Anticipations of the Boom - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

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

Anticipations of the Boom
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

The 1950s and 1960s, while constituting somewhat of a dearth in the actual production of supernatural or horror literature—several of the most significant writers of the time, among them Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont, chose to dabble in the genre by way of suspense or science fiction, while such a superlative writer as Robert Aickman received little attention—the era set the stage for the horror “boom” of the 1970s and 1980s in a number of ways.

Chief among them was the gradual emergence of horror in the media, specifically film and television. Of course, horror films had been prevalent since the silent era, including such classics as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1922) and The Phantom of the Opera (1926); but most of these films, as well as such of their successors as Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), and The Wolfman (1941), were regarded as somewhat sub rosa, the appreciation of which was considered something of a guilty pleasure. That began to change gradually in the 1940s, with the issuance of somewhat more stylish films such as The Uninvited (1944) and even whimsies such as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and Harvey (1950), which slowly acclimated viewers—and, by extension, readers—to the incursion of supernatural elements.

The central figure in this transition may have been Alfred Hitchcock (1899—1980), whose films not only embodied an immeasurably superior technical skill than the B movies of the period but whose ventures into psychological suspense often came close to actual horror. Such films as Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) featured terror and psychological aberration in no small measure, while Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963)—the pinnacles of his excursions into, respectively, non-supernatural and supernatural horror—were adapted from celebrated literary works.

Hitchcock capitalised on his personal celebrity as an icon of horror and suspense by launching such television shows as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955—61) and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” (1962), the former containing many adaptations of horror tales, as well as original teleplays, by Robert Bloch among others. Other television shows followed in their wake: “One Step Beyond” (1959—61), “Thriller” (1960—62), “The Outer Limits” (1963—65), and, most celebrated of all, “The Twilight Zone” (1959—64), hosted by Rod Serling.

Both Hitchcock and Serling published horror anthologies over their names—Hitchcock’s many anthologies, beginning with Suspense Stories (1945) and including the significantly titled Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do on TV (1957), were largely compiled by Robert Arthur and included a fair proportion of crime and suspense stories taken from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (1956f.); some of these, especially those by the prolific Henry Slesar (1927—2002), featured a fair modicum of psychological and physical horror. Serling added his bit with such volumes as Rod Serling’s Triple W (1963), ghost-edited by Gordon R. Dickson. At the same time, several long-running series of horror tales, from The Pan Book of Horror Stories (1959f.), edited by Herbert Van Thal, to The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1964f.), the first eight volumes of which were edited by Robert Aickman, presented a wide array of both “classic” and contemporary horror fiction, even though the Pan series rapidly degenerated into forays of gruesome bloodletting.

The effect of this multimedia blitz in nurturing the public’s taste for horror cannot be overestimated. “The Twilight Zone,” bringing the work of an array of contemporary writers such as Matheson, Beaumont, and Bradbury into American living rooms, was vital in creating a potential audience for literary (or, shall we say, popular) ventures into psychological and supernatural horror, while such directors as Roger Corman continued to fill movie theatres with adaptations from Poe, Lovecraft, and other classic writers. It was only a matter of time before enterprising writers would capitalise on this fertile field and catapult themselves on to the bestseller lists.