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Supernatural: Michael Cox

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The supernatural is one of the most difficult of all literary genres to define. It is less a genre in its own right than a mass of sub-genres that can include ghost stories and tales of terror; horror stories; macabre, grotesque, or weird fiction, and other sub-species of the fantastic in literature. For those who wish to begin exploring this vast and diverse region of fiction, the best approach is to focus on the indisputable landmarks and ignore categorization altogether.

The use of the supernatural in fiction signifies an imaginative response in the author to a fundamental and abiding strangeness interpenetrating the physical and moral universe; a recognition of some mysterious ‘otherness’ in our existence that is both beyond our grasp and, at times, fearfully present to our senses. How this is worked out in fiction depends on many factors, personal and cultural; but if we are looking for some unifying thread, then it is this willingness to suggest realities that transcend the ordinary course of nature, ranging from traditional ghosts to werewolves and vampires, with a host of terrors—seen and unseen—in between. For many writers there is also a more basic motive: to bring about what Edith Wharton called ‘the fun of the shudder’—that curiously enjoyable sensation of feeling afraid when we are in no actual danger ourselves.

For those inclined to jump in at the historical deep end, the earliest supernatural fiction to constitute a major tradition in its own right was Gothic romance in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Typically located in ancient castles or monasteries (the word ‘Gothic’ originally implied ‘medieval’) set in wild picturesque landscapes, these early narratives were a reaction against the rationalism of neoclassical culture. Supernatural incidents abound in Gothic fiction: spectral figures, eerie sounds, living statues, bleeding images, breathing portraits, magic mirrors. The tradition was set in train by Horace Walpole in The Castle of Otranto (1764) and reached its high point in The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis, a lurid and extravagant melodrama that irresistibly combined sex, violence, and the supernatural.

Gothic fiction—in its original form—is probably something of an acquired taste for most modern readers, but its influence has been far-reaching and still continues. Out of the early Gothic tradition sprang such literary landmarks as Mary Shelley's seminal Frankenstein (1818) and the tales of Edgar Allan Poe (e.g. ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, included in his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, 1840), whilst its cultural impact not only infiltrated mainstream Victorian fiction (e.g. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, 1847), it also prepared the literary ground for the development of two of supernatural fiction's most important sub-genres—the ghost story and the tale of terror.

Unlike their generally unconvincing Gothic predecessors, the fictional ghosts of the Victorian period typically lived in recognizable places. Victorian writers effectively domesticated the ghost story, making it reflect the landscapes and situations of their contemporary world. The Anglo-Irish writer J. S. Le Fanu (1814–73) transformed the Gothic inheritance, creating a new kind of tale in which formidable supernatural presences emerge from within the psyche of the human protagonists, as well as invade from without. Le Fanu displayed his gifts as a story-teller to the full in his first collection, Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851), which contains such classic stories as ‘Schalken the Painter’ (a powerful tale of supernatural abduction) and ‘The Watcher’ (later retitled ‘The Familiar’). His other stories include the much-anthologized ‘Green Tea’ and his vampire classic ‘Carmilla’ (both reprinted in the 1872 collection In a Glass Darkly).

If your taste is for ghost stories of the traditional kind, then the half century from about 1860 to the outbreak of the First World War offers much to savour. Amongst the period's most famous individual stories are ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898) by Henry James; ‘The Monkey's Paw’ (1902) by W. W. Jacobs; and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad’, a terrifying transformation of the traditional sheeted spook, from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) by M. R. James. This hugely influential volume, one of supernatural fiction's defining moments, set in train a vigorous sub-category of antiquarian ghost stories. James's sensitivity to place and to the living presence of the past, gives all his stories a distinctive resonance and edge. Above all, his supernatural presences are amongst the most convincing and disturbing in the literature—various in form, but always malevolent and fearfully palpable, like the moment in ‘Casting the Runes’ (from More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1911), when the protagonist reaches under his pillow and touches ‘a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it’.

If ghost stories, strictly speaking, show us the doings of the returning human dead, in the wider category of the tale of terror we are presented with a more eclectic range of supernatural intrusions and, often, a more complex set of responses to the supernatural. Where many ghost stories observe a certain decorum in their effects, tales of terror are typically less restrained, though the emphasis remains placed on the arousal in the reader of an intense kind of fear. But again strict categorization is elusive: Le Fanu's ‘ghosts’ were a various lot (from a spectral monkey to a disembodied hand); whilst those of M. R. James include several that are terrifyingly non-human (such as the hideous demon in ‘Canon Alberic's Scrap-book’). In Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), the returning dead become the undead in a narrative that achieves much of its power by being set in the here and now. It also offers its own critique of contemporary values; and like that earlier iconic creation, Frankenstein, it has a wider purpose underlying the surface effects, expressed by Van Helsing's complaint that ‘it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain’.

Dracula also exploits that heightening of terror in the face of something physically repulsive that is the distinctive feature of horror fiction. In the out-and-out horror story, physicality is vital: the fear induced is based on overt depictions of events and situations designed to arouse revulsion, rather than simple unease. Physical horror is often present in ghost stories as well. It is all a question of degree, and of the reader's individual reactions. Many pulp horror stories have no other aim but to shock, or even disgust readers (hence the contemporary term ‘schlock’); but in the hands of the best writers—such as R. L. Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)—the horror that is aroused has an archetypal potency that speaks directly to our deepest and most primitive fears.

As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, supernatural fiction in all its forms continued to proliferate. For the authentic fin de siècle mood, try the tales and novels of Arthur Machen (1863–1947) such as The Great God Pan (1894) or The Three Imposters (1895), in which elemental forces of evil are portrayed with a kind of pagan intensity. More visionary depictions of sinister forces residing within the natural world itself can be found in the stories of the prolific Algernon Blackwood, whose particular forte was creating tales in which Nature itself provides a conduit between material and spiritual realities—as in his masterpiece ‘The Willows’ from The Listener (1907). More conventional fare is provided by H. R. Wakefield (1890–1964), a neglected writer whose impressive output includes several gems, including the short but hair-raisingly effective ‘Blind Man's Buff’ (from Old Man's Beard, 1929). Wakefield's near contemporary W. F. Harvey (1885–1937), best known for his terrifying story about a disembodied hand, ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’ (1928), is another underrated author of well crafted ghost stories—amongst them one that must rate as one of the scariest ever written, ‘The Clock’. The ambiguous and densely written stories of Walter de la Mare—such as ‘Seaton's Aunt’, from The Riddle (1923)—are also worth seeking out.

In a different vein, the American H. P. Lovecraft, author of an influential essay on ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, created a powerful and consistent body of fiction with its own elaborate mythology; representative works include The Dunwich Horror and Others (1963) and Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1965). Writing at much the same time, the work of the British author Robert Aickman, described by Aickman himself as ‘strange stories’, constitutes one of the most impressive bodies of supernatural fiction of the twentieth century. Aickman's subtle evocations of ‘the experience behind the experience’ can be sampled in collections such as Dark Entries (1964) and Cold Hand in Mine (1975). In the horror category, key modern works include W. P. Blatty's The Exorcist (1971), James Herbert's The Rats (1974), Peter Straub's Ghost Story (1979), and of course the novels of Stephen King—try Carrie (1974), King's first novel and one of his best, a dark study of a possessed adolescent. Finally, no supernatural fiction reading list should fail to include The Haunting of Hill House (1959), by the American writer Shirley Jackson, and Susan Hill's The Woman in Black (1983)—two of the best haunted house novels ever written.

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