Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book Review Evolution of the Weird Tale by ST Joshi

The Evolution of the Weird Tale by ST Joshi

During a discussion of books that every young horror author should read with fellow local horror author/filmmaker Jason V. Brock (Co-editor of Dark Discoveries magazine) suggested this book. He suggested a few others that I will review, but this was the first I read. I think William F Nolan’s How to write Horror Fiction (1990) is a better nuts and bolts starting point this is a great book to go to next. ST Joshi is one of the foremost experts in the works of early 20th century horror author HP Lovecraft. If there is any problem with this book is it’s the over focus on the work of Lovecraft and his influence.

There is a lot to learn from Joshi’s insights into the weird tale and how it developed over the years. There is barely a mention of genre classics like Dracula and Frankenstein and I certainly understand why not. Shelley and Stoker played a role but had more to do with setting up a gothic tradition that has little to do with the future work of Lovecraft and the horror genre of the 20th century.

The first half of the book focuses of the work of early American weird tale writers and the second section on the English. It is in the middle of the book where Joshi is really in stride picking apart Lovecraft. Here he traces how Lovecraft directly influenced younger writers most specifically Robert Bloch (Psycho) and Science fiction author Fritz Lieber. Bloch and Lovecraft traded many letters several where Lovecraft offered revisions on his stories. The suggestions are educational and make me happy that a book of their letters has been published.

I admit my knowledge of the early 20th century writers is lacking, so it is this part of the book where I felt I learned the most. I made a detailed list of books I want to read and headed to my library website. When I got to the modern authors is when I started to question the book a little bit.

From the sixties through today is the era of horror and weird fiction that I have known and studied my whole life. I don’t want to be to hard on Joshi here, because I know he has a book on the modern weird tale (it is already in my TBR pile) but there are serious gaps in this part of the book. At least mention that a book on the modern weird tale is coming!

There is a chapter on Rod Serling, but not Ray Bradbury. Maybe instead of a Rod Serling I would have included him in a chapter about the LA Group. That groups included greats of TV, movies and prose Richard Matheson, Bradbury, William F Nolan, Goerge Clayton Johnson and of course the late Charles Beaumont. Those writers influenced Stephen King and Clive Barker who influenced well you get the idea.

No chapters on King or Barker. Joshi hints at a dislike for these authors but the choice to not include them in some fashion seems strange. It makes sense when you realize they are in Joshi’s book on the modern weird tale but if I didn’t know that book existed I would be confused as to the relevance of the second half of the book.

In the modern era this book only highlights two authors David j. Schow (the so-called father of splatterpunk) and Poppy Z. Brite. He has some nice things to say about Schow and especially his second novel Joshi dismisses Splatterpunk altogether. Joshi loses me again when he declares Schow’s second novel as “perhaps the only genuine contribution of Splatterpunk to weird fiction.” Really? First off I have a problem the whole Schow as father of Splatterpunk thing since John Shirley wrote a novel like Cellars in 1981. That novel is an early horror masterpiece that predates Clive Barker, David Schow or Edward Lee for psycho sexual supernatural horror.

The novels of and anthologies of Skipp and Spector managed not only to shatter the glass ceiling of the NY times bestseller list but expanded the extreme genre. Their final novel ‘The bridge’ was an early political ecological horror that is finally coming back into print soon. I simply disagree with Joshi on Splatterpunk.

The last chapter is what drove me nuts. It serves as literary beatdown on the early work of young Poppy Z. Brite. It is too bad it was written before the release of her final original horror work Exquisite Corpse. Indeed it was her horror masterpiece, Joshi however spends several pages picking apart her first two novels Lost souls and Drawing Blood. He has a few nice things to say about Brite’s classic short the Sixth sentinel but he savages her in this chapter. I am not a big fan of her first novel but I loved Drawing Blood. I didn’t agree with his judgment but I did enjoy and learn from his take.

As a young writer (I am aware I am no longer a young human) I felt there is a lot to learn from Joshi’s book. I think fans of reading horror can learn a lot to but I think this book is best for those of us who take this genre very seriously artform to be practiced and studied.


hedbakery said...

First off I have a problem the whole Schow as father of Splatterpunk thing since John Shirley wrote a novel like Cellars in 1981.

i'm just getting into Shirley. finished In Darkness Waiting a few weeks ago. but in terms of a Splatterpunk genealogy, Farmer's Image of the Beast (1969?) has to fit in someplace thereabouts the beginning.

Anonymous said...

since Poe the books like this had a incredible evolution, one clearly example of this is the Lovecraft's novels, this a real terror novels you have to sit and horrifying yourself to understand the evolution of this kind of novels, later my first novel I suffer a little erection problem so I have to use Generic Viagra, but with time and more novels I can control the true fear.

Art said...

Thanks for the review, David.

"I made a detailed list of books I want to read and headed to my library website."

Joshi's books usually make me do this, too.