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The Shape of Fear

The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siècle Culture of Decadence

Susan J. Navarette
Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: 1
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Shape of Fear
    Book Description:

    During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Walter Pater and others changed the nature of thought concerning the human body and the physical environment that had shaped it. In response, the 1890s saw the publication of a series of remarkable literary works that had their genesis in the intense scientific and aesthetic activity of those preceding decades -- texts that emphasized themes of degeneration and were themselves stylistically decompositive, with language both a surrogate for physical deformity and a source of anxiety. Susan J. Navarette examines the ways in which scientific and cultural concerns of late nineteenth-century England are coded in the horror literature of the period. By contextualizing the structural, stylistic, and thematic systems developed by writers seeking to reenact textually the entropic forces they perceived in the natural world, Navarette reconstructs the late Victorian mentalité. She analyzes aesthetic responses to trends in contemporary science and explores horror writers' use of scientific methodologies to support their perception that a long-awaited period of cultural decline had begun. In her analysis of the classicsTurn of the ScrewandHeart of Darkness, Navarette shows how James and Conrad made artistic use of earlier "scientific" readings of the body. She also considers works by lesser-known authors Walter de la Mare, Vernon Lee, and Arthur Machen, who produced fin de siècle stories that took the form of "hybrid literary monstrosities." To underscore the fascination with bodily decay and deformation that these writers explored,The Shape of Fearis enhanced with prints and line drawings by Victor Hugo, James Ensor, and other artists of the day. This elegantly written book formulates a new canon of late Victorian fiction that will intrigue scholars of literature and cultural history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4794-9
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. viii-ix)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. x-xiii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 2-8)

    The Shape of Fearfocuses on the literature of horror, which, as Everett F. Bleiler reminds us, emerged in a “shower of different forms, with many different types of association with the supernatural” in England at the turn of the century.¹ More specifically, it concerns itself with the ways in which fin de siècle horror writers created an aesthetic that functioned as a response to and as a restatement of trends in contemporary scientific theory that. taken as a whole, permitted these aestheticians to advance the idea that a period of cultural decline was imminent both in England and on...

  6. Part 1

    • 1 Rictus Invictus
      (pp. 10-59)

      Three years after the death of Victor Hugo in 1885, the first exhibition of his graphic works was held at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. Among the works there assembled were drawings that Hugo had produced during his stay in the Channel Islands, to which he had retreated upon his exile from France in 1851. The nearly twenty years he spent there, first in Jersey and then in Guernsey, proved unusually fertile in an artistic sense, and when he was not absorbed in intense literary work, Hugo devoted himself to the graphic arts. It was during this period that...

    • 2 Walter de la Mare’s “A: B: O.”: The Text for the Context
      (pp. 60-109)

      In “A Revenant” (1936), an homage to Edgar Allan Poe, Walter de la Mare tacitly acknowledges his fascination with the effluvia or the miasma of the Gothic when his narrator, a professor who grudgingly concedes the virtues of Poe’s works while decrying his personal failings, observes that

      the most salient, the most impressive feature of Poe’s writings … is his own personal presence in them. Even in his most exotic fantasies, some of them beautiful in the sense that the phosphorescence of decay, the brambles and briars of the ruinous, the stony calm of the dead may be said to...

    • 3 Unsealing Sense in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw
      (pp. 110-139)

      Afforded pride of place in de la Mare’s story—which it would be easy though incorrect to characterize as a grotesquely trivial inquest into the fin de siècle culture of decadence—is a character whose experience recalls similarly transmogrifying events in which bodies (physical and narrative) register in their extremity a catastrophic dissolution of ontological security: a literary event common to and saliently indicative of the late-nineteenth-century moment that bore witness to what George Levine describes as “epistemology … in crisis,” wherein “knowing is dying and killing, as it surprisingly becomes in much nineteenth-century narrative.”¹ One thinks in this context...

    • 4 Articulating the Dead: Vernon Lee, Decadence, and “The Doll”
      (pp. 140-176)

      The abnormality of the “hovering prowling blighting presences” he wished to install at Bly, James felt certain, depended upon his departing “altogether from the rules” (“Preface,” 175). That he should speak so familiarly of the “rules” governing late-nineteenth-century horror might have come as something of a surprise to his friend Vernon Lee—to whom, nearly twenty years before he had announced in the preface toThe Aspern Papersthat “good ghosts, speaking by book, make poor subjects,” he had collegially confided that the “supernatural story, the subject wrought in fantasy, is not theclassof fiction I myself most cherish...

  7. Part 2

    • 5 The Word Made Flesh: Protoplasmic Predications in Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”
      (pp. 178-201)

      For all that she had made the requisite conciliatory gestures—having written, at midcareer, her own version of a “visionary” novel in which her readers were granted a fleeting glimpse behindThe Lifted Veil(1859), and having distinguished, at career’s close, between works of “visionary excitement” (embodying a “passionate vision of possibilities” and “the sensibility of the artist [seizing] combinations which science explains and justifies”) and works by “strictest reasoners” (who generated “an illusory world in the shape of axioms, definitions, and propositions, with a final exclusion of fact signed Q. E. D.”)—George Eliot had failed to convince some...

    • 6 The Anatomy of Failure: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
      (pp. 202-227)

      Like the thorny brush of the well-known fairy tale, literary commonplaces and critical clichés have grown up around Conrad’sHeart of Darkness, so much so that it has now been inadvertently cast in the role to which Marlow, recalling the extravagant dangers that beset the rescue team dispatched to retrieve the wayward agent, assigns Kurtz: that of “an enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle.”¹ Central among these assumptions is the belief—uncontested here—that, as Garrett Stewart puts it, “Heart of Darknessharkens back to origins.”² By “origins,” however, this essayist understands not the thematic devolution to which Stewart...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 228-239)

    “There are parts of one’s past,” Henry James reflects as he relives his rediscovery of the old Venice of his “Aspern Papers,” “that bask consentingly and serenely enough in the light of other days—which is but the intensity of thought: and there are other parts that take it as with agitation and pain, a troubled consciousness that heaves as with the disorder of drinking it deeply in”; the latter engagement, he implies, if approached from “too thick and rich a retrospect” may prove as confounding as it is revelatory (“Preface,” 160-61). Such, perhaps, may be the final effect of...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 240-277)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 278-298)
  11. Index
    (pp. 299-314)