Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
The Development of Weird Poetry
Novelists, Satirists, and Poets
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
One of the more surprising developments in early twentieth-century weird fiction is the apparently sudden proliferation of weirdness in poetry. Following the profoundly influential work of the Romantics, culminating in Edgar Allan Poe, weird poetry became an occasional pastime for any number of poets; indeed, it is difficult to find a major poet of the later nineteenth century who didn’t produce at least a single weird specimen, ranging from Tennyson (“The Kraken”) to Longfellow (“Haunted Houses”), Browning (“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”), Swinburne (“The Witch-Mother”), Yeats (“The Phantom Ship”), and even Lowell (“The Ghost-Seer”) and Oliver Wendell Holmes (“The Broomstick Train; or, The Return of the Witches”). Many minor poets, from William Allingham to George MacDonald to W. E. Henley, also contributed weird verse, while such proponents of weirdness in prose fiction as Ambrose Bierce (“A Vision of Doom” among others) and Guy de Maupassant (“Horror”) also extended their range to cover weirdness in verse.
But it was only in the early twentieth century that we find some poets specializing in horror poetry. The American poet and fiction writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836—1907) is a surprising example, and a number of his poems utilise terror and weirdness to probe deeper questions of human life and death, as in the pensive “Apparitions”: “Is it more strange the dead should walk again / Than that the quick should die?” (All quotations in this section are from my anthology Dreams of Fear.) The little-known American poet Madison Cawein (1865—1914) also generated much weird verse among a prodigally large output, especially in such poems as “The Forest of Shadows” and “The Night-Wind” in The Vale of Tempe (1911). The young poet Park Barnitz (1878—1901) published The Book of Jade (1901) only a few months before his early death—a book that relentlessly emphasises the omnipresence of death and the futility of human life.
But it was the American poet George Sterling (1869—1926) who may have been the first poet since Poe to focus on the weird. His bountiful poetry—which includes a number of striking verse dramas, particularly Lilith (1919) and Rosamund (1920), which have their elements of terror—cover a wide range and for the most part are lyric and elegiac; but in the early long poem A Wine of Wizardry, written so early as 1902 but not published until it appeared in Cosmopolitan in September 1907, is a riot of fantastic imagery, especially in its most celebrated couplet, “The blue-eyed vampire, sated at her feast, / Smiles bloodily against the leprous moon.” Bierce took Sterling under his wing and strove for years to find a home for this remarkable excursion into poetic fantasy. Sterling also pioneered the writing of “cosmic” poetry, and the long poem The Testimony of the Suns (written in 1901—02 and published in The Testimony of the Suns and Other Poems, 1903) is similarly a masterwork of the imagination in its depiction of the cosmic conflict of the stars and its echo in the human realm. Sterling himself became the mentor for Clark Ashton Smith, who can easily claim the title of the greatest weird poet in literary history; his work will be treated in a later chapter.
Such homespun poets as Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost found in ghosts, haunted houses, and other elements of the supernatural the perfect metaphors for the themes of human isolation and despair they wished to convey. The pensive narrator of Frost’s “The Ghost House” (in A Boy’s Will, 1913) finds the “lonely house” in which he dwells populated with a brood of nameless ghosts whom he, in his loneliness, ultimately welcomes:
They are tireless folk, but slow and sad—
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad—
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.
Walter de la Mare augmented his substantial corpus of weird fiction with a number of powerful specimens of weird verse. “The Listeners” is the most celebrated of these, but it is only one of many poems that provide almost clinical but potent examinations of the psychology of terror. “Fear” (in Poems, 1906) expresses in short lines of pungent iambs the dread of isolation:
I know where lurk
The eyes of Fear;
I, I alone,
Watching for me,
These works constitute only the tip of the iceberg of the weird poetry of the period. The poets associated with H. P. Lovecraft—Samuel Loveman, Frank Belknap Long, Robert E. Howard, Donald Wandrei—also devoted a substantial portion of their poetic talents to terror, and their work will also be dealt with elsewhere.
Each poet who contributed weird verse, whether a single specimen or an entire corpus, did so for aesthetic reasons of their own. In the broadest terms, it can be said that these poets—especially those who might otherwise be thought not to have been attracted to the supernatural, among them John Masefield (“Haunted”), A. E. Housman (“Hell Gate”), Paul Laurence Dunbar (“The Haunted Oak”), Edward Thomas (“Out in the Dark”), Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (“The Whisperers”), Siegfried Sassoon (“Goblin Revel”), and Robert Graves (“The Haunted House”)—found in the supernatural a means to convey themes, conceptions, and imagery not amenable to treatment by means of mimetic realism; and the increasing frequency with which these and other poets found the supernatural a viable mode of expression speaks well of the aesthetic potentialities of the form.
The extent of weird writing during the first four decades of the twentieth century is so immense, and of such richness and diversity, that it becomes difficult to encompass it in anything like a small space. The period between the wars was, in particular, a time when even mainstream publishers seemed inclined to issue the occasional eccentric work of fiction that bordered upon the weird. David Garnett’s Lady into Fox (1922) is a delightfully whimsical short novel whose title tells the whole story. Two other novels published in that year are worth notice: E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, an intoxicating mix of fantasy, supernaturalism, and even proto-science-fiction (the action purports to take place on Mercury); and Ben Hecht’s Fantazius Mallare, whose preface is perhaps the pinnacle of cynical misanthropy and whose narrative deals with a jaded man who believes he has murdered his wife, a young gypsy woman, and when he sees her still in his house believes she is a figment of his perverse imagination. Hecht wrote a quasi-sequel, The Kingdom of Evil (1924), in which a strange fog appears to have wiped out the entire city in which Mallare lives, and perhaps the rest of the world; the remnants of humanity survive on an unnamed island. Under the guidance of a Doctor Sebastien, the people build a Kingdom of Evil, featuring such things as a temple (which turns out to be an immense flower) as well as a god, which the men appointed to the task construct after making a succession of horrible monsters. Then there is Thorne Smith’s Topper (1926), an excursion into humorous supernaturalism about a man’s adventures with a ghostly couple; it and its sequel, Topper Takes a Trip (1932), served as the basis for films and television shows alike.
One curious sub-theme is the frequency with which some detective writers took to the supernatural in short stories or even novels. The most celebrated of them all, Agatha Christie (1890—1976), included several such tales in her early short story collection, The Hound of Death and Other Stories (1933). Of the twelve tales in this volume, seven are definitely supernatural and testify to Christie’s fascination with occultism and psychic phenomena. Perhaps the best is the title story (about a nun who possesses the power to kill or destroy with her mind) and “The Call of Wings,” a wistful and poetical account of a millionaire who, after hearing music played by a legless street musician in London (who, it is suggested, is actually Pan), feels a sense of soaring and becomes oppressed by a sense of imprisonment by worldly goods. “The Fourth Man” (1925) deals with psychic possession; “The Lamp” is a fine haunted house tale; and “The Last Séance” (1926) is a gripping tale of a medium.
But Christie’s work in this vein (and, for that matter, in the mystery field) is, on the aesthetic level, surpassed by the American John Dickson Carr (1906—1977). Although adhering, in more than seventy novels and dozens of short stories, to the most orthodox canons of the “fair play” detective story (he was a master of the “locked-room” mystery), Carr was fond of suggesting the supernatural as part of the engagingly overcoloured atmosphere of many of his novels; the “haunted house” in particular is featured in such novels as Hag’s Nook (1933) and The Crooked Hinge (1938), although the supernatural never comes into play. But Carr also wrote a remarkable tour de force, The Burning Court (1937), in which he plays tricks with the expectations of readers who think they are reading only a murder mystery with a false patina of the supernatural. Marie Stevens is thought by the people of a small town in Pennsylvania to be a witch responsible for several murders, but the detective, Lieutenant Brennan, manages to contrive a natural solution to the case; in a stunning epilogue, however, Marie subtly reveals herself to be a 200-year-old witch. Carr later wrote “historical mysteries” that appear to involve the supernatural. In three novels—The Devil in Velvet (Harper, 1951), Fear Is the Same (Morrow, 1956), and Fire, Burn! (Harper, 1957)—modern characters travel back in time to participate in events of up to two and a half centuries before; but this is only a ploy to get the plot moving. A few of Carr’s short stories also involve the supernatural.
As noted in the previous chapter, a substantial number of American writers found in the pulp magazines welcome havens for their copious weird writings. The next two chapters will study the most prominent of these, chief among them H. P. Lovecraft, whose work continues to cast its influence far and wide to the present day.