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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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7 Great Edwardian Ghost Story Writers

While the weird tale and horror fiction existed in Britain long before the Edwardian Era (fl. 1895 - 1919), this period was certainly the zenith of supernatural fiction in the English-speaking world. Although the Victorians boasted a handful of truly excellent supernaturalists (Le Fanu, Riddell, Oliphant, Edwards, Broughton, etc.), the production of high-octane speculative fiction reached a high watermark during the years between Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan and M. R. James' “A Warning to the Curious.” This period was profuse with talent and vision. The weird tale virtually cut its teeth in the wake of the Decadent Movement, with a renewed fascination in the occult, the pagan, and the otherworldly rushing into the salons and intellectual clubs of London, Dublin, Edinburgh, New York, and Paris. The Edwardians rejected the sober piety of their forefathers, embracing lifestyles of oppulence, fashion, and society. While the masters of Victorian horror used their fiction to expose and exercise the sins of a society which sought repress its violent, feudal past and its oppressive colonial policies, the Edwardians investigated the consequences of excess -- of comfort and indulgence, of individualism and artistic integrity. While the Victorian victim of supernatural terror was often a member of the social elite plagued by guilt and haunted by the phantoms of their exploitative privilege, the typical Edwardian quarry was a loner -- an artist, scientist, or scholar -- who rejected company and the approval of society in order to plumb the limits of self-indulgence, often with catastrophic results. Here, in a follow up to our "7 Great Victorian Ghost Story Writers," we laud seven of the era's best.


Rarely anthologized and often remembered more for his poetry, children's stories, and children's verses than his speculative fiction (some have placed this blame on his estate, which may want to promote his wholesome albeit conventional verse and put distance between his legacy and his startlingly grim horror), Walter de la Mare was, nonetheless, a master of the sinister, investing his writing with the same fluid, lyrical beauty that made his poetry renowned. His stories often dealt with the predatory influence of the dead, psychic vampirism, and rich, succlent atmospheres of dread and decay, woven in masterful prose. His most famous tale is "Seaton's Aunt" -- about just such a psychic vampire, an old woman consumed with thoughts of death, whose influence on her nephew is less than wholsome -- although "Out of the Deep" (a smiliar premise, but with a deceased uncle as the parasite) and The Return (similar to Lovecraft's "Evil Clergyman," it follows a man who falls asleep on a grave and wakes up physically transformed) are perhaps even more powerful.

6 -- W. W. JACOBS

Though principally known for his tremendously popular "The Monkey's Paw" (most pedestrian anthologies of classic horror will, without fear of contradiction or complaint, include this tale alongside Stoker's "The Judge's House (a Le Fanu rip-off), Stevenson's "The Body Snatcher," and Dickens' "The Signal-Man"), W. W. (William Wymark) Jacobs was a talented practioner of the short story, and his horror oeuvre of some twenty tales are remarkable for their proficient use of irony, mood, and suspense. "The Monkey's Paw" does indeed deserve its reputation -- it is embalmed in a deep and wrenching pathos -- but other tales such as "Jerry Bundler" (a Christmas story about the lurking ghost of a highwayman and the dire consequences of mocking fear), "The Toll House" (perhaps the best haunted house story of the era, rivalled only by Onions' magnum opus), and "The Well" (a grisly, Jamesian story about romantic rivals and a cold, wet embrace) deserve far more recognition than they have so far accrued.


Although Hodgson is more remarkable for his weird fiction, in particular his grisly Sargasso Sea Mythos and a series of oceanic tales, his ghost stories continue to be regularly anthologized and continue to unsettle. Most notable for his collection Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, Hodgson's contributions to the ghost tale eminate chiefly from this volume. The eponymous psychic investigator -- a combination of Van Helsing and Sherlock Holmes -- regularly regails his friends with the details of his supernatural exploits: uncovering villainous hoaxes and disarming genuine psychic perils. Although his stories begin in a well-lit den, warmed by port and beef, the reader is rapidly sucked into his harrowing experiences, steeped in demonic terrors and predatory phantoms. "The Whistling Room," perhaps the best story, involves a chamber possessed by the carnivorous spirit of a jester whose tongue was removed to keep him from singing, "The Gateway of the Monster" follows a vicious, homicidal entity haunting a room known for its murders, and "The Hog" concerns a horrific, porcine demon which invades dreams.


Perhaps only James and Benson out perform Onions in his craft. Best known for the novella "The Beckoning Fair One," a sickening story of possession and artistic mania in a haunted house, and for the anthology that it headlined, Widdershins, Onions pairs well with de la Mare, both for his phenomenally lyrical prose and for his penchant for possession, psychic vampirism, and dramatic irony. Onions tales often concern the interplay between erotic beauty and supernatural danger, and while they rarely follow the same plot conventions of TBFO (his "ghosts" are sometimes rifts in the demensions of space and time, visions of the future, and reincarnation), his stories are regularly chilling, mystifying, and unsettling. Like Jacobs, they double easily as literary fiction, and like Blackwood, they exceed the genre's tropes and conventions, exploring the breadth of supernatural mysticism. Of note are his tales "Rooum" (a Lovecraftian story of vampirism on a molecular level), "Benlian" (wherein a monomaniacal artist worships his art and creates his own savage gods), and "The Painted Face" (a shy girl goes on a fateful vaccation, whereafter her personality is transformed and her past lives -- as a fatal temptress throughout many aeons -- is revealed).


Like Hodgson, Blackwood is primarily known for his weird fiction and his psychic investigator (the meddlesome "physician extraordinary" John Silence), but his ghost stories are among the era's best. For Blackwood, whose experiences in New York City left him deeply disturbed by the isolationism and anonymity of postindustrial urban life, there was no social sin in more need of exposition than urban dehumanization. His ghost stories followed the lives of marginalized intellectuals with petty jobs leading lonely lives, bunkered in cheap lodgings run by unprincipled landladies. The ghosts who haunt them all died as a result of the isolation, marginalization, and abuse of commercialized, urban materialism, and those they haunt are unwitting victims of the same forces, sometimes just as imperiled as their deceased predecessors. In "The Listener" a man is trailed by the specter of a leper -- and his hoard of cat familiars, while "A Case of Eavesdropping" features a poor boarder becoming a witness to a patricidal murder, and "The Kit-Bag" and "The Occupant of the Room" both involve bachelors preparing for alpine vaccations and being thwarted by the predatroy spirit of a suicide.

2 -- E. F. BENSON

Tremendously underrated, under-anthologized, and under-adapted, E. F. Benson was the most prolific member of a family of ghost story writers. While A. C. and R. H. Benson, his brothers, wrote definite Victorian ghost tales, Edward Frederic forged a complex and chilling oeuvre of modern supernatural tales. His themes revolved around female vampires, violently vindictive spirits, and gruesome elementals. Like Blackwood and Hodgson, his weird fiction -- even more underrated than his ghost tales -- was superb, and stories like "The Horror-Horn," "Negotium Perambulans," and "Caterpillars" smack of James and Lovecraft. But his ghost stories bear the clear influence of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, following in their tradition of brutal, violent, and physical visitants who prey on the guilty and the guiltless alike. "Mrs Amworth," "The Cat," "The Outsider," and "The Room in the Tower" concern the influence of subtle female vampires; "The Confession of Charles Linkworth" (a hanged man wants to be heard -- over the phone), "Naboth's Vineyard" (a wronged man returns -- with avengence, and a telltale limp), "In the Tube" (a subway casualty makes a grisly reappearance), and "The Other Bed" (a man would not sleep quite so well if he could see his roommate's throat -- Blackwood's "Occupant..." meets James' "Oh, Whistle") are splendid examples of the genre.

1 -- M. R. JAMES

The dean of the English ghost story (pun intended very much, indeed), M. R. James followed in the tradition of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, incorporating a loathsome ickiness that would inspire Benson and Lovecraft, and earn him the adoration of generations of ghost story readers. His tales concerned the seminal theme of the Edwardian Era: the isolated man further isolating himself, tunnelling deeper into the perils of his unconscious, from which crawling things might climb. James' stories, written to be read, were invested with a lulling rhythm which inspired both comfort and unease. Following his principle dictum -- "let us see [the protagonist] going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage" -- James' ghost stories featured chilling shocks in the most unsuspecting places. Of most mention are his "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (a loner-scholar learns the maxim "caveat emptor" -- and the maxim "QUIS EST ISTE QUI UENIT") and "A Warning to the Curious" (a relic hunter deeply regrets uncovering his quarry -- with grave results). "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book," and "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" follow the selfsame ramifications of unearthing hidden antiques; "Lost Hearts," "Martin's Close," "The Tractate Middoth," and "The Ash Tree" concern justice being dealt by the vengeful dead, and "The Haunted Doll's House," "Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance," "A View From a Hill," and "The Mezzotint" involve innocent persons who unwittingly stumble upon... malice in inanimate objects.


The restrictions of this blog (self-imposed) allowed me only seven spots. Here are some writers I would have loved to feature, and my favorite story of theirs...











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