it frequently functions a trigger, alerting readers that they are supposed to be horrified at this point. When he couples eldritch with horror itself, the expected responses are even stronger.

At a very different level, however, writers may attempt to re-create the physical symptoms of horror through description and narration -- what King (in his typical under-rating of his own work) frequently refers to as the "gross-out." In such scenes the reader is asked to image horror, to visualize it so completely that the body responds appropriately. In this context, Horror as genre could be defined in the same terms that Irwin uses to differentiate pornography from Fantasy: Fantasy is essentially an intellectual game of "what-if"; pornography, on the other hand, incorporates an entirely different sort of "fantasizing" and has as its intended outcome a purely physical -- not an intellectual -- response (Game 90-91). Without suggesting any further connections between Horror and pornography, it seems clear from King's definitions (and other horror writers') that Horror as genre similarly intends to elicit a physical, rather than an intellectual, response -- a shiver alone the spine, the gathering of flesh into goosebumps, even small fluctuations in bodily rhythms of heartbeat and respiration.

While asserted horror may occur in literatures of all eras, visceral horror seems more closely linked to post-Romantic, post-Gothic works. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the majority of references in Paradise Lost are essentially assertive; Milton identifies something as "horrible" or "horrid" simply because it is. The references to not impact in any significant way on the elevation, the dignity, the elegance of the epic surrounding them. Thus, we find references to Satan's "horrid crew" (I.51), to Hell as a "Dungeon horrible" (I.61) and a "horrid Vale" (I. 224), to the "horrid silence" of Hell (I. 83), to Moloch as "horrid King" (I.392), and so forth. Only once in Book I does Milton seem to depart from verbal, assertive horror, as Satan embraces his new realm and, for the moment, comes close to personifying the word:

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor… (I.250)

Even here, however, the effect is ephemeral at best, so highly generalized as to suggest the entirety of Hell rather than any specific, physical, visual focus for a physiological reaction.

The transition from asserted horror to visceral and visual horror becomes more explicit in Book II, however, in which Satan confronts Sin and Death at Hell's Gate. In a poem that makes conscious use of supernatural characters and mythic actions elevated beyond the realms of mortality, the appearance of two abstractions as allegorical characters has elicited much comment and controversy. Is it not enough, critics argue, that Milton shows us God, the Son, Satan, and the various concourses of angels; isn't it straining even the credibility of epic to show Sin and Death as concretions? In addition, during the opening lines of the Book, horror retains its largely assertive function: weaponry is described as "horrid" (II.63) and "horrent" (II.513); Hell and the River Styx are "abhorred" (II. 87, 577), and so forth.

This sense alters, however, as the Book progresses. First we see groups of fallen angels

Thus roving on
in confus'd march forlorn, the'adventrous Bands
With shudd'ring horror pale, and eyes agast
View'd first their lamentable lot… (II.614-617)

The visual sense of pale flesh and eyes wide-opened with shock (Aghast is derived from the Anglo-Saxon gasten, 'to frighten,' intensified by the prefixed a-) momentarily replaces assertive with imaginative horror; readers are invited to see rather than merely to accept.

When Satan approaches the "horrid Roof / And thrice threefold Gates" (II. 644), however, an interesting transition occurs. Earlier, horror has been used to describe Satan himself, his cohorts, his new realm. In a sense, even though Satan is himself a supernatural character, he has become the norm by which things and events are judged. Now, for the first time, he approaches something new, something which is horrid not so much because it reflects Satan's inherent evil but because it is now external to him (apparently). Milton's description of Sin does not use the word horror; instead, he attempts to re-create the experience of horror -- visceral repugnance, disgust, revulsion, loathing. In images reminiscent of Spenser's Error, Milton depicts Sin:

Before the Gates there sat
On either side a formidable shape;
The one seem'd Woman to the waste, and fair,
But ended foul in many a scaly fould
Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arm'd
With mortal sting: about her middle round
A cry of Hell Hounds never ceasing bark'd
With wide Cerberian mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous Peal: yet, when they list, would creep,
If aught disturb'd thir noyse, into her woomb,
And kennel there, yet there still bark'd and howl'd,
Within unseen. (II. 648-659)

Milton's description is intended to elicit a horrified response, amplified in part by his audience's familiarity with Spenser and with visual representations of Sin and Death in paintings of the period (See Roland Frye, 111-124). The next lines place that horror in an equally familiar context, comparing Sin's Hell-hounds to other mythic images:

Farr less abhorrd than these
Vex'd Scylla bathing in the Sea that parts
Calabria from the hoarce Trinacrian shore:
Nor uglier follow the Night-Hag, when call'd
In secret, riding through the Air she comes
Lur'd with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland Witches, while the labouring Moon
Eclipses at thir charms. (II.659-666)

Nor is Death any less startling as seen through Satan's perspective:

The other shape,
If shape it might be call'd that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joynt, or limb,
Or substance might be call'd that shadow seem'd,
For each seem'd either; black it stood as Night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful Dart; what seem'd his head
The likeness of a Kingly Crown had on. (II.666-673)

From Satan's point of view, the confrontation is as unexpected, as potentially horrifying as recognition/confrontation scenes in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Stephen King's Salem's Lot, Robert McCammon's Stinger, or any number of other contemporary Horror novels. A character abruptly encounters something that is, given his or her understanding of "reality," clearly beyond expectation, almost beyond belief. While Satan does not respond with overt horror to the "grieslie terrour" or the images presented (II. 677-679), Milton's audience could be expected to. At this single point in the poem, Milton seems to cease asserting horror and attempts to present it.

It does not seem coincidental, either, that this passage has generated as much controversy as it has. Read from a modern perspective, it seems to signal a momentary shift from the distanced, almost objective stance that Milton establishes for his Epic Voice, into something darker, deeper -- something with more connections to the neurological system than to the intellect. The abrupt intrusion of abstractions-made-flesh alters at least temporarily the direction the poem follows; and for the duration of the confrontation at Hell's Gates, the reader is invited into a universe where Horror is not only asserted verbally, but experienced/envisioned physically.


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Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. Voyages to the Moon. New York: Macmillan, 1962.
--- "The Discovery of Space." In Medieval and Renaissance Studies: Proceedings of the Southeastern Institute of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Summer, 1965. Edited by O.B. Hardison, Jr. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.
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Sage, Victor. Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.
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Twitchell, James B. Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
--- The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1981.
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