TALES OF TERROR and the supernatural have always seemed vaguely disreputable, yet they remain persistently popular. In the past 15 years, popular culture has been deluged by images from these tales, and horror fiction and film have begun to receive serious attention by academe -- which may or may not be a good thing.

To many who have written on horror fiction, its greatest mystery is its enduring appeal. Why, indeed, would anyone want to read about, let alone watch, human flesh and organs devoured by zombies, eyeballs gouged by maniacs, bodies disembowelled, melted and exploded, or any of the other images that assault the consumer of modern horror? This is the question James B. Twitchell and William Patrick Day tackle in their very different analyses of horror art. Day's In the Circles of Fear and Desire focuses on the progenitor of modern horror, the Gothic fantasy. In its heyday (from about 1770 through the early 1800s) the Gothic reigned supreme in popular culture. Crumbling haunted castles, dank grottos, mist-enshrouded crypts, monsters, demons, skeletons, and the rest of its wonderful, moldy apparatus filled hundreds of novels that enthralled a vast readership.

Like horror fiction today, these books brought readers face to face with their deepest anxieties. Day considers Gothic fantasy to be a response to evolving masculine and feminine roles in the 19th century. He sees its sadistic, monomaniacal, ineffectual protagonists as enthralled "first (by) the possibilities of the Gothic world, then (by) its horrors." Paralyzed by this paradoxical state, these pre-Byronic antiheroes are trapped in a self-annihilating gyre, simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the Gothic world's underlying dynamics of "sadomasochism, bondage, and domination."

For the reader of the 1980s the relevance of all this is that the Gothic tradition has endured. Transformed by Freudian psychoanalytic theory and modernist literary sensibility, it has resurfaced in fiction by authors such as Thomas Pynchon, J. G. Ballard, and Joyce Carol Oates, and in films such as Psycho and Halloween. Poised between romance and reality, myth and science, art and trash, Gothic themes and motifs just will not go away.

Day is at his best when placing Gothic fantasy in its literary and cultural context; he is less convincing, I think, when relating it to the inner, psychic world of the reader. He is occasionally pedantic and sometimes gets caught up in "the airy dance of abstractions." Still, readers with an academic bent who are familiar with the major Gothic novels will probably find In the Circles of Fear and Desire engaging and illuminating.

Far livelier than Day's resolutely serious study, but less valuable, is James Twitchell's Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. While Day interprets horror stories as "fables of failed identity," Twitchell sees them as "fables of adolescent identity." His conceit is that these myths "prepare the teenager for the anxieties of reproduction" by transmitting coded messages "detailing the dos and don'ts of breeding, especially as they pertain to incest." That is, horror stories are symbolic sex guides for adolescents.

To support so narrow an interpretation requires some fancy footwork. First, Twitchell summarily discards all of contemporary prose horror fiction, on the (untenable) grounds that it is unoriginal: "Where we must go to find the innovations in modern horror is, of course, into the cinema, to what used to be called the B movies." He then jettisons nearly all important contemporary horror films, either because they aren't "real horror stories" (e.g., Psycho) or because they are "art renditions" (e.g., Tod Browning's Dracula).

There is nothing wrong with such exclusionary tactics per se. And Twitchell is skillful and engaging as he traces the lineage of the major horror archetypes -- the vampire (e.g., Dracula), the "hulk with no name" (the Frankenstein monster), and the transformation monster ("Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Wolfman") -- from their original appearances in prose through stage and early film incarnations to their final resting pace in parody and vacuous, exploitative schlock. He perceptively identifies the iconography and motifs of those films he chooses to discuss, provides jaunty plot summaries, and relentlessly interprets every major horror myth in psychosexual terms.

The trouble with his thesis is that he claims too much for it. Dreadful Pleasures is full of remarks like "This often barely-disguised incestuous interaction forms the core of horror art . . . to this day." Such generalizations stretch what is in fact an interesting perspective on one aspect of the mythography of horror so far that it collapses. Taken on its own limited terms, however, Dreadful Pleasures is well-researched, witty, and provocative.

AT LEAST as interesting as the mystery of why we read and watch horror stories is the question Douglas E. Winter poses in his Faces of Fear: "Who writes this stuff?" To find out, Winter travelled the U.S. and England to interview nearly all of the major writers of contemporary horror fiction. Some of his 17 subjects are familiar to most readers (Robert Bloch, V.C. Andrews, the ubiquitous Stephen King); others probably aren't (Dennis Etchison, T.E.D. Klein, and Clive Barker).

Winter abandons the role of critic, letting these purveyors of terror speak for themselves. And speak they do: about their childhoods, religious beliefs, and work habits; about their genre and its recent trend towards graphic violence; about their private fears and personal goals. Winter has drawn from these authors all sorts of fascinating remarks. Here, for example, is David Morrell, a professor of English whose books include a critical study of the fiction of John Barth and the novels First Blood and Rambo: " . . . what I have been trying to do with my writing is to find out what would happen if John Barth wrote The Creature from the Black Lagoon." And T.E.D. Klein, author of The Ceremonies, one of the finest supernatural fantasies of 1984, and until recently editor of The Twilight Zone Magazine: "I really don't like horror. I'm turned off by most of it." Winter supplements these interviews with a useful guide to booksellers and publishers that specialize in horror fiction and eclectic, often eccentric lists of "the best of horror fiction and film" from 1951 to the present.

Faces of Fear is like an appetizer for E. F. Bleiler's Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, a massive, two-volume collection of critical essays that encompasses nearly every important French, German, British, and American writer of supernatural fiction since the genre began with Arthurian legends, The Arabian Nights, and The Golden Ass. Each of these 148 essays combines biography, oeuvre overview, and contextual criticism in under 10 (oversized) pages. Happily, these are not turgid, jargon- laden academic exercises; they are consistently fascinating and readable. Bleiler's impeccable scholarship and the considerable efforts of the phalanx of critics he has brought together make Supernatural Fiction Writers an invaluable reference work, a testament to the thematic and artistic diversity of the tale of terror.