Horror: A Literary History
edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes.
The British Library, 2016.
Hardcover, 232 pages, $30.
Although superheroes and adolescent saviors have currently wrested pole position on screens and shelves from even vampires and zombies, horror is no longer dismissed as greasy kid stuff by any but the stuffiest of cultural critics. Black-covered paperbacks with raised metallic lettering might not be as omnipresent as they were in the 1980s, but H. P. Lovecraft has well and truly breached the walls of the academy to reinforce a beleaguered Poe, Hawthorne, and Mary Shelley; Stephen King (2015 National Medalist of the Arts), Shirley Jackson, and Bram Stoker can hardly be far behind. Anne Rice and Clive Barker remain perennial best-sellers, and the Gothic has never been trendier to scholars despite having crested two decades ago as a subcultural revival.
Comes now Horror: A Literary History, an anthology poised like the horror field itself between the academic and the popular. Thankfully not particularly concerned with justifying horror, the authors seek to situate the genre in its larger historical context while providing potential dark alleys for the curious to wander down in search of further thrills. The authors, as promised, keep academic jargon to a minimum, resulting in fairly straightforward and accessible essays at the cost of some rigor. Some literary-critical apparitions manifest in the bibliographies of each piece, along with a list of five or six key works from the period discussed. Each chapter examines horror fiction (film is mostly scanted save as an epiphenomenon of prose) in a particular milieu, almost entirely restricted to Britain or America or (daringly) both. Although Aldana Reyes’s Introduction nods to early horrors from Gilgamesh to Shakespeare, he begins the book at the standard genesis of the field: the early Gothic and horror’s emergence as a self-conscious genre.
In “Gothic and the Cultural Sources of Horror, 1740–1820,” Dale Townshend goes slightly beyond that standard genesis story to the graveyard poetry of Robert Blair, William Collins, and Thomas Warton, who were writing fuscous odes “To Horror” in the 1740s, a generation before Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) formally kicked off the Gothic. A useful précis of Walpole, Matthew Lewis, and Mary Shelley, and of the vital critical insights of Edmund Burke and Ann Radcliffe, completes the chapter. Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet’s “American Horror: Origins and Early Trends” is slightly more idiosyncratic: she reads Poe’s minor work “Hop-Frog” (at length) as a satire on slavery, although Poe’s sympathies don’t appear (to say the least) to have been abolitionist. The space spent here might have better expanded her very interesting one-paragraph thesis that the colonial-era “captivity narrative” in which women recounted the terror of Indian abduction serves as America’s ur-Gothic story.
Monnet does at least touch on the main landmarks of her era in horror. “Horror in the Nineteenth Century: Dreadful Sensations, 1820–80” by Royce Mahawatte engages Dickens through Nicholas Nickleby rather than “The Signal-Man” or any of his major ghost stories, expounds on Gothic elements in Mary Barton and Middlemarch while scanting the more prominent (and superior) Gothicisms in Wuthering Heights, and races past Sheridan LeFanu in two lines of text. Mahawatte delves interestingly into the earliest medical thrillers (Samuel Warren, Passages from a Diary of a Late Physician, 1830–7) and divagates on questions of nomenclature (Victorians called horror fiction “sensation fiction,” for example) but the basics get short shrift indeed.
Roger Luckhurst has a different problem to solve, as “Transitions: From Victorian Gothic to Modern Horror, 1880–1932” covers everything from Jekyll and Hyde to Cthulhu. No twenty-four-page chapter can possibly do justice to Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Machen, Bram Stoker, Algernon Blackwood, H. G. Wells, M. R. James, William Hope Hodgson, and H. P. Lovecraft, to say nothing of the numerous worthy one-hit terrors by the likes of Henry James and Oscar Wilde, or the innumerable second-tier authors (and journalists) who helped make the horror genre what it is in that age when all genres congealed on the pulp newsstand. Luckhurst refracts his discussion—taking in strains from Darwinism to imperialism—through Machen’s career, which nearly spans the entire period in question.
“Horror Fiction from the Decline of Universal Horror to the Rise of the Psycho Killer” by Bernice M. Murphy has less to take on: Shirley Jackson and Robert Bloch neatly bookend her era (roughly 1940 to 1970). Thus she can spread out and acknowledge the growing influence of film and television on horror fiction, not least in its employment of Richard Matheson, the only figure from that era equal to Jackson and Bloch. She integrates the period’s signature monsters, the evil child and the serial killer, into literary history and (less successfully) into cultural history. Devotees of this periodical will, however, cavil at the absence of Russell Kirk’s superbly reactionary ghost stories from her survey.
Steffen Hantke discusses the most economically significant period for horror in “The Rise of Popular Horror, 1971–2000” but (bizarrely) neglects the importance of economics in creating it. The emergence of the chain bookstore in the 1960s (itself driven by suburbanization and the increasing demand for paperbacks) drove publishers to buy works with mass-market potential, ideally written by authors who could be advertised as commodities. And thus were vouchsafed unto us Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Anne Rice, and Dean Koontz, along with a host of others propelled briefly into the mass market by publishers seeking the next Stephen King.
All this (save the publishorial greed for sales) is apparently invisible handiwork to Hantke, who stays at the auctorial level for the most part. His analyses of King and Straub (and precursors Ira Levin and Tom Tryon) are competent enough, although he doesn’t discuss Koontz at all. In fairness, Koontz’swork does not remotely rise to the level of his peers—but Hantke does discuss the similarly mediocre James Herbert. As one would expect Hantke also regurgitates the received wisdom that posits the horror boom as indictment of the “neoliberal makeover” of the 1980s, despite siting its beginnings in the 1970s. Still, Hantke covers a vital era in horror with a seldom-seen holistic approach, and puts “splatterpunk” into context as another last-gasp movement riding the end of the boom. “Post-Millennial Horror, 2000–16” by Aldana Reyes completes the history with a few almost independent sections discussing the “new” phenomenon of the culturally accepted horror auteur (Radcliffe and Poe might beg to differ on its novelty), new voices (typified by Joe Hill and John Ajvide Lindqvist), the “New Weird” (contemporary post-Lovecraftians, especially Laird Barron and Jeff VanderMeer), and the ubiquitous zombie craze.
The advantage of an essay anthology over a one-author volume like David Skal’s The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror in many ways reflects darkly its main disadvantage: individual voices present idiosyncratic treatments of the topic, allowing the reader to benefit (ideally) from multiple recommendations, benchmarks, and sets of priorities. Skal, for example, is an excellent tour guide, but when you walk through the horror woods with him, you only see what he wants to show you. And indeed, every chapter of this book points out several intriguing paths into the forest, from Townshend’s discussion of Anna Laetitia Akin’s critical response to Burke all the way down to Aldana Reyes’s brief introduction of the specialist horror press phenomenon.
Against that, without a panoptic view the reader (or key figures in the field such as Sheridan LeFanu and M. R. James) can get lost in the weeds. The lack of coordination between essays contributes to this bewilderment: while Monnet and Murphy give ample space to female horrorists and horrors, Townshend barely touches on the concept of the “female Gothic” and Hantke gives the ultimate Goth Anne Rice only an extended paragraph in the period when she led women writers in reclaiming their place at the top of horror’s heap. (He does examine Kathe Koja’s fiction at length, however.) As another example, six of the seven authors argue that their era’s unique cultural matrix drove its horrorists’ concern with the abject body. Perhaps, following Stephen King’s excellent survey of the postwar horror field, Danse Macabre (1981), Aldana Reyes could have encouraged his authors to address such recurring motifs as symbols rather than as symptoms.
However, as noted, such flaws are etched into the anthology process, and are likely more inescapable than even the slavering fiends this anthology briefly illuminates. Similarly, covering 250 years of cultural history is no easy feat in fewer than that number of pages: some things, even some masterpieces, inevitably fall by the wayside in the name of providing something of a general overview. Its occasional blank spots and bloodstains notwithstanding, Horror: A Literary History makes a mostly reliable and more than usually intriguing map of literature’s nightmare countries.
Kenneth Hite is a writer and game designer in Chicago. His recent works include Night’s Black Agents and The Dracula Dossier from Pelgrane Press, and two books from Osprey Publishing. His most recent works on the history of horror are Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales from Atomic Overmind Press and The Thrill of Dracula from Pelgrane Press.