Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction

S.T. Joshi. Hippocampus (www.hippocampuspress.com), $40 (804p) ISBN 978-1-61498-089-6
Joshi (American Supernatural Tales)—the world's foremost authority on H.P. Lovecraft and one of the great living scholars of weird fiction—delivers an opinionated but insightful two-volume history of supernatural fiction that will likely become one of the touchstone texts for future studies of the literature. Although he dates the origin of supernatural horror fiction to the 18th century—when "science (and human knowledge as a whole) had advanced to the point where certain objects or events [the ghost, the witch, the vampire, et al.] could be stated with fair certainty to be impossible or, at best, highly improbable"—he nonetheless begins his study more than three-and-a-half millennia earlier, with a chapter that tracks weird motifs in classic Sumerian, Greek, and Roman texts, and works from the Middle Ages and Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. In a brilliant and exhaustive chapter on the Gothic novel—the first true works of supernatural literature—he establishes the key themes and approaches that dominate supernatural horror to this day. This chapter also sets the pattern for the rest of the book, insofar as Joshi points out that the preponderance of writing in the Gothic era—as in any discrete era of the genre—is mediocre, derivative, and trite. Joshi lavishes his greatest praise on the titans of supernatural fiction—Poe, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, and (of course) Lovecraft—but he doesn't flinch from goring sacred bulls, among them J. Sheridan Le Fanu, who is generally revered as a 19th-century god of ghostly fiction but criticized for doing "almost nothing to advance the field of supernatural literature." Joshi reserves his sharpest judgments for contemporary horror writers, especially popular bestsellers, dismissing Stephen King as "a schlockmeister—just the literary equivalent of all the B movies and comic books he digested in his youth." At the same time, he champions the work of a number of modern writers whose works have not found a large readership, among them Ramsey Campbell, Ted Klein, David J. Schow, and Caitlín Kiernan. The vast scope of this study limits Joshi primarily to tackling his subjects in author studies only several paragraphs long, rather than discussing the fiction in a broader cultural context. Regardless, the totality of his research is impressive, and the opinions he expresses are likely to compel readers to seek out the authors and works under scrutiny to make their own appraisals. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 08/18/2014
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