Mainstream Horror - The Boom: The Literati - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

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

Mainstream Horror
The Boom: The Literati
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

The 1970s and 1980s saw an increasing number of mainstream writers dabbling in the weird for the space of a novel or even a single short story. Some of these can be dispensed with quickly—not because they are not meritorious works of literature in their own right, but because the element of weirdness is so fleeting that it constitutes an insignificant feature of the overall narrative.

Consider The Black House (1974) by American writer Paul Theroux (b. 1941). In this tale of a cantankerous anthropologist, Alfred Munday, who returns with his wife, Emma, from Africa to a small town in England, there is a single supernatural incident—a woman who appears to Emma in her house (which the neighbours call the Black House) not long after they move in. It transpires that the woman is one Caroline Summers, a local denizen who ends up having an affair with Alfred. When this is revealed, it becomes problematical whether the vision seen by Emma was that of a “ghost” in the traditional understanding of the term—for how can there be a ghost of a living person? The novel is a delicate treatment of a troubled marriage, but its supernatural element is so insignificant to the plot, and the sensation of terror so entirely absent, that it cannot be considered a genuine contribution to our field.

Somewhat more central is The House Next Door (1978) by American novelist Anne Rivers Siddons (b. 1936). Here we are concerned with a newly constructed house that appears to cause tragedies for a succession of inhabitants, from a woman having a miscarriage when she falls down the stairs to adultery and actual murder. The question is how such a new house, with no history of strangeness, could have caused these events. In the end it is revealed that psychological maladies on the part of the architect were responsible. Siddons is at best a popular writer a few notches above the level of Danielle Steel, and her novel—in spite of Stephen King’s endorsement of it in Danse Macabre as one of the finest horror novels of the twentieth century—is only intermittently compelling.

A far superior writer is British novelist and short story writer Angela Carter (1940—1992), but her array of distinguished volumes are only on the borderline of the weird. The keynote of Carter’s work is a kind of modern revision of the fairy tale—a device she used most notably in the short story “The Company of Wolves,” in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979). To say that this is merely a rewriting of the Little Red Riding Hood story would be ineffably crude; and yet, because the story, like all fairy tales, takes place in a never-never land of the imagination, the element of the supernatural never, in the strictest sense, enters into the narrative. It is not a paradox to say that the 1984 film version, which Carter cowrote, is more a work of supernatural terror than the story, simply because the necessary realism of the film medium renders the contrast between the natural and the supernatural more evident. Carter’s subsequent volume, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993), is similarly more fantastic than supernatural, and much the same can be said of her eccentric novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972).

American writer Fred Chappell (b. 1936) has, in the course of a distinguished career as novelist and poet, written several works of weird fiction. The novel Dagon (1968) passed almost unnoticed by the mainstream and horror communities, but it is a grimly powerful non-supernatural tale, based on several Lovecraftian conceptions, specifically the lonely scholar researching arcane subjects, the social isolation of backwoods denizens (here, a North Carolina farming family), and allusions to ancient gods. In the end, however, the novel is a chilling account of sexual obsession. Decades later, Chappell began producing weird short stories, many of them also founded on Lovecraftian conceptions, collected in More Shapes Than One (1991). Here the chief item of interest is “The Adder” (1989), in which a copy of the Necronomicon (under its Arabic title, Al Azif) wipes out the text of any book into which it comes into contact. This brilliant tale restores to the hackneyed idea of the “forbidden book” its original notions of apocalyptic danger and evil, for its corrupting influence has the potential to destroy our most cherished cultural artifacts.

Distinguished American writer Joyce Carol Oates (b. 1938) has been dabbling in the weird since at least the 1970s. Among her prolific output are at least five volumes of weird tales, from The Hungry Ghosts (1975) to Faithless: Tales of Transgression (2001); Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (1994) probably constitutes her most concentrated collection of horror tales. But the contents are highly uneven. Oates is manifestly more interested in human relationships than in supernatural phenomena, and oftentimes the latter serve merely as symbols or reflections of the former. “The White Cat” (1987) is a transparent echo of Poe’s “The Black Cat,” where a man’s obsessive hatred of his wife’s white Persian cat is a metaphor for his increasing estrangement from her. “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” (1992) is a lacklustre takeoff of The Turn of the Screw. “Martyrdom” gained some notoriety when it appeared in Dennis Etchison’s MetaHorror (1992): its alternating accounts of the growth of a rat and the growth of a young woman sold into sex slavery, with their eventual meeting, certainly constitute an acme of physical horror. But, in all humility, a number of the tales in Haunted and other Oates collections would never have been published were it not for their author’s celebrity.

Oates also wrote a series of four “Gothic” novels—Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), and My Heart Laid Bare (1998)—that fuse crime, psychological horror, and spiritualism, but are predominantly non-supernatural.

As for British writer Peter Ackroyd (b. 1949), he ventured into the weird in Hawksmoor (1985) and The House of Doctor Dee (1993), but neither work is entirely satisfactory. The first concerns the lingering supernatural effects on present-day London of the eighteenth-century architect (and Satanist) Nicholas Dyer (based on the actual architect Nicholas Hawksmoor), and the latter deals with the possession of a contemporary academician by John Dee, the Elizabethan physician and alchemist. But both novels are excessively weighed down by a heavy pedantry in the delineation of their respective historical periods, making the reading of them a chore and causing the supernatural manifestations to be submerged under an array of documentation.

Then there is Beloved (1987) by distinguished American novelist Toni Morrison (b. 1931). There seems no question that the supernatural comes into play here. In this novel, a black woman, Sethe, has fled slavery in Kentucky and come to Ohio; but along the way she killed her own eldest daughter, Beloved, so that she would not have to return to slavery. Later a young woman named Beloved appears, and Sethe’s other daughter, Denver, is convinced that she is the reincarnation of her murdered sister. Some critics have maintained that the novel is ambiguously supernatural, in that the events can be accounted for naturalistically (the girl in question is later thought to be a young woman who escaped the clutches of a white man living nearby), but, as Sethe herself reflects at one point, the girl seems to know things that only the murdered Beloved could know. But the supernatural element in Beloved is the least interesting thing about it: this exquisite prose-poem of a novel focuses so intensely on the horror and tragedy of slavery that all other features in it dwindle to insignificance; in any event, the appearance of the girl Beloved excites little terror in either the characters or the reader, who is much more horrified at the grisly murder that Sethe felt she was compelled to carry out as a fugitive slave.

British writer Patrick McGrath (b. 1950) suddenly emerged in the late 1980s with a striking volume of stories, Blood and Water and Other Tales (1988), and several novels soon thereafter. In 1991 he and Bradford Morrow edited an anthology titled The New Gothic, suggesting that his work and those of others of like mind were creating something novel out of old-time Gothicism reaching back to the eighteenth century. In their very brief introduction to that volume, the authors suggest that the New Gothic is a fusion of the physical props of the original Gothic movement with the psychological acuity found in Poe’s best work, with the result that “the new gothicist would take as a starting place the concern with interior entropy—spiritual and emotional breakdown—and address the exterior furniture of the genre from a contemporary vantage” (xii). I am not entirely sure what this means, but a study of McGrath’s own work may provide some illumination.

McGrath certainly uses Gothic machinery in his work, whether physical or psychological. In “The Angel” we find an angel in Manhattan whose body is decaying hideously because people no longer believe in angels. “The Black Hand of the Raj” tells of an Englishman who, after being touched by an Indian guru, finds a hand growing out of his head. In “Blood Disease” we come upon the inhabitants of a small community in England who, afflicted with pernicious anemia, have developed a taste for human blood. “Marmilion” evokes Southern Gothic in its account of a sordid tragedy in a Louisiana family during and after the Civil War.

It can be seen from these descriptions that the supernatural does not figure extensively in McGrath’s work. But the true focus of the New Gothic, if his own work is any guide, is a kind of knowing wink that renders all these conceptions half-parodic. In “The Black Hand of the Raj,” this parody becomes explicit: the tale may have been inspired by Edward Lucas White’s “Lukundoo,” but it veers off into comedy when the hand ends up masturbating the man’s fiancée. Similarly, “Hand of a Wanker” takes the half-comic premise of W. F. Harvey’s “The Beast with Five Fingers” to obscene levels by telling of the detached hand of a chronic masturbator that retains life (and desire) until it is finally destroyed by a meat cleaver.

McGrath’s first novel, The Grotesque (1989), retains this unnerving mix of black comedy and horror. An entirely non-supernatural tale of the events at an aristocratic estate named Crook, the novel is told from the point of view of Sir Hugo Coal, who has suffered a “cerebral accident” (9) that has paralysed him and rendered him hideous: “to be a grotesque is my destiny” (10). Sir Hugo believes that his own butler, Fledge, has conspired to oust him from his position as master of Crook, including the seduction of his wife, Harriet; along the way, one Sidney Giblet, engaged to Sir Hugo’s daughter, Cleo, is murdered and fed to pigs. This is all certainly very grotesque and Gothic, but in the end the novel is a prototypical instance of the unreliable narrator: when we read the final page we realise that we have no idea what has really happened—or, rather, whether it is Fledge, or Sir Hugo himself, or some other party who has murdered Sidney, whether Fledge has or has not seduced Harriet, and whether Fledge caused Sir Hugo’s “accident” (a burst blood vessel).

Not entirely dissimilar in overall setting are McGrath’s next two novels, Spider (1990), another account by an unreliable narrator evidently shattered by his tragic upbringing, and Asylum (1993), an historical novel of adultery and obsession. The weird content of McGrath’s works has declined with each of his novels, although in some senses they retain a “Gothic” sensibility, at least as he understands that term.