Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
I appear to have suggested that the history of weird fiction—at least the portion of that history covered in this volume—is a series of anticipations: the quasi-weird writing stretching from Gilgamesh to the middle of the eighteenth century was an anticipation of the Gothic novels; the Gothic novels themselves, along with such of their successors as Sir Walter Scott and Washington Irving, was an anticipation of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, who to my mind was the true founder of weird fiction as a viable literary mode. I now make bold to state that the entire history of weird fiction down to the end of the nineteenth century was in a certain sense an anticipation of what has come to be called the golden age of weird writing—roughly extending from 1880 to 1940, and encompassing such titans (some of them hardly regarded as titans except in the realm of supernatural fiction) as Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, and H. P. Lovecraft. It was this second phase of the “deluge” of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that saw the full flower of weird writing, in novels and tales alike.
While it may seem uncharitable to regard such immemorial works as Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Stoker’s Dracula as mere anticipations of what came after, it must be stated—and I trust my analysis has shown—that in these works the supernaturalism is either so attenuated or so marred by aesthetic blunders that they are flawed masterworks of the weird at best (Hawthorne’s novel, it hardly need be stated, is a masterwork on any level, but its relation to weird fiction is highly tenuous). Always leaving aside the unsurpassable master Poe, the work of Le Fanu, Henry James, and even Ambrose Bierce does not constitute the absolute pinnacle of weird writing; but all these writers and others laid the groundwork for the attainment of that pinnacle by others—not merely the titans named above but such of their successors as Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Fritz Leiber, Richard Matheson, Ramsey Campbell, and Thomas Ligotti, all of whom occupy the upper ranges of the canon of weird writing.
The supernatural work of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries will see a definitive break from the motifs of old-time Gothicism, as the wonders and terrors of a new age of scientific advance, atomic warfare, and social and political upheaval bring to the fore new concerns and new approaches to treating them. Media such as film and television will also increasingly colour the manner and even the matter of weird fiction, as writing from as early as the 1920s becomes increasingly visual and even cinematic while at the same time reflecting a deeper awareness of the philosophy of terror and the physiology of fear. Many of the above-named authors became important theoreticians of the tale of terror, and from their perspective as practising writers they generally evolved more cogent analyses of the nature and functions of supernatural horror than their more academic colleagues among literary critics and theorists. At the same time, the sheer quantity of weird writing—especially during the short, two-decade period (roughly 1970 to 1990) when supernatural horror became a best-selling phenomenon—led to the production of a fearsome amount of rubbish, much of which has mercifully descended into the maw of oblivion. As I stated at the outset, there is good reason for thinking that the best weird fiction is generated when written for a relatively small circle of sensitive readers; and in our own day, as I hope to show in the next volume, we appear to be experiencing an unprecedented revival of weird writing on the part of a number of writers who, while drawing upon the rich heritage of the past, have the skill to direct their work to a present-day audience with present-day concerns.
I do not maintain that I have said the last word on the history of weird fiction, or that the last word can ever be said. But I trust I have provided a broad outline of the genre and made some suggestive comments on some of the leading authors and works that will generate continuing discussion on exactly what this literary mode seeks to do and whether it is successful in doing it.