“The uncanny affords us a rare pleasure,” the late cultural critic Jacques Barzun wrote of horror fiction, “that of not knowing what to think.” He would surely have appreciated Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson (Oxford University Press, $24.95), edited by Darryl Jones. This collection serves up a magnificent dose of the “rare pleasure.” Haunted castles, demented scientists and gruesome deaths may have lost some of their power to shock a contemporary readership. What remains fascinating, though, is the roiling subtext of a great 19th-century debate about the inevitability of progress and the power of science to regulate, tame and explain everything. The narrator of Arthur Machen’s “Novel of the White Powder,” for example, practices a kind of radical empiricism, heaping scorn upon those who “timidly hinted that perhaps the senses are not, after all, the eternal, impenetrable bounds of all knowledge.” The protagonist of Algernon Blackwood’s brilliant “The Wendigo,” from 1910, is likewise “grounded in common sense and established in logic.”The forays into the darkness of irrationality compiled here were a counter-narrative, a seething id that worked corrosively on the public certitudes of the era. By giving voice to these macabre fantasies, the Victorians hoped to exorcise the lingering suspicion that their carefully considered Enlightenment virtues were really illusory. At the climax of Ronald Ross’s “The Vivisector Vivisected” — a particularly lurid example of the genre — the subject of the experiment “seemed to have become more like an ape than a man. His face was turbid and red, his mouth drawn back at the corners.” He has become subhuman, a visitor from hell, and the story has served as a safety valve for the nightmare of science run amok, an incantatory form of collective therapeutic release.
Barzun considered the ghost story “more artful — and more productive of shivers — than the straight tale of horror,” an assertion that is abundantly substantiated by Michael Sims’s delightful anthology of Victorian ghost stories. Here it is not just faith in science that is repeatedly called into question, but the very nature of reality and the primacy of perception. As if reflexively undermining their reliability, the stories in The Phantom Coach (Bloomsbury; paperback, $17) characteristically begin with a solemn assertion of veracity. “The circumstances I am about to relate to you have truth to recommend them,” says the narrator of the title story, immediately blowing his credibility to smithereens. “That everything occurred exactly as he described it I have the fullest confidence,” claims the “historian” of “The Captain of the Pole-Star.” The hauntees in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Southwest Chamber” are most bothered, it turns out, by a bedcover that changes pattern: “Those red roses on the yellow ground were . . . much more ghostly than any strange figure clad in the white robes of the grave entering the room.” For all the quaintness of their accoutrements, these tales are actually mini-parables about the unreliability of the senses, and thus shot through with a skepticism that anticipates our own doubt-addled times.
The ghost story’s unruly cousin, the detective story, is on comprehensive display in Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories of the 19th Century (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30). Essentially a form of proto-pulp fiction, the stories here feel a bit rough-hewn in comparison to their elegant Anglo-Continental counterparts. Penzler seems charmingly aware of this and even a little apologetic: “A minor work,” he calls one story; others are “a curiosity,” “an anomaly,” “largely unread,” and “included in this volume more as a representative of a type of fiction than for any exceptional literary qualities.”Aesthetic considerations aside, these stories show a generation of writers making the noises of a brash young nation just beginning to work out how to view itself. The overarching theme, perhaps not surprisingly, is that there is no criminal so formidable as to be impervious to good old American pluck. “I had awed him by my commanding tone and resolute look,” explains the protagonist of Allan Pinkerton’s “The Two Sisters,” of his triumph over an especially depraved villain. Elsewhere, foiling nefarious criminals is shown to be a reassuringly democratic activity. That exemplary American Tom Sawyer, when asked how he solved a particularly baffling case, replies, “Oh, just noticing the evidence and piecing this and that together, your honor; just an ordinary little bit of detective work; anybody could’a done it.”
Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.