Elegant Nightmares
The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood

By Jack Sullivan

“Not since Howard Phillip Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, written over fifty years ago, has there been a work of similar scope and imagination.”

National Review

“Elegantly written, this book is an outstanding, indeed unique contribution to the study of a much neglected literary genre that few of the best imaginative writers have dared to ignore. But it is also sheer entertainment.”

Nona Balakian, Critic, editor, The New York Times

Based on an enormous body of short fiction, Elegant Nightmares is a study of the ghost story in England from Sheridan Le Fanu to more recent figures such as Algernon Blackwood and L.P. Hartley.

Although Elegant Nightmares is a serious exploration of ghost and horror stories as prototypes of modern absurdist fiction, it is written in an entertaining, often witty style. It speaks to the scholar, the addicted horror fan, and the general reader about a genre which is increasingly popular and which (though cluttered with hackwork) has a distinguished tradition. In their vision of an irrational, inexplicably hostile universe and their penchant for irony and black humor, Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories have a peculiarly contemporary ring. Elegant Nightmares offers both a thematic approach to the development of this genre and a reader’s guide to the distinguishing styles of its best writers. The stories are treated in relation to overarching themes, but are also taken seriously on their terms as popular fiction. The assumption of the book is always that the ability of a given writer to chill and horrify is only as good as his prose style.

From the insidious cruelty of Sheridan Le Fanu to the gentle spookiness of E. G. Swain, ghostly fiction offers a remarkable variety of conceptions and styles. Elegant Nightmares focuses on late nineteenth and early twentieth century writers who, in strikingly individual ways, pioneered an aesthetic of supernatural horror: Sheridan Le Fanu, the father of the modern supernatural tale; M. R. James, the inventor of the antiquarian ghost story; and Algernon Blackwood, the early conjurer of “cosmic” apparitions from parallel universes. In addition, the book surveys a variety of lesser–known, undeservedly obscure writers such as Arthur Machen, H.R. Wakefield, Arthur Gray, Oliver Onions, Walter de la Mare, and E. F. Benson. These are placed in perspective with the occasional contributions to the genre by major writers such as Hardy, Yeats, and Henry James. Although the emphasis is on Victorian and Edwardian writers, Ramsey Campbell, Robert Aickman, Russell Kirk, and other absurdly neglected contemporary writers are put in their rightful context as heirs to a tradition which is still very much alive.

Dr. Jack Sullivan received his Ph.D in English from Columbia University. He teaches English and humanities at New York University, Columia University, and the New School for Social Research. He writes for the New York Times Book Review, Saturday Review, and other publications.

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Related Subjects

Literary Studies · Literary Criticism, UK