Review: Horror: A Literary History

Posted by Carly Stevenson on January 21, 2017 in Blog, Carly Stevenson, Reviews tagged with , , , ,

According to Reyes, the ‘transmedial, transhistorical and marketable genre’ (p.8) of horror is ‘largely defined by its affective pretences’ (p.7). That is to say, horror is inextricably bound up with the sense of disgust, fear and shock experienced by the reader. This is where horror diverges from its bedfellow terror. As the first two chapters of this book elucidate, the terms horror and terror were used interchangeably in seminal Gothic documents such as Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Anna Laetitia Aikin’s ‘On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror’ and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Not until Ann Radcliffe’s posthumously published essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ of 1826 did readers see a palpable change in the way terror and horror were defined and theorised. The focus on the latter is a defining feature of this study and Reyes outlines the important distinction between horror and the Gothic in his introduction: horror ‘has the advantage, unlike the Gothic, of not being circumscribed by particular settings, characters or situations. As the Gothic becomes more intrinsically connected to aesthetics in the contemporary period – being used, for example, to describe art and fashion – it is even more crucial than a distinction be drawn between the Gothic, an artistic mode, and horror, an affective marker.’ (p. 15). Having set up this distinction, the first chapter is devoted to exploring the origins of horror between 1740-1820, which aids the reader in understanding the conceptual differences between horror and the Gothic aesthetic, whilst acknowledging their inherent interconnectedness. The book is split into seven chapters, each one addressing the state of horror literature at a different historical moment:

Dale Townshend’s chapter, by way of Burke, Aikins, Radcliffe, Walpole, Addison, the Graveyard Poets, the German School and Mary Shelley, charts the rise of horror literature from the mid-eighteenth century as it became a marketable commodity for the literate working-class. 

The second chapter, written by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, considers the transatlantic circulation of Gothic horror in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The arrival of the horror genre in America was characterised by its own origins and early trends, including Captive Narratives and Puritanical influences.

Chapter three, by Royce Mahawatte, explores the progress of horror in the nineteenth century and the rise in medicalised body horror narratives, which had been popularised by texts such as Warren’s ‘Passages from a Diary of a Late Physician’. Mahawatte demonstrates how the medical casebook genre (characterised by empiricism rather than the supernatural) brought the Gothic in line with more realistic modes of writing that reflected the material conditions of Victorian society.

In chapter four, Roger Luckhurst surveys the transitional period of horror from the late Victorian Gothic revival in Britain to its early twentieth century transmutations in American fiction and film. Using Arthur Machen’s career as a lens through which to focus his discussion, Luckhurst interrogates the pervasive presence of decadence and degeneration in the horror literature of this period and proposes that Machen’s fiction ‘can be taken as representative of a crucial transition from eighteenth-century Gothic to twentieth-century horror’ (p. 107). Touching upon previous chapters, Luckhurst points to the relationship between rising secularism and ‘the body as the locus of modern horror’ (p. 107) in this era. Additionally, he draws the reader’s attention to the commerciality of horror subgenres such as ‘shudder pulps’, which provide an interesting contrast to the psychologically unnerving writings produced during ‘golden age’ of ghost stories.

Bernice M Murphy’s chapter on post-war horror fiction continues to focus on the growing appetite for realism in the wake of modernity: ‘it was horror that arose from the conditions of everyday life that would take the lead in the 1950s and after.’ (p. 132) Murphy points out that hackneyed tropes of earlier horror fiction were ‘reconfigured in order to make them relevant for a post-atomic, post-psychoanalytical age’ (p. 138). In other words, post-war horror adopted a particularly uncanny trend in rendering the familiar unfamiliar.

Beginning where Murphy concludes, chapter six charts the rise of ‘Popular Horror’ from the early 1970s to the millennium when the horror genre enjoyed a three-decade-long boom. Steffen Hantke examines the obsession with American small towns in the works of household horror name Stephen King (et al) which echoes earlier traditions and trends within the genre.

The final chapter, written by Reyes, considers the current state of horror fiction. Post-millennial horror, Reyes states, ‘could indeed be said to be undergoing a second golden age in the twenty-first century’ (p.189). The ubiquity of horror today can be partly attributed to its newly elevated status as a ‘worthy’ and ‘serious’ genre, thanks to the emergence of metatextual, postmodern ‘cult’ writers such as Danielewski. In addition, the audience for horror has expanded as a result of its presence in other forms of media, such as graphic novels, comics and video games. The canonisation of recognised horror writers such as King, Baker and Campbell, coupled with the emergence of new voices, has propelled the genre to new heights in recent years. The plethora of horror subgenres and hybrid genres today has allowed writers to re-imagine old-established tropes and connect with a wider readership. By process of assimilation and appropriation, vampires, zombies and other archetypal horror figures have returned to the page/screen to remind us that horror will never completely, never permanently die.

Despite the omission of British horror radio from in this study, Horror: A Literary History provides an accessible and comprehensive guide to the development of the horror genre from Walpole to The Walking Dead. Although ‘this book is intended for the casual and interested reader’ (p. 14) teachers, scholars and particularly students within the field of horror studies will undoubtedly find it a useful compendium.

Horror: A Literary History, ed. Xavier Aldana Reyes (London: British Library, 2016)

ISBN: 978-0-7123-5608-4

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