The Penguin book of Horror Stories, edited by J. A. Cuddon

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Despite the title, nowadays most of the stories included in this mammoth compilation would I suspect be classified as uncanny rather than horror.  This is because the definition of horror has evolved over the last thirty years, largely under the influence of increasingly-explicit filmic depictions.  That editor J A Cuddon’s view of the form was somewhat dated even as he drew up his list is suggested by his observation that while it also applies to novellas and novels, the horror story is usually regarded as a subset of the short story.  It is a surprising assertion, given that this collection post-dates the beginnings of the careers of such horror novelists as Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Peter Straub.  Cuddon later mentions King and other novelists who have written horror, but he sees the main impetus of horror literature residing in the short form.

Cuddon begins his introduction (much of which one suspects was lifted from his post-graduate thesis on evil and the devil in mediaeval and Renaissance literature) by indicating the range of stories subsumed under the horror label, and does indicate an understanding of what could have been included of recent vintage, of all lengths, mentioning among other writers Anthony Burgess and J. G. Ballard.  Mostly however he is intent to give an erudite, if simplistic, overview of horrific themes in literature from Classical times to the twentieth century.  He usefully charts the movement of horror from being an external force, Hell as a distinct location and Satan acting on the helpless individual, to horror as in internal locus, occurring wherever we happen to be.  In that sense, as he points out, William Hogarth more ably depicted Hell than did Gustave Doré.

Cuddon’s definition of horror is reasonable enough: it “shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing.”  That covers an enormous territory, and even a book of this size can only be a sample, but in the selection you sense a desire to rescue the ‘horror’ story from pulp for literature.  It is significant that he contrasts Sartre’s Huis Clos favourably with Grand Guignol, which he considers “uncouth”, and therefore unworthy, despite its power to induce repulsion and loathing.  He is wary of much recent writing, which he finds “crude or even somewhat obvious”, and has excluded this strand.  But it does raise the question of how representative the book is of horror as it existed in 1984.

The length of the introduction too suggests a need to justify the stories selected as proper literature.  That Cuddon felt some degree of disdain for more populist authors is perhaps indicated by the number included who possesses a good literary pedigree, hence the inclusion of such heavyweights as Honoré de Balzac, Henry James, Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola, William Faulkner, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves and Muriel Spark.  The stories are generally literary too – the use of the word “prick” for penis in one seems extremely transgressive in the context.

This all serves to give Cuddon’s choices a certain gravitas, and he may have wanted to draw a distinction between them and the sort of writing associated with the mass-market Fontana and Pan series.  At their best though they themselves achieved a high standard, though the quality of the Pan books declined noticeably, and in fact there is a surprising amount of overlap with Cuddon’s selection.  Looking through the thirty volumes of Pan Book of Horror Stories, the following can be found in both: Muriel Spark‘s ‘The Portobello Road‘ appears in the first Pan book; the second volume includes Geoffrey Household’s ‘Taboo’ and Carl Stephenson’s ‘Leiningen Versus the Ants’; the third has ‘Two Bottles of Relish’ by Lord Dunsany and ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ by Edgar Allan Poe (hardly a story that needed anthologising in the first place); the sixth has John Lennon’s sub par ‘No Flies on Frank’ (another that does not need anthologising, though for a different reason); the ninth has Dorothy K. Haynes’ ‘Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch…’, the twelfth has Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Terrapin’

Fewer appear in the Fontana series, but still, the second Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories has Poe’s ‘The Facts in The Case Of M. Valdemar’ yet again, and Perceval Landon’s ‘Thurnley Abbey’; and number fifteen has Monica Dickens’ ‘Activity Time’.  That’s quite a few stories that had appeared in hugely popular mass-market paperback form not long before Cuddon drew up his contents: of the 43 stories in the Penguin collection, almost a quarter were readily available in either the Pan or the Fontana series, and no doubt others he picked had also appeared in widely-circulated anthologies.  He was aware that many of his choices had appeared elsewhere and provided justifications for further exposure, such as they were worth reprinting (not much of a reason), they were necessary for ‘balance and variety’ (were no others less anthologised but as good available for the requisite balance and variety?), and the authors chosen were necessary to make the book “regionally and chronologically representative” (again, were no others available?).   Haste in putting the book together does not appear on the list.

Perhaps in such instances he took an elitist view that he was rescuing samples of literature from a pulp ghetto (a supposition supported by an annoying refusal to translate the foreign quotations which sprinkle his introduction).  What is clear by his own account is that he read a large number of stories, knew of a number of writers who deserved to be rescued from obscurity, and decided to leave out a number of famous authors in order to make space for those less well known.  Yet despite these assurances he still included ‘The Facts in The Case Of M. Valdemar’.

Cuddon acknowledges that there will be little here that is unfamiliar to the connoisseur, but that his target audience is a more general one.  Reading a Pan paperback doesn’t make you a “connoisseur”, and this airiness sells any reader who has some familiarity with the genre short.  Still, despite a certain narrowness of vision in choosing the stories, it is a high-quality anthology that deserves to be read by anyone wanting to delve into the form’s heritage.  It contains 600 pages of pure pleasure, and here can be seen the foundations for whatever mutations of the horror story came afterwards.  One cannot help thinking, though, that it could have been even more interesting with a little extra thought.

First posted on Goodreads website 26 February 2013

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