A Hideous Bit of Morbidity | EXCERPT |
“The history of the Victorian age,” Lytton Strachey said in Eminent Victorians, his 1918 evisceration of the era, “will never be written: we know too much about it” [n.1]. Of course, Strachey came not to praise the Victorians but to bury them. The purpose of this volume is altogether different, but on one thing we must steadfastly agree with the eminent author: The Victorians (and their immediate predecessors) “poured forth and accumulated so great a quantity of information” [n.2] that it is virtually impossible to gain a hold on the vast torrent of verbiage spilled in the newspapers, magazines, and books of the era, even when we restrict our inquiry to a single subject; in this case, the literature of fear. However, the daunting challenge of sifting through the detritus has too often resulted in a cultural amnesia in which the opinions of past critics sink like forgotten fossils beneath each new layer of intellectual sedimentation. True, a few excavators, mainly in the academy, occasionally raise the bones of an old review or critical essay, choosing a few choice words to adorn a new piece, but there is rarely a concerted effort to put together a large-scale collection that preserves the flavor of the era on its own terms.
The present volume aims to serve as a repository of the cultural reaction to horror literature from its inception in the eighteenth century through the First World War, the conflict that brought to a close the first great age of terror tales and launched the modern horror genre, from which we have yet to emerge. In order to more fully explain the conception and execution of the text to follow, I will first briefly sketch the major contours of horror literature and the critical reaction to it before proceeding to explain the rules which govern the selection of material herein. (Except when noted, all of the quotations in the sections to follow are from articles reprinted in the present volume.)
A Literature of Fear
Prior to the First World War, there was no “horror genre” in the sense we consider it today. That beast was an outgrowth of a change in how frightening tales were produced and consumed during the early twentieth century, when horror passed from mainstream literature to the pulp fiction ghetto. Instead, what we think of today as “horror literature” was first conceived as wondrous, fantastic, grotesque, or arabesque tales, where the supernatural intruded into domestic melodrama and sensation mixed with romance. Traditionally, scholars assign the genre’s inception to the moment when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto in 1764, though it is as much an outgrowth of the Romantic Movement and its reaction to the rational excesses of the Enlightenment as it is the work of any one man. Walpole’s bloody ghost story was set in a medieval fortress, from whose architecture derives the name given to the book and its imitators: the Gothic novel.
In the novel, the sudden and dramatic appearance of the ghost “may be taken as a symbol and type of the suddenness with which supernatural terror was re-introduced into English,” the scholar Walter Raleigh wrote in 1894, crediting the novel with originality but not with quality. Otranto had taken its coloring from Edmund Burke, the British philosopher who in 1757 had outlined in his treatise “On the Sublime and Beautiful” the manifold ways that terror could produce transcendence: including dark and stormy nights, massive architecture, screams—the entire panoply of Gothic clichés, which of course were then new. In Otranto was Burke’s philosophy turned to terror. Most Gothic tales thereafter looked back toward the Middle Ages, and a ghost or two were essential to the execution of a properly sensational story. The Gothic writers who followed, including Matthew Lewis and Ann Radcliffe, remained popular through the early nineteenth century; and Gothic novels, stories, and stage plays had become a lucrative and prolific species of literature.
Of course, many contemporary critics were gravely concerned that these ghostly goings-on would unduly confound the common man into believing in the reality of the supernatural (an elitist position shared by three centuries of horror critics). The publisher Rudolph Ackermann went so far as to create in 1823 an entire book of faux-Gothic tales which ended in the revelation that each story’s ghost was an illusion or a hoax to show “ignorant or credulous persons” that “no ghost is there.” More to the point, the essayist Nathan Drake wrote in 1798 that even the “most enlightened mind, the mind free from all taint of superstition, involuntarily acknowledges the power of gothic agency; and the late favourable reception which two or three publications in this style have met with, is a convincing proof of the assertion.” But The Monthly Review had fewer concerns about the impact of Gothic horror: “Spectres will lose their claim to reverence if they become too common,” they wrote in 1799, and surely enough the Gothic school of ghostly terror soon outwore its welcome when its output exceeded demand by too high a quotient.
Though some Enlightenment critics attacked the Gothic, many Romantics rose up to defend it. Sir Walter Scott, himself no stranger to horror writing, argued for its merit in a piece eulogizing Ann Radcliffe:
Perhaps the perusal of such works may, without injustice, be compared with the use of opiates, baneful, when habitually and constantly resorted to, but of most blessed power in those moments of pain and of languor, when the whole head is sore, and the whole heart sick. If those who rail indiscriminately at this species of composition, were to consider the quantity of actual pleasure which it produces, and, the much greater proportion of real sorrow and distress which it alleviates, their philanthropy ought to moderate their critical pride, or religious intolerance.
At the time that the Gothic was fading in Europe, the American authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe produced an indigenous literature of the macabre, and in Europe the young Mary Shelley forever changed the direction of horror by marrying the atmosphere of Gothicism to contemporary concerns over the role of science in society in her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818). Shelley’s work attracted mixed reviews from the same types of critics who argued over the Gothic. Scott thought it a miracle of rare genius, but the more conservative John Croker raged that the foul book “fatigues the feelings without interesting the understanding; it gratuitously harasses the heart, and wantonly adds to the store, already too great, of painful sensations.” He also thought Shelley was mentally ill, a frequent ad hominem complaint about horror authors.
Poe fared little better. A mid-nineteenth century biographical entry in Robert Chambers’ Book of Days said that the master storyteller “lived, from the cradle to the grave, on the verge of madness, when he was not absolutely mad,” and therefore his works were those of insanity. W. C. Brownell, the literary critic, complained in 1909 that Poe made “exclusive appeal to the nerves” and therefore did not write true literature. Fortunately, such opinions were balanced by critics like Charles Sears Baldwin and Paul Elmer More, who strove to enshrine Poe in the American pantheon of major authors. Poe’s successors, Fitz-James O’Brien and Ambrose Bierce, benefitted from the passion of their predecessor and experienced a more favorable reception.
Midcentury onward found horror turning away from Gothic ghostliness toward a series of monsters that bridged the gap between human and animal, much the way the contemporary Charles Darwin linked man to beast in his Origin of Species (1859). John Polidori, James Malcolm Rhymer, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and Bram Stoker all penned well-known stories of vampires. H. G. Wells wrote of invaders from another world and mad scientists in this one. Robert Louis Stevenson created the dual life of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Arthur Machen wrote of the fluid line between humankind and monsters from beyond our ken. Such works were popularly successful, but the critics who wrote, analyzed, and safeguarded English literature were less taken with them. “Unrelieved horror is not satisfactory material for fiction,” wrote the Literary World in a review of one of Conan Doyle’s horror collections.
The humorist and critic Walter Parke wrote in 1872 that popular horror stories like Rhymer’s Varney the Vampire (previously attributed to Thomas Preskett Prest) were “an evil of considerable magnitude, for which a remedy is urgently needed” because inexpensive “penny dreadful” paperback books encouraged impressionable youth to idolize monsters, highwaymen, pirates, and other unsavory characters, whereas true literature was uplifting and imparted morality and virtue. Even in praising J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian vampire tale “Carmilla,” a reviewer of 1881 warned parents to “make haste not to place [it] in the hands of the young.” On the other hand, Bram Stoker’s Dracula earned mixed but less outraged reception in London, and generally strong praise in the United States. Stevenson’s Jekyll was near-universally heralded as a masterpiece of literature, perhaps because it wasn’t aimed at Varney’s impressionable working-class audience but at intelligent, higher-class readers for whom it was less morally dangerous.
Perhaps no single work of the period was responsible for angrier commentary than Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (1894), a story that received several good reviews from newspapers and a string of negative evaluation from the old guard, who considered it too “intense” and morally unfounded. “Too morbid to be the production of a healthy mind,” wrote the elderly critic Richard Henry Stoddard. The art critic Harry Quilter seemed near to a paroxysm of rage upon reading “Pan,” resorting as always to the implication of insanity:
There is but one point of view from which such writing can be tolerated, and that is the point of view of those who deny that there is any obligation, any responsibility laid upon a writer not to produce unwholesome work. ... Why should we tolerate in our fiction that which we could not tolerate in our conversation or our life? Why should we allow a novelist to describe abortions, moral and physical, which in reality would full us with horror and disgust? … Why should he be allowed, for the sake of a few miserable pounds, to cast into our midst these monstrous creations of his diseased brain?
But yet it sold, and was praised by those who represented the more libertine future beyond Victoria’s reign. However, even the period’s visual arts did not escape the critics’ ire. J. Charles Cox savaged Philip Burne-Jones’s The Vampire (1897), a painting depicting a female vampire atop a recumbent male—a subversive inversion of traditional vampire stories—as “uselessly morbid.” This, one must remember, came in the context of a culture besotted by death, which preserved post mortem photographs of the dead as treasured keepsakes, and whose exemplar, Queen Victoria, spent most of her life in mourning.
Nearer the century’s end and into the twentieth, authors produced a volume of ghost stories unparalleled before and largely unmatched since. This they did largely in response to the Spiritualist movement, a belief originating in the United States which held that the souls of the dead could be contacted through “mediums,” women (and some men) who had the gift to act as receivers for their energies and could channel them by rapping on tables, talking in trances, or automatic writing. Such beliefs fueled the market for ghostly fiction to compliment the belief in ghostly fact. These stories, more traditional than the monsters and hallowed by more than a century of Gothic tradition, received greater critical praise, if not acceptance.
In 1898 Henry Wysham Lanier commended Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), saying it “puts to shame by its penetrating force and quiet ghastliness the commonplace, unreal ‘horrors’ of the ordinary ghost-story.” Ten years later Ward Clark praised Gouverneur Morris’s ghostly collection The Footprint (1908), but warned that “morbid efforts have no rightful place in our healthy Anglo-Saxon literature” so the author had best write stories “more like those that the great American public is used to reading,” that is, sentimental romances. In 1910 Frederic Taber Cooper wrote off Robert Hichens’s ghost story “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” (1900) simply as “a hideous bit of morbidity.” With such views, it was no wonder then that Olivia Howard Dunbar proclaimed “The Decay of the Ghost in Fiction” in 1905 and hoped for a revitalization of the ghost story at some future date.
On the eve of the First World War, scholars and critics had only just begun to see Gothic novels, monster stories, and ghost tales as part and parcel of a single genre, horror. Before this, the literature of fear had not yet been clearly distinguished from related works in tales of mystery and detection (both Poe and Conan Doyle, for example, were active in both fields), or science fiction and fantasy (which are not wholly separate even today). Dorothy Scarborough offered the era’s most thorough exploration of horror in her The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917), though for her the presence of the supernatural was the sine qua non of her study—“a significant and vital phase of our literature.” As a result, her work did not distinguish between horror, fantasy, mystery, fairy tales, or religious works, as all included elements from a realm beyond the material plane. Any opus that could call Ben-Hur and Dracula part and parcel of the same species of literature left something to be desired.
That was where horror stood as World War I ground to its unsatisfactory conclusion. In the years that followed, the American horror master H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) would finally define the horror genre as such in his miniature masterpiece Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927). Unique to Lovecraft, his definition of the genre was that which all critics today take as self-evident: it is literature dealing with the emotion of fear, or as Lovecraft put it: “The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim” [n.3]. Though Lovecraft scrupulously exempted the non-supernatural tale of gruesomeness, such as some of Poe’s studies of morbid psychology, horror would eventually come to embrace forms of earth-bound terror along with the supernatural horror he favored.
But Lovecraft’s own fiction—the Cthulhu Mythos—did not receive the same reception as Ambrose Bierce, or even Arthur Machen. Those authors and the others whose work is examined in these pages, along with their critics, published in best-selling books, in well-circulated major magazines and even in big city newspapers. During the nineteenth century horror literature was a division of mainstream discourse, at or near the head of the column of authors marching into battle to compete for readers’ and critics’ attention. In time, its works became part of the standard literary canon. In Lovecraft’s time, though, horror was in retreat. It no longer commanded the best magazines or the attention of the greatest critics. Instead, horror stories moved down-market into the so-called “pulp” magazines, those low-cost publications aimed at a lower-class mass audience, where horror became a genre in the worst sense of the word, competing with (and losing to) such rivals as the detective genre, the Western genre, and the railroad genre. Quality had not diminished—in fact Lovecraft’s fiction rivaled that of Poe as horror’s finest—but it lost respectability, which it never fully regained, as the vogue for realist and modern fiction led critics to reject any genre tainted with the stench of Victorianism. Forever after horror would remain in a literary ghetto, separate but unequal, bastard cousin to literary fiction, the “true” literature.
But for a glorious century and a half, from The Castle of Otranto through guns of August, horror literature was at the forefront of English letters (if not critical respectability). For this reason, if for no other, the opinions and ideas of those who experienced this literary phenomenon first hand are vital to understanding the development of a genre now too often seen as a bloody mess on the fringes of the respectable. I hope this volume goes some ways toward resurrecting the forgotten history of horror, and the ways contemporaries viewed the developing genre.
About the Book
Those who wrote and published between the 1750s and 1917, the years covered by this volume, produced an impossibly vast collection of texts, so vast in fact that no one could seriously attempt to read all of it. It seems somewhat strange to say this today, given the vastness of our modern output, which each year dwarfs all the written material of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, it is true, and as a result much of the nineteenth century (if you will allow me to abbreviate the period’s name somewhat) conversation about horror has understandably faded away as ever more modern critiques and analyses take their place. Much of the material included in this volume has remained out of print since its first publication one or two centuries ago, confined to dusty library shelves or even microfilm, virtually lost. Because there was no defined horror genre in the nineteenth century, these pieces were not indexed as criticism thereof; and Victorian tables of contents being what they were, discovering their very existence was in places a trying task. For this reason, if for no other, this volume returns these critical masterpieces to print in one accessible place.
Because of the quantity of literary criticism the Victorians produced, I have tried to institute some rules to govern selection of materials for this book in order to prevent any one author from monopolizing space and in order to provide for a diversity of opinions on a range of topics, both well known and obscure.
1. I have limited this volume to non-fiction works.
2. I have given over the majority of space to pieces covering literature, with occasional forays into drama, the visual arts, and so on.
3. I have restricted the material covered to discussion and criticism of published works. This is not a book about writing horror fiction, so I have excluded horror authors’ diary entries, letters, and explications of their own work or the writing process.
4. I have limited each author reprinted in the volume to two pieces to provide a greater range of opinion and have limited the number of pieces dealing primarily with any one horror story or author to cover a greater range of works.
5. Lastly, I have favored out-of-print or rare pieces at the expense of frequently reprinted works. In a few exceptional pieces, like Harry Quilter’s “The Gospel of Intensity,” are reproduced in full even though the specific criticism of horror is limited to a portion of the article because the cumulative effect of the argument and the context in which it is delivered are as important as the specific criticisms themselves.
Of course, no book of literary criticism can be comprehensive either in the scope of literature surveyed or in the range of criticism presented, and this book makes no claim to be definitive, only useful and, I hope, entertaining.
I have roughly divided the book into several categories—by no means definitive—that provide a loose framework for collecting horror criticism. The first section explores “Fear, Terror, and Supernatural,” providing a background for the development of horror. The next section views the “Gothics and Their Successors,” the first wave of horror writers. Following that, we turn to “Poe and His Successors,” the American (and one French) writers who produced short fiction in Poe’s macabre vein. Thereafter, we explore “Monsters of the Gilded Age,” focusing on stories of vampires and other beastly creatures. A section on “Fin de Siècle Terror, Science, and Detection” the relationship between horror, science fiction, and mystery and detective stories at century’s end. “Ghosts and Kindred Horrors” looks at the Spiritualist-inspired ghostly fiction of the terminal nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A final section presents pieces looking “Toward a Horror Genre,” which attempted to define the literature of fear as a distinct literary tradition.
In addition, I have headed each article or excerpt with a brief explanation of its context, providing background on the author(s) or work(s) discussed in the piece, a brief biography of the article’s author (when information is known—some have vanished into the mists of time), and the original place of publication for the article. I have equipped the articles with a few explanatory notes for now-obscure references or un-documented quotations; however, I have presumed the reader is at least somewhat familiar with horror literature and has an awareness of its major authors and their works so lengthy annotation of these would be unnecessary. For convenience, I have included an appendix with a chronology of the major pieces of horror literature discussed in these pages for ease of reference.
The pieces you are about to read cover the full range of the history of horror, and they represent a diversity of opinions. Here you will find articles from newspapers and magazines, scholarly criticism, excerpts from popular and academic books, and a few personal letters, poems, and advertisements. The writers encountered here loved horror, hated it, thought it high art, or considered it dangerous, vulgar, and unworthy. In other words, the critics of the nineteenth century were every bit the same as the critics of our own day. Their thoughts about the literature of fear are very much with us today, and continue to define the way modern society views horror. Their praise of the genre’s imagination helped canonize Victorian horror among the classics of English literature, and their rage at horror’s violence, sexuality, and vulgarity echoes our own discomfort with the genre’s excesses and hackwork.
To take but one example: When the National Book Foundation awarded current grand master of horror, Stephen King, a National Book Award in 2003 for his contribution to American letters, Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom exclaimed, “He is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls. That they could believe that there is any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony of their own idiocy.”4 How far was this from W. C. Brownell’s complaint that Poe lacked substance, or Harry Quilter’s claim that the morbid was not true art?
Alternately, though, Victorian horror criticism reminds us how much we lose when we forget the history and traditions that underpin the genre. In this volume sits a 1908 discussion—written by a man of the cloth—of the tradition of the Christmas ghost story, “that strange chill of the blood, that creeping kind of feeling all over you, which is one of the enjoyments of Christmastide.” Contrast that with the recent furor of fundamentalist religious groups outraged that horror movies played in theaters on Christmas Day: “It’s not enough to ignore and omit Christmas, but now it has to be offended, insulted and desecrated … Our most sacred holiday, actually a holy day, is being assaulted.”5 Ignorant of history, this vitriol has become an annual event sponsored by the same groups who preach a return to the moral virtue of past centuries.
Therefore, to review the history of horror is to avoid repeating and fighting anew the same battles waged one or two centuries ago. To engage the critics of the nineteenth century is to view horror through a different set of cultural assumptions and a different framework of critical theory—in other words, to find something new and different among the very old and to commune for a moment with a past that, like the best horror monsters, refuses to stay dead.
1. Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians (New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 1918): p. v.
3. H. P. Lovecraft, The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature, edited by S. T. Joshi (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2000): p. 23.
4. David D. Kirkpatrick, “A Literary Award for Stephen King,” The New York Times, September 15, 2003, E1, E5.
5. “Black Christmas Not Merry for Religious Groups,” CBC, December 15, 2006, <http://www.cbc.ca/arts/story/2006/12/15/black-christmas-protest.html>.
"Introduction" is excerpted from "A Hideous Bit of Morbidity": An Anthology of Horror Criticism from the Enlightenment to World War I by Jason Colavito (McFarland, 2009). This work is copyright © 2009 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved. Reproduction is prohibited without the express written permission of the author and McFarland.