Modern works of the supernatural are increasingly considered to be more than just entertainment. Indeed, a growing body of serious critical study on writers of the weird tale suggests that such stories speak to the modern condition.
In his new book, Lord Dunsany, H. P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury: Spectral Journeys (Scarecrow Press), William Touponce, professor emeritus of English in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, examines these three writers and how their stories comment on modernity and capitalism throughout the twentieth century. He also traces the development of supernatural storytelling over the course of the century.
The book began development when S.T. Joshi, a noted literary critic and novelist known for writing the definitive biography of H.P. Lovecraft, invited Touponce to submit a proposal for a new series to be published by Scarecrow Press called "Studies in Supernatural Fiction." "Since graduate school, I had always been interested in writing a comparative study of Bradbury in the company of other authors of the fantastic, and to explore fantastic literature in the context of modernity, so I was finally given the opportunity to do that," Touponce says.
Touponce chose to put Bradbury alongside Dunsany and Lovecraft because together their stories span the twentieth century. Dunsany was an Anglo-Irish writer who came to prominence during the Edwardian period. His fantasy work was rediscovered in the wake of the enormous interest in Tolkien. In recent decades Lovecraft has seen a renewed interest in his supernatural stories. He is considered by many as the greatest writer of the supernatural tale since Poe, and was recently inducted into The Library of America. He wrote primarily in the 1920’s and 1930’s and may be best known today for his short story "The Call of Cthulhu."Bradbury, the most contemporary of the three writers, is the author such books as Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. He won many awards and honors for his work, including a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. IUPUI houses the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, of which Touponce was the first director. Bradbury passed away in 2012.
Touponce’s book focuses on the role these authors had in restoring the traditional art of imaginative storytelling, which was beginning to disappear from the cultural horizon of modernity. "Spectral" in the title refers to the ghostly return of the storyteller in modern culture. These writers valued the storyteller as someone who could provide the memory of coherent experience, not just momentary sensation. "Traditional storytellers (as argues Walter Benjamin, the critical thinker whose writings I primarily draw upon in this study) were not concerned with conveying information or facts, in the manner of newspapers, but with the often utopian and hidden longings of a community, and thereby gave an ‘aesthetic’ shape to people’s lives," says Touponce. Perhaps most important, the storyteller preserved different social experiences and thereby the possibility of a critique of the status quo. Dunsany, Lovecraft and Bradbury also contested the dominance of realism as a mode of literature, seeing it as linked to bourgeois culture. For them, realism described reality as though it could not be changed, whereas in fact it was the product of a dominant social class.
Touponce argues each author’s stories can be linked to conditions in a specific period of capitalism: Dunsany to liberal capitalism, Lovecraft to capitalism in crisis (the Great Depression), and Bradbury to post-war consumer culture. "I investigate what has come to be called the political unconscious (Frederic Jameson) of their texts, finding the broadest interpretation of their stories in how they engage with the capitalist mode of production in its different stages over the course of the twentieth century," he says. "The body of past supernatural literature provides them with a large storehouse of images and tropes with which to resist and question the domination of capital. All three of my authors were critical of capitalism, because they saw capitalism as a force increasingly destructive of memory and coherent experience, and of value (I understand value in the Marxist sense as a contradiction between use-value and exchange value, the basis of the capitalist system)," he says.
Touponce hopes that his book will stimulate interest in reading supernatural literature critically and in relation to society and has plans for a second volume of essays.