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Fantastic in Parts

Randy M Dannenfelser finds standards slipping in modern nonfiction

Three reviews:

The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction

by Dorothy Scarborough

(Lethe Press, $19.95 / £13.00, paperback, 1 April 2001, ISBN: 1590210018.)

Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia

by Thomas Moylan

(Westview Press, $30.00 (US), £18.50 (UK), paperback, 406 pages, November 2000.)

A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television

by John Kenneth Muir

(McFarland, $65.00, hardback library binding, 504 pages, December 1999, ISBN: 0786404426.)

It's a sad truth that nonfiction books are the poor relations in the family of literature. For every worthwhile biography or critical tome that finds its way into print, there must be a couple dozen or so mediocre novels that crowd their way, front and centre, onto bookstore shelves. And, for every nonfiction classic such as Profiles in Courage, The Hidden Persuaders or Das Kapital, there are hundreds of novels like The Deerslayer, Gone With the Wind and Valley of the Dolls that will be reprinted, for better or worse, in perpetuity. For reasons I have neither the space nor the inclination to take up here, worthwhile nonfiction books tend to become buried in the sands of time.

But now, nonfiction readers -- or in this case aficionados of the supernatural -- can take heart! Lethe Press, named for the Hades river of forgetfulness and oblivion, has resurrected (so to speak) the first in what we can assume will be a series of significant critical histories and analyses dealing with horror and the paranormal. Originally published in 1917, Dorothy Scarborough's The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction is an important work as much because of thecover scan person who wrote it as for the rich content between its covers.

If feminism is as much about personal accomplishment as collective activism, then Dorothy Scarborough was a feminist before the "f" word came into the lexicon as we use it today. Born (1875) and raised in Texas, Scarborough attained the position of Associate Professor at Columbia University four years before her death in 1935. In between, she wrote several nonfiction books concerned with folklore and the supernatural; however, she is perhaps best known for her controversial novel The Wind, about a woman who gradually goes insane from the incessant wind and drought conditions of the frontier. See? Fiction overshadows nonfiction again.

And in the case of The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction it shouldn't. For here we have an informative, unified critical essay/guidebook on the interpretations of supernatural folklore in literature, told from an early-twentieth-century intellectual's perspective. (Her take on Bram Stoker's Dracula is most insightful: "The combination of ghouls, vampires ... and other awful elements is almost unendurable, yet the book loses in effect toward the last, for the mind cannot endure four hundred pages of vampiric outrage and respond to fresh impressions of horror." How jaded today's Stephen King/Clive Barker readers have become!) That it is easy to read is a bonus; that it is chock full of tidbits of background information on classic genre literature is a wonderful surprise. (For instance, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw was based on an incident reported to the Psychical Society.) But there is a twofold value to this book that supersedes its aforementioned virtues. First, it uncovers forgotten literary works of the supernatural; and, second, it provokes the reader, by way of thumbnail analyses, into checking them out.

While giving the likes of Poe and Doyle their just due, Scarborough discusses in detail the works of such lesser-known nineteenth-century writers as F. Marion Crawford (with intriguing titles like A Doll's Ghost, The Screaming Skull and The Dead Smile), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward (The Day of My Death, Kentucky's Ghost) and Barry Pain (Moon Madness, The Undying Thing). She also refers to lesser-known works by famous authors such as Mark Twain ("The Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut"), H.G. Wells ("The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes") and Rudyard Kipling ("They" -- "It is like crushing the wings of a butterfly to examine it," says Scarborough).

I don't want to mislead you into thinking that The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction is merely a bibliography of pertinent fiction. Scarborough traces the genre's beginnings in the Gothic Romance, continues through the influences on the nineteenth-century masters (one of Poe's was, according to British critic Palmer Cobb, the German composer and fantasy writer E.T.A. Hoffmann), and comments on various subgroupings of horror fiction, from ghost stories and vampire novels to stories of devils, witches and warlocks and tales of "supernatural science". There is something here for every reader curious about the semination of horror fiction, and, most likely, a stroll through one topic will entice you toward another.

Also, if you are a fan of such twentieth-century writers as Lovecraft, Campbell, Barker and King, you will begin to realize how much each of them was influenced by those who came before -- no writer creates in a vacuum, after all.

Now isn't it ironic that just about all of the fiction Scarborough covers in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction remains in print today and is still available from most online bookstores? One can only hope that The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction itself won't again vanish into the out-of-print oblivion from which Lethe Press has so creditably rescued it.

Scraps of the Untainted Sky is British academic Tom Moylan's critical investigation of cover scanthe intellectual aspects of dystopia, with substantive analysis of selected works of appropriate science fiction for illustration. Unfortunately for me, the author seems to have written it primarily for the sociopolitical scholar-elitists who relish slogging through polysyllabic jargon and occasional eighty-plus-word sentences, the likes of which fill the nearly four hundred pages of Moylan's text. There's lots of thought-provoking sf discussion here, to be sure. However, the reader will begin to realize when he reads the author's acknowledgments to several Marxist and socialist literary and studies groups that the sf serves as a vehicle through which the author expresses his (and his colleagues') utopian socialist dialectic. This supposition is confirmed before the reader finishes Part One.

Moylan begins by introducing us to two examples of radical feminist literary utopias (as well as, for the uninitiated, some award-winning sf) with his examination of Joanna Russ's "When it Changed" and James Tiptree Jr's (Alice Sheldon's) "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" The denouement of each story is concerned with how a totally female society will deal with the sudden appearance of men, seen in both as invaders or, in the extreme, as viruses. His walk-through captures the radical feminist viewpoint succinctly and effectively. But it left me wondering, as I finished reading this section, what the gender-opposite word for "misogyny" is.

Then, just as I was looking forward to another group of sf literature for study, Moylan started off on what he calls in the preface his scholarly, tutorial and editorial responsibilities to broaden the discussion by providing an overview of dystopian studies. Here is where the verbose political thesis begins, and the sf takes a step to the side, to be called back only when needed. And here is where I began to feel no longer welcome.

See, the reader needs a certain amount of non-sf sociopolitical prerequisite knowledge to fully comprehend the theories Moylan attempts to teach. I was totally ignorant of the existences of Darko Suvin, Lyman Tower Sargent, Ruth Levitas and Phillip E. Wegner until Moylan referred to them extensively in his overview of dystopias; now I'm only slightly familiar with them. But, had I read illustrative selections of their writings beforehand, I assume I would have been able to keep up.

Anyway, then it's on to Part Two, where Moylan tackles E.M. Forster's classic sf story "The Machine Stops" (the title Scraps of the Untainted Sky is taken from a meaningful line in this story), written as a polemic response to H.G. Wells's A Modern Utopia, and gives it his own utopian socialist spin. This is not an easy task, considering the story's theme of the survival of individualistic thinkers after the collapse of a depersonalized dystopian state. Still, the analysis holds up by shifting the blame for the state's collapse from the philosophical tenets of socialist depersonalization to the flawed methodology of the oppressors within the story; and also by extrapolating that the seeds of a great utopian society have most likely been planted as a result. But, again, there are more references to essayists with whom I was not familiar. I'd never read a critical essay by Irving Howe, George Woodcock, Philip Rahv or Theodor Adorno, but I probably should have before I approached Scraps of the Untainted Sky; Moylan refers to their ideas and their work as if the reader is already familiar with them.

I was by now beginning to feel like an outsider.

By Part Three, my head was already awash in utopian/Marxist philosophy and ideology. Moylan had firmly established that he was going to keep showing us where tired socialist mantras from back in the hard-times 1930s were recycled in post-Vietnam-era dystopian sf. He also seemed intent on attacking the United States wherever he could, as when he abandoned all analytical thought whatsoever in referring to America as the Cold War's infamous "victor".

This last section contained the most concentrated literary analysis. Moylan interpreted, in depth, Kim Stanley Robinson's Gold Coast, Octavia Butler's Parables novels and Marge Piercy's He, She and It, all classic dystopian fictions. By this time, though, I'd had my fill of dogmatic jargon, painfully long sentences and remote reference support, so I just skimmed through to the end of the book. I knew I wasn't being fair to Moylan, but I had to be honest with myself. I wasn't a student in one of Moylan's classes, nor was I one of his colleagues in the utopian society on whose board of directors he serves. Scraps of the Untainted Sky was written for those people. It most certainly was not written for me.

I'll say this for John Kenneth Muir's A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television: it was conceived in lofty ambition. Basically a comprehensive, twenty-six-season viewer guide with synopsis, cast listing and author "commentary" for each episode, it includes an historic overview with thematic and cover scanstylistic antecedents and influences, plus chapters on Doctor Who spin-offs and the show's "fan matrix". With appendices on the production teams, bibliography and videography, along with the author's list of the series' twenty "best" episodes, this should be the bible of Doctor Who fandom.

Unfortunately, it doesn't even come close. This book is so badly written, in so many different ways, it makes me wonder if its publisher, McFarland & Co., took it on as a vanity commission. The book is overloaded with passive sentences (evidently, Muir never heard the old saw, "A procession of passive constructions is a safe cure for insomnia"), prepositional phrases (I don't think the author ever met one he didn't like), meaningless and wordy phrases ("nothing less than"; "for the simple reason that"), factual errors stemming from faulty and downright lazy research (an unpardonable sin for a work of even semi-scholarship such as this), and outrageous, unsubstantiated statements (sorry, Mr Muir, but Doctor Who HAS already been "placed under the microscope for serious critical and historical examination"; probably because you are a young American, you aren't familiar with the several books and magazine articles written on the topic in the UK over the past thirty years). A high-school English teacher would run out of ink red-penning this submission; a professional editor would just roll his eyes and slide it to the side.

But at McFarland the editor must have closed his eyes altogether, because here it is, warts and all. And that's particularly galling for a couple of reasons, the most immediate being the cost of the book. At $65 per copy, the classy, clothbound front and back covers can't possibly make up in value for the poor quality of the product the publisher has inserted between them. Then, there is the matter of McFarland's core market, the municipal and school libraries that order these issues sight unseen on the strength of the publisher's reputation. I shudder to think that students might actually read this book and assume it to be an example of acceptable writing.

There was a time during the 1980s and early to mid-1990s when McFarland published scholarly books created by literate writers utilizing hound-like research assistants. Tomes like Bill Warren's Keep Watching the Skies! and the Brunas Brothers' and Tom Weaver's Universal Horrors became showcase examples of the high quality of McFarland's media catalogue. Readers might have had cause to debate the opinions of the authors, but they rarely questioned the facts as presented in the text, the ones upon which the authors based those opinions. And they didn't have difficulty getting through the books, either. They were, each and all, a joy to read.

But the good reputation will evaporate quickly if McFarland continues to release disastrous volumes such as this and others I've perused recently (including another written by Muir). I hope they realize they're playing a dangerous game. Because, once it has been lost, all of McFarland's classy-looking clothbound book covers and authors' lofty ambitions won't be able to return that reputation to the firm.

And that would be a shame.


Review by Randy M Dannenfelser.

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