The Deluge: British and European Branch - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

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

The Deluge: British and European Branch
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw an immense outpouring of supernaturalism on both sides of the Atlantic. It may again be suspected that the very advance of science during this period impelled a reaction among those who felt that science was robbing the world of its reserves of awe and wonder. A character in Huysmans’s Là-Bas (1891) declares: “What a queer age … It is just at the moment when positivism is at its zenith that mysticism rises again and the follies of the occult begin” (239). It is no accident that the Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882, with French and American branches opening in 1885. And yet, it is symptomatic that these very organisations felt obliged to use the tools of science to combat the metaphysical implications of science—namely, that the standard motifs of supernatural literature (the vampire, the werewolf, the ghost) were becomingly increasingly implausible as science increasingly probed not merely the physical universe but the human psychology that led to their widespread belief in prior ages.

I am not here maintaining, in contradiction to my opening argument, that weird writers during this period were asserting the “truth” of their supernatural creations; by and large (with the possible exception of Margaret Oliphant), they were still utilising supernatural tropes for symbolic purposes. But some writers did exhibit a more aggresively hostile stance toward the domination of science as the arbiter of truth, while others (including H. G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) were using science to extend the bounds of the weird into wider realms, whether it be the remote corners of the world, the depths of space, or the darkness of the human mind. The result is a wealth of horror literature of very wide scope, subject-matter, and quality. We can touch only upon the highlights here.