The Magazine

The Horror, the Horror

Thirty-eight centuries of supernatural lit.

Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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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.

Obviously, one must grant a critic his aesthetic criteria and allow Joshi to be true to his. Yet should this admirer of (and recognized authority on) Ambrose Bierce and H. L. Mencken be quite so derisive when books and authors fall short of his high standards? The correction of taste shouldn’t preclude charity, or a recognition that commercial entertainments and jeux d’esprit have their place in our lives. Moreover, the most high-minded critical principles can sometimes be too confining—think of F. R. Leavis’s overstrict determination of “the great tradition” in English fiction—such that they seem to shortchange the full range of literary art. If Dracula is such a mishmash, which it certainly is, why do people continue to read it with such fascination and pleasure?

As an outspoken atheist, Joshi also tends to undervalue work by professing Christians. In his view, the best supernatural fiction tends to be written by bold materialists; authors who actually believe in a spiritual realm can only produce bland, anodyne spooks and a “benign supernaturalism.” He even calls Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) a “wretched piece of sentimentalism.” Moreover, Joshi prefers fiction that works out logically, that carries an explicit meaning. Unresolvable ambiguity is an annoyance. Thus he argues, quite cogently, that the ghosts are real in The Turn of the Screw (1898). 

The first volume of Unutterable Horror draws to a close with high praise for a group of Americans: Edith Wharton, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman for their well-made ghost stories; Robert W. Chambers, mainly for his disturbing collection The King in Yellow (1895); and F. Marion Crawford, best known for his nautical classic “The Upper Berth.” 

As may be clear by now, Joshi really shines when he writes about those authors he truly cares about. In the second volume, then, he comes triumphantly into his own, especially in the sections dealing with M. R. James, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, and Algernon Blackwood. If you like supernatural fiction at all, these are likely to be, as they are for Joshi, the titans. James is the master of the antiquarian ghost story (and Le Fanu’s early champion), Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany wrote exceptionally beautiful prose, and the pantheist Blackwood produced what are, for many, two of the best eerie tales of all time: “The Willows” and “The Wendigo.” 

In general, Joshi is surprisingly sympathetic to the restrained English tradition of ghostly fiction, represented by Walter de la Mare and L. P. Hartley, in particular. He rightly applauds the former’s complex meditation on personal identity, The Return (1910), and the latter’s macabre humor, as in the punning title of the famous story, “A Visitor from Down Under.”

As the world’s leading authority on H. P. Lovecraft, Joshi naturally writes enthusiastically and convincingly about that Poe of the 20th century. He argues that, as with Poe, there may be an occasional floridity in Lovecraft’s stories—a stylistic trait much exaggerated by his critics—but on the whole, they are tightly constructed to achieve maximum emotional effect. To Joshi, Lovecraft is particularly important for his cosmic vision, most strongly delineated in At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time (both 1936). While he didn’t actually believe in his Old Ones or Cthulhu, Lovecraft employs them as heuristic devices to drive home the fundamental unimportance of self-important humankind. 

In general, Lovecraft’s two best-known contemporaries and fellow contributors to Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, are treated as less than full-fledged writers of horror fiction. The first is primarily a poetic fantasist, the latter the author of fast-paced adventure stories (his best known creation being, of course, Conan of Cimmeria). To Joshi, Smith stands, first of all, as the world’s finest writer of weird poetry. It almost goes without saying that he has edited Smith’s complete poems, just as he has recently edited those of Smith’s mentor, George Sterling, in three volumes. But then Joshi—who has some 200 books to his credit—is arguably even more important as an editor, textual scholar, and bibliographer than as a critic. 

As he continues his march through the last century’s horror fiction, Joshi does increasingly revert to summary judgment, to the presentation of one plot précis after another, and to occasional snide remarks (Daphne du Maurier’s work “is not entirely to be despised”). Lovecraft’s acolytes—August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, and Robert Bloch, among others—are viewed as largely derivative of the Master, while the many writers of pulp horror (such as the prolific Seabury Quinn and England’s Dennis Wheatley, author of The Devil Rides Out, 1934) are waved away as unworthy of attention. 

In contrast, Joshi lauds the fecundity of the young Ray Bradbury’s imagination, especially in his early stories collected in The October Country (1955), while also noting that his “understanding of the psychology of adolescent boyhood is perhaps unmatched in literature,” as is his “ability to evoke the aching nostalgia of long-lost childhood.” Both of these qualities are brought to the fore in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), “a novel of genuine terror.” 

Joshi also admits the effectiveness, however slick at times, of shockers and contes cruels by the multi-talented Gerald Kersh (no one ever forgets “Men Without Bones”), Roald Dahl, and the various writers for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, chiefly Richard Matheson (author of the last-man-on-earth classic I Am Legend, 1954). In the pages devoted to Shirley Jackson, Joshi displays both his forthrightness and critical acumen in finding The Haunting of Hill House (1959) “a bit diffused and unfocused,” preferring Ramsey Campbell’s 1996 The House on Nazareth Hill as the best of all haunted-house novels. Nonetheless, he aptly sums up Jackson’s virtues:

Her work as a whole is pervaded with an abiding sense of the weirdness that can emerge from the commonest elements of ordinary life. Her penetrating understanding of human character, and especially of human loneliness even in the midst of crowds, and the rapierlike satire that she frequently directed at the bountiful instances of greed, stupidity, smallmindedness, hypocrisy and other lamentably common human foibles render much of her work chillingly terrifying even when nothing overtly bizarre occurs.

As readers will recall, a horror boom swept the 1970s and ’80s, initiated by Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), and Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home (1973). (The first two Joshi picks at; the third he pronounces—to borrow his own favorite adjective—an imperishable masterpiece.) Toward Stephen King and his voluminous body of work Joshi is largely unsympathetic: “I do not wish to suggest that King is a total failure on purely aesthetic grounds. He has had some modest successes.” Joshi then names The Running Man (1982) the writer’s best book. Clive Barker he finds undisciplined and overly prolific, except in The Damnation Game (1985), which “stands as one of the finest horror novels of the past 50 years.”

The horror boom faded partly because film usurped print as the preferred medium for Grand Guignol excess. Today, maintains Joshi, Ramsey Campbell is, by a long measure, the greatest living writer of supernatural fiction. I suspect most people, except Stephen King fans, would agree with this judgment. But up until his death in 1981, Robert Aickman claimed that honor. His beautifully composed “strange stories”—“Ringing the Changes,” “Bind Your Hair,” “Into the Wood,” and many others—elude clear-cut interpretation, yet remain profoundly disquieting. 

Two of the finest recent writers of supernatural fiction have regrettably fallen silent: the reclusive Thomas Ligotti and T. E. D. Klein, the former editor of Twilight Zone magazine. But I envy anyone who has yet to discover the elegant work of Reggie Oliver, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Mark Valentine, Laird Barron, Barbara Roden, R. B. Russell, Simon Strantzas, Richard Gavin, Ian Rogers, Jeffrey Ford, Simon Kurt Unsworth, and Glen Hirshberg, among many others. You may have to search for their books, though, most of them having been published by specialty presses such as Tartarus, Ash-Tree, Centipede, Night Shade, PS, Tachyon, Prime, Hippocampus, Swan River, Chizine, and Subterranean.  

All these authors and publishers are well worth your attention.

If you are attracted to supernatural fiction, and ours is an era when the fantastic flourishes in art, literature, and film, then you will want to read Unutterable Horror (although you will need to pardon the unconscionable number of typos in these otherwise handsome volumes). A good general rule, however, is this: Trust Joshi on the books he praises, but look for yourself at those he dismisses or disdains. 

That said, if you can’t quite face an 800-page, two-volume work, you should go back to Lovecraft’s groundbreaking monograph Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927). There are many editions, but the one to get is annotated by Joshi. Of course, if you’ve never read any horror fiction at all, the place to start is still the classic 1944 anthology Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, compiled by Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser (later, Cerf Wagner). This should be followed by David G. Hartwell’s The Dark Descent: The Evolution of Horror (1987) and The Weird, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s wide-ranging 2012 compendium of “strange and dark stories.”

Keep a light on.

Michael Dirda is the author, most recently, of Classics for Pleasure and the 2012 Edgar Award-winning On Conan Doyle.