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November/December 2018
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The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough (1917)

The dry bones of a doctoral thesis may seem a dusty proposition, but Dorothy Scarborough gives them a lively rattle in this fondly eclectic survey. Her long examination of Gothic horror-mongers, for example, allots due respect for imagination and atmosphere but notes the excesses with measured irony and a keen eye for the point where over-egged ghastliness topples into bathos. A century later, most of her judgments still seem sound.

Anticipating the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, supernatural themes come under the microscope one by one, moving from broad categories of ghosts, demons, witches, and predestination to specifics like the Wandering Jew, Elixir of Life, Metempsychosis, and psychic research. Many familiar and unfamiliar ghost-story authors are dissected, including such wider-ranging creators as Hawthorne, Kipling, Poe, Stevenson and of course Henry James. One surprise omission is M.R. James; Scarborough finds Arthur Machen particularly horripilating for "revolting instances of suggestive diabolism." Pure fantasy also gets its due: Lord Dunsany with his new-minted gods, Anatole France, William Morris, James Stephens.

This, Gary Westfahl argues, is also the first scholarly examination of science fiction. Scarborough saw clearly that science can add verisimilitude to grisly doings as in Frankenstein, that horror lurks in laboratories as well as graveyards, and that the spirit world is easily updated to the Fourth Dimension. Her long chapter "Supernatural Science" has much to say about H.G. Wells.

Dorothy Scarborough also edited two anthologies, Famous Modern Ghost Stories and Humorous Ghost Stories (both 1921), which like this still highly readable dissertation are available free from Project Gutenberg.

—David Langford

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