Origins (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
To the modern reader, the stories that make up the mythology and folklore of ancient cultures are largely supernatural. Whether the storytellers originally responsible for composing, adding to, and passing on these stories necessarily thought in terms of “natural” and “supernatural” is debatable, yet the existence of such classical works as Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1867) by Ovid suggests that such a distinction eventually became clear. Ovid’s stories in verse are based upon Latin mythology and deal with transformations—metamorphoses—of humans into plants and animals, a theme destined to become common in what came to be recognized as supernatural literature.
Much later collections in the same general vein include Alf layla wa-layla (fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706-1708). Drawn from much earlier sources in Persia and Arabia, this mammoth collection has been the inspiration for innumerable other works and was translated in its most complete English version (1885-1886) by explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton. Rivaling The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments in scope and surpassing them in influence in the Western world are the tales that make up the cycle about the (perhaps) legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
The stories, characters, and themes preserved in these and many other collections have...
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The Gothic School (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Although little gothic literature is read today, the movement and the impulse behind it have significantly affected modern literature. Ostensibly an eighteenth century revival of interest in medieval architecture and related matters, the movement involved a reintroduction of mystery, awe, and wonder into literature and life. The movement was born with The Castle of Otranto (1765), Horace Walpole’s wildly extravagant tale of a haunted castle riddled with secret passages and riven with dark plots. This short novel stood in direct contrast to the domesticated and emotionally desiccated literature of the period, and gave vent to feelings routinely denied and suppressed at the time. The work quickly attracted imitators, most of whom excelled at novel-length works.
One of the first writers to exploit the gothic in short forms was Count Jan Potocki, a Polish nobleman who wrote in French and who is said to have ended his long and accomplished life by shooting himself in the head with a silver bullet blessed by his chaplain. Potocki’s great work is The Saragossa Manuscript, parts of which were circulated in manuscript as early as 1805 but which appeared in a complete English translation only in 1995 (as The Manuscript Found in Saragossa). This phantasmagoric work is a long series of interwoven stories, ostensibly collected by a Walloon soldier in the Sierra Morena mountains of Spain in 1739. The stories—supernatural and erotic by...
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Early American Masters (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Washington Irving was the first American writer of any distinction and wrote many supernatural stories. A few, such as “The Adventure of the German Student,” about a young man in Paris who spends the night with what turns out to be a guillotined corpse, are clearly in the gothic tradition. More familiar are two stories from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820): the justly influential “Rip Van Winkle,” an Americanized version of European folktales of a man bewitched into sleeping for decades, and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which pokes fun at supernatural conventions. Ironically enough, Irving also translated an episode from The Saragossa Manuscript by Potocki as “The Grand Prior of Minorca,” but the story was assumed by readers to be by Irving himself.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is celebrated for his novels The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), both of which contain supernatural elements but which perhaps fail to exploit them fully. His story “The Wedding Knell” enlarges upon the tradition of the specter-bridegroom by describing the ceremony a long-jilted lover arranges for his equally aged bride-to-be. Hawthorne’s most successful supernatural story is “Young Goodman Brown,” in which an upright Puritan journeys into a forest to observe—to his horror—a witches’ coven involving not only the most reputable members of his community but also his own...
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The Victorian Period (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Famed and prolific English novelist Charles Dickens wrote a number of supernatural works, the most famous of which is certainly the short piece A Christmas Carol (1843). A shorter supernatural story is “No. 1 Branch Line, the Signal-Man,” about a railway worker who receives repeated spectral warnings prior to accidents. Equally prolific but nearly completely forgotten, Dickens’s contemporary Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote one of the very best haunted-house stories in “The Haunted and the Haunters: Or, The House and the Brain.”
Avoiding the more extravagant clichés of the gothic school, Irish novelist and short-story writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu explored the psychological states of his protagonists, locating the seeds of horror and terror within their psyches rather than in external agents. According to his son, Le Fanu wrote his most frightening stories late at night by candlelight as he sat in bed, drawing upon his dreams and nightmares.
Le Fanu’s most important works include the collections In a Glass Darkly (1872) and the posthumously published The Purcell Papers (1880), which reprints earlier material. The former volume, regarded as one of the most important in the history of the genre, includes the story “Green Tea” and the novella Carmilla, both presented as “cases” of one Dr. Hesselius.
“Green Tea” is routinely recognized as the prototypical story of the supernatural...
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European Writers (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Over the years writers from several European countries contributed stories to the body of supernatural literature. In France these included renowned authors Prosper Mérimée and Guy de Maupassant. Mérimée is known to readers and music lovers as the author of the novella Carmen (1845), but produced a masterpiece of supernatural fiction in Lokis (1869), a novel about a were-bear set in Lithuania. More famous still is the prolific Maupassant, whose best-known supernatural story is “The Horla,” about a man who finds himself haunted by an invisible and seemingly indestructible being whom he tries to kill by burning his house—but does he succeed?
Pitched at a somewhat lower level of creativity were the works of French writers Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian, whose best supernatural stories include “The Man-Wolf” and the widely translated and reprinted “The Crab Spider.” The latter features an escaped South American spider that has grown to enormous size.
Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol produced a number of fantastic works, including “The Nose,” a famous story describing in deadpan manner the dilemma of a man whose nose has disappeared. Perhaps more striking is “Viy,” an account of a seminarian’s wildly horrifying sexual obsession and his ultimate destruction. Fellow Russian Alexis Tolstoi produced a classic vampire story in “The Family of a Vourdalak,” which is set in Serbia.
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A Golden Age (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
The four decades preceding World War I are now recognized as a kind of golden age not only of supernatural fiction but also of the supernatural story in particular. Its key figures were Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and M. R. James—dissimilar figures who nevertheless so thoroughly dominated the field in Great Britain that only in the second half of the century did a definite break occur in the genre’s development.
Machen and Blackwood wrote what noted American supernatural writer H. P. Lovecraft termed “cosmic horror,” establishing a worldview that disturbingly redefined the elements of horror to include all of creation. Lovecraft himself wrote in a similar philosophical vein, as did fellow American Robert W. Chambers and, in his novels at least, Englishman William Hope Hodgson. Cosmic horror would resurface later in the twentieth century in many of the works of Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, Stephen King, Peter Straub, and T. E. D. Klein.
Arthur Machen was at one time or another in his life a journalist and actor as well as novelist and short-story writer. His first success was the novella The Great God Pan (1890), which recounts in characteristically indirect fashion the gruesome results of a brain operation designed to allow its subject to “see” Pan—that is, to experience the true malignity of the universe. The novella’s horrific climax actually surpasses the final scene of bodily disintegration in Poe’s...
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Other British Writers (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Three British figures stand apart during this period for their originality: M. P. Shiel, William Hope Hodgson, and Lord Dunsany. Shiel wrote prolifically in a variety of forms and genres—science fiction, the detective story and novel, the adventure novel—displaying a rich vocabulary and a taste for the arcane that often appealed more to other writers than to the general public. His most remarkable stories include “Xélucha” and “Vaila” from Shapes in the Fire (1896), works indebted to Edgar Allan Poe but written in an even more ornate style than Poe’s. “Xélucha” is a fantasy of necrophilia set in a bizarre, wildly imagined London. “Vaila” (to some extent a retelling of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”) takes place on a remote, wind-swept island in the North Sea and involves a brass house literally chained to the island and doomed by a family curse.
Shiel rewrote “Vaila” as “The House of Sounds” and included it in The Pale Ape and Other Pulses (1911), along with “Huguenin’s Wife.” Set on a Greek island recreated with as little regard for “reality” as was the London of “Xélucha,” this story concerns a murdered wife who returns to life as a huge, feathered, winged cat. Shiel’s most haunting work is “Dark Lot of One Saul,” about a sailor thrown overboard in a barrel and sucked down by a current to an air-filled cave far beneath the surface of the sea. The sensations of utter...
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America at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
The two most important writers of supernatural fiction in the United States around the beginning of the nineteenth century were Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers. A veteran of the U.S. Civil War turned journalist, Bierce produced stories and sketches ranging from the sardonic to the cruel to the horrifying. His collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891; also known as In the Midst of Life, 1898) includes the classic and frequently reprinted stories “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “The Damned Thing.” The former re-creates the final desperate fantasy of a hanged man, while the latter deals chillingly with a bloodthirsty but invisible carnivore. “The Death of Halprin Frayser” is a maddeningly convoluted story of incest and murder from beyond the grave—a necrophilial mixture so disquieting that Bierce may not have been able to deal with it more directly. A tired and embittered man, Bierce disappeared in Mexico in late 1913, ostensibly on his way to report on the Mexican revolution.
One of Bierce’s most haunting stories is “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” in which the narrator awakens in a ruined city and only gradually realizes that he has long been dead and that the ruins are those of his beloved city. This story was to influence the younger American writer Robert W. Chambers, who incorporated the dreamlike Carcosa into several of the stories in his landmark collection The King in Yellow (1895)....
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Great Britain Between the Wars (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
The period after World War I found a number of prominent British writers specializing wholly or in part in supernatural fiction. By this time a number of themes had become standard: ghosts, haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, and so on. Readers knew what to expect from stories on such themes, and writers (and the periodicals and publishers for whom they worked) were able to tailor their stories to the public’s expectations. As always, however, the most creative among them were able to breath new life into what had become old formulas.
A prominent exemplar of this trend was the urbane and highly prolific E. F. Benson, whose career began before the war. Many of Benson’s supernatural nature stories recall the visionary works of Algernon Blackwood, although they lack the sense of personal belief that distinguishes Blackwood at his best. “The Man Who Went Too Far” involves Pan and “The Temple” an ancient ruin in Cornwall; both recall similar works by Arthur Machen, although once again minus the intensity of the earlier writer. Benson is perhaps most familiar to readers of the supernatural for “Mrs. Amworth,” one of the best vampire stories ever written. Several other, perhaps more original stories such as “Caterpillars” (1912) feature strikingly loathsome crawling creatures—in the case of “Caterpillars” as begetters of disease.
Another prolific writer, H. Russell Wakefield, suffered much the same fate as Benson—to have...
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America Between the Wars (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Although Edward Lucas White apparently wrote many of his stories before World War I, most were published later in Lukundoo and Other Stories (1927). The powerful title story—detailing a physiologically grotesque instance of retribution upon an explorer in Africa—is often reprinted. Stranger still are “The Snout,” about a baboon-headed dwarf who collects artistic representations of those similarly afflicted, and “Amina,” about a race of were-beings in Persia. White claimed that many of his vivid stories had their origins in the nightmares from which he suffered all his life.
The major American writer of supernatural fiction in the post- World War I period was H. P. Lovecraft, a reclusive writer who nevertheless maintained many friendships by correspondence. Lovecraft was fascinated by the past and cultivated an archaic, adjective-rich style that many readers find tiresome. Initially influenced by Lord Dunsany, he in turn influenced many of his contemporaries and successors.
Lovecraft’s major contribution to supernatural literature is the “Cthulhu Mythos,” a pantheon of imaginary beings inspired to some extent by Dunsany’s more benign creations. Introduced in the story “The Call of Cthulhu” and elaborated in such stories as “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow out of Time,” the mythos is an imaginative reconstruction of history that posits the existence of malignant entities—Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth,...
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The Later Twentieth Century (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
The outstanding writer of short supernatural fiction in postwar Great Britain was probably Robert Aickman, who called his psychologically rich works “strange stories.” Although a few fall into recognizable categories—the award-winning “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal,” for instance, is about an initiation into vampirism—most resemble John Metcalfe’s works in refusing to provide easy answers. The outstanding example is perhaps “The Trains,” in which two girls lodging in a strange house near a railway experience a series of disorienting and wholly inexplicable events. In “Ringing the Changes” a recently married couple discover that the bells disturbing their honeymoon are awakening the dead.
Aickman’s first collection was We Are for the Dark (1951), which he wrote with Elizabeth Jane Howard. Howard would subsequently establish a reputation as a highly regarded mainstream novelist, but one of the stories she contributed to this volume—“Three Miles Up,” about a party of boaters on a canal who suddenly and frighteningly discover that they are no longer landlocked—equals Aickman’s best. Like Howard, a number of other mainstream British writers produced memorable supernatural stories from time to time. These include Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, and John Fowles.
Two other prolific and widely read British writers—Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker—have worked largely within the...
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Barron, Neil, ed. Fantasy Literature: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Garland, 1990. An extensive guide to primary and secondary works, most of them annotated.
Bleiler, E. F. The Guide to Supernatural Fiction. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1983. Bleiler’s guide describes 1,775 books published from the mid-eighteenth century to 1960 and concludes with author, title, and motif indexes.
Bleiler, E. F., ed. Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985. A two-volume collection of substantial survey articles covering nearly 150 writers. Each entry concludes with a bibliography.
Cavaliero, Glen. The Supernatural and English Fiction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1995. A survey from the rise of the gothic to important late twentieth century figures. Includes notes and a select bibliography of supernatural novels, collections, and critical works.
De Camp, L. Sprague. Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Sauk City, Wis.: Arkham House, 1976. A noted writer in the field, De Camp provides informal essays on several writers discussed above, including Dunsany, Lovecraft, Howard, Smith, and Leiber.
Joshi, S. T. The Weird Tale: Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany,...
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