The Weird Tale: Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Ambrose Pierce, H.P. Lovecraft Paperback – Apr 1990
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The first chapter of this book is "Arthur Machen: The Mystery of the Universe". Machen, born in Wales, was an antiquarian who developed a unique worldview opposed to Protestantism, rationalism, materialism, progress, and puritanism which emphasized his Anglo-Catholicism. Though Joshi chooses to regard this as a fault, I believe Machen's worldview remains particularly interesting. Machen wrote several weird stories which were based in his worldview including such tales as "The White People" and "The Great God Pan".
The second chapter of this book is "Lord Dunsany: The Career of a Fantaisiste". Dunsany was an Irish writer and fantaisiste who wrote plays and later stories. Dunsany's writings emphasized outer gods, though he himself may have been an atheist. Indeed, Joshi describes Dunsany's writings as "Nietzsche in a fairy tale". Dunsany's famous works include _The Gods of Pegana_ and _The King of Elfland's Daughter_.
The third chapter of this book is "Algernon Blackwood: The Expansion of Consciousness". Algernon Blackwood was a mystical writer who rebelled against an Evangelical upbringing to embrace the wisdom of the East including the _Bhagavad Gita_ and the doctrines of Buddhism. Blackwood's writings reveal a love for nature and an enthrallment with mysticism and the expansion of consciousness. Blackwood was also involved to some extent in the secret mystical society, the Golden Dawn. Joshi traces out the development of Blackwood's philosophy and his stories in terms of "awe", "horror", and "childhood". Blackwood's famous tales include "The Wendigo", "The Willows", and _The Centaur_.
The fourth chapter of this book is "M. R. James: The Limitations of the Ghost Story". M. R. James was the son of an Anglican priest who wrote ghost stories in the genre of the weird tale. While James never developed fully a worldview, something which Joshi believes to be problematic, his stories nevertheless provide an encounter with the supernatural.
The fifth chapter of this book is "Ambrose Bierce: Horror and Satire". Ambrose Bierce was a caustic wit, a cynic, and an atheist who served in the Union army during the Civil War and later was to disappear heading south towards Mexico (presumably having been caught up in the Mexican Civil War). Bierce's stories feature elements of his extreme cynicism and misanthropy. Bierce also wrote ghost stories featuring encounters involving the Civil War. In addition, Bierce compiled the infamous _Devil's Dictionary_ revealing his cynicism about politics and religion.
The sixth chapter of this book is "H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West". Lovecraft was a unique writer of the weird tale, who wrote for pulp magazines and engaged in amateur journalism. Lovecraft's writings reveal his worldview which is materialistic and rationalist (though he would later come to reject his earlier dogmatic materialism under the influence of developments in theoretical physics including relativity theory and quantum mechanics). In addition, Lovecraft's political beliefs prove enigmatic, though he began as an aristocratic ultra-conservative and a racialist who expressed abhorrence at immigrants and other races in his stories, he came to embrace a form of "fascistic socialism" and to marry a Jew. Lovecraft was particularly influenced by the philosophy of Nietzsche and Spengler and his stories reveal his belief in the decline of the West thesis. Lovecraft's stories emphasize cosmicism in which man is shown to be utterly without hope in a cosmos empty of meaning and in which both science and religion fail him. Lovecraft was influenced by Dunsany's outer gods and wrote much on elder beings from other dimensions, though he was later to "demythologize" his gods making them into extraterrestrials. Lovecraft also was influenced by the folklore of New England. Lovecraft's famous works include "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" and _At the Mountains of Madness_.
This book offers an excellent introduction to various writers who composed weird fiction. Joshi's biases are apparent, but his extensive research into the writings of these individuals is tremendous. In particular, it is interesting to note how each of these writers formed a unique philosophical worldview which came to influence their stories to such a great extent.
There's a long tradition of authorial bias in literary criticism, however, and it's not so much Joshi's tendency to play favorites that undermines The Weird Tale as his repeated assertion that "good" work simply can't be criticized. (Ex. pg 85: "On Dunsany, many critics - and I will include myself in this number - find his early work so flawless as to be virtually uncriticizable.") Academic literary criticism is not simply nit-picking at flaws; it's intended to contextualize and elucidate an author's works for the reader's better understanding. Joshi's inability - or possibly simple unwillingness - to offer much more than biographies, story summaries, and praise of those authors he most prefers leaves the reader intrigued but unfulfilled, and wondering if perhaps they hadn't better look for a more "critical" opinion elsewhere.
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