Review: Horror: A Literary History

Horror: A Literary History

Ed. Xavier Aldana Reyes, (London: British Library Publishing, 2016), 224 pages, ISBN: 9780712356084

Following the publication of Body Gothic (2014) and Horror Film and Affect (2016), Xavier Aldana Reyes continues to draw scholarly attention to the oft-maligned genre of horror. Unlike his previous publications, Horror: A Literary History is an edited volume which is not aimed at an academic audience and specifically concentrates on literature rather than film. Its aim is to inform and inspire readers of horror – both those familiar to the genre and those who want to learn more. Each chapter ends with references, though these are kept to a minimum, and a further reading list. The structure of the book creates a canon for horror, whilst the chapters argue that horror is deserving of its own canon; it can be canonical rather than pushed aside in favour of Gothic literature. In accordance with its aim to appeal to a wider audience than an academic tome, the cover of Horror is simple, elegant and eye-catching.

Chronologically organised, the first chapter covers the period of 1740-1820. Dale Townshend explores the connections and difference between horror and the Gothic, isolating the affective qualities of this genre. Horror is something which chills the senses and stoppers speech – an aspect famously critiqued by Ann Radcliffe but celebrated here, finding its roots in the works of Shakespeare. Chapter two takes us across the ocean where Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet discusses historical influences on American horror. The chapter opens with an exploration of the effect of Puritan captive narratives and the Salem witch trials on later horror texts, and ends with an important discussion of how three key female writers, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Perkins, used horror in their writing.

Royce Mahawatte’s discussion of horror in the Victorian period acknowledges that it was not a distinct genre but rather infused into society. Body snatchers, endemic poverty and scientific revolution challenged long held beliefs. Science became gothic and the indignities enacted by the body politic were reflected on the human body – thus horror became diffuse. In the fourth chapter, Roger Luckhurst uses Arthur Machen as a model for analysing the transition of horror from late Victorian Gothic into the Modern period. He focuses on the effect of expanding print culture in the 1880s, the rise of secularism, and the power of science in locating horror within the body. This relationship between print, popular literature and horror recurs throughout the chapters.

The popularity of the pulp magazine Weird Tales and the lack of distinction between fantasy, science fiction and horror in the early twentieth century is discussed by Bernice Murphy. Murphy’s chapter goes on to chart the domestication of horror – this should not be confused with the idea that horror has become less threatening rather than that the threat comes not from cataclysmic outside forces but is now found in the heart of suburbia. Accordingly, from the 1950s onwards, the recognisably human serial killer becomes a popular figure of horror. Whilst Weird Tales exemplifies horror’s association with the short story, Steffen Hanke explores the importance of the novel in the rise of horror ‘superstars’ such as Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Anne Rice in the late twentieth century. The proliferation of substantial horror novels heavily marketed by publishers added to the sense that horror had become respectable. ‘Splatterpunk’ was a reaction to this, however, it did not prevent the decline in sales of horror by the late 1980s. The final chapter, written by Reyes, argues that there has been a resurgence in horror informed both by political upheaval but also the emerging power of Young Adult publications. He finishes by arguing that the zombie has become the ultimate twenty-first century monster, embodying the ennui and slow destruction of individualism brought about by neoliberal capitalism.

The chapters are careful to acknowledge the importance of the Gothic whilst being clear to separate between the two. Overlaps are acknowledged but the contributors offer a convincing alternative timeline for horror literature. By creating a distinct lineage, Horror redeems its namesake from being represented as a parasitic genre feeding from a larger host, Gothic. Particularly effective was the explanation of how the language of horror could be found in nonfiction texts. In the introduction, Reyes offered the argument that horror has been portrayed as transgressive escapism. This idea is not entirely dismissed in Horror but it is tempered through the examination of the impact on historical context on different forms of literary horror.

As acknowledged in the introduction, it is not possible to cover all aspects of horror in one text and Horror concentrates almost entirely on English and American literature. The main limitation of this text was the lack of diversity amongst the authors discussed. Whilst the dominance of male writers in horror was acknowledged throughout the chapters, there was only a brief mention of queer authors and a dearth of black horror writers such as Octavia Butler or Jewelle Gomez. Perhaps it would be timely to consider the possibilities of horror for reacting to normative experiences and the reasons why, despite this, the genre has tended to be dominated by straight, white, cisgender men. It seems likely, however, that this is symptomatic of the huge task faced by this work which covers a large timeline and is effectively creating a workable framework for horror in literature.

Ultimately, like its cover, Horror is elegant and engaging. The writing is smooth and approachable, and the reader is lead through the history of literary horror. The contributors do not shy away from the elements of horror that have prevented it from achieving the same level of academic consideration as the Gothic. Yet, in treating their texts with respect and a straightforward approach to the more problematic elements, the need to engage more fully with the history of horror literature becomes clear. This volume inspires the reader to re-read familiar texts and discover new ones and, hopefully, it will encourage a wider discussion of the importance of horror in literature.

Review by Kaja Franck



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