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Top 10 Dark Inspirations for Great American Writers
In 1877, Louisa May Alcott, beloved author of the classic novel Little Women, noted that she had just finished writing an entirely different kind of story—a dark and lurid romance that she planned to publish under a pseudonym. “It has been simmering since I read Faust last year,” she wrote. “Enjoyed doing it, being tired of providing moral pap for the young.”
Over the years, many of America’s great writers—including a few surprising ones, like Alcott—have explored the dark, the disturbing, and the macabre. These authors often based their stories on real people, places, or events. In many cases, these source materials were just as unsettling as the tales they inspired.
Childhood nightmares, grotesque insects, psychological experiments, hidden corpses—all of these and more found their way from reality to the pages of renowned, award-winning American literature. Here are ten dark inspirations for some of the United States’ greatest authors that are sure to have you read their stories in a different light.
10 Washington Irving & His Headless Horseman
Published in 1820, Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow features the small village of Tarrytown, which is terrorized by a headless horseman. Because it had only been a few years since the end of the American Revolution, the villagers believe the specter is the ghost of a soldier—possibly one of Britain’s hired Hessian troops—who had been decapitated by a cannonball.
If Irving was seeking inspiration for a ghost story, he could not have done better than the real-life village of Tarrytown, New York, where stories of a headless trooper had been making the rounds for years. A firsthand account of the Battle of White Plains, fought just eight miles from the village, reveals that during the fighting, “a shot from the American cannon… took off the head of a Hessian artillery man.”
Legend also told the story of a local resident whose life was saved by a German mercenary during a raid. When the villager’s family discovered a headless Hessian corpse sometime later, they believed it was the same soldier and laid him to rest—without a head—in the burial ground at the local Old Dutch Church.
9 Charlotte Perkins Gilman & a Mental Breakdown
After three years of suffering from a variety of mental health issues, writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman sought help from a renowned physician who specialized in nervous diseases. As this was the nineteenth century, Gilman was sent home on what was known as a “rest cure,” with orders to have only two hours of intellectual stimulation per day. She was to never touch a pen or pencil again.
“I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months,” Gilman wrote, “and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.” Gilman’s experience led her to write The Yellow Wallpaper, in which a woman is put on rest cure as a treatment for postpartum depression—with nothing but the room’s hideous yellow wallpaper to stimulate her mind.
Over time, the woman in Gilman’s story becomes increasingly obsessed with the wallpaper’s designs. She begins to suspect that a woman is trapped behind patterns in the wallpaper and must be freed but finally comes to believe that she and the trapped woman are one and the same. Gilman reportedly sent a copy of her published novel to her doctor, but he never responded.
8 Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Unfortunate Family Tree
Nathaniel Hawthorne was so haunted by his family’s bloody legacy in Salem, Massachusetts, that he changed the spelling of his last name to distance himself from his ancestors. It started with his great-great-great grandfather, William Hathorne, a judge and magistrate known for having Quaker women whipped naked in the streets.
William’s son John Hathorne also grew up to be a magistrate. In 1692, he was named as a chief examiner in the Salem Witch Trials, during which he found over 100 women guilty of practicing witchcraft. When the family began to lose its wealth and influence over the generations, some—including Nathaniel Hawthorne—felt as though they had been cursed for William and John’s actions.
Hawthorne drew on his ancestors’ misdeeds and the personal remorse he felt to write his novel The House of Seven Gables. In it, he wove a story of guilt and retribution and visited topics that hearkened back to his family’s dark past—like witchcraft, wrongful executions, and even a family curse.
7 Octavia E. Butler’s Fear or Flies
Science fiction author Octavia E. Butler was planning a trip to the Amazon rainforest to conduct research for her renowned Xenogenesis series, but she couldn’t shake the thought of the insects she might encounter there. She was particularly worried about the botfly, which lays its eggs in the bite marks left by other insects, so its larvae have easy access to food after they hatch.
“I found the idea of a maggot living and growing under my skin, eating my flesh as it grew, to be so intolerable, so terrifying, that I didn’t know how I could stand it if it happened to me,” she later wrote, noting that if she became infected, she would need to wait for a doctor to remove it or let the fly complete its larval stage and crawl out.
Butler drew on this fear to write her award-winning novelette Bloodchild, in which an insect-like alien race uses humans—including human males—as hosts for their eggs. “Writing Bloodchild didn’t make me like botflies,” she later wrote, “but for a while, it made them seem more interesting than horrifying.”
6 H.P. Lovecraft’s Sleep Paralysis
Growing up as a sickly child, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft experienced terrifying dreams during his frequent illnesses. Researchers now believe that he suffered from severe sleep paralysis, which would explain why his dreams were so disturbingly vivid and dark.
One of the more horrifying products of these nightmares was a legion of faceless, devil-like creatures with curved horns, bat-like wings, and barbed tails that invaded his room to terrorize him in his sleep. Eventually, Lovecraft put words to this recurring dream and wrote his poem “Night-Gaunts,” recounting how the creatures snatch “me off on monstrous voyagings… heedless of all the cries I try to make.”
The night-gaunts also later appeared in Lovecraft’s novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, with the author revealing—possibly from his own experience—that the gargoyle-like beasts “are known to haunt most persistently the dreams of those who think too often of them.”
5 Mary Jane Ward & the Psych Hospital
Mary Jane Ward was a happily married woman and author of two successful novels when, in her late thirties, she suddenly lost the ability to speak coherently. Diagnosed with schizophrenia—although it may have been bipolar depression—she was involuntarily admitted to Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York, in 1941.
The hospital was overcrowded and disease-ridden, and staff members frequently subjected patients to horrific treatments, including lobotomies, electroshock treatment, and insulin shock therapy. Those who, like Ward, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia received hydrotherapy, which involved plunging them into freezing water to calm their nerves.
After spending several months at Rockland, Ward was discharged and went on to write her novel Snake Pit, which she based on her experiences. The book exposed the poor treatment that many psychiatric patients received in psychiatric institutions, played a key role in mental hospital reform, and even inspired the novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
4 Edgar Allan Poe & a Pair of Corpses
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher tells the story of the reclusive Roderick Usher, who lives at his ancestral estate with his twin sister Madeline, his only surviving family member. In the book, Madeline is mistakenly buried alive in the family vault but claws her way out and attacks Roderick in an act that kills them both. Moments later, the house splits in two and sinks into the lake.
Poe is thought to have drawn inspiration for his story from a prominent house in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. The mansion was built in 1684 by prominent publisher Hezekiah Usher Jr., near what is now Boston Common. It was passed down through many owners over the years until 1830 when it was either demolished or moved to a new location.
Legend holds that the crews working to remove or tear down the house discovered a pair of skeletons beneath it, locked in an embrace and trapped behind a rusted iron grate. In some retellings, the remains are said to have belonged to a sailor and the wife of one of the mansion’s many owners, who had discovered and imprisoned them in their meeting place.
3 Louisa May Alcott: Writer and… Nurse
Five years before publishing Little Women, writer Louisa May Alcott traded her quill for a roll of gauze, volunteering as a nurse for the Union Army. Working around the clock, she treated a number of soldiers with horrific and often fatal wounds.
Several weeks in, Alcott developed typhoid pneumonia, which her colleagues treated with heavy doses of mercury. Fading in and out of consciousness, she suffered terrifying hallucinations—even imagining that she was being stoned and burned for practicing witchcraft. Though she was determined to stay and recover, Alcott was eventually forced to return home.
Alcott had written several letters home during her time in the capital. In 1863, she began repurposing these as fictionalized sketches of one Tribulation Periwinkle—a stand-in for Alcott—who became a Civil War nurse and soon found herself wrapping bloody wounds and consoling dying soldiers. These accounts were published in Hospital Sketches. Alcott went on to have great success as a writer but never fully recovered from her illness.
2 Mark Twain & a Blood Feud
The dark sequel to Mark Twain’s classic tale of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, opens with young Huck escaping his abusive, alcoholic father by faking his own murder. Once free, he sets off down the Mississippi River on a journey marked by haunting and grotesque encounters.
Huck eventually meets the Grangerford family, which has been locked in a blood feud with the neighboring Shepherdson clan for some 30 years for reasons no one can remember. Twain may have based this encounter on the Darnell-Lane feud, in which two Southern families spent decades butchering each other—even though neither of them could pinpoint the first disagreement.
While working as a steamboat captain, Twain nearly ran across a riverside shootout between the two families. He later used the location as the setting for the Grangerfords’ final, bloody showdown with their rivals, which Huck witnesses in horror. “I wished I hadn’t ever [seen] such things,” Huck tells the reader. “I ain’t ever going to get shut of them—lots of times I dream about them.”
1 Harper Lee’s Reclusive Neighbor
When the novel To Kill a Mockingbird opens, Alfred “Boo” Radley has not been seen outside for 15 years since a judge agreed to release him into his father’s custody after a run-in with the law. Though the local children have never met Boo, they imagine him as a “malevolent phantom” or a giant with blood-stained hands who eats squirrels and cats when he is not chained to his own bed.
Lee based much of her novel on her experiences growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. Just a few doors down from her childhood house is the former home of Alfred “Son” Boulware Jr., who was arrested as a teenager for stealing cigarettes. The boy was spared from reform school by his father, who promised the judge that there would be no more incidents if he could take him home.
Despite returning to his family, Boulware was not free. While he was not chained to his bed, the boy was forbidden by his father from ever leaving the house again by himself. Unlike the fictional Radley, he often snuck out with his friends at first, but over the years, he slowly became a recluse, staying mostly in his home until suffering an early death in 1952.