Horror is one of the most popular genres going right now. People cannot get enough. But many fans forget that there is a long history behind the latest Stephen King or Ann Rice release. Horror did not begin with Carrie or Interview with the Vampire. In his non-fiction release, Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction, S.T. Joshi explores the early origins of this thing we call horror fiction.
His work opens with what he calls the titans of the genre. Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and M.R. James earn this distinction. Joshi argues that these four writers "transformed supernatural literature in as profound a way" as Poe had done in the prior century. These writers created the next block in the foundation of what would be become horror for the twentieth century. It was these authors who then inspired Lovecraft and his disciples as the decades progressed. From the titans, Joshi addresses major themes and topics in horror in a chronological order through the twentieth century. He traces the evolution of the ghost story, horror poetry, weird tales, and of course Mr. King gets his nod in the last decades of the period.
This is an excellent examination of horror in the twentieth century. Any scholar of the genre will dig into this with relish. The difficulty for a non-scholarly reader is the assumed body of knowledge. As with any scholarly work, Joshi assumes his readers are well-versed in the traditions of the 1800s. This is where horror truly began. One cannot speak of Machen or Blackwood without understanding Poe or Henry James. Mary Shelley, Le Fanu, and countless others defined the Gothic Era. Without these authors, one has no King. Since this is a work focusing on the twentieth century, this earlier period is addresses through indirect references and commentary. Having that body of knowledge, it was not a detriment, but it is a caution when approaching this one. For those who are not familiar with the 1800s, I strongly suggest reading his first volume in this series.
Horror is often dismissed as genre not worth reading in literary circles. Joshi reminds us that this is not accurate at all. It has a long literary tradition and there are modern authors (far more than just King) who have taken the mantle and pushed the boundaries even further. For those interested in where their favorite authors really came from, this is a must read.
Review copy/ originally published at Horror Novel Reviews