Sincerely, Sinister: For the Love of Epistolary Horror

Last month, my short story, “The Man in the Ambry,” made its debut in Typehouse Literary Magazine. I remember quite vividly receiving the acceptance letter: it came on Thanksgiving Day, giving me one more thing for which to be exceptionally grateful.

Letters are of the utmost importance to this conversation, seeing that “The Man in the Ambry” unfolds through a series of letters written by a young girl and delivered to the creature living in the walls of her family home. Epistolary fiction–that is, stories that use documents, be it diary entries, blogs, or regular old send-in-the-mail letters–isn’t quite as popular as it once was, but the format remains one of the most tried-and-true of the horror genre.

The Man in the Ambry

My personal inspiration for writing “The Man in the Ambry” came after I recently reread Richard Matheson’s “Graveyard Shift.” Matheson’s 1960 story unfolds through correspondence between two family members who are trying to make sense of what happened to a little boy and his now-deceased mother. It’s a pithy little tale–only four pages–but the diminutive length in no way diminishes its effectiveness.

But Twilight Zone scribe Matheson was neither the first nor the last to use the epistolary form in the name of horror. The earliest devotees to the narrative-by-letter format would be Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. That’s right; the epistolary form has pretty much been around as long as horror literature has. If counting two of the original genre stories in your corner doesn’t earn respect, then nothing can.

And it wasn’t just 19th century writers who loved epistolary. Everything from Stephen King’s teenage-angst-gone-wild Carrie to Max Brooks’s World War Z includes letters, interviews, and/or newspaper articles as storytelling devices.

These days, the epistolary format has morphed to reflect new technology. You can find a variety of twenty-first century stories that use tweets, blogs, and other social media to tell gruesome and otherwise macabre yarns. For as long as there’s horror literature, epistolary will be there, lurking around corners and in mailboxes to haunt your nightmares.

Happy reading!