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This is getting weird: Critics on horror, science fiction and fantasy

Fantasy, horror and science fiction are porous genres, allowing for, and even encouraging, cross-fertilization. H.G. Wells’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” for instance, could be classified under any of these three rubrics. To circumvent so much categorical fuzziness, John Clute, the theoretically minded co-editor of “The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,” came up with the useful umbrella term “fantastika.” What follows here, then, is a briefly annotated list of some recent critical books about fantastika.

No one knows more about M.R. James, author of the best ghost stories in English, than Rosemary Pardoe. In The Black Pilgrimage and Other Explorations (Shadow Publishing) she collects her “essays on supernatural fiction,” many of which reflect her careful research into the textual complexities and historical context of James’s imaginative writing. What, for instance, is “the black pilgrimage” undertaken by Count Magnus in the story of that name? Is it a journey to Chorazin, the reputed birthplace of anti-Christ? Or might it be a reference to the “black” stage in certain alchemical experiments? Pardoe also includes introductions to Arthur Gray and E.G. Swain, two masters of the antiquarian ghost story, as well as appreciations of more modern writers such as Fritz Leiber, Jack Finney and Phil Rickman.

Before “fantastika” came along, people fumbling for a catchall word sometimes settled on “the weird.” In The Thing’s Incredible! The Secret Origins of Weird Tales, 1923-24 (Off-Trail Publications) John Locke explores in minute detail the founding and first two years of the self-described “unique magazine,” long the flagship periodical of the fantastic, bizarre and outré. In many ways, Locke’s book should be viewed as publishing history, since he tells us about the magazine’s founders, editors and finances, as well as its most important contributors, notably H.P. Lovecraft but also the prolific Arthur J. Burks and the once exceptionally popular Seabury Quinn, creator of the occult detective Jules de Grandin. For anyone interested in the pulp magazines of the 1920s, this book is an essential acquisition.

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Among American writers, only Edgar Allan Poe has influenced supernatural fiction more than H.P. Lovecraft — and even that is debatable. In What is Anything? Memoirs of a Life in Lovecraft (Hippocampus Press) S. T. Joshi looks back on his nearly 50 years’ fascination with the eccentric, brilliant and still controversial writer who gave us Cthulhu and “The Necronomicon,” the sinister city of Innsmouth and those eerie and mournful stories, “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Color Out of Space.”

As a scholar, Joshi is astonishingly productive (over 200 books), but also outspoken and contentious: One might dub him the Christopher Hitchens of horror critics, simultaneously learned, supercilious, caustic and immensely entertaining to read. Since much of Joshi’s adult life revolves around his friendships with fellow Lovecraftians, “What Is Anything?” parenthetically illuminates some of the secret history behind the rise of Lovecraft during the past half century. Above all, though, it is a terrifically enjoyable book.

In Horror Needs No Passport (CreateSpace) Jess Nevins surveys, in the words of his subtitle, “20th Century Horror Fiction Outside the United States and Great Britain.” Some years back Nevins produced the invaluable “Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana,” and he continues to publish annotations to Alan Moore’s ongoing intertextual graphic novel, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Here, though, Nevins briefly introduces some wonderful writers and books you really should seek out. For example, he recommends Alfred Kubin’s “The Other Side” as the best of all “lost-race” novels, analyzes Sadegh Hedayat’s phantasmagorical masterpiece, “The Blind Owl,” tracks the Japanese erotic-horror tradition from Edogawa Rampo to the present and, most originally, surveys the various kinds of African fantastika.

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For the past several years the University of Illinois Press has been bringing out a series called Modern Masters of Science Fiction, each volume titled with a modern master’s name. So far these critico-biographical introductions have included John Brunner, J.G. Ballard, Octavia E. Butler, Alfred Bester, Iain M. Banks, Gregory Benford, Ray Bradbury and Lois McMaster Bujold — it pays to have a name that starts with B if you want to make it in science fiction — as well as William Gibson, Greg Egan, Frederik Pohl and, most recently, Arthur C. Clarke. In this last book, Gary Westfahl aims to reburnish Clarke’s slightly faded reputation by looking again at the full range of his oeuvre, not that he shortchanges the early and long-classic novels, “Childhood’s End” and “The City and the Stars,” let alone those influential short stories “The Nine Billion Names of God” and “The Sentinel,” the latter being the seed that blossomed into Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Let me close with a pair of wide-ranging essay collections, the first by Barry N. Malzberg, the notoriously mordant science fiction author and critic, the second by Douglas A. Anderson, a distinguished expert on J.R.R. Tolkien as well as a fearless reader of curious and neglected volumes. Since I contributed blurbs to both these books, I will do no more than characterize each by quoting from its cover description.

Packed with personal reflections, elegies and rants, Malzberg’s The Bend at the End of the Road (Fantastic Books) is summed up by Swedish sf critic John-Henri Holmberg as “the most important book about science fiction published in the last decade.” It complements Malzberg’s two earlier nonfiction miscellanies, “The Engines of the Night” (1982) and “Breakfast in the Ruins” (2007). Anderson’s Late Reviews (Nodens Books) pointedly assesses scores of “older or unusual books, usually ones of a fantastical, supernatural or decadent nature.” These range, alphabetically, from St. John Adcock’s “The World That Never Was: A London Fantasy” to E.A. Wyke Smythe’s “Bill of the Bustingforths.” By the way, Wyke Smythe’s better-known novel, “The Marvellous Land of Snergs” (1927), largely gave Tolkien the idea for hobbits.

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.

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