The Best of the Horror Story

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a new anthology of classic horror stories

Shortly after receiving my review copies of Darryl Jones’s informative and engaging history of the horror genre, Sleeping with the Lights On, the publishers, Oxford University Press, sent me another recent publication Darryl Jones has worked on for them: a wonderfully expansive and well-selected collection of horror stories from E. T. A. Hoffman to the modern age, Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson (Oxford World’s Classics).

I said I planned to review that shortly, since – like Jones’s edited collection of Conan Doyle’s Gothic tales (also published by Oxford World’s Classics) – its introduction is full of insight into the genre and makes you want to go back and reread (or read for the first time) the stories within.

As Halloween is almost upon us, I thought this dark and stormy Friday night (or rainy and overcast Friday afternoon, here in England anyway) would be the perfect time to do so.

Jones knows the horror genre very well and offers us a generous selection ranging from Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816) to William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Derelict’ (1912). In between we have anthology favourites such as Dickens’s ‘The Signal-Man’, Kipling’s ‘The Mark of the Beast’, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, and W. W. Jacobs’ ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. But we also get some less well-known stories including William Maginn’s ‘The Man in the Bell’, Herman Melville’s ‘The Tartarus of Maids’, and ‘The Adventure of Lady Wishaw’s Hand’ by Richard Marsh, now known almost exclusively for his 1890s Gothic horror novel The Beetle.

This is where Jones’s detailed knowledge of the genre pays high dividends: he brings to light some non-canonical texts and writers, placing them alongside far more famous names and stories, the hope (both mine and, I suspect, his) being that these stories will become discussed more frequently by students and scholars of the horror short story.

French writers, too, are well represented, with Balzac and Zola both making appearances. Indeed, Jones also makes room for Welsh writers (Arthur Machen), Irish writers (Sheridan Le Fanu, whose ‘Schalken the Painter’ is included here), and Scottish writers (Robert Louis Stevenson, of course, whose ‘The Body-Snatcher’ is featured).

These are stories which engage with empire (‘The Monkey’s Paw’, for instance), gender (‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ became one of the twentieth century’s key feminist texts, and a key example of how the Gothic could be used to explore largely undiscussed psychological and social issues), technology, our relationship with the past, and a whole host of other anxieties and pressure-points, especially in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century society.

One thing that might strike readers as odd is the decision to stop with Hodgson and 1912. Is this a copyright issue? Many of the writers – with the exception of Algernon Blackwood – died long enough ago for their work to be firmly out of copyright in Britain, with Hodgson, the most recent writer, dying in the First World War.

But if you’re going to set the parameters for an anthology, especially one so ripe for proliferation and invention as the horror story, it makes sense to limit yourself to, say, the first century of great horror writing. As it is, the result is a fat, handsome paperback volume stretching to over 500 pages, and containing many classic tales from those first hundred years. If you’re looking for something to enjoy next Thursday for Halloween, Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson (Oxford World’s Classics) is the ideal book to read under the covers by torchlight.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

2 thoughts on “The Best of the Horror Story”

  1. I have a love/hate relationship with horror and Gothic in much the same way I do with Sci-Fi. On the one hand, classics in both genres can tell us a great deal about the human condition (for instance, Angela Carter’s neo-Gothic stories are nothing short of genius IMHO); on the other hand, both genres age extremely badly. Horror can go from nervously turning out the light after you’ve finished reading, to yawning through a tale wondering just how many pages are left before it will end. Movies suffer in much the same way. For me then, all these tales benefit most from taking a sociological critical approach. It is far more interesting to look at how Bram Stoker interprets sex in Victorian culture and the plight of the Irish than the actual storyline of Dracula.


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