Unutterable Horror

Over at the Weekly StandardMichael Dirda reviews S.T. Joshi’s Unutterable Horror, a survey of horror literature. Joshi should be a familiar name as an editor to anyone who’s picked up recent Penguin editions of Arthur Machen or Algernon Blackwood — he’s a gadfly of the genre.

arthurmachenMachen was an amazing writer who should be much better known than he is — some of his stories like “The Bright Boy” and “Children of the Pool” reach a level of understated creeposity that’s hard to match, and “The White People” is an incredibly sinister and hypnotic fever dream, an immersion into the verdant undergrowth of Victorian female sensuality. Also his novel The Hill of Dreams, though not overtly supernatural, is a fascinating look at late-Victorian alienation in London.

As for Blackwood, I’ve read a ton of his stories in the last few years, always hoping in vain that the next one would justify the time. The two that Dirda mentions, “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” seem to me to really be the only ones with merit. Blackwood’s mysticism is of a type that hasn’t aged well at all — it’s a little too overt and musty, dragged down by elements like the séance and the vengeful possessing spirit. Two of his stories, “Sand” and “The Man Who Loved Trees,” are quite possibly two of the worst stories I’ve ever read, portentous to the point of self-parody. “The Willows” really is a masterpiece, though.

The whole review is a treasure trove of suggestions for horror reading, and in his usual generous way, Dirda argues for a looser and more relaxed approach to canonization:

The correction of taste shouldn’t preclude charity, or a recognition that commercial entertainments and jeux d’esprit have their place in our lives. Moreover, the most high-minded critical principles can sometimes be too confining—think of F. R. Leavis’s overstrict determination of “the great tradition” in English fiction—such that they seem to shortchange the full range of literary art. If Dracula is such a mishmash, which it certainly is, why do people continue to read it with such fascination and pleasure?

Some suggestions I’m keeping in mind:

  • Walter de la Mare’s The Return — I started reading a Kindle version of this a few months ago, but a key element at the start was the inscription on a gravestone. The ebook formatting garbled it, however, to the point that it didn’t make sense to continue reading. What I read was wonderfully eerie, though.
  • James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner  — I’ve been meaning to read this one for years, not sure how I never got around to it.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Captain of ‘The Pole-Star'”
  • Vernon Lee’s “Amour Dure”
  • L.P. Hartley’s short stories — the one I’ve read, “Podolo,” is amazingly atmospheric and macabre.
  • Gerald Kersh’s “Men Without Bones”
  • Ramsey Campbell’s The House on Nazareth Hill
  • Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home (never heard of this one)
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