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The Evolution of the Weird Tale by S.T. Joshi

01/03/2011. Contributed by Neale Monks

Buy The Evolution of the Weird Tale in the USA - or Buy The Evolution of the Weird Tale in the UK

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pub: Hippocampus Press. 216 page paperback. Price $15.00 (US), GBP 11.52 (UK). ISBN: 0-97487-892-8)

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In the 'The Evolution Of The Weird Tale', S.T. Joshi uses a series of biographies to outline how weird tales have evolved and developed. His subjects run the whole spectrum from the 1880s through to the present day, So, alongside such historical notables as H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Chambers, there are also more contemporary writers like David J. Schow and Poppy Z. Brite. The biographies themselves are short and self-contained, but taken together Joshi uses them to create an argument that weird fiction is sufficiently complex and its writers sufficiently interesting, to warrant further study on the part of critics and scholars.

While Joshi's expertise in the field of weird fiction can't be faulted, so any criticism of this book really falls onto three issues beyond simple scholarship. The first is the breadth of the biographies included: do they adequately reflect the evolution of the weird tale in the way the book title suggests? The second potential issue lies in Joshi's selection of philosophical issues to tackle with each writer: does he ignore important material while dwelling too much on trivia? Finally, there's Joshi's skill as an advocate: can he connect the eighteen biographies well enough to produce a single, coherent argument?

Let's start by looking the range of authors included in this volume. Perhaps surprisingly, Edgar Allan Poe is barely mentioned at all and neither are H.G. Wells or Arthur Conan Doyle. To be fair, on the back cover, Joshi indicates he only intends to cover only writers from the late 19th/early 20th centuries onwards, but his argument for choosing this particular starting point is never explained. Other notable absences are the likes of Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany. On the other hand, it may well be that the writers Joshi does include are ones who better characterise the literary innovations of their time and is certainly the case with Robert Chambers, though why Kipling might be thought more innovative than Doyle is hard to say, particularly given Doyle's special interest in the supernatural.

At the other end of the spectrum are the modern writers and, again, the selection is distinctly idiosyncratic. Joshi's dislike of much popular horror fiction is well known, but the exclusion of at least one example from the successful modern writers like Clive Barker, James Herbert and Stephen King is surprising. King in particular is very good at creating atmospheric horror fiction that works as much through unease as it does through straightforward shock, so in that sense he would seem to be very much part of the weird fiction genre. Barker is another writer who's able to create astonishingly detailed worlds with as much beauty as horror and, in that regard, his work has strong and obvious parallels with that of Lovecraft. Why discuss a niche writer like Poppy Brite while missing out someone as influential as King? It doesn't make any sense.

When it comes to the content of the biographies themselves, they are all very selective, focusing on specific aspects of the writer in question. In the case of Lovecraft, Joshi focuses very much on the concept of materialism, which in the context of weird fiction means that no matter how alien and bizarre monsters or events might seem, they all operate within the same basic framework of matter and energy that holds the universe together. Of course, our science may not yet be at a point where we can understand everything we see, but that doesn't mean that things that baffle us need to be explained away with supernatural causes. That's why Lovecraft's fiction rejects traditional monsters such as ghosts and vampires in favour of alien beings from outer space that humans merely interpret as gods or monsters.

The problem, of course, is that Joshi makes this argument largely on Lovecraft's later philosophical stance and he almost completely ignores the ‘fantasy’ side of Lovecraft's writing such as the so-called ‘Dreamland’ stories. While Joshi does expound Lovecraft's misanthropy to a considerable degree, ie the repeated argument made in his stories that humans aren't a particularly important or highly developed species, he does seem to gloss over Lovecraft's racism and thereby fails to connect Lovecraft's fear of miscegenation with the themes of stories such as 'Shadow Over Innsmouth'.

Another problem is that while published as a single book, 'The Evolution Of The Weird Tale' is really a compilation of articles some of which date back to the mid-1990s. So the chapter on Brite, for example, was first published in 1997 and therefore only covers her first two novels. As such it not only misses out on the bulk of Brite's literary output, but also completely misses the point when it comes to the role sex plays in Brite's novels. Joshi's comment that the homosexual activity in Brite's stories indicates something similar to the interest straight men have in lesbianism looks rather quaint when put alongside Brite's gender dysphoria and sexuality.

So does Joshi string together these eighteen biographies well enough to present a genuine history of weird tales? The short answer is no, but that doesn't mean this is a bad book. In fact, it's a very good book indeed, extremely well written and very accessible. Anyone with a broad interest in this particular literary genre will find this book absolutely fascinating. But by themselves, the biographies come off pretty much for what they are, independently written pieces that were published across a long period of time in a variety of different books and journals. There isn't a synthesis of any kind presented at the end of the book to tie things together and Joshi fails to create any sort of timeline of development as would seem to be mandated by his choice of title, 'The Evolution Of The Weird Tale'. A flawed book perhaps, but important and useful nonetheless and highly recommended.

Neale Monks

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