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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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.