Supernatural fiction

Since The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge is historical supernatural fiction, and I talked about historical fiction last week, it’s time to talk about supernatural fiction this week. Rather than talk theory, I’m going to discuss some examples. Mind you, this is a personal review, not an exhaustive survey. You’re welcome to offer comments and suggestions.

I have to give the palm to Wilhelm Meinhold’s Maria Schweidler: Die Bernsteinhexe (1839) for historical supernatural fiction. Meinhold published the story, claiming it was partly an authentic 17th century narrative, partly his interpolations, and challenged the critics to figure out which parts were which. He eventually revealed he had written the whole thing himself, making fools of the critics. Naturally, the critics all turned on him, and Maria Schweidler fell out of favor in its native Germany. However, thanks to a wonderful 1844 translation by Lady Duff-Gordon, The Amber Witch eventually became more famous in the English language, and has been in print ever since. Meinhold’s use of his historical setting really carries this story, which is otherwise just a romantic triangle combined with an early modern witch hunt. The moral for a writer: do your research, put it to use in your story, and you’ll win people over to suspending their disbelief and accepting your story as “real.”

Illustration for “The Amber Witch” by Edward Burne-Jones, 1895

Bram Stoker did a better job writing an exciting story with Dracula (1897), in which he combined a contemporary setting with a historically-rooted horror. Unfortunately, Stoker himself didn’t seem to understand Dracula‘s appeal, and botched it when he tried to recreate it using the same techniques for The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903) and The Lair of the White Worm (1911). Lair in particular shows what can go wrong in imitating Dracula: the supernatural elements are poorly explained, the characters are not developed, and the plot drags. The characters don’t really engage the supernatural at a personal level, so neither does the reader. Another rule for writers: don’t repeat yourself too often, because you’ll get tired and boring.

Stoker’s devolution raises another point about supernatural fiction worth considering. In short fiction, mood can carry your story. Marghanita Laski, who usually didn’t write supernatural stories, used mood to good effect in “The Tower” (1955), making it one of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever read. Trying to think logically about the story is besides the point. However, longer fiction in general demands character development to sustain interest in the supernatural elements, and those supernatural elements need to be explained. Dracula is a splendid example of both those features. In contrast, Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953) probably pushes the limit for how long a good supernatural story can be that relies on mood and doesn’t explain what’s going on . . . if in fact The Victorian Chaise-longue is a story about the supernatural. That it can be questioned demonstrates how much Laski left for the reader to interpret.

Sometimes the supernatural is primarily external: Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing” (1893) wreaks havoc in the material world. Sometimes it is primarily internal: Guy de Maupassant’s “Le Horla” (1887) is the psychological kissing cousin of “The Damned Thing.” And some writers are clever enough to have it both ways: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), each in its own way, rely on supernatural elements that may be external, psychological, or both. Probably The Victorian Chaise-longue belongs in this category as well. The point here is that the violation of the natural order inherent in the supernatural have as much to do with the characters’ expectations of the world as what actually happens. Even “The Damned Thing” ultimately relies on the narrator’s reaction to what he is experiencing.

Many supernatural stories rely on people confronting supernatural phenomena in what they assumed was a natural world. Psychological supernaturalism hints at another possibility: what if the rules of the supernatural world aren’t what people expect them to be? James Blish offered up the Christian “Problem of Evil” in Black Easter (1968), and proceeded to use Renaissance ceremonial magic to offer an unexpected and tragic solution. H.G. Wells, on the other hand, exploited wrong expectations to (mostly) humorous effect with “The Inexperienced Ghost” (1902). In both cases, the authors went beyond simply using common ideas about the supernatural, and explored their possibilities. Any writer who wants to get away from hackneyed ideas would be well advised to do the same.

To round out this essay, I must mention Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” (1910). If The Victorian Chaise-longue shows how long a story can go relying on mood, “Afterward” demonstrates how a short story can rely on character development and an explicitly defined logic for its supernatural element. To top it off, the supernatural in this story by its very logic doesn’t work the way one would expect, a paradox that I leave the reader to explore. “Afterward” is a good model for a writer to study, in part because it is pointless to imitate it!

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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2 Responses to Supernatural fiction

  1. E. J. Barnes says:

    “wreck havoc” -> you really mean either wreak, or work, havoc. The expression “wrought havoc” would normally be brought into the present tense as “work”, for which “wrought” is the archaic past tense (surviving primarily in such phrases as “wrought iron”); “wreak” has come to be connected with this formation, originally erroneously. My AmHerDict defines “wreak” as “to inflict [vengeance or punishment] on a person” or “To express or gratify [anger, malevolence, or resentment]; to vent.”

  2. Brian Bixby says:

    You are correct in that I should have written “wreak havoc,” and have amended the article accordingly. Even though it is improper, I have to say there is a certain appeal to “wreck havoc” as a phrase, as by wrecking things one does create havoc. No doubt such reasoning explains why “wreck havoc” does turn up, and why I slipped up and used it.

    Incidentally, one of the sources I consulted describes using “wreck havoc” as an example of cultural illiteracy. Sigh. I am now classified with people who write “could of” and who use the subjunctive even less often than I do. Room for improvement.

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