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A Hideous Bit of Morbidity: An Anthology of Horror Criticism from the Enlightenment to World War I
edited by Jason Colavito
McFarland, 384 pages

A Hideous Bit of Morbidity: An Anthology of Horror Criticism from the Enlightenment to World War I
Jason Colavito
Jason Colavito is the author or editor of three books on topics including science and horror, H.P. Lovecraft, and horror criticism. He is also a frequent contributor to Skeptic magazine, and has earned praise from Archaeology magazine for his online resource Lost Civilizations Uncovered (www.thelostcivilizations.com) for debunking claims of fringe archaeology. Colavito currently works as an editor and writer based in Albany, New York.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Mario Guslandi

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A non-fiction anthology assembling a number of critical essays and commentaries on horror and supernatural literature published between 1750 and 1917, the present volume provides an interesting overview of how that genre's body of work was critically received at the time of its first appearance in print.

The title of the volume "A Hideous Bit of Morbidity," is nothing but what editor and critic Frederic Taber Cooper, in a commentary published in 1912, called Robert S Hichens' famous ghost story "How Love Came to Professor Guildea," the author being called by Cooper "a storyteller of much brilliance who has deliberately chosen to prostitute his gifts to the gratification of unhealthy tastes." So much for a balanced and perceptive critical view.

But this is just an example among the many surprising statements that throughout the centuries have been made about supernatural and horror fiction. Editor Jason Colavito -- whose Introduction to this anthology is indeed much more insightful than many of the reviews and essays included therein -- did a fine job painstakingly collecting the comments elicited at the time by books bound to become classical literary works admired and imitated by generations of readers, critics and fellow writers.

"A Hideous Bit of Morbidity" provides an exciting ride across the history of dark literature, reporting the conflicting opinions about the gothic output by the likes of Lewis, Walpole and Radcliffe.

Particularly enticing are Sir Walter Scott's praise for Mrs Radcliffe's novels and the tale of terror as a legitimate literary art form, as opposed to Leigh Hunt's moralistic view of the genre, that he defined as "puerile" and "a gross mistake" when not aimed to teach the reader about his duty in the present world.

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" appears to have triggered a great deal of controversy. Walter Scott's evaluation of that novel was largely positive. but others condemned the book as a mere extravagancy or "a disgusting absurdity."

Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe's fiction was received with variable feelings. While the relationship between his work and that of writers such as E.T.A. Hoffmann and Nathaniel Hawthorne has been repeatedly discussed, Poe has been sometimes considered either as just a man on the verge of madness or as an author lacking in substance and unable to write "real" literature. According to critic W.C. Brownell, Poe's most normal fiction is "a representation of the abnormal," whereas Charles Sears Baldwin calls him the creator of the modern form of short story.

Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes are also discussed, and so are the works by Arthur Machen (whose "The Great God Pan" has been described by a contemporary critic as "a particularly loathsome specimen"), Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Robert W. Chambers' "The King in Yellow" and Algernon Blackwood's horror tales.

The anthology also includes some essays on general aspects of supernatural and horror literature.

Lafcadio Hearn discusses his theory that ghostly literature is the result of dreams and nightmares, Andrew Lang compares the main features of European and Oriental literary treatment of ghosts and other things that go bump in the night, Dorothy Scarborough and Montague Summers address the issue of the supernatural in modern english fiction.

Although, of necessity, rather fragmentary, Colavito's anthology is a veritable feast for those lovers of supernatural fiction who are not simply contented with the pleasure of experiencing some cheap thrills, but want to study in depth the roots of their fictional fears and to get an idea of how concepts and taste may change in the appreciation of any literary work.

Nicely produced by McFarland & Co (www.mcfarlandpub.com), the volume includes a series of beautiful, striking black and white drawings reprinted from various period sources, which add further glamor to this already charming book.

Copyright © 2009 by Mario Guslandi

Mario Guslandi lives in Milan, Italy, and is a long-time fan of dark fiction. His book reviews have appeared on a number of genre websites such as The Alien Online, Infinity Plus, Necropsy, The Agony Column and Horrorwold.


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