Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Le Fanu and Herbert van Thal

I was recently reading Herbert van Thal’s interesting autobiography, The Tops of the Mulberry Trees (1971), which covers many of van Thal’s roles in publishing—as an agent, anthologist, editor and publisher.  Here are a few paragraphs on J. Sheridan Le Fanu:
An author to whom I have always been greatly addicted is Sheridan Le Fanu. It was that remarkable person A.J.A. Symons who first drew my attention to him. I have always been surprised that Le Fanu has never achieved the popularity of his contemporaries, such as Wilkie Collins, though Collins’ reputation rests solely on The Woman in White and The Moonstone, and of whom I am no less of an admirer. Le Fanu is barely known save for Uncle Silas, and some of his short stories from In a Glass Darkly. A. J. A. Symons had a remarkable collection of his works and now that the Sadleir collection is no longer in this country, his works are one of the scarcest to be found. I began collecting his books late in life, and therefore was unable to complete a run of volumes. Those I had I regret now I sold at Sotheby’s in 1964.

Ardizzone's frontispiece to In a Glass Darkly
Peter Davies had the good ides of republishing In a Glass Darkly with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, but as usual, the result was not so admirable financially. I have always felt that it is a pity that the marriage between illustrator and novelist is no longer popular. I suppose everyone has a preconceived idea in their minds’ eye as to the appearance of the characters in their favoured writings, and prefer not to have this dispelled by an artist’s view. I, however, do not agree with this argument. I always see Alice through Tenniel, Pickwick thought Boz, and I felt similarly Edward Ardizzone completely captured the spirit of Le Fanu, and I only wish that had In a Glass Darkly been a success we could have continued to republish Le Fanu with that artist’s illustrations.

When I had my own publishing house, I naturally wanted to republish Le Fanu, but I only republished one short story from The Purcell PapersA Strange Adventure in the Life of Miss Laura Mildmay.  Montague Summers reproved me for not stating that the story first appears in Cassell’s Magazine Volume IV, 1868, and not in The Purcell Papers. The Le Fanu of Spook Sonatas no loner terrifies—the host, the familiar and the vampire only hold court in the world of the cinema—and in its place something far more realistically horrid is necessary to titillate the flesh of the toughened and permissive young of our time.

The small Le Fanu volume that van Thal published, A Strange Adventure of the Life of Miss Laura Mildmay: A Tale from Chronicles of Golden Friars (London:  Home and van Thal, 1947) included an introductory note by van Thal and a frontispiece by Felix Kelly.  Van Thal also included Le Fanu’s “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” in his anthology Great Ghost Stories (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1960), and introduced a reissue of Le Fanu’s novel, The Cock and the Anchor (London:  Cassell, 1967).  

A sample page-spread from In a Glass Darkly (1929)

Edward Ardizzone contributed over 150 illustrations to the Peter Davies edition of In a Glass Darkly, published in November 1929.  Only six of these are full-page illustration; the rest are smaller vignettes.  All are rather impressionistic ink sketches.  I find I can’t agree with van Thal that Ardizzone is especially desirable as an illustrator for Le Fanu’s writings, nice and atmospheric as those the illustrations may be.

Monday, July 1, 2013

S. T. Joshi’s UNUTTERABLE HORROR and its Reception

S. T. Joshi read an immense amount of material prior to compiling this two-volume history in order to present the most comprehensive study of supernatural literature yet published. He has also organized this material with exemplary care, yet it troubles me that everyone has either lauded this book without noting the extent to which its author's biases compromise the study's integrity, or they have skirted these deficiencies as minor matters that will have little major effect on future critical assessments of supernatural literature.

Even though some reviews have called attention to the overly harsh criticism he doles out to canonical and obscure authors alike, none of the reviews I have read have attempted to address the fallacies and inconsistencies Joshi applies to the works he so readily dismisses. Iconoclasm is such an ingrained part of American culture that we tend to accept the explosion of myths, unseating of sacred cows, and the revelation that the emperor has no clothes without examining whether the iconoclasts have truly opened our eyes to the truth or merely found a new way of distracting us from it.    

I will begin with two quotations from Stefan Dziemianowicz's review, which appeared in the July 2013 issue of Locus.
"Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction can be regarded as his ambitious elaboration on Lovecraft’s landmark essay 'Supernatural Horror in Literature'."

Unfortunately, this is one of the major deficiencies of the book. Even though Lovecraft’s letters and a careful comparison of Lovecraft's essay with Edith Birkhead's The Tale of Terror (Constable, 1921)[1], reveal that Lovecraft was not always very familiar with the authors he critiqued, Joshi takes virtually every opinion of Lovecraft's as gospel. Furthermore, if Lovecraft felt an author's work did not meet his standards, Joshi echoes that opinion faithfully, though at greater length.

"Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James (all of whom Joshi credits for using their tales of the supernatural as vehicles for expressing their worldviews)" 

Here is one of the key fallacies into which Joshi falls again and again and again, not only in this work, but in its predecessors. When he first wrote about M. R. James in an article later reprinted in The Weird Tale (University of Texas Press, 1990), he dismissed the author as a writer of trifles who lacked the coherent world-view of the other authors in the book, i.e. Bierce, Blackwood, Machen, and Lovecraft. Years later, he has accepted the fact that James does have a world-view, though one he had initially missed, and now acknowledges him as a superior craftsman.  Oddly, as anyone who has read more than a smattering of his work can attest, Blackwood’s fiction does not present a single, coherent worldview, but shifts as his settings and the focus of his individual novels and collections changes. Most of the time his work is pantheist or animist in its concerns, but there are strong traces of a very Christian conception of good and evil in a great many of his works, even though no established church would embrace the way he conceives or presents them.

Joshi tends to award a Weltanschauung to authors with whose views he is in sympathy; but has the unfortunate tendency to deny any legitimate worldview to those writers in whom he sees mirrored elements of traditional religion, even when those views are transformed by such powerful personalities as Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Russell Kirk (to name two authors dismissed summarily in this book) or treated in a complex manner that subverts traditional canons of belief, as appears regularly in the work of Le Fanu and Machen.

There is no doubt in my mind that Lovecraft belongs on the very highest tier of weird fiction writers due to the quality of his vision, the conscientiousness with which he shaped his greatest works, and his success in driving his personal vision towards a realization capable of capturing the imagination of people with whom he otherwise had very little in common. Yet, Lovecraft’s vision is not the only vision of horror capable of doing this, since not all of us are atheists, nor materialists, nor is every member of the human race uninterested in the finer workings of the mind or interactions among its fellows. There are important strands of weird fiction Lovecraft failed to appreciate or understand, which predecessors such as James Hogg, Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Ambrose Bierce, Henry James, M. R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Oliver Onions, and many others brought to the fore.  

By setting up Lovecraft as the most appropriate, or in some extreme cases the only legitimate, yardstick with which to measure the human capacity for horror, I believe current scholarship in the field of weird literature risks embracing a fallacy akin to that described by Herbert Butterfield in his famous essay, The Whig Interpretation of History (Norton, 1965). Butterfield warned historians that they risked compromising their work by applying contemporary value judgments against historical figures or events, and assuming that factors we perceive as advantageous to our current condition or favorable to development in any particular field must necessarily be deemed as inevitable and progressive:

"It is part and parcel of the Whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present; and though there may be a sense in which this is unobjectionable if its implications are carefully considered, and there may be a sense in which it is inescapable, it has often been an obstruction to historical understanding because it has been taken to mean the study of the past with direct and perpetual reference to the present. Through this system of immediate reference to the present day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it; so that a handy rule of thumb exists by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis. (page 11)"

"Our assumptions do not matter if we are conscious that they are assumptions, but the most fallacious thing in the world is to organize our historical knowledge upon an assumption without realizing what we are doing, and then to make inferences from that organization and claim that these are the voice of history. It is at this point that we tend to fall into what I have nicknamed the Whig fallacy. (pp. 23-4)."

Nor is this fallacy peculiar to historical studies, since the most egregious example known to me was responsible for a Serialist hegemony in classical music among publishers, performers, and academics during the first five decades following World War II, during which composers writing tonal music were labeled "useless" and had increasing difficulty having their concert works performed or published. This fallacy thrives on the assumption that a given concept or artifact embraced by a segment of contemporary society (e.g. Democracy, free market economy, serialist music, horror fiction with a  cosmic or materialist basis antagonistic to established religion, mint-flavored toothpaste)[2] is the logical and only legitimate result of sustained development in that sphere.  By accepting these preconceptions, anything that deviates from progression to the desired result must be viewed as wrong, as anything leading up to it is viewed as immature, and anything deviating from it in the present is viewed as flawed, decadent, old-fashioned, wrong-headed, silly, and what-have-you.

Dziemianowicz begins the final paragraph of his review as follows:

Unutterable Horror is a very opinionated historical study, and Joshi’s criticisms are sometimes unnecessarily caustic. But this book is indisputably a work of considerable scholarship. Joshi has done his homework to fill the gaps in the fossil record of supernatural fiction, and the wealth of data with which he provides the reader for primary and secondary sources is invaluable.”
This is a just appraisal of all the work Joshi has put into this study. The crucial sentences, however, appear in the final two lines:  

“Invariably, readers will seek out many of the works cited in its two volumes to render their own critical estimates. Present and future scholars will undoubtedly treat this book as one that establishes the critical standard for evaluating supernatural fiction.”

I cannot express strongly enough my desire that the final sentence of Dziemianowicz’s review be yoked indissolubly with, and tempered by, that which precedes it.  All too often, the opinion of one authority is deemed sufficient reason for any reader, perennially as short of time as he or she may be of funds, to forego the opportunity of investigating an author on their own.  Joshi may have established a “critical standard for evaluating supernatural fiction” in this book, but that does not mean that his assessments are always either just or unassailable.  Herbert A. Wise & Phyllis Fraser Cerf dismissed “hundreds and hundreds of stories” as “commonplace” or “sheer trash” in the “Introduction to the Notes” to their benchmark Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (Random House, 1944). Nearly seventy years later, and without knowing specifically which works they omitted, their criteria for inclusion seem reasonable. In Joshi’s case, the exclusions are named, and the criteria again seem reasonable, as stated, even though the way Joshi applies these criteria does not always seem reasonable or equitable. It is up to us who do not share Mr. Joshi’s particular set of biases (admittedly due to biases of our own, which can be overcome or placed into context via a community of readers and scholars in this field) to ensure that a perspective is maintained that allows for appreciation of the full panoply and richness of supernatural literature.  

[1] A work from which "Supernatural Horror" borrows more than is usually acknowledged.
[2] Efforts to market dental hygiene in Asia were rewarded when it was realized that Green Tea was accepted as a more palatable dentifrice in China than the mint or fruit flavors favored in the West.