Preface - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

In spite of the length of this work, my goals in it are relatively humble. I am chiefly interested in the aesthetic and philosophical issues involved in the introduction of the supernatural in a literary work, and I am also interested in tracing the history of this literary mode from the time it became a recognised genre—the later eighteenth century—to the present day. I have also considered it a significant part of my enterprise to gauge the overall aesthetic success of the works I study, with particular emphasis on the effectiveness of the supernatural manifestation in a given work. To that degree, I am attempting to establish a viable canon of supernatural writing, although I trust it will be evident that my judgments are merely suggestive rather than prescriptive.

The number of authors and works to be covered has necessitated some sharp curtailments in the kinds of analysis I can provide and perhaps even in the overall scope and direction of the work. For example, I have not found sufficient space to place the authors and works discussed within the context of cultural and intellectual history, even though I see such a context as the most profitable avenue toward the understanding of the literature in question. I have also been unable to examine many individual works in the depth and detail they deserve, nor have I treated non-Anglophone weird fiction as much as I should have.

Within these shortcomings, I hope that I have supplied a more adequate picture of the historical progression of supernatural fiction than previous histories, most of which I am sorry to say I find unsatisfactory. My focus has been on the major writers in the field—those, in other words, who have contributed significantly to the genre and who have produced a corpus of work of sufficient breadth and complexity to be worth studying carefully. Individual works of the supernatural by authors who have generally not worked in this mode are rarely discussed unless they are of great significance and influence. I have also not found it fruitful to compare authors with one another or to treat their works thematically, since it strikes me that each author of supernatural fiction is of such distinctiveness that comparisons would produce minimal enlightenment. Naturally, biographical information on the authors in question is limited to those facets of their lives that are of significance to the understanding of their work. And, of course, every critic of a relatively little-known or understudied branch of literature faces the quandary of how much plot summary to supply. In those works that can be assumed to be widely read I have reduced plot summary to a minimum, but for other works I have felt it necessary to include a somewhat ampler synopsis so that my analysis can be more fully understood.

It will be evident to most readers—especially those who know my previous work in the field—that I have found much inspiration in both the theoretical underpinnings and some specific critical judgments in H. P. Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (first published in 1927). I cite this work throughout the text, using the simple abbreviation S. The edition cited is listed in the bibliography.

I have sought to provide exact citations to all quotations of primary and secondary works. The editions cited—the great majority of them are not first editions—are listed in the bibliography. I have not always had access to the soundest or most recent editions, as some of these are already difficult to obtain even in large libraries. For shorter works (stories, poems, and the like), I have provided information on original periodical appearances, if known. I may not have cited secondary sources as much as is customary; there is indeed a fair amount of useful criticism and biography on many of the authors discussed in this volume, although some figures have yet to receive the attention they deserve. A bibliographical essay preceding the bibliography provides some discussion of important reference works in this field and other critical works that may be of use to the student and scholar.

I have been studying supernatural literature for more than thirty years and have had highly stimulating discussions with many friends and colleagues. Among those who have supplied me with the greatest insights, either in print or viva voce, are Mike Ashley, Jason Brock, Donald R. Burleson, Scott Connors, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Jack M. Haringa, John Langan, Steven J. Mariconda, David E. Schultz, and Robert H. Waugh. I am also grateful to several contemporary authors of supernatural literature for illuminating many aspects of their own work, among them Sherry Austin, Laird Barron, Ramsey Campbell, Les Daniels, Philip Haldeman, Caitlín R. Kiernan, T. E. D. Klein, Thomas Ligotti, W. H. Pugmire, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr, Michael Shea, Peter Straub, and Jonathan Thomas.

—S. T. J.

Seattle, Washington

November 2009