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The Annotated Supernatural Horror In Literature written by HP Lovecraft and edited by ST Joshi (book review)

April 11, 2021 | By | Reply More

In 1927, an essay was published in ‘The Recluse’ magazine in which its author, HP Lovecraft, described the development of what we broadly call horror fiction. Over the years, the essay has been accepted as one of the best reviews of the subject, partly because of its terrific breadth, but also because of the insightful comments Lovecraft makes on the various authors he discusses.

Divided into ten sections, including the famous introductory line about ‘the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown’. Subsequent sections cover early examples of the genre from Greek and Roman literature as well as the Bible, three sections on the Gothic novel, through various Victorian writers, with an entire section on Poe, two sections on the British and American traditions respectively and then a summary of what was, at the time, the modern exponents of the genre, including Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany.

Summarising the themes of the essay and its conclusions would fall outside a book review, and since the essay is relatively short, making up just one-third of this book and widely available on-line, few readers will be buying ‘The Annotated Supernatural Horror In Literature’ simply to skim-read the essay. Instead, what makes the book valuable is its utility. The essay is here, yes, but it is richly supplemented with additional material. Each section of the essay includes footnotes from the editor, ST Joshi, which explain or expand certain points. These range from things like cross-references to Lovecraft’s letters through to potted biographies and bibliographies of the authors mentioned. All told, these footnotes run to almost 50 pages, which gives some indication of their depth and diversity.

The book also includes a bibliography that runs to over 70 pages, covering all the authors mentioned in the essay and arranged alphabetically for easy reference. Within each bibliography is a list of works followed by a list of books and essays critiquing the author in question. For anyone studying weird fiction, this particular part of the book is going to be hugely useful. Whatever else may be said about Joshi, he knows his subject.

Speaking of Joshi, the 16 page introductory essay at the front of the book is perhaps the bit of the book that many will find more divisive. In a sense, what Joshi is trying to do here is extrapolate Lovecraft’s essay forward to our time. He effectively asks how would Lovecraft have viewed horror fiction writers from our time, such as Stephen King, against the greats of his time? He makes the argument that Lovecraft had little interest in writing for ‘ordinary people’ and consequently defended ‘weird fiction as the literature of pure imagination [for] a select few’, an argument Joshi describes as ‘a very compelling one’. As such, Joshi views modern practitioners like King, Clive Barker or Anne Rice as ones who will ultimately be ‘banished to the oblivion of superficial, if lucrative, hackdom’.

Once you get past Joshi’s snobbishness, the fact remains that he is a masterful editor with a deep understanding of the history of weird fiction. ‘The Annotated Supernatural Horror In Literature’ is simply a superb piece of scholarship, well deserving of its place on the bookshelf of any fan of the genre.

Neale Monks

April 2021

(pub: Hippocampus Press, 2021. 228 page paperback. Price: $ 13.00 (US), £25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61498-028-5)

check out websites: www.hippocampuspress.com

Category: Books, Culture, Horror

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