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Dark Richness and Recesses
Horror: A Literary History (Hardback)
Edited by: Xavier Aldana Reyes

Publisher: British Library, RRP: £20.00
ISBN: 978 0 7123 5608 4
Publication Date: 25 August 2016

Review by Gina Wisker
(Cambridge and Brighton)


Xavier Aldana Reyes’ edited collection is essential for all of us interested in the scholarly study of horror, or who just want to find out more about its dark richness and recesses. The book begins by recognising that the horror genre is largely defined by its affects – fear, shock, disgust – initially found most often in short stories and latterly in film. Horror, it argues, is a personal experience and uses representation, metaphor. So, although Xavier does not say so directly, at least in the introduction, its achievement is very much like that of Gothic literature, making us process, respond, engaging us in issues which move beyond the personal, emanate from the cultural, from context, disturb, otherise, as Steven Jones, the great horror editor, calls it, a ‘phobic cultural form’ (2014), and as Xavier says, a ‘cathartic entertainment’. It is political, historical, delves into the repressed and avoided, channelling social fears, but it is also a lifestyle for some, and many of us enjoy the tropes, the walk-ons of familiar figures, from werewolves to vampires to serial killers and living dead dolls. We as readers ‘like to harness the primeval emotion of fear and render it safe for human consumption.’ (p. 13). Although actually, I would argue, it is not always that safe, because too safe and it would be mere puppetry. Horror constantly revives and renews itself and so re-shocks, re-surprises and engages us.

Several years ago a couple of editions of Dissections were mostly devoted to exploring the writing and teaching of horror, and one contributor noted how difficult it was to teach in a class where (because of their location) the everyday horrors of the lives of the students were overwhelmingly worse than any imagined version. They found it difficult to get that distance of imagination, that catalytic transfer from the representation and the metaphor into some message alongside some entertainment because the terrible reality was so overwhelming. My own Continuum book (2005) Horror Fiction began by delving into H.P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, so I expected and was pleased to find the analysis of variations of the genres, and exploration into primeval sources in our ancient history (although I might have expected it to take more from Lovecraft), but like Lovecraft’s great initial critical work on horror (and my book!), Xavier acknowledges the locations of horror back to the Greeks, Romans, Anglo Saxons, Renaissance revenge tragedy, and adds in the Bible with the Book of Revelations.

What we need as readers, consumers, producers and teachers of horror is a book such as Horror: A Literary History. It shows how horror is a deliberate affect in the work of a range of great fictions and films, and the differentiation of horror – less circumscribed by particular settings, characters and situations, not so much an ‘artistic mode’ as in the Gothic – has become more an ‘affective marker’ (p. 15). We need the differentiation, though I think we can take issue, as the book does, with some of it being seen as straightforward. It is also extremely insightful and helpful to have the history of horror and its affective nature recognised.

The book deals with horror from its sources mainly in the Gothic of the 18th century and romantic periods 1740-1820, in Chapter 1, 'Gothic and the Cultural sources of Horror', by Dale Townshend, through to 'Post-Millennial Horror 2000-16', by Xavier Aldana Reyes.

Dale Townshend’s very scholarly chapter starts to effectively recalibrate some of our favourite historical Gothic romances, recognising that Walpole defined The Castle of Otranto as a new kind of romance, and in 1827 the Encyclopaedia Londiniensis mentioned ‘horrible’ romances. He exposes the conflation between horror and terror and identifies much of Gothic and horror literature’s debt to Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas. Dale Townshend finds Walpole’s own The Mysterious Mother (1768) as more of an origin for horror in the Gothic romance, and as he moves on through the period he notes that Addison gives us ‘supernumerary horrors’ and then ‘ridiculous horrors’, while undermining the supernatural, which might well be a popular essential. The contrasting work of the 18th century – Gothic, and reason – are played out through the ridiculing of horror, though that often very blinkered regimentation (this is my view of much 18th-century representation of the sane and ordered face of humanity) is surely itself just such an origin of horror. It is one we have come to recognise from, for example, later on in the 19th century, the straight-laced respectability of Dr Jekyll and his dark side, the hideous Hyde, wallowing and rejoicing in evil. Horror is not merely ridiculous and funny, though it can certainly be so, it also exposes hypocrisy and deception in the most respectable artifices of culture and behaviour. Dale Townshend gives us corporeal horror, a range of horror in 18th-century writers, and then, the lumbering granddaddy of them all, monstrous disgust in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Xavier Aldana Reyes’ book does not specifically focus on women writers of horror as such, but it is filled with them at every turn.

The book opens with an introduction followed by Dale Townshend’s chapter, and closes with Xavier Aldana Reyes’ 'Post-Millennial Horror 2000-16'. In between it takes a chronological route which encompasses many familiar authors and figures, including Poe, Hawthorne, Bronte, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Machen, Blackwood, Stoker, and Hope Hodgson, up to Matheson, Shirley Jackson, du Maurier, Wyndham, to Stephen King, Oates, and Bloch. Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet writes on 'American Horror: Origins and Early Trends'; Royce Mahawatte on 'Horror in the Nineteenth Century: Dreadful Sensations, 1820-80'; Roger Luckhurst on 'Transitions: From Victorian Gothic to Modern Horror 1880-1932'; Bernice Murphy on 'Horror Fiction from the Decline of Universal Horror, to the Rise of the Psycho Killer'; and Steffan Hantke on 'The Rise of Popular Horror 1971-2000'. There is recognition of the popular horror of magazines, including Penny Dreadfuls (but less on the horror comic problems of the 1950s), the mash ups, prequels and sequels, including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Grahame-Smith, 2009), and discovery of horror moments, for instance, in the ‘noose’ of marriage in Eliot’s Middlemarch, and the brutality of the little British boys in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Most of the examples are British, American and European, although Koji Susuki’s Ringu, and Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist are also mentioned in the final chapter, and a broad span of TV, film and graphic novels are also recognised.

Xavier Aldana Reyes’ own last chapter celebrates the flowering of horror today, some of which replays older tales, uses zombies (a little too often), and, like Neil Gaiman, splice in comedy and work in a variety of genres.

Throughout there are some excellent black and white images, and the whole is very professionally edited and a delight to read. Finally, Xavier notes that ‘Worryingly, our zombies are not just ourselves, but an image of what we might still become’ (p. 213). Horror: A Literary History is the book that horror readers, as well as students and teachers, need. It will hold you in its grip from start to finish, leaving you replete with valuable information, some new links and certainties, some surprising finds, and a sense of the longevity and the mutations of this genre we have all come to love, Horror.


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner
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