From the Archives: Noble Rot
The genre of horror fiction stands alone and apart in the battlements of bookstore shelves. It’s as academically disreputable as romance but without the legions of partisans that other thrill-giver enjoys. Minus the ubiquity of Stephen King’s increasingly familiar installments of yankee kitsch, horror fiction lacks anywhere near the number of bulk-buyers and binge readers who lend to what can be a rather base emotional goad the specter of populist respectability.
To those that disdain it, horror just seems just … horrible. But giants have trod here, and they’ve left eerie craters in their wake. Some of the earliest and the best of America’s literary fathers—Hawthorne, Poe—wrote a species of horror, and a strain of it has remained with us since. Indeed, those who don’t know the dark German fantasist E.T.A. Hoffmann often credit Poe with perfecting the genre’s short story. And there’s something to that.
But did Hoffmann–or Poe–really invent anything? Isn’t Gilgamesh a horror story? Beowulf? Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
Yes and no. Such traditional stories employ scare tactics (often quite chillingly) but the pure unfiltered experience of dread, fetishistically isolated—the one a character in Robert Chambers’ collection The King in Yellow calls “a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve,” the pleasure of horror for its own sake, was not the foremost aim of those fireside stories, later piously transcribed. We had to wait for the illusion of universal Catholicism to evaporate in the West and the for Enlightenment (and the illusion of endless material progress) to take its place. Only then could our storytellers achieve the sorts of beautiful shocks that more civilized writers like Pu Songling had been delivering for hundreds of years in the long-developed East.
Soon after the genre was established, its practitioners began to seek respectability. It was the gothic romance author Anne Radcliffe who, in 1826, first thought to taxonomize horror’s various effects. Perhaps with her own unsteady reputation in mind, she proposed a new critical model: a formal declension from Terror (a sublime emotion) to Horror (run-of-the-mill) to Disgust.
Exactly one century later, American crank and prolific weirdo H. P. Lovecraft filled out Radcliffe’s description, and in so doing elevated the experience of terror to a cosmic extreme. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,” he declared in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”:
And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naïvely insipid idealism which deprecates the æsthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to “uplift” the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.
Professor Darryl Jones has clearly always been a believer in this dark joy and has probably spent his reading life mentally compiling an anthology of its finest examples. That selection has now been formally collected, corrected, and annotated in Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson from Oxford University Press. Here we find the choicest gleanings from about a hundred years of horror, mostly coinciding with “the long nineteenth century” and concluding in the early 1930s, right at the edge of still-enforceable copyright. We also have—in Jones’ introduction—one of the most thoughtful and loving overviews of the pleasures and complexities of the field you’re likely to find. He’s excellent on the forms of horror fiction:
Horror fiction, as its best practitioners (such as Poe and James) have asserted, is particularly (perhaps uniquely) suited to the short form, best enabling it to provide a unity of setting and action (and reading-experience: it can be consumed in one sitting), and to create a sustained, intensely realized atmosphere.
And he’s equally good on the primal synthesis of those forms:
But just as the Enlightenment gave birth to its own dark double, the Gothic, so too did nineteenth-century scientific materialism produce its own form of irrational monster; spiritualism … As with the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Gothic, Victorian spiritualism grew out of a profound sense that whole areas of human experience lay outside the remit of materialist philosophy.
Jones rightly reminds us of horror’s often conservative predilections. (Though he has no need to warn fans of contemporary slasher flicks that “some horror seems to police behavior with extraordinary rigor, offering up condign punishments for any transgression”; the sort of movies that frankly admit this expectation and mine it for plot fodder now nearly outnumber those that don’t.)
We tend today to think of horror as being subversive (“what are our children watching!?”), so much that we can easily forget how the accoutrements of the genre tend to enforce an ever-present fear of The Other. That other can be science, the realms beyond death, or the eternal silence of space, but it is always to be feared and even loathed. Vastly preferred is the warm spot by a roaring fire with friends and a curious yarn to ensorcell them.
London, the great imperial metropolis, and immeasurably the largest city the world had ever seen, was fictionally attacked many times around the fin de siècle, by Irish Fenians, ‘Yellow Peril’ Chinese, Transylvanian vampires, or colonizing Martians.
Luckily, this predilection has made the horror story fertile ground for post-colonial studies, ushering the genre into the academy through a sociological back door. Intellectuals and aesthetes now have a green-light to study the stuff in all its manifestations, both as a real thing (what is warfare if not pure horror, as evidenced so brilliantly in this anthology’s republication of Ambrose Bierce’s non-supernatural ”Chickamauga?) and to study horror also as an abstraction, humanity’s half-tamed effort to dramatize its ancient and amorphous fears.
The population of this nether region is not limited to revenants (fleshed ghosts) and wraiths (unfleshed ones), but includes whatever innovative or opportunistic profession contemporary society has seen fit to unleash; hence the sometimes-reactionary nature of the form. For Nathaniel Hawthorne in “The Birth-Mark” it was the promise and danger of modern chemistry. For Robert-Louis Stevenson in “The Body-Snatcher” it was vivisection. And for Algernon Blackwood in “The Wendigo” it was the unknown wilds of the North American frontier. All promise terror and all deliver it raw.
Some of the best thinkers (and, in Freud’s case, some of the most ragingly insane thinkers) have studied what it is that triggers that visceral response, that freeze of fear where we can neither bear to keep on looking nor turn away. What Freud called the uncanny (or unheimlich, un-home-like) and what anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss and Rémi Astruc call the grotesque, are essentially the same cluster of related ideas, or triggers: metamorphosis, doubling, hybridity. Years later, post-structuralist thinker Julia Kristeva applied some Lacanian thinking to that construct.
Jaques Lacan’s famous notion about “the other” is that we define ourselves against it, often with violence; Kristeva’s refinement is that ‘the other’ is an alienated part of ourselves–we carry it with us always. Freud would have nodded at all of this, und wir finden es in kindheit, in the deep waters of childhood where everything we have repressed settles out of sight but directs the currents outward, there we find what divides us from the dark nature of reality and what makes us want to leap from inside our own skin.
Freud’s essay on the uncanny (inspired by an equally-interesting essay by Ernst Jentsch on the same subject) took as its starting point the first and the most successfully scarifying tale in Jones’ bouquet, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman.” Nearly every element of 19th century horror is present in this 1816 shocker: mad scientists, antiquaries, the lure of the exotic, the fear of insanity, alchemy, a return from the dead, and, of course, memories repressed.
From this auspicious beginning, Horror Stories continues through Balzac (an excellent and presciently Poe-like haunted-house fable) and the never-actually-scary Sheridan Le Fanu. The American writers we all know and love—Melville, Hawthorne—come off as florid and blowsy compared with their less god-haunted European counterparts, but there is a lushness and a beauty in their language that the sensible English and the precision-minded French cannot compete with. As we read on, we see the short-form creeper begin to acquire not only self-consciousness but a sense of humor. Take this from Fitz-James O’Brien’s delightful romp “What Was It?” from 1859. A dandified houseguest and his compatriot share a puff of opium in the backyard of a reputedly-haunted old manse. Quite naturally, the subject of the supernatural appears:
We had talked some time upon the proneness of the human mind to mysticism, and the almost universal love of the Terrible, when Hammond suddenly said to me, “What do you consider to be the greatest element of Terror?”
The question, I own, puzzled me. That many things were terrible, I knew. Stumbling over a corpse in the dark; beholding, as I once did, a woman floating down a deep and rapid river, with wildly lifted arms, and awful, upturned face, uttering, as she sank, shrieks that rent one’s heart, while we, the spectators, stood frozen at a window which overhung the river at a height of sixty feet, unable to make the slightest effort to save her, but dumbly watching her last supreme agony and her disappearance. A shattered wreck, with no life visible, encountered floating listlessly on the ocean, is a terrible object, for it suggests a huge terror, the proportions of which are veiled. But it now struck me for the first time that there must be one great and ruling embodiment of fear, a King of Terrors to which all others must succumb. What might it be? To what train of circumstances would it owe its existence?
The narrator, to his misfortune, discovers that King of Terrors that very night in the form of an invisible assailant. That O’Brien is largely forgotten is a pity. Like a lot of horror pioneers, he was a noble hack, and we ought to remember him better for it.
Most anthologies of genre fiction find themselves choosing one of two diverging paths. They tend either to be representative or eccentric, constructing either an accepted canon, or one that casts our expectations to the wind.
The third choice, of course, is to beat a new path that winds back and forth between the other two and that’s what Jones does here. He chooses Poe’s story of necrophilic incest, “Bernise,” instead of “The Masque of the Red Death” or “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He sticks with Dickens’ “No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal Man”— a mainstay of such collections —but wisely swaps in Bram Stoker’s murderous-cat-knocks-a-guy-into-the-iron-maiden story “The Squaw” in place of the too-familiar “Dracula’s Guest.”
In the course of his years of reading and researching Jones has lit on some bizarre gems too, like Ronald Ross’ perfectly eccentric “The Vivisector Vivisected.” Here, a crazed anatomist thieves a body to reanimate, only to discover too late that the former corpse belongs to his recently-departed brother (the brother, American by way of Ireland, speaks in a patois and with an accent of which no linguist has ever heard tell). Here, a student of the mad Maculligan narrates the doctor’s address to his victim/patient. What, the patient understandably asks, is this Frankenstein-manque to do with him now that he’s been reanimated?
“We shall not do more than tie up your bile duct and establish a fistula in your side to-day, friend,” said Maculligan, winking at me.
“And will you do that? Oh! crikey?”
“To-morrow we are going to lay out a piece of your mesentery under the microscope to see the blood circulate.”
“Oh, sammy! And what ‘ull yer do the day arter?”
“See how much of your brains we can slice off without stopping your thinking.”
“Why, yer don’t imagine I think with the pit of my stomich, do yer? One blessing yer’ll have to lave it soon, for there ‘ull never be a pickin’ place left on me carcase.”
“Not a bit of it, my dear sir,” roared Maculligan, who seemed mad from excitement. “You heal up in one place as soon as we on on to another.”
“Well, that knocks all hope out of me. But what are ye doin’ now?”
“Injecting you with donkey’s blood to see if you will bray.”
With the triumph of movies a century past and the long drawn-out decrepitude of the general-interest magazine, popular images of horror gradually migrated from the page to the screen. This is not to say great work wasn’t done in the short-form in mid-century (by, among others, John Collier, Fritz Leiber, Shirley Jackson) or that it isn’t still being done (Poppy Z. Brite, Brian Evenson, and Adam Golaski are some of the names worth knowing here). But these are the kinds of tales you have to be an aficionado to find—they don’t find you.
It would be fascinating to read Darryl Jones’ contemporary anthology, but there is plenty to keep us engaged in the book we already have. All of the stories are annotated, often brilliantly. We probably don’t need to be reminded that tallow is used for making candles, but we’re only the richer for learning that both Tony Blair and James Bond are graduates of the exclusive boy’s school Fettes, or that the Suwanee River supplies the namesake for the nakedly racist ditty that still serves as the official state song of Florida. How’s that for horror?
One nice thing about the way these old penny-dreadfuls have aged is that, unlike old comedy, which dies with exposure to too much air, old horror gradually acquires the add-on value of camp, like a kind of noble rot. This is a saving compensation when the things that once frightened us when they sprang down from the attic no longer cause us to flee in terror but to set out the tea service for two. But it’s irrelevant where the good stuff is concerned. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” remain as disconcerting as they ever were. And if you’re not personally scared out of your wits by E. F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower” I’ll personally carry the refund price of the hardcover, in cash, directly to your house. I’ll show up when you’re not at home. I’ll be hiding there, in the dark, waiting for you, sharpening my pen and grinning wide.