Book Review: The Modern Weird Tale by S.T. Joshi
I do enjoy books about the theory of horror fiction, particularly those that focus on newer authors - most academic textbooks are slanted towards older, 'gothic' works. There are few books around which deal with modern horror in an intellectually robust way, but S.T. Joshi's are among the best of those that do.
The Modern Weird Tale is the follow up to The Weird Tale and The Evolution of the Weird Tale, and it is mainly concerned with authors from Shirley Jackson onwards. Joshi basically groups the writers into two camps - those he likes (people like Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, and TED Klein) and those he doesn't (mainly 'bestseller' authors such as King, Anne Rice etc.) There are also some writers discussed that it is downright odd to classify as 'weird' - Thomas Harris?
The main flaws in the book show when Joshi discusses writers he doesn't like - he seems to think he is skewering them with objective barbs, whereas viewed from the outside the subjectivity of his tastes is obvious. Thus Stephen King is castigated, in part, because his characters are middle-class people with middle-class woes. "Who cares about people like this?" Joshi says, without every wondering how that sentence would sound applied to any other social group... Similarly The Exorcist and its explicitly Christian viewpoint doesn't square with Joshi's atheism, and so by his logic must be a flawed book... Of course Joshi is quite entitled to like what he likes (and often I agree with him) but his apparent belief in his objectivity is annoying.
The most aggravating issues occur when Joshi critisizes an author he doesn't like for a 'flaw' that he is happy to ignore when applied to writers he does like. So some of Stephen King's stories come under fire for not explaining how and why the supernatural in them came to be - a claim that could be made against no end of weird fiction, including lots of those featured here.
Fortunately, Joshi is far, far better at explaining why he loves writers he loves - the chapters on Ramsey Campbell, TED Klein and Shirley Jackson alone are worth the price of the book. Here he really shines, highlighting themes and connections that I missed even on books I've read loads of times. I've never read any Thomas Tyron, but Joshi's discussion of The Other and Harvest Home really makes me want to - his writing is infectious in these sections, erudite but not dry, pointing out strengths (and weaknesses) of books with clarity and accuracy. (Only the chapter on Robert Aickman is somewhat disappointing, largely because Joshi seems unsure quite what to make of him...)
So - a good book to argue with, but a better one to be inspired by.
In other news, Penny Dreadnought: Omnibus! Volume 1 is now available from those good folks at Smashwords (as well as Amazon UK | US). Rejoice!
And finally.... is this the best set for anything ever?