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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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.