Study Guide

The Supernatural Story

The Supernatural Story Analysis

Origins (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 proven to be a treasure trove for later writers, although science and rationalism have frequently consigned them to a kind of literary underground. Yet the emotions they deal with—from fear of death on one hand to religious ecstasy on the other—have continued to animate writers and readers alike. In mid-eighteenth century England such emotions would erupt in a most memorable way.

The Supernatural Story The Gothic School (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 turns—are narrated by a variety of roguish storytellers. The narratives often overlap, and one story is humorously framed four-deep within a series of others.

More influential were the tales of German writer, artist, and composer E. T. A. Hoffmann, who more than any gothic figure before him located the fantastic in contemporary life. Ironically enough, modern readers may find Hoffmann’s early nineteenth century European settings and his fascination with such subjects as automatons and Doppelgänger (doubles) equally quaint, yet the nervous energy and satirical bent of his works assure their readability. Hoffmann’s best-known story is probably “The Sandman,” in which a student falls fatally in love with a mechanical woman.

The Supernatural Story Early American Masters (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 wife. Brown, suggests Hawthorne, may simply...

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The Supernatural Story The Victorian Period (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 and...

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The Supernatural Story European Writers (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.

Much later Czech writer Franz Kafka (who wrote in German) produced the famous and chilling novella Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), in which an innocuous salesman is transformed into an enormous insect, only to be disowned by his family. As in many European works, the supernatural element here is little more than a mechanism that allows the author to explore other concerns.

The Supernatural Story A Golden Age (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

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The Supernatural Story Other British Writers (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

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The Supernatural Story America at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

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The Supernatural Story Great Britain Between the Wars (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

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The Supernatural Story America Between the Wars (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

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The Supernatural Story The Later Twentieth Century (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.

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The Supernatural Story Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 268 words.)