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.


  1. Man, I'm having real trouble with Joshi at the moment. The anger in his writing is palpable (q..v the review of Luckhurst's introduction to the new Penguin edition of HPL's tales) and that's not a good place from whence to write reasoned criticism.

  2. S. T.'s criticism to Luckhurst's book from Oxford (NOT Penguin) is completely justify'd and right-on. The book is a disgrace and should be avoided.

    1. Judging from Joshi's review, Luckhurst's text must be near perfect, because for all his vitriol, Joshi does not come up with a single legitimate criticism of Luckhurst's text. In the rare case where a criticism might have some remotely arguable merit ("This data" vs "These data") Joshi's own text is guilty of the exact same flaw. He falsely accuses Luckhurst of using the butchered ASTOUNDING STORIES texts, and then admits this is not true - Luckhurst has in fact followed Derleth's 1939 texts which fixed the ASTOUNDING STORIES texts in accordance with HPL's final instructions. He scolds Luckhurst for relegating to a footnote variant reading of THE SHADOW OUT OF TIME that Joshi admits was not part of any draft that HPL ever approved for publication. If anyone thinks he makes a single legitimate criticism, please tell me what you think it is.

  3. Re: the tone of Joshi's review of the new Oxford collection of Lovecraft's work, I imagine it is very difficult to devote so much time and energy to a writer, then see such a golden opportunity squandered so carelessly. Everyone I know who has had a chance to read the introduction and notes has been disappointed by it.

  4. Birkhead's title should read THE TALE OF TERROR.

  5. Excellent article. Joshi, whose reputation I feel should fall more on his editorial accomplishmensts than on his criticism, has added immensely to our understanding of supernatural fiction but I think that over the years he has become such an iconoclast and fewer have the nerve to question his view as THE authority. I find as I become more mature in my supernatural literature consumption my personal bullseye has drifted considerably from the Lovecraft center of the target that I considered as the yardstick when I was younger.

  6. S.T. Joshi replies (Part 1/2]:

    I was gratified by the length and detail of this review of my book, Unutterable Horror. I feel, however, that the review presents a caricature of some of the views I expressed in the book, so I humbly submit this response.

    The basic thrust of the criticisms made of Unutterable Horror boil down to three points:

    1. I never depart from Lovecraft’s judgments on authors and works, as expressed in Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927).

    2. I want all writers to write like Lovecraft.

    3. I utter strong opinions.

    In my view, the first two are false, and the third is true but irrelevant. Let me elaborate on these points.

    Here, as in my other writings, I depart widely and frequently with Lovecraft’s presuppositions on the nature and purpose of weird fiction, and on the evaluation of individual weird authors. My introduction, where I express my own theory of weird fiction (never cited by the reviewer), certainly draws upon Supernatural Horror in Literature, but also brings in the work of other theoreticians, such as Tzvetan Todorov, Terry Heller, Noël Carroll, and others.

    It is particularly curious that the reviewer pointed to my supposed disapprobation of authors who don’t share Lovecraft’s atheistic worldview. I do no such thing. The mere fact that I rank such writers as Machen and Blackwood as “titans” is sufficient refutation of the charge. My criticism of Le Fanu and Russell Kirk are based on fairly orthodox aesthetic criteria that could be applied to any writer, weird or mainstream, although I do focus on what I believe to be clumsy or ill-conceived uses of supernatural phenomena in these and other writers. In neither of these cases, by the way, do I “summarily dismiss” these authors; I treat them at length and show both their deficiencies and their virtues in detail.

    It is a fantasy that I set up Lovecraft as the “only legitimate” yardstick for judging weird fiction. If “cosmic horror” is Lovecraft’s signature contribution to the form, then it would be extraordinary for me to have praised Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Aickman, Ramsey Campbell, Caitlín R. Kiernan—none of whom are in the least cosmic—in the manner I did. In other cases I find deficiencies in precisely those authors of “cosmic horror” (e.g., Hodgson) whom I might—in the reviewer’s mind—be most enamoured of. Indeed, the very authors whom the reviewer (falsely, in some cases) maintains that Lovecraft himself did not “understand”—Hogg, Poe, Le Fanu, Bierce, etc.—are (with the exception of Le Fanu) those whom I myself assert are indeed canonical writers of weird fiction.

    [Incidentally, I am well familiar with Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History—perhaps better than the reviewer is, since I am aware that modern scholarship has established that Butterfield’s portrayal of “Whig history” is itself a caricature of the work of Macaulay and other historians whom Butterfield was determined to attack and refute at all costs.]

    [continued in Part 2]

    1. S.T. Joshi replies [Part 2/2]:

      I make no apology for the strong opinions I have expressed. I daresay the reviewer would have made no mention of them if these opinions (which the reviewer labels as “biases” and “prejudices”) happened to match his own. At least my views are out in the open, and not concealed behind a façade of purported “objectivity.” The reviewer has apparently failed to remember what I stated in the very first paragraph of my preface: “I have also considered it a significant part of my enterprise to gauge the overall aesthetic success of the works I study . . . To that degree, I am attempting to establish a viable canon of supernatural writing, although I trust it will be evident that my judgments are merely suggestive rather than prescriptive.” I have never believed that my judgments, either favourable or unfavourable, are pronouncements from God. That would, indeed, be a very odd thing for an atheist to assert!

      I was very careful to subtitle my book A History of Supernatural Fiction. I deliberately refused to follow Brian W. Aldiss, who in the first edition of his Billion Year Spree (1973) used—perhaps with playful arrogance—the subtitle The True History of Science Fiction. My work is indeed only one history of the field; many others could be written. At the end of his review the reviewer appears somewhat querulously to sugget just such a thing, and I would welcome that development.

      —S. T. Joshi