The Magazine

The Horror, the Horror

Thirty-eight centuries of supernatural lit.

Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In Unutterable Horror, his deeply knowledgeable, lively, and unabashedly opinionated history of supernatural fiction, S. T. Joshi suggests that a taste for ghost stories and weird tales is far more than a slavering hunger for blood and grue. The most important supernatural fiction doesn’t merely aim to make our flesh creep. Through it, ambitious writers—and their readers—are able to explore the full range of human experience. Like many classical tragedies, these unsettling stories typically introduce a sense of wrongness, followed by growing dread, and gradually build to a moment of supreme crisis and terror. And yet their final effect is often a cathartic sense of pity. There, but for the grace of God, go you or I.

Vincent Price strangling Basil Rathbone in ‘Tales of Terror’ (1962)

Vincent Price strangling Basil Rathbone in ‘Tales of Terror’ (1962)

everett collection

Nothing human is alien to supernatural fiction. Transgressive by definition, it ventures into the dark corners within all of us, probing our sexuality, religious beliefs, and family relationships, uncovering shameful yearnings and anxieties, questioning the meaning of life and death, even speculating about the nature of the cosmos. It’s no surprise that almost every canonical writer one can think of has occasionally, or more than occasionally, dabbled in ghostly fiction: Charles Dickens, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, even Russell Kirk, to name just a few outstanding examples. The genre’s best stories are, after all, more than divertissements. They are works of art that make us think about who and what we are. 

And, yes, they are also scary. Sometimes really scary. 

In some ways, the first chapters of Unutterable Horror are largely backstory. Joshi mentions ghost stories from antiquity (in Petronius and Pliny), dramatic works like Euripides’ Medea, and such Elizabethan classics as Macbeth and Dr. Faustus. But he begins in earnest with the late 18th century, arguing that only when people had ceased to believe in witches and ghosts and the devil could they begin to play with them as elements of fiction. Still, like most modern readers, Joshi doesn’t think much of the period’s Gothic novels, which run to rationalized endings, verbosity, and an overuse of the same dramatis personae—evil monks, Byronic aristocrats with dark secrets, terrified virgins. Only M. G. Lewis’s exuberantly sexy and flamboyant The Monk (1796), Mary Shelley’s endlessly interpretable  Frankenstein (1818), and the long, multi-layered Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Robert Maturin earn the Joshi stamp of approval. 

In the 19th century, Joshi rightly praises James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), a book somewhat reminiscent of, and indeed better than, Robert Louis Stevenson’s more famous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). It is, in truth, one of the most disturbing novels ever written and should be far better known. Joshi dutifully points to the European influence of E. T. A. Hoffmann—best known for “The Sandman,” the story upon which Freud built his theory of the uncanny—but judges much of Hoffmann’s work incoherent and lacking “aesthetic rigor.” Instead, our own Edgar Allan Poe takes pride of place, partly for the variety of his revolutionary storytelling and partly for the inspired artistry he brought to it.  

Up to this point, one can make no serious objections to Joshi’s history (though, in my view, he undervalues E. T. A. Hoffmann). However, hackles will rise when Joshi dismisses Sheridan Le Fanu’s fiction (except for “Green Tea”) as inartistic, ineffectual, and long-winded; discovers little merit in the many women writers of Victorian ghost stories; offers faint praise for such moving tales as Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Captain of the ‘Pole-Star’ ”; fails even to mention Vernon Lee’s “Amour Dure” (my own favorite ghost story); and condescends to Dracula (1897) as a second-rate farrago.

Often, Joshi’s negative critiques focus on prolixity, an inattention to (a favorite term) collocation—by this he means the pleasing flow of sentences—and the generally shambolic character of so much 19th-century fiction. But as anyone who has ever looked at a Biedermeier interior or skimmed the menu of a royal banquet knows, the Victorians reveled in excess. A little too much was just enough for them. One needs to adapt to a slower narrative rhythm to appreciate Dickens, Wilkie Collins, or even Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (1862)—both well analyzed here—are foundational works of occult fiction.