Beyond Canonization: On S.T. Joshi's "Unutterable Horror"
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Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction
author: S.T. Joshi
pub date: 12.01.2012
pp: 422
tags: SF , Horror , Literary History

Adam Lowenstein on Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction

Beyond Canonization: On S.T. Joshi's "Unutterable Horror"

November 24th, 2013 reset - +

I SUSPECT THAT for many readers, one of the most appealing features of S.T. Joshi’s Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction will be its thickness.  Weighing in at nearly 800 pages stretched across two fat volumes, the book is thick enough to evoke those authoritative collections of English and American literature that legions of analog-era students once lugged around in their backpacks at some point during their college career.  And if you were a student like me, you bemoaned and even resented the fact that there was no room in those scholarly anthologies, no matter how absurdly heavy the tome or how ridiculously tissue-thin the paper, for those writers you knew deserved to be included but went unmentioned:  names like H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Clive Barker.

For those of us who can vividly recall a time when Library of America editions devoted to Lovecraft or Philip K. Dick were as unthinkable as they are now undeniable, a time before the critical acclaim rightfully lavished on contemporary writers such as Jonathan Lethem and George Saunders eroded the boundaries between “fantastic fiction” and “literary fiction” like never before, Unutterable Horror will look like a dream come true.  Here, at last, is a book thick enough to right all of those exclusionary wrongs perpetrated against weird literature over the years.  The subtitles of the two volumes ring with rigor:  From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century and The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.  Even the table of contents, with its neatly periodized sections and subsections ordered by long strings of roman numerals and references to “schools,” “branches,” and “theory,” seem to promise a Norton Anthology of Literature from a parallel universe, where Lovecraft has toppled Shakespeare from his perch at the apex of humankind’s literary achievement.

Alas, it is a dream too good to be true.  Perhaps as the price for its irresistible thickness, Unutterable Horror suffers precisely because of its desire to be authoritative.  By emulating something like a Norton Anthology, it winds up reproducing a lot of the elitist, judgmental tone (if not the content) that made us all wince in the first place when we realized that Barker’s Books of Blood, no matter how brilliant, would never measure up to the category of “literature” as imagined by the Norton Anthology’s learned editors.  Witness, for example, how Joshi dismisses M.G. Lewis’s deliriously intense and phenomenally successful eighteenth-century Gothic novel The Monk as “merely a light entertainment”, despite the fact that intellectual and artistic giants such as André Breton, Antonin Artaud, and Luis Buñuel (among others) have found it profoundly inspirational.

It is crucial to note that Joshi’s belittling of The Monk does not mean he fails to appreciate it.  Indeed, he devotes several lovingly detailed pages to analyzing the importance of its anti-religious themes and even quotes a passage from the novel that he deems to be “one of the more effective supernatural scenes in Gothic fiction”.  The problem is that Joshi, who admits to enjoying The Monk, feels the need to designate his enjoyment as a “guilty pleasure” separate from recognizing true literary merit.  This is a surprisingly and disappointingly old-fashioned critical stance to take in a book dedicated so scrupulously to authors who, in the vast majority of cases, reside far beyond anything resembling traditional critical approval.  Even more troubling, Joshi’s tastes are rather astonishingly prim given the subject of his investigation.  The graphic sex and violence of The Monk, however influential and historically significant in Joshi’s account, strikes him ultimately as “a bit grotesque and extreme”.

Given this take on Lewis, it is not shocking to find that Joshi refers to more modern phenomena such as splatterpunk fiction and slasher films as “debased forms of the weird.” And here is Joshi on the remarkably gifted contemporary writer Joe Hill:  “I humbly suggest that Hill move on to mainstream fiction, which better suits his literary talents.  His use of the supernatural is beyond clumsy: the critical element of plausibility is lacking.” If one can learn to chuckle rather than grit their teeth when reading pronouncements like these, Unutterable Horror becomes a lively survey of a fascinating genre – a pleasingly thick exploration of a thinly recognized form of literature.

In fact, there is much to enjoy in Unutterable Horror, guiltily or not.  One cannot help but be swept along by the sheer scope of the book’s purview, as Joshi gallops across texts, authors, nations, and centuries with indefatigable confidence and enthusiasm.  This is an exceptionally prolific critic who has devoted many years to studying the genre and his clear commitment to reading as much of this fiction as he can possibly get his hands on is truly impressive.  Few readers, even the most disciplined horror aficionados, will emerge from encountering Unutterable Horror without a sizable list of novels, stories, and authors that they feel they must seek out for discovery or rediscovery.  One may not agree with Joshi’s critical evaluations or his nearly exclusive focus on Anglophone literature, but chances are most readers will find the range of his examples exciting and at times even galvanizing.

Joshi wisely acknowledges that defining literary horror necessitates an awareness of its overlap with other genres usually considered distinct in their own right, such as science fiction, fantasy, and crime/suspense.  But rather than embracing this overlap as a means of imagining the nature of horror in more ambitious and less traditional ways, he chooses to limit his inquiry to “pure supernatural horror”:  instances when fear is activated in a metaphysical sense, when “our understanding of the universe is jeopardized.”  For Joshi, “understanding” refers to natural laws, not psychological or social terror.  As he explains, “if we were forced to believe in the actual existence of a vampire or a werewolf, our whole conception of the universe would be seen to be fatally erroneous, and this would occur all apart from any terrors evoked by physical mayhem or even by the vagaries of a diseased mind.”

The decision to specify the “purity” of supernatural horror in this way doubtlessly lends an organizational tidiness to Unutterable Horror, but it also robs the book of a much-needed conceptual and critical thrust beyond canonization.  In a genre that has suffered from critical neglect due to restrictive notions of what is allowed to constitute a literary canon, Joshi erects an alternate canon that mirrors the structure of the original too closely.  The inclusion of voices belonging to other critics in the field might have helped Unutterable Horror feel less like a hermetically sealed exercise in building a horror canon, but Joshi is quick to judge and dismiss most of his fellow travelers in horror criticism.  In short bibliographical essays near the end of each volume, Joshi rarely endorses critical works that he has not authored himself.  Even those examples of criticism that he finds valuable are not taken up as an opportunity for dialogue with his own claims; Unutterable Horror remains throughout very much a critical monologue, however spirited.

Still, I can imagine quite vividly the comfort it would have given me to place Unutterable Horror on my dorm room bookshelf beside my Norton Anthology editions; I can almost hear the shelf creaking under the combined weight.  Maybe the shelf would even collapse, leaving all that “high” and “low” literature strewn together on the floor. 

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