Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
It is very difficult to identify even the broadest trends in current supernatural fiction, let alone to determine which authors will or will not survive the inexorable winnowing process of posterity. The very act of writing—or, perhaps more precisely, the dissemination of written material, ranging from fabulously expensive limited editions numbering in the dozens of copies to free downloads on the Internet—has changed radically in the past few decades, so that the mere concept of a “canon” of writers in any given genre who are widely recognised as the chief representatives of their genre is now in question.
I have, in the preceding chapter, touched upon the work of those authors who I believe will endure, or deserve to endure, in the coming decades. I do not pretend to have discussed more than a fraction of those who, in other readers’ or critics’ eyes (or even my own), should have been dealt with; but I did not wish this chapter to descend into a mere annotated list of authors and works. Some of those contemporary writers who perhaps deserved inclusion are Michael Aronovitz, Gary A. Braunbeck, Jack Cady, Thomas M. Disch, Tom Fletcher, Stephen Gallagher, Cody Goodfellow, Stephen Gregory, Lois H. Gresh, Elizabeth Hand, M. John Harrison, Rick Hautala, Glen Hirshberg, Nancy Holder, K. W. Jeter, Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, A. F. Kidd, Marc Laidlaw, John Langan, Tanith Lee, Kelly Link, Michael McDowell, Ian McEwan, Elizabeth Massie, Richard Christian Matheson, Tom Piccirilli, Simon Raven, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Al Sarrantonio, Darrell Schweitzer, Michael Marshall Smith, William Browning Spencer, and Jeff VanderMeer. It is conceivable that several of these authors are more worthy of discussion than those I actually discussed in my final chapter. I have also not had the space to deal much with young adult horror writing, including such authors as Joan Aiken, John Bellairs, Robert Westall, and R. L. Stine. My coverage of non-Anglophone literature is also, no doubt, very inadequate.
All this points to several incontrovertible facts. One is that far more criticism, ranging from penetrating book reviews to critical analyses of individual authors and works to studies of trends, patterns, and motifs of both older and contemporary literature to ponderous histories such as this one, is needed in order for us to have a truly comprehensive understanding of the realm of weird fiction past and present.
But a more important fact may be that we are in a kind of renaissance of weird writing—a renaissance caused, paradoxically, precisely by the demise of horror as a widely popular phenomenon. But the paradox is only on the surface; if I am correct in believing that the “horror boom” of the 1970s and 1980s was in some senses an artificial—or, more precisely, an accidental—phenomenon resulting from the happenstance conjoining of literature and film, and if its appeal was largely to those masses of readers who are not critically astute or well-versed in the history and traditions of weird fiction, then it is understandable that the demise of popular horror has opened a path for genuine literary artists to cater to a numerically smaller but aesthetically more sophisticated readership.
I am not maintaining that we are in the midst of another “golden age” of horror such as the period between the years 1880 and 1940, which saw such writers as Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Walter de la Mare, H. P. Lovecraft, and many others to emerge; for that golden age was itself a product of unique historical, cultural, and aesthetic forces. But it is safe to say—with such writers as Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, John Shirley, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, Norman Partridge, and so many others continuing to write or reaching their prime—that we are in a distinguished silver age that augurs well for the continued vitality of the field. Even in these tough economic times, many of the leading small presses continue to flourish, while at least a few commercial publishers issue the occasional horror novel or (more rarely) story collection or anthology. More significantly, the prejudice against weird literature that seemed so ingrained in mainstream critics and readers of a prior age seems largely to have dissipated.
The future looks bright for weird fiction, and if no one can predict what direction it will take or who will emerge as a dominant figure, we can be sure that vibrant, thought-provoking work will continue to emerge from the imaginations of a wide array of writers for many years to come.