To celebrate the release of the new paperback edition of my horror criticism anthology A Hideous Bit of Morbidity, here's one of the dozens of rare and fascinating pieces you'll find within. Be sure to order your copy of the book today for more articles like this one on Irvin S. Cobb, an author whose story "Fishhead" was an inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."
Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944) is today best remembered as a humorist, when he is remembered at all, but in his own day he was known for the horror stories he wrote as well as his humor. His best-known tale is “Fishhead” (1911), a tale of the murder of the fish-like son of “a negro father and a half-breed Indian mother,” which served as a model for H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” In this excerpt from an anonymous review in the “Chronicle and Comment” column of The Bookman for March 1913, the editors argue that Robert H. Davis, an editor and friend of Cobb, had overestimated the author’s talents in a pamphlet praising him.
Concerning Irvin Cobb
While we are not yet ready to concede to Mr. Irvin S. Cobb the place that has lately been claimed for him by some of his more enthusiastic admirers, we do not question the fact that he must be regarded rather seriously. He is still a young man, and, in the natural course of events, should have many years’ more activity. Therefore, his achievement, which up to the present time has been considerable, is of secondary importance. What counts is what he may eventually accomplish. Then, while regarding his admirers as somewhat extravagant, it is impossible not to be a little impressed by what they profess to think of him. For example, one cannot entirely ignore a little pamphlet entitled Who’s Cobb and Why, written by Mr. Robert H. Davis. Now Mr. Davis’s opinion may have been somewhat influenced by personal friendship, or by his liking for the particular flavour of Mr. Cobb’s stories. But we can’t forget that during the last ten years Mr. Davis has probably read, or at least accepted and rejected, more fiction than any other editor on earth. To Irvin Cobb he pays the following extraordinary tribute:
* * *
Now this is lavish praise indeed, so lavish that we are inclined to shy from it. There have been men in the history of the writing of books to merit it. But as yet we hesitate to endorse it in the case of Mr. Irvin Cobb. We have in mind one particular story by Mr. Cobb about which Mr. Davis’s opinion is not our opinion. That story is called “Fishhead.” “Fishhead,” according to Mr. Cobb, is the best horror story he has ever written, and yet it was the one manuscript that he was unable to sell until the Cavalier printed it as a so-called “daring experiment” in its issue of January 11th . With the story appeared the letters of a number of magazine editors to whom it had been sent, who had admired it for its qualities, but had feared to print it, for, as one of them wrote: “I like red blood stories, but our readers are not educated up to raw beef—yet.” Mr. Davis’s comments leave little room for doubt that he regards “Fishhead” as one of the great short stories of the world, and one of the great horror stories of all time. That is just one of the reasons why we hesitate to accept Mr. Davis’s judgment.
* * *
Now “Fishhead” is a good story—there is not any doubt about that. But it is not a great story, and it is not even a big horror story if we gauge such a story by the thrill it inspires. As a matter of fact, on that basis, the world has not produced very many great horror stories. Poe in America, and Guy de Maupassant in France, are regarded as the masters of that type of tale. But how many of Poe’s stories inspire in a reader the feeling of actual terror? The mere quality of the story does not count. For example, take Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” Poe’s tale is literature, and Doyle’s is not. Poe’s tale is art from the first line to the last, and Doyle’s tale is a crude, illogical and slovenly written narrative. Yet the most impressionable reader is not likely to derive from “The Fall of the House of Usher” more than a passing thrill, while the most hardened reader cannot go through “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” for the first time without a positive creeping of the flesh. The reason is that with Poe the high key is struck at the beginning and maintained throughout. The warning of impending horror neutralises the final effect. And Mr. Cobb’s “Fishhead” is neither “The House of Usher” in its quality, nor “The Speckled Band” in its thrill. […]
Reproduced from A Hideous Bit of Morbidity: An Anthology of Horror Criticism from the Enlightenment to World War I (McFarland, 2008/2012). Selection and prefatory note © 2008 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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