S.T. Joshi in a statement about the difference between old mode weird (i.e., Poe and Lovecraft, Machen, Blackwood, etc.) and our modern weird is the centrality of character development in the latter:
“What has been happening in weird fiction since Lovecraft is a vast reorientation of focus: ordinary people are somehow regarded as intrinsically important, and the weird phenomena are, very broadly, seen as threats to their middle-class stability. Stefan Dziemianowicz has labelled this tendency the “banalisation” of horror, although he did not intend the term pejoratively but merely descriptively. What he meant was the increasing concern by weird writers to depict the minute details of the mundane lives of mundane people, both in an attempt to win the reader’s sympathy (we all like to read about ourselves) and so as to lay the groundwork for the intrusion of the weird into a familiar realm.”1
I can’t say that is true of contemporary authors in toto (and to be honest this essay was circa 1992+), but there is something to it. There does seem to be a great divide between horror novelists and short story/tale writers. Tales have always spun off from two traditions: 1) on the one hand is the realist tradition best typified by Anton Chekov’s tales; on the other is the tradition of phantasmagoria of Kafka/Borges and the fantastic. (One could take this back further, but I’m just illustrating a point!) Most of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth century dwelt on atmosphere; theme; character/uncharacter (or the lack thereof, as in pov of a typical no one and anonymous, etc. – inconsistent or unreliable; or puppet style uncharacter…); supernaturalism; and, either ontological or epistemic stances onto various shades of cosmic pessimism. While novelists of horror seem more prone to spend a great deal of time on the mundane and character ridden development of common men and women in their daily lives while slowly allowing the weird to seep in from elsewhere over the course of the novel. (This is a little parodic because to go into it in depth and analytically it would take a book!)
Stephen King and others in the larger more expansive horror novels began centering on the average Joe on the street. Stephen King has stated that “my idea of what a horror story should be [is that] the monster shouldn’t be in a graveyard in decadent old Europe, but in the house down the street.” It’s this normalization of horror, or what one might term the re-humanization of horror from its roots in the Outside – or, Cosmic Horrorism which typifies much of the novelistic and some tale writers. It’s gentler and cozy, and even the monstrous other is somehow made more human in the sense of brought into the fold of everyday life rather than away from it. None of this is iron-clad, I’ve seen some contemporary tales that do both.
Here’s the clincher for Joshi: “I do not think that weird fiction should be about ordinary people. Even if one does not adopt the cosmic attitude of Lovecraft, even if one wishes to depict the insidious incursion of the weird into the ordinary, the emphasis should be on the weird and not the ordinary.”
Another of those got you’s in canon formation (Joshi):
“Some principle of selectivity must be had; and I can state unequivocally that my principle—hence my canon—is based upon the actual literary merits, as best I can assess them, of the works and authors I have read. … I am not, for example, interested in what weird fiction can tell us about our society because I am not interested in society. This may or may not be a deficiency on my part.
The overriding question is whether literary merit coincides with popular appeal.”
Anyone whose ever read Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon will realize his preference for the whole Romantic Tradition in thought and life, and his favorites in the canon pretty much fit into his tastes in this view of existence (Idealist in most ways… with a Gnostic reading… elitist and aesthetic). Joshi’s tends toward the pessimistic and fatalist, materialist (old school materialism!) and phantasmagoric. Yet, both agree on this: that the critical task of evaluation and judgement is the critic’s main job. In this sense a critic does not usually cater to the popular or mass readership of the day, but seeks to define a more careful and reasoned appeal to certain forms of style and aesthetics that seem to last and influence other writers rather than readers. What may be popular to a reader, may not be what influences other writers so that in the next generation what seemed to be a top seller just falls by the wayside because it no longer influences writers. The key here is “influence” in poets, novelists, short story, essayists, philosophers, etc. The one’s that keep getting printed over and over are usually shaping the living style and language of the current generation of writers in any one period. Some writers like Shakespeare or Proust will probably be read a few hundred years down the pipe, just as the pedagogical use of the tragedians of Greece from Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and even the arch comic Aristophanes; and their main philosophical progenitors Plato and Aristotle. To understand why influence matters is something it would take a lifetime to ponder and write about. Bloom himself spent most of his career pondering just that and in the end has barely scratched the surface of what makes a writer become a part of the living active canon, a writer who has staying power.
Aesthetic or Political?
I tend to agree here, too, with Joshi, Bloom, and other old fashioned aesthetic critics. As Joshi says:
“Those readers and critics who object to criticism that is “subjective” miss the boat entirely: in searching for “objective” standards of valuation, they are attempting to turn criticism into an exact science (which it is not and never can be) and to bypass this whole issue of critical judgment—probably because they possess so little of it themselves.”
Too often now I see what I term political literary criticism that bases everything on some “objective” ideological set of criteria , that forces an author into either a Progressive or Reactionary cage of isolation/exclusion or community/inclusion. I recently saw a critical article on one of my favorite authors Flannery O’Conner that pointedly spent the whole essay seeking to attack her as a racist. I had to think about this. Hell, I’m an atheist, and O’Conner was a strict Catholic; and, yet, I didn’t bat an eye realizing that aesthetically and subjectively there is genius in her work, a teller of tales like no other before or sense; a unique style and aesthetic. And yet just because I don’t share her religious message doesn’t mean I can’t share in her stories as a reader.
As for her racism… one thing I’ve learned ages ago is to perceive the writing not the writer in the works. Most of us humans are complete disasters as “humans”… we’ve all been born happenstance into the cultural cages we were born into, and struggling to get out of these ideological hell holes is a life-long process. If we fail time and again we should agree with Samuel Beckett “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” In other words should I not read a writer’s works because they did not live up to some political agenda I hold dear? Should I exclude them from my reading experience because they failed to align themselves with my political, religious, or socio-cultural ideology? If we did that with every writer in Western Civ we’d probably read only a handful of authors to the exclusion of all others.
Does that mean that if I read an author whose work – let’s say H.P. Lovecraft who was a known bigot, reactionary, racist, etc., is anathema to my ideological stance I’ll be corrupted or ruined etc. Of course not, and the very idea that a person will somehow be a bad person for reading a writer who in their fleshly life harbored unsavory behaviors would be to continuously live under the shadow of censors… a thing Orwell wrote about over and over again. We live in an age of Censors now, in a society that is suddenly demonizing the arts for their stance in politics. It’s as if a new Inquisition were emerging in our midst. Everyone lives in fear of saying the wrong thing in social media, because there are Inquisitorial moralists and political extremists continuously seeking to vilify those who do not tow some normative and political stance and acceptable ideology. Being on the Left I hate reactionaries as much as anyone, but am I going to stop reading literature based on this stance? No. I’ll hate the person not the literature. If I began hating both I’d probably exclude 9/10ths’ of the world’s literature… because almost all of it fails this supposed objective criteria of our political moment.
In the end most of us make up our own minds (i.e., most of our critical appeals are after all subjective and aesthetic; that is, unless you’re a full blown moralist and political inquisitor!).
- Joshi, S. T.. The Advance of the Weird Tale . Sarnath Press.