Horror Fiction in the 20th Century: Exploring Literature’s Most Chilling Genre, Jess Nevins (Praeger 978-1440862052, $50.00, 277pp, hc) January 2020.
Over the course of 16 chapters split into three sections – “1901–1939, The Golden Age”, “1940–1970, Midcentury Frights”, and “1971–2000, The Boom Years” – Jess Nevins proves that he is not only a well-documented, reliable chronicler of the story of modern horror, but also a sharp observer of previous histories’ biases and omissions. Indeed, each of those three sections concludes with a survey titled “Outside the Anglosphere”, and those chapters alone, which examine Africa, The Americas, India, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Europe, and the Middle East on a country-by-country basis, make this book a praiseworthy and valuable resource. I jotted down 27 titles of interest by these non-Anglo writers – S. Mukerji’s Indian Ghost Stories (1914), Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl (1937), Daniel O. Fagunwa’s The Forest of a Thousand Daemons (1938), Bernard Dadie’s Le Pagne Noir (1955), Óscar Cerruto’s Cerco de Penumbras (1958), Kerime Nadir’s Dehşet Gecesi (1958), Elechi Amadi’s The Great Ponds (1973), David G. Maillu’s Kadosa (1979), Ibrahim Nasrallah’s Prairies of Fever (1985), and K.S. Maniam’s Haunting the Tiger (1990), among others – and I was exercising great restraint. (Another recent title by Nevins, Horror Needs No Passport: 20th Century Horror Fiction Outside the United States and Great Britain , explores this territory more fully.) Chapters covering US/UK writers, while perforce hitting on some familiar figures, also abound with recommendations of overlooked voices, as well as works by mainstream authors often neglected in genre overviews. All of this combines to make Horror Fiction in the 20th Century a thoughtfully curated educational resource, and a legitimate threat to TBR lists everywhere.
This book is in dialogue with the work of John Clute, to whom Nevins dedicates the volume. Nevins alludes to Clute’s assessments of specific writers, uses the term fantastika, and subscribes to a modified version of Clute’s affect theory of horror, one of the consequences of which is that “horror, because of its mutability, and its ability to nest, cuckoo-like, in any other genre, does not have content limitations or requirements.” This widened purview is central to the book’s appeal. Towards the end of Chapter Two, a section titled “Exceptions” discusses writers like F. Marion Crawford, Gertrude Atherton, Edith Wharton, Robert Chambers, and Georgia Wood Pangborn that don’t fit into the West Coast and East Coast scheme the author has been using up to that point. Sections of the book with a similar flavor, like “One-Shots” and “Part-Timers, Tourists, and Dabblers”, which explore borderland and hard-to-classify writers, often contain fascinating references and make for lively reading. A discussion of post-War mainstream writers who occasionally forayed into horror is thorough and eye-opening. Chapter Fifteen, titled “Outsiders Writing Horror”, concerns itself with African American, Australian Aboriginal, Latinx, Native American, and queer horror writers. These sections include important firsts – e.g. “Jewelle Gomez’s novel The Gilda Stories (1991) is both the first vampire novel with a black protagonist and the first vampire novel written by an African American author,”; Don Holliday’s Three on a Broomstick (1967) is “the first gay supernatural novel” – and offer observations about the significance of these works, such as how Latinx Gothics critiqued “Anglo-American imperialism and bigotry” and “sexism and homophobia.” Nevins identifies historical blind spots and seeks to correct them: “The reason that most authors of Great Age East Coast horror fiction aren’t better known and more easily accessible,” he points out, “is that the majority of them were women, and they are the victims of editorial sexism.” Further expanding the scope, Chapter Nine, “Horror on the Cheap”, introduces comic books to the conversation. Later Nevins touches on RPGs, and spends time on horror for children and young adults, all welcome angles.
As Nevins moves through the decades, chapters follow a similar structure: a division into smaller sub-headings, often encompassing specific years or countries, and then one or two paragraphs per writer, all furnished with encyclopedic detail. We learn that “Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’ was, in effect, the first horror short story,” and that “Mrs. Oliphant, Amelia B. Edwards, Charlotte Riddell – the major British ghost-story writers of the 19th century were all women.” Nevins states his opinions plainly. The “technical skill, psychological insight, and elegant style,” of Oliver Onions, he writes, “rendered his best work among the best of the century.” Likewise, when Marjorie Bowen was “at her best […] she was among the best writers of the supernatural of the century.” Not all verdicts are positive. Amusingly, Nevins describes Seabury Quinn’s occult detective Jules de Grandin as “mystifyingly popular.” Rosalie Muspratt, we are told, “published her thirty-two horror stories in two collections in 1930 and 1931; her work was commercially successful but aesthetically weak.” This is the kind of no-nonsense appraisal that would make E.F. Bleiler proud. Consider this indictment: when describing John Spencer and Co.’s Badger Books (1955-1967), Nevins says that they were “written by an array of unknowns, has-beens, and never-weres.” (Never-Were strikes me as a good title for a satire about full-time professionals who, by moonlight, transform into unsuccessful writers.)
Some editorial polish might have smoothed the reading experience. At the start of Chapter One Nevins writes that “from 1894 to 1907, a revolution in British horror took place,” and proceeds to name Arthur Machen, M.R. James, Lord Dunsany, and Algernon Blackwood as its key figures, duplicating what he just said in the preceding introductory page. “Vernon Lee essentially stopped writing horror stories in 1905” is followed by “E. Nesbit essentially stopped writing horror stories for adults in 1915.” The line “each writer of the quartet established or at least popularized various strains or modes or approaches to horror fiction” is wordy. Stylistic repetitions, along with the fragmentation resulting from the book’s numerous short sections, can at times make the proceedings dry, more akin to a textbook than an immersive literary or cultural history. Counterweighing this, Nevins livens things up by actively interrogating previous studies. As a case in point, he’s “in substantial disagreement with S. T. Joshi on most matters having to do with horror,” and in each case explains why. He traces influences. If you’d like to know, for instance, how Arthur Machen affected subsequent writers, it’s “the combination of proto-cosmic horror and Machen’s sinister, expansive greater London.” Factual reminders (e.g. “it is important to keep in mind that much of Lovecraft’s influence was posthumous and delayed, evolving out of the large-scale reprinting of his work in the early 1970s”) also prove useful. However, Nevins’s book is at its critical best when it complements its taxonomic efforts with attempts to identify thematic and sub-textual trends. Citing Simon Hay, for example, Nevins remarks that “much of British horror during the nineteenth century was about property, with the backdrop of empire and imperialism.” Later, he writes that “the most distinctive aspect of British horror literature during World War I is that relatively little of it had to do with the war itself.” The volume’s Epilogue takes a stab at identifying some of the twenty-first century’s most exciting horror voices, and includes an acknowledgment of important writers unaccounted for in the main text (I wish that Susan Hill and Graham Masterton hadn’t ended up on this list, but oh well). As with previous outings (The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana , The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger ), Nevins proves himself a tireless researcher of primary sources, a peerless list-maker and chronologist. With this ambitious, compendious volume, he also becomes a cartographer and successfully remaps horror’s past.
This review and more like it in the August 2020 issue of Locus.
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