Preface - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

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

Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

… I wondered for a second what icy and intolerable weight oppressed my heart and suffocated me with the unutterable horror of the coffin-lid nailed down on the living.

—Arthur Machen,

“Novel of the White Powder”

… for the next three hours I was immersed in a gulf of unutterable horror.

—H. P. Lovecraft,

“The Whisperer in Darkness”

Anyone with a knowledge of the extent of supernatural literature during the period covered by this volume will understand that nothing approaching comprehensiveness of discussion can be achieved short of a book two or three times the length of this one, so I trust I will be pardoned for focusing on what I believe to be the most notable authors and works of this period and, specifically, those authors and works who are central to the supernatural tradition. Certain authors who have attained celebrity or critical acclaim—such as Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, and Tim Powers, to name only three—have been regretfully omitted in the realisation that their work lies largely outside the realm of supernatural literature as somewhat narrowly understood, and that space restrictions required a clear focus on those authors who have addressed themselves to the supernatural as opposed to fantasy, alternate-world history, and other adjacent literary modes.

I have also, with great regret, decided to eschew discussion of two other subgenres that many critics have regarded as a branch of weird fiction. One of these is Southern Gothic, typified by the work of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and others. But to my mind this subgenre—which is almost entirely non-supernatural—is only remotely related to the Gothic novel of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and is more vitally allied to mainstream fiction with its concern for the portrayal of characters and the interplay of character and history in the culture of the American South. I may perhaps be more subject to censure for ignoring magic realism, embodied in the work of Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Marquez, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende, and many others; but I believe this subgenre is really a branch of fantasy, since the display of the supernatural in an objectively real environment is rarely the focus, nor is terror a central component.

There is an added difficulty in discussing contemporary writers, in that it is impossible to know how many of these, even among those who are currently popular or eminent, will endure for any foreseeable period of time. Posterity is a ruthless winnower of the mediocre and the transient, although on occasion it can also brush the genuinely meritorious under the rug; but posterity has, necessarily, yet to act in regard to contempoary writers, so my own critical judgment as to the aesthetic supremacy of any given writer must be my guide to what might be called tentative canonisation.

As in the previous volume, my bibliography lists only those works and editions that I have actually quoted in the text. In this volume, unlike its predecessor, I have not seen the need to supply the actual first publication of short stories and poems; in many cases, only the year of first publication is cited. It would seem that I have cited secondary sources even more rarely than in the first volume, but that does not mean that I have not benefited from the pioneering critical work of those many critics and reviewers who have addressed the authors and works I have discussed here. My bibliographical essay gives some suggestions as to further reading about the subjects covered in this book.

—S. T. J.

Seattle, Washington

January 2012