Our Darkest Dreams Described: Horror Fiction in the 20th Century by Jess Nevins

Cover of Horror Fiction in the 20th Century by Jess Nevins

Horror fiction has a history problem. While its cousin, the science fiction genre, has been eagerly mapped by decades’ worth of enthusiasts, much of horror’s heritage has been documented in comparatively little detail. Perhaps this is due to the genre’s aura of disreputability; or maybe we can point to so many of horror’s finest specimens being short stories, a form that is inherently easy to overlook. Whatever the explanation, those with an interest in the history of horror literature are left with the same issue: a lack of in-depth studies.

Yes, there are some exceptions. The likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley have been well-served by the literary establishment for their contributions to the nineteenth-century canon, H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos-building has long fascinated scholars, and Stephen King’s superstar status makes him a favourite choice for anyone making a study of popular fiction. But these are merely a few of the most visible monuments in a vast, still largely uncharted territory.

Cover of Horror Fiction in the 20th Century by Jess Nevins

Enter Jess Nevins, one of the critics making a concerted attempt to change this state of affairs. Nevins has spent much of his career probing neglected avenues of literary history, and the latest compendium of his findings is a volume with the self-explanatory title of Horror Fiction in the 20th Century: Exploring Literature’s Most Chilling Genre.

The book is divided primarily by period, its overview of horror separated into three eras — before 1940, 1940-1970, and 1971 onwards – and secondarily by country of origin, America and Britain receiving the main (but far from only) coverage. Nevins also separates literary from mass-market fiction – a distinction that he treats as being too arbitrary to take seriously, but too influential to ignore.

Nevins’ history of the genre begins with holdovers from the nineteenth century, the influence of World War I, and the rise of the pulp market. From there he charts trends as they come and go, traditions that die out or are rejuvenated, until he reaches the boom of the horror paperback market that turned the likes of Stephen King and Anne Rice into household names – only for the surge to dwindle in the 1990s, Thomas Harris having helped to establish the “psychological thriller” as a more acceptable alternative to horror.

Along the way, Nevins draws connections and associations between various different authors, showing how they fit together into a single narrative. At the same time, he creates stark contrasts by including authors and fiction from further afield: the outsiders and the trend-breakers.

For example, the chapter on postwar American horror discusses how writers who migrated away from Gothic traditions, each finding their own way of doing so: Ray Bradbury’s smalltown settings, Robert Bloch’s psychologically-oriented (and blackly comical) stories of unhinged murderers, Richard Matheson’s paranoid explorations of 1950s conformity and Fritz Leiber’s attempts to re-work the old vampires and witches for modern times. Nevins notes that many of these authors belonged to a southern Californian writing circle known as the Group (or the Matheson Mafia), which had connections outside horror. Many of its biggest talents were also prominent science fiction authors, and some worked in television as well as literature – the Group included Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame.

All of this serves to explain the history and development of the horror genre as it is widely understood. Yet, the same chapter also talks about William S. Burroughs, making the argument that his drug-influenced beat writing – not typically classed as horror – deserves to be discussed alongside the genre-canonical likes of Matheson and Bloch. This is a thoughtful, enthusiastic approach, one that helps ensure that the history of horror comes across not as a dusty museum exhibit, but as a living thing with room for re-evaluation.

Nevins’ general format is to afford each other a short section – often one long paragraph – during which he explains what makes them significant. His paragraph on Arthur Machen is typical:

Machen’s bête noire was the rise of the secular scientific message at the cost of what Machen liked to call the “ecstasy” of literature, religion and the natural world. Inspired by his one personal pre-Victorian ideology, literary Romanticism, and the medieval life of the mind, and heavily influenced by the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Machen produced an array of horror fiction that combined his interests and faith in innovative ways. His best story, “The White People” (1904), is sui generis, unique. But his The Great God Pan (1894) and The Three Imposters (1895) combined the Stevensonian approach to the city with the Edwardian sensibility of the flâneur and added Machen’s personal mythology of sinister Celtic atavisms (relatively), overt sexuality, and elements of what can be called “sacred horror” or “visionary horror,” the more religious, more Victorian version of the cosmic horror that H. P. Lovecraft would later popularize. Machen was not as directly influential as [M. R.] James or [Algernon] Blackwood; there was no “school” of writers modelling themselves on Machen, as there was with James, and Machen did not create a subgenre of horror fiction as Blackwood did. What later writers took from Machen was the combination of proto-cosmic horror and Machen’s sinister, expansive greater London: the “vastness of London and its sprawling northern suburbs. Machen develops the world of Donbey and Sons and Sherlock Holmes into something apocalyptic.”

This last line comes from Glen Cavaliero’s book The Supernatural & English Fiction: Nevins often includes succinct quotations from other critics.

Throughout Horror Fiction in the 20th Century Nevins shows a genuine knack for teasing out exactly what a given writer brought to the genre: in the rare cases that he dismisses an author outright, as he does with Seabury Quinn, he is still able to make a case for them as being representative of a significant – if not necessarily positive – aspect of horror fiction.

It needs to be stressed just how wide Nevins’ overview is in scope. His definition of literature includes not only novels and short stories, but also comics. Furthermore, while focused primarily on English-language fiction, the book includes chapters discussing foreign-language works: comparatively obvious areas such as Japanese manga and the Latin American magical realist tradition are given their due alongside fiction from Africa, the Middle East and beyond.

Towards the end Nevins breaks from his three-period structure for two chapters that look back on the whole of the twentieth century (and in some cases, parts of the nineteenth) with an eye on two marginalised areas. The first of these is about horror fiction aimed at children and young adults from John Masefield through to the Goosebumps boom, the second is about the literature of LGBT groups and racial minorities (namely African Americans, Latinx people, Australian Aborigines and Native Americans) and the ways in which it subverts the prejudices of more mainstream fiction.

With such a wide range of fiction covered by the book, some authors are inevitably afforded more space than others. Older writers who are still widely read today, such as H. P. Lovecraft or M. R. James, tend to be covered in more detail than those who were successful in their times but have since faded from cultural memory. For example Dennis Wheatley, a one-popular and influential writer whose legacy remains substantial (see Phil Baker’s biography The Devil is a Gentlemen) is given brief treatment by Nevins, who brushes him off with some dismissive quotations from Gina Wisket and Brian Stableford.

Some of the book’s sentries appear to have been included for the sake of completion, as with the extremely brief round-up of novels tying in with role-playing games. A lot of critics would have left these out altogether, or given them only a begrudging acknowledgement, so Nevins deserves credit for mentioning them at all – but the book nonetheless leaves full analysis to other parties. The sections of foreign-language work are similarly brief, with some writers afforded only a sentence or two. That said, given that Nevins has already covered this subject in detail with his 2018 book Horror has no Passport, his comparative brevity in the present volume is understandable.

The biggest strength of Horror Fiction in the 20th Century is the way it makes connections between authors. There are already innumerable critical volumes dedicated to the likes of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, but Nevins is able to use each writer as a brushstroke in a bigger picture. By the end, the book has described a vast and vibrant landscape of horror, made up of recurring themes and techniques, and coloured by generations of influences and intrusions.

At long last, the horror genre has been mapped. Those who wish to explore its dark forests, haunted cities and cursed monuments will now have the perfect starting point.

This post was based on a free copy of the book provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.