Fiction Reviews

Horror Stories
Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson

(2014) Darryl Jones (ed), Oxford University Press, £14.99 / US$24.95, hrdbk, xlii + 510pp, ISBN 978-0-199-68543-1


Trying to trace the development of a genre is never easy. There are always some obvious choices, but there are also those moments when you see something emerging that would come into play latter. Given how horror bleeds out from fantasy, science fiction, crime and thriller, it’s influences can come from anywhere. This anthology takes the nineteen century as the main point for the emergence of horror as a genre, even if that term was rarely used.

The introduction discusses the usual suspects of the basis of Victorian fears: the unease at having an empire, worries about scientific progress, sexuality and spiritualism. This does establish the context of the stories, which needs to happen even if this may be familiar territory, for some people. Without knowing the context, it can be difficult to fairly judge older material.

These are some of the stories have been chosen for the anthology to represent the genre's progression.

'The Sandman' by E. T. A Hoffmann does predate Frankenstein, with the story of artificial life created. Although the overall tone of the story appears to swing from satire to horror, as if Hoffmann was not sure of what it was himself, so it feels like two separate stories pushed together. Still, it is a story which is historically important and remains, after so long, surprisingly undermined for spin-off material.

This feeling of the genre's typical formulae not yet being set in stone, continues with 'The Man in the Bell' by William Maginn. It is based on a simple premise dealing with a man being trapped under a church bell. With the narrator trapped in an enclosed space and that provided by an everyday object made it frightening, and so it is a more important step in the evolution of the genre then may have been noticed at the time.

'George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell' by James Hogg deals with everyday travel turned into and object of horror. It also establishes the use of dreams as way to break with reality. 'The Room in the Towe'r by E. F. Benson also uses recurring dreams with a specific location and dialogue. As it goes on, the narrative becomes more conventional with what we have seen before, but the use of recurring dreams is interesting for the time.

'La Grande Breteche' by Honore De Balzac has the sense that it is possibly a satire of the gothic genre with a decaying estate, wills given out on deathbeds and walling up people up alive. As the narrative mentions Anne Radcliffe, I think that it is a possible interpretation.

As others have previously noted, comedy and horror can be very closely linked. 'The Adventure of Lady Winshaw’s Hand' by Richard March, a story of a severed limb with a life of its own reads nearer to humour then horror. Similarly, 'What Was It?' by Fitz-James O’Brien also runs close to parody, with a house full of people expecting to see a ghost, which is then captured and a plaster cast made of it. The latter could be seen as a reflection of the paradox with people expecting ghosts in a world with the rational increasingly gaining ground.

'Berenice –A Tale' by Edgar Allan Poe, is one of the authors less familiar works but is still fairly interesting, going over his familiar territory of an obsessed narrator going into madness. 'Strange Event in The Life of Schalken the Painter' by Sheridan Le Fanu is a less familiar work as well but also lesser in general, with another account of a young idiot summoning up the devil. 'The Birth-Mark' by Nathaniel Hawthorne is something that sounds like it could be a good commentary on beauty standards a husband obsessed with removing a blemish on his wife’s face. Unfortunately it reads as if it was meant to be taken seriously with much mucking about with alchemy.

When the stories move into authors moving with the changing times, the material starts to get interesting again. 'The Tartarus of Maids' by Herman Mellville turns a paper mill into a place of nightmare. 'The Signal Man' a classic by Charles Dickens is a great ghost story using the emerging landscape of the trains. 'The Death of Olivier Becaille' by Emile Zola, re-invents the story of burial alive by bringing in the disappointment of failed aspirations. 'Chickamunga' by Ambrose Bierce confronts a lost child with the horrors of the civil war.

The sub-genre of body horror is also represented with three stories centred around this. 'The Vivisector Vivisected' by Roland Ross has not aged well with a scientist attempting to keep someone alive through an artificial heart. 'The Squaw' by Bram Stoker is a rather weightless tale of revenge, enlivened by the question of if there was a general sense of snobbery against Americans in the English literary circles. 'The Case of Lady Sannox' by Arthur Conan Doyle is another empty story about revenge on an adulterous wife.

Near the middle point of the anthology, the book starts to move into the range of the more familiar authors and stories The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson does play on the lasting shock and guilt of the Burke and Hare murders and is a step on the path to writing Jekyll and Hyde . 'The Mark of the Beast' by Rudyard Kipling is a dull colonist nightmare that says it is all right to torture people with leprosy, if they curse white military jerks.

'The Yellow Wall Paper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a justly lauded tale of madness from a woman suffering post-birth depression. It’s one of these stories that you can see how it inspired other authors. 'The Repairer of Reputations' by Robert W. Chambers stands apart from the others being set twenty five years into the future. This is another story that has become influential through introducing the idea of ‘The King In Yellow’ a text that will drive mad anybody who reads it.

There is less of an impact in the story 'Novel of the White Paper' by Arthur Machen in which somebody decays due to exposure to strange drugs. The premise is good, it’s just the way that narrative handles it. A similar comment could be made for 'Luella Miller' by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, with an account of a psychic vampire that feeds off other people’s attention and work, which has the sense of needing a bit more editing.

'The Monkey’s Paw' by W. W. Jacobs still remains one of the greatest short horror stories. 'Count Magus'by M. R. James is also a good representation of this authors work with an academic stumbling onto the supernatural. 'The Wendigo' by Algernon Blackwood has been cited as an influence on Lovecraft. The story raises the possibilities of fear through the vastness of the American landscape and the idea of procession.

In conclusion, this anthology does a good job of representing the genre's evolution. However, this one might be a better choice for a starting point then for people more familiar with the subject matter. A lot of the stories here have been reprinted in other titles and collections. The most interesting moments are with the less familiar material such as 'The Tartarus of Maids' and 'The Death of Olivier Becaille' which mix what was the modern world with what where becoming the familiar genre tropes. This is anthology is worth reading but, if you are a bit of a horror collector, check your book collection before buying to make sure that you are getting sufficient new material to that which you already have.

David Allkins

See also Mark's review of Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson.

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