Tales of the supernatural have come a long way over the past two decades. When Fontana published their collections of 'Great Ghost Stories' in the early 1960s, it might have seemed as if the genre had become canonical and almost complete. A long and distinguished line led back, through such expert modern practitioners as L.P. Hartley and Walter de la Mare, to the definitive achievements of M.R. James, Stevenson and Le Fanu, and their Gothic predecessors. The ghost story, or original tale of the supernatural, was essentially a short story, delicately crafted to obtain the maximum effect from its metaphysical equivocations. If it did not aspire to the mathematical rigour of Poe, it set great store by the gradual development of an exquisite suspense, preparing the reader for the decisive point at which the balance of belief and disbelief could be tipped - ever so slightly - in favour of the impossible fictional world. What has happened since the 1960s is that the true ghost story has been overhauled by its bastard brother, the horror story. Discreet, poetic effects have been replaced by grand guignol, polite complicity with the reader by a sadistic desire to shock at all costs; in place of the short story, there is the gross and overblown novel which strains its every sinew to the state of commercial apotheosis which is awaiting it upon the cinema screen.
LRB 17 November 1983 | PDF Download