Famous Horror Properties in the Public Domain (Ripe for Retelling)

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Yes, Dracula and Frankenstein will always make for fun retellings, but is there anything else to chew on? Anything in the public domain is fair game. Whether you want to “borrow” a character or reboot an entire story, you can play with these horror properties to your heart’s delight.

The King in Yellow

This surreal collection of early American horror/sci-fi/mythic/odd writing tie together vaguely by theme, but most reference a play The King in Yellow, that drives readers mad. If you like your mythology deep and your gods old, this is the rabbit hole for you. The collection of early American horror writers to which the author, Robert Chambers, belonged often referenced or riffed on each other’s work. The King in Yellow is also woven into aspects of Hastur, an ancient being in the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft used him multiple times. There’s enough lore from enough different writers, however, that Hastur has his own mythos. It’s a wild trip, no matter how deep you dive, and you can go pretty far.

The Picture of Dorian Grey

Frankly, this piece of gothic literature doesn’t get the love it deserves. Although Dorian has appeared as a secondary character in many newer stories (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Penny Dreadful come to mind), he hasn’t received many star credits of late. And that’s a shame, because you’d be hard pressed to find another story that examines art, ego, and consequence vs. morality in such dreadfully clever ways.

The Mysteries of Udolpho

A quintessential gothic romance, Udolpho is all grand landscapes, family tragedies, plots over inheritance, and brooding castles. There’s a little romance there, too, but it was first published in the late 1700’s, and a heroine couldn’t conceivably fight for her rights and will unless she did so in the name of another love interest, so… Whether you want a darker take on love or want to explore the battle of wills sans any romance at all, the story is wide open to reinterpretation, updates, and twists.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

An iconic vision of the secret villain lurking in every human heart, this short story has been retold as a (failed) television series, a gothic musical production, and a few pop songs. Its beauty is in its brevity, though. Once you grasp the roots, you can plant them anywhere. What could you grow in your original world, modern city, or wilderness ranger station with this potion?

Wuthering Heights

Yes, it’s another gothic romance, and I’m not at all sorry. It has ghosts, gloomy mansions, and its mood is sucked straight from the moors in which it is set. You probably had to read this in high school or college. I personally hated it the first time I read it, but I confess to enjoying it much more as an adult. Maybe I can just see its potential for retelling. The themes it addresses haven’t changed: racism, classicism, and the deeply personal barbs that hook couples together even when they marry other people. Sounds like a recipe for horror to me.

The Phantom of the Opera

The musicals you know are based on a book. That book is in the public domain, and it’s actually more violent than the stage production. Add explosives, a trippy room that convinces you that you’re in a desert, and a higher body count. Shake well and garnish with opera. It’s a great cocktail for aspiring writers to reimagine for their own menus.

Are you ready to write something scary? Maybe you’ve played with a public domain property before. Share your own ideas and tips for other writers in the comments below!

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