Happy New Year!
My new book, Horror Fiction in the 20th Century, is out on January 31st. (Amazon; Barnes and Noble; Powell’s). It turned out pretty well, I think, and even those of you who’ve read a lot of horror fiction should find some surprises within it, some authors you didn’t know about that you’ll want to search out, and in general that it’s a good read and a good guide to the horror literature of the twentieth century.
I hope to have some good news on the promotional front eventually (and will of course post the reviews of the book here), but to whet your appetites, I thought I’d post an excerpt from the book here.
The following is from Chapter Four, “Horror in the Mainstream,” in which I describe the horror fiction that was published in mainstream venues (rather than genre magazines) during the first four decades of the twentieth century.
The Creation of the Mainstream
The American idea that literature consists of, essentially, High Art and Low Art—mainstream literature and genre literature, realism and the fantastic, the serious and the popular—is a creation of the post–Civil War years and was invented by William Dean Howells and James T. Fields, the two editors of Atlantic Monthly, by a select group of Atlantic writers, and by
an alliance between the belletristic branch of the publishing industry and the Boston bourgeoisie . . . in practical terms, it arose from a set of interlocking institutional, social, and aesthetic relations that joined prominent publishing houses such as Ticknor & Fields and Houghton, Mifflin with influential literary journals, a particular collection of editors and writers who circulated among those magazines, and a small but highly influential and socially prominent readership.1
The controversies arising from the literary pronouncements of the “Atlantic group” and their backers, and from their construction of what was “literary” and what was not, dwindled at the turn of the twentieth century so that, by 1900, the influence of the Atlantic and its peer magazines was fading. “What one finds in the Atlantic group instead, at the opening of the twentieth century, is a proliferation of classifications for the fiction currently being produced, some of which discursively echo the debates about realism and other forms that engrossed reviewers in previous decades. . . .”2
By the 1920s, the present system of genre fiction, with what Michael Denning calls “its reified categories,”3 was in place. Before then, genres were far more miscible, their borders much more porous, so that the elements of what would later be seen as genre fiction could appear in mainstream literature without raising a critic’s or reader’s eyebrows. H. G. Wells could publish War of the Worlds and have the book be taken seriously by High Art devotees; so too with Marie Corelli and The Sorrows of Satan.
The 1920s cleavage between the serious and the popular had a sizable impact on how genre literature would be viewed and sold. For horror writers, those who wrote primarily horror fiction, it condemned them to a literary ghetto, one disrespected even by the standards of genre literature. (While Edmund Wilson would famously ask, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” no less a figure than T. S. Eliot would write approving reviews of them, and Vladimir Nabokov was a fan of them,4 but these were forms of approval that High Art critics would never deign to bestow on lowly horror fiction). Mainstream writers conversely could act the tourists and enjoy the money and the fun, while not being tarnished by the label “horror writer.”
Before the Great War
Horror, like science fiction and mysteries and Westerns, was seen by critics and reviewers as a separate genre, but publishers had not yet reacted to this new approach by segregating horror books into individual publishing houses or lines. In 1905, G. P. Putnam published Myrtle Reed’s horror novel At the Sign of the Jack O’Lantern alongside Albert Bielschowsky’s The Life of Goethe and a study of the novels of Henry James, just as Harper Brothers, a year later, published Van Tassel Sutphen’s science fiction novel The Doomsman alongside Lew Wallace’s autobiography, Frederick Jackson Turner’s Rise of the New West, 1819–1829, and William Dean Howells’s Their Husbands’ Wives.
Similarly, the major magazine publishers did not bring out a wave of genre pulps in the 1900s, despite the dime novel publishers having successfully published genre dime novels since 1860. The first genre pulp, Railroad Man’s Magazine, appeared in 1906, but it catered to a very specific market—fans and employees of railroads—rather than to fans of a genre, making it more akin to the hyper-specialized pulps of the 1930s than to the later genre pulps. The first true genre pulps would not appear for another nine years.
There were a number of American dabblers in horror in the years before World War I, but only three major mainstream authors who also wrote significant amounts of horror fiction or stories of superior quality.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Jack London was a successful journalist and fiction writer and was turning out work as quickly as possible—including horror stories. He was no believer in the fantastic, but London was a working writer, and horror, whether science fictional or supernatural, was a genre in which stories could be sold and money could be made. London’s thirteen horror stories, published from 1889 to 1903, are told in the terse, naturalistic prose style that he made famous, and usually involve the revelation of the innate evil of men or animals. London’s horror fiction could be called West Coast school style, but for London’s independence from Bierce and the group of writers he mentored. Nonetheless, London’s horror stories have the imagination of the West Coast writers as well as the departure from the traditional (i.e., East Coast school) norms of horror fiction.
William Dean Howells wrote ten horror stories between 1902 and 1907. The stories are not highly regarded by most critics of horror; a typical comment is S. T. Joshi’s sneer that “the element of terror, or even the supernatural, in these stories, is so attenuated . . . that the overall effect is a kind of pale-pink weirdness entirely in keeping with the era in which they were written.”5 Critics less wedded to horror fiction tend to be more objective, noting instead the contradiction between Howells’s belief that fiction should spring from the observation of ordinary life and his use of the supernatural. These critics describe the result as “told in a sophisticated rather than a sensational way,”6 and “slow and deliberately unsensational, these stories are interesting as earnest attempts to dissolve the characteristic forms of psychic phenomena into a skeptical worldview, where apparitions become mysterious products of the mind of the beholder.”7 Howells’s horror work should be understood as concerned primarily with the consequences of abnormal psychology and unhealthy obsessions, and only secondarily (if at all) with achieving the terror effect of most horror stories.
Olivia Howard Dunbar was known in her lifetime as a prominent and popular New York City writer, the author of numerous well-reviewed short stories and biographies. Now, however, she is known primarily for her horror stories. Dunbar was a member of what Jessica Amanda Salmonson calls the 1900–1920 “renaissance” in ghost fiction8 and was both a writer of horror and a historian and theorist of it, writing two articles in 1905 and 1912, respectively, that analyzed the contemporary state of the ghost story. Dunbar’s horror fiction emphasizes naturalism in its settings and realism in the psychology of its characters, and is notable for Dunbar’s subtle, well-turned prose. Dunbar’s horror output was small—four stories in all—but they stand comparison with the stories of the best of the East Coast school writers, whose influences were much the same as Dunbar’s.
London, Howells, and Dunbar are the best known of the American mainstream writers to write horror fiction before the start of World War I. If they have one thing in common, it is the influence of the realistic narrative style. Dunbar’s prose style is some distance from that of London, but Dunbar still adheres to the realism, psychological, and narrative, which was the vogue at that time.
As in America, there were a number of English mainstream writers who penned the occasional horror story for their own collections of short stories or for the popular magazines, but only three of these authors wrote a number of exceptional horror stories.
Violet Hunt was in her time a notable writer, an important early feminist, one of the archetypal Edwardian New Women, and the model for several fictional New Women characters. Her novels have not endured as well as her horror stories, however, which are of excellent quality and place her solidly among the second rank of British horror writers during the 1901–1939 era. Her eleven horror stories combine her feminism with an emphasis on psychology, in the Henry Jamesian mold. James was a friend and admitted influence on Hunt’s horror fiction and was responsible for naming her second collection of horror stories, but it can be argued that Hunt is, if anything, James’s superior in the writing of horror and that she should be considered as a British Edith Wharton and as a proto–Joyce Carol Oates. Her stories range from the ironic to the somber but are almost always restrained and subtle.
Hunt’s horror was original not for her plots or themes, which were for the most part traditional ghost stories and contes cruel, but for her treatment of psychology and character and for the use to which she put the supernatural. Hunt uses the supernatural subtly, to create a chilling sense of unease, while emphasizing the despair, mental cruelty, errant passions, malfunctioning relationships, and psychological torment of her characters. Many of the stories are semi-autobiographical, featuring “sensitive but independent heroines involved with men who are too weak to contribute emotionally to the relationship.”9
John Masefield achieved fame as a poet and as the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1930 to 1967. However, in his early years, he produced substantial work as a commercial writer, including two collections of sea stories, A Mainsail Haul (1905) and A Tarpaulin Muster (1907), of which most were horror stories. Masefield did not tell William Hope Hodgson–style horror stories—indeed, Masefield’s sea horror stories predate those of Hodgson—but rather stories that combine traditional nautical folklore with a poet’s language and a keen grasp of nautical detail. Masefield’s horror stories, though certainly entertaining and chilling, are more nineteenth rather than twentieth century, obviously pre-Machen quartet, and are far closer to the traditional work of a Quiller-Couch than the modern and innovative work of a Hodgson.
H. Munro, known by his pseudonym “Saki,” was in his time both popular and important. Known and liked for his short fiction and the style in which he wrote—“it guaranteed for the sophisticated reader a certain kind of ironic, perversely amusing short tale, often reminiscent of O. Henry in its laconic surprise ending and of Oscar Wilde in its stylistic sting and witty turn of phrase”10—he was an influence on Noel Coward, Evelyn Waugh, and P. G. Wodehouse during and after his lifetime. But he abandoned his best weapon—satire—in his horror fiction. In his mainstream fiction, he wielded satire as a weapon against his enemies, the boors, twits, domestic tyrants, and callous members of the upper classes. But horror, especially the supernatural variety, seemed to hold a special place in Saki’s heart; horror was, however unconsciously, the instrument with which he could come to grips most directly with the unpleasantnesses of life, with the effects of his own miserably unhappy childhood, and with the end-product of his sardonic outlook on life. In his horror, he didn’t use satire to attack his enemies; instead, he used plot, theme, and character and, if need be, a story’s narration itself. Saki never abandoned his trademark wit and incisiveness in his horror fiction, which are an epitome of a certain type of Edwardian horror, and his horror stories are the equal of his mainstream stories. But viewed through the lens of his personal life, they take on an extra poignancy.