From Gothic to Weird
The recent effloresence of neo-Gothic fiction—the literature of fear, terror, wonder, awe, and the supernatural—is the product of centuries, perhaps millennia, of work by a wide array of artists both celebrated and obscure. It is, after all, in the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1700 b.c.e.) that we find such motifs as the superhero, the quest for eternal life, battles with monsters, and the like. About a millennium later, the Odyssey is rife with creatures of eccentric cast, from the sorceress Circe to Polyphemus the Cyclops to the twin horrors of Scylla and Charybdis. Greek literature and myth regales us with the Gorgon Medusa, the Furies, the harpies; ghosts stalk through the most elevated of Greek tragedies. Dante and Milton drew only partly upon scripture, but more upon their own imaginations, in depicting the terrors of hell and its demons. The ghost in Hamlet and the witches in Macbeth are familiar to all.
We must, however, be careful not to let our zeal for tracing anticipations of contemporary Gothic elements get the better of us. The literature of terror can only be said to have achieved independent existence when it has substantially segregated itself from religion, myth, and folklore, however much it may draw upon these rich storehouses of belief and ritual. In particular, the literature of the supernatural can only be said to have become viable when, in a given culture, there becomes a relatively clear sense of the natural. If ghosts, goblins, and vampires are commonly considered to be components of the everyday scene, the depiction of them in literature cannot be considered supernatural because it would not constitute a defiance of the natural laws that render such entities beyond the bounds of the possible. It is for this reason that, without perhaps being entirely aware of it, literary scholars have rightly declared that Gothicism commenced as an independent literary mode with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). For it was only by the middle of the eighteenth century that human knowledge had advanced to the point where it could, with some confidence, be asserted that creatures such as the ghost or the werewolf were definitively outside the limits of nature.
It is often forgotten that this original Gothic movement—running, roughly, from 1764 to the 1820s—did not get under way at once upon the publication of Walpole’s curious little novel. It required the added impetus of German Romanticism to bring to the fore such literary figures as Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Mary Shelley, and Charles Robert Maturin, not to mention a host of lesser talents. This movement shares many similarities with the “horror boom” of the 1970s and 1980s, in that it was energized by a quite small number of toweringly original writers and a motley crew of crude imitators who sought to capitalize on the sudden popularity of this literary genre; and there is a further similarity in that the Gothic movement could not in any sense be said to be uniform or monolithic, but quickly fragmented into numerous subgenres and offshoots. The element of supernatural terror was by no means dominant, and Ann Radcliffe (perhaps unwisely) rejected the supernatural altogether in her work, opting instead for what has been called the “explained supernatural,” where supernatural phenomena are suggested but are explained away (oftentimes in a highly unconvincing manner) at the end. Lewis and Maturin shrewdly avoided this deflation of the reader’s expectations, while Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), by transferring the locus of fear to radical new discoveries in science, could be said to have contributed significantly to the later creation of science fiction.
In a sense, the Gothic novelists were trying to have their cake and eat it too. While depicting the most outlandish incidents in their tales, they placed many of their narratives in the Middle Ages, at a time when—in their estimation—ignorance and superstition so dominated the populace that the representation of wondrous events in fiction could be thought to constitute a backhanded kind of psychological realism. More relevantly, the supernatural, in those works that featured it, was acknowledged as beyond the bounds of the real, but because it drew upon deep, vestigial instincts centred around the fear of death and the terrors of hell, it commanded a kind of quasi-belief that was the real secret to its success.
In the 1830s Edgar Allan Poe revolutionized the field both by confining the literature of terror exclusively to the short story and by bringing to that literature an entirely new and intense understanding of the psychology of fear. Poe’s greatest innovation, quite frankly, was his immense literary talent: any one of his best tales packs more of a punch than entire novels by the Gothicists. That initial wave of Gothic literature fell by the wayside very quickly, as Poe, both by precept and by example, championed the short story as the chosen vehicle for conveying terror. His great contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne was not quite so rigid in confining Gothicism to the short story; indeed, his House of the Seven Gables (1851) might be said to constitute one of the first instances in American literature in which the entire premise of the work is supernatural—the curse of the dying Matthew Maule on the entire Pyncheon family—although his execution of that premise leads more to wistful melancholy than to fear or horror. Fitz-James O’Brien and Ambrose Bierce followed Poe more closely, but in England Poe’s example of concision and intensity took much longer to find favor. If anyone today is capable of wading through Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Gothic novels, especially the immense A Strange Story (1862), they will find that his work is more in the nature of a philosophical tract than an excursion into the supernatural. J. Sheridan Le Fanu restricted the supernatural almost entirely to the short story or novella, while a legion of Victorian ghost story writers—Margaret Oliphant, Mrs. J. H. Riddell, Rhoda Broughton, Amelia B. Edwards, and many others—resurrected the ghost story with seemingly endless variations.
It was, however, at this juncture—the late nineteenth century—that we come upon some towering works of Gothicism that still color the popular imagination. Less than two decades separate the publication of such novels as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890/1891), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898)—the first two constituting imperishable examples of the doppelgänger motif, while the other two remain the canonical treatments of the vampire and the ghost, respectively. It is of some significance that three of these works are short novels at best, adhering to Poe’s notions of the “unity of effect” (which he believed possible only in the short story) but expansive enough to incorporate the interplay and development of character that is one of the distinguishing features of the novel. Indeed, one of the several literary failings of Dracula is probably its excessive length, to say nothing of the fact that its putative lead character, Count Dracula, remains offstage for large segments of the work.
What is most notable about this turn-of-the-century period is the degree to which mainstream literary figures chose to engage in Gothicism, either supernatural or non-supernatural, for the length of a tale or novel. A substantial number of the short stories and novellas of Henry James involve ghosts or the suspicion of ghosts, as do the tales of his friend and disciple Edith Wharton; such Americans as F. Marion Crawford (The Witch of Prague, 1891; Wandering Ghosts, 1911), Robert W. Chambers (The King in Yellow, 1895), the architect Ralph Adams Cram (Black Spirits and White, 1895), Sarah Orne Jewett, Gertrude Atherton, and Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman made vital contributions to the literature of terror; such of their British counterparts as Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Richard Marsh (The Beetle, 1897), H. Rider Haggard (She, 1887), and H. G. Wells did the same. And what do we make of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1902)? Its concluding utterance by Kurtz, “The horror! The horror!” has become almost self-parodic, but this novella as a whole fuses the terrors of the external world—symbolized by the darkness of deepest Africa—and the terrors of the human mind as ably as any work in literature.
It was during this period that some of the most significant figures in supernatural horror—the Welshman Arthur Machen, the Irishman Lord Dunsany, the Englishmen Algernon Blackwood and M. R. James, and the American H. P. Lovecraft—emerged. Their work, very diverse in subject-matter, is united by a philosophical vision that found in the supernatural a means of conveying each author’s deepest metaphysical and moral vision. Machen, the implacable foe of science, which he believed was tearing the veils from the mystery of the universe, utilized the supernatural as a means of restoring the sense of wonder to the cosmos; Blackwood, not quite so hostile to the progress of human knowledge, nevertheless used his horror and fantasy fiction to envision a pantheistic unity of all nature; Dunsany was repelled by the onslaught of technology and commercialism and sought to depict otherworldly realms of beauty; and James, a relatively orthodox Christian, found in the ghost story a vehicle for moral accounts of the just punishment that descends upon sin and error.
Lovecraft, drawing upon the work of all his predecessors, dating back to Poe, infused the weird tale with a cosmic vision that remains his signature achievement. Recognizing that many of the standard motifs in supernatural fiction—the ghost, the witch, the vampire, the werewolf, the haunted house—had lost much of their potency because the advance of knowledge had rendered them virtually unusable in serious literature, Lovecraft refocused the locus of terror to the unbounded depths of the cosmos, thereby effecting a felicitous union with the burgeoning genre of science fiction.
Lovecraft was, of course, present at the birth of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, the first periodical devoted solely to weird fiction. Such of his colleagues as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, and Donald Wandrei filled the pages of that magazine, and dozens of other pulps, with a wide array of writing that spanned the spectrum from psychological suspense to pure science fiction. And yet, it must be acknowledged frankly that the great bulk of material published in Weird Tales and other pulp magazines was subliterary rubbish that deserved the scorn it garnered from mainstream critics. Whether the refusal of mainstream magazines to publish weird material led to the birth of the pulps, or whether the pulps’ emergence led to the banishing of the weird from mainstream magazines, is a chicken-and-egg question that may be impossible to answer; but because the pulps were “popular” literature designed for a largely ill-educated public, the majority of their contents was hackneyed in conception and slipshod in execution. Only the very best of the pulp writers surmounted the hackwork of their fellow scribblers; but because they had few other outlets to publish their work, they became tarred with the same brush that depicted all the material in the pulps as beneath critical notice. The entire field of Gothic fiction thereby came to be considered a poor relation to mainstream literature.
This aesthetic cleavage was never quite so pronounced in England, perhaps because the unusual longevity of such writers as Blackwood and Dunsany, whose work continued to be received with respect. The continuing credibility of the ghost story helped to foster a vibrant and literarily viable tradition of supernatural writing that included such distinguished figures as Walter de la Mare, E. Nesbit, L. P. Hartley, John Buchan, Robert Hichens, Elizabeth Bowen, and May Sinclair. Dunsany’s work had the effect of segregating fantasy—a mode whereby the author creates his own realm of pure imagination—from supernatural horror; from the foundations he established came the later work of E. R. Eddison, Mervyn Peake, and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Curiously enough, the supernatural novel flourished after a fashion in the early twentieth century, whether at the hands of such an eccentric writer as William Hope Hodgson or in individual efforts by generally mainstream writers such as Barry Pain (An Exchange of Souls, 1911), Francis Brett Young (Cold Harbour, 1924), Herbert Gorman (The Place Called Dagon, 1927), and Leonard Cline (The Dark Chamber, 1927). M. R. James’s work inspired a small cadre of disciples who sought to build upon his tradition of the antiquarian ghost story, although few of these writers came close to matching James’s achievement. But the neo-Gothic novel all but faded out of existence by the 1930s, overwhelmed by the literary dominance of mimetic realism (Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner) or the Modernist movement that, while drawing upon fantasy and terror to some degree, generally scorned pure supernaturalism. D. H. Lawrence wrote a handful of weird tales, but these were cast in shade when compared with his immensely influential novels of love and death.
August Derleth and Donald Wandrei’s founding of Arkham House in 1939—initially to publish the work of Lovecraft in hardcover—was a mixed blessing: although the founders quickly proceed to publish other meritorious work from the pulp magazines, their press in some senses augmented the ghettoization of weird literature by restricting it to a small and insignificant audience. The demise of the pulps in the 1940s resulted from the emergence of the paperback book, and in this market some supernatural writers flourished—but only by writing work that could be marketed under other rubrics. Fritz Leiber and Ray Bradbury spanned the spectrum from science fiction to supernatural horror to pure fantasy, while Robert Bloch did the same but settled upon psychological suspense as his chosen mode of literary utterance. By the 1950s and 1960s they were joined by other writers such as Richard Matheson, Russell Kirk, Theodore Sturgeon, Charles Beaumont, and Rod Serling. Then, of course, there was the odd case of Shirley Jackson, whose work sat uneasily between the domains of mainstream fiction and psychological terror, lapsing finally into the supernatural with the stunning haunted house novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Critics rarely knew what to make of her unclassifiable work, with the result that she was largely ignored both by the mainstream community and by the cadre of Gothic devotees.
In England the picture was in some sense not quite so bleak—the flamboyant supernatural novels of Dennis Wheatley earned him a wide following if little critical recognition, while Gerald Kersh contributed his eccentric fusions of supernatural, psychological, and science-fictional terror—but in other ways was dire indeed, as Robert Aickman was virtually the sole practitioner of pure supernaturalism in the 1950s and 1960s. It was just at this time when the media were making their impress upon the literary development of the field. Although horror movies had been prevalent since the earliest days of the film industry—it was, indeed, the popularity of Dracula (1931) and other vampire films that raised Stoker’s novel to canonical status—the impact of film and television
upon literary work only began to be substantially felt in the 1960s. Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” (1959–64) enlisted the services of some of the best writers in the field, including Beaumont and Matheson, and it is arguable that it was this leavening of the popular audience for treatments of the supernatural that led to the spectacular and seemingly sudden emergence of horror as a best-selling phenomenon.
Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), and Thomas Tryon’s The Other (1971) were all adapted into film, the first two being particularly noteworthy and popular. The synergy between film and literature gained particular force in the work of Stephen King, who for a time was the most remarkable phenomenon in the history of publishing. Virtually every one of his novels, beginning with Carrie (1974), achieved bestseller status and was adapted into a film or a television miniseries; he quickly became a brand name, a known quantity like a McDonald’s hamburger or Tide detergent. Other bestselling writers such as Peter Straub (Ghost Story, 1979) and Clive Barker (The Books of Blood, 1984–85) followed in his wake; a bit later, Dean R. Koontz and Anne Rice joined the ranks of the blockbusters. But this “horror boom”—which was, in reality, much more a marketing than an aesthetic phenomenon—had at least one unfortunate tendency: it impelled authors of all sorts to aim for popular rather than literary success, their goal being to reach the best-seller lists, not to produce work of genuine merit. The result was inevitable: a surfeit of the hackneyed, the uninspired, and the plainly trashy caused the entire field to implode, at least from a marketing perspective; publishers radically cut back on their horror offerings or abandoned them altogether.
The fact is that, during this entire period, any number of sincere, talented writers were working out of the limelight, and it is their work that will in the end survive and come to be seen as representative of the best that Gothicism has to offer. Ramsey Campbell, emerging from his early devotion to Lovecraft, has produced such a distinguished array of novels and tales from the 1970s to the present that he must be given serious consideration as the greatest horror writer of our time, and perhaps of all time. Not far behind are such writers as T. E. D. Klein, Thomas Ligotti, Dennis Etchison, and Thomas Tessier. And now that Gothicism has, to some degree, returned to its roots in the small press, such writers as Caitlín R. Kiernan, Norman Partridge, China Miéville, and Laird Barron are only the most prominent of a vibrant new crop of neo-Gothicists.
What the present volume demonstrates beyond all doubt is that Gothicism is a mode of writing that writers of many different stripes—whether it be predominantly mainstream writers like Toni Morrison, Peter Ackroyd, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood or genre veterans such as Campbell, King, Straub, Elizabeth Hand, Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, and Phil Rickman—can utilize to express themes, conceptions, and imagery beyond the purview of mimetic realism. Many of these writers draw upon the long heritage of Gothicism stretching back at least two centuries while at the same time remaining distinctively original in their manipulation of character and incident. The blurring or melding of genres is the order of the day, and if this sometimes results in critical difficulties in classification, it is nonetheless a benefit to those privileged readers who can find in neo-Gothicism some of the best that contemporary literature has to offer.
– S. T. Joshi, Driven to Madness with Fright: Further Notes on Horror Fiction, 2016