In the “Preface” to his massive tome, The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, Everett E. Bleiler of Kent State University, examines approximately 7,200 stories, dating from 1800 to 1960, all of which he has read personally, over a quarter century. As a result, he sees both the mosaics--the individual narratives, drawn from myth, legend, fairy tales, pulp and popular fiction, classic literature, and other sources--and the big picture, the “folklore” of supernatural fiction, as he calls the whole. His massive volume not only identifies the various motifs, or recurring themes and topics of such fiction, offering detailed summaries of most of them, but it also provides insights into parallel treatments of these themes and topics.
Bleiler identifies three uses of supernatural literature: primary, secondary, and tertiary. According to his analysis, the primary purpose of supernatural fiction is to provide its readers with “thrills” while appealing to their interest in “supernatural motifs taken literally.” The secondary use of such literature is to serve “as a vehicle for something else: satire, analysis of social relations, probing of guilt and conscience,” and “a search for justice.” The tertiary use of this fiction is its “symbolisation of something otherwise perhaps on the edge of ineffability.”
Occasionally, Bleiler’s word choice seems odd and difficult to understand. For example, what does “supernatural motifs taken literally mean”? Does he intend to indicate, by such a phrase, that these motifs are normally regarded as being figurative or symbolic expressions? Other times, the author could have provided more explanations of some such phrases. What topics, for example, might, without the employment of symbolism be “on the edge of ineffability” and why? These occasionally awkward phrases are unfortunate, but, fortunately, they do not occur very often and, in general, Bleiler accomplishes an uncommon feat among intellectuals: his writing is mostly clear and comprehensible.
In the volume’s article concerning “The Phenomenology of Contranatural Fiction,” Bleiler argues that “modern supernatural fiction is ultimately concerned with the impersonal individual and with universals of existence in story abstractions that are sometimes very primitive.”
As mentioned in Chillers and Thrillers post, “Evil Is As Evil Does,” these themes are common in H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction and, to a lesser degree, perhaps to the work of such contemporary writers as Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Bentley Little. They also appear in the work of many mainstream authors, such as Stephen Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and many others.
He distinguishes between supernatural and contranatural fiction by observing that the former “dealt very largely with beings that were in some way superior to mortals or to living men,” whereas the latter is more concerned with “a world view that is in direct opposition to that of materialism,” and, he says, “My thesis is that modern fiction has erected a mirror world based on direct contradiction to what most of us believe, related through the strong principle of positive negation.” This perspective is discernible in the fiction’s “subject matter. . . man and the universe.” Contranatural fiction, Bleiler maintains, “cares little about man as a social being or as a lesson in biochemistry or psychology” and is “not always concerned with exact geography, with the orderly progression of time, or with the immutable law,” and “instead, things are added to, subtracted from, and modified away from reality.”
It is debatable, perhaps, as to whether “most of us believe” in a dualistic world of spirit and matter rather than a materialistic universe, as Bleiler contends. If anything, the opposite state of affairs seems to be the rule. However, it may be true that many continue, in the words of the FBI’s Special Agent Fox Mulder, to “want to believe” in a spiritual realm that is both immanent and transcendent to the natural world in which matter and energy, as interchangeable expressions of the same basic substance, hold sway, and, in that sense, emotionally rather than rationally, the dualistic world view of the “primitive” is still influential in modern and contemporary human life.
- Man is alone in the universe--there are supernatural beings.
- Man is the most powerful force--there are gods.
- The universe is amoral--there are forces concerned with morality, gods, demons, rewards, punishments.
- The universe is an uncaring place--there are temptations, prayer, faith.
- Death is final--there are ghosts, heavens, hells, reincarnation.
- Change can be effected only by rational means--there is magic. . . .
- Existence is material--there are fairies, vampires, little people of various sorts.
- Essence is inalienable--there are transformations of various sorts, personality interchange, possession, breaking the rule of one man-one personality.
- Reality is closed and separate from things imagined--there are solipsistic universes, entry into literary worlds, characters coming to life.
- The animate and the inanimate are rigidly separated--life may be created, inanimate things may be brought to life.
- Man’s senses have limitations--there are paranormal abilities, dream worlds, foreknowledge.
- According to Bleiler, such additions, subtractions, and modifications to reality result from “psychological factors that lie behind” his “typological scheme--fear and hope, desire and despair, acceptance and wonder.”
- Bleiler believes that, as human knowledge “expands,” so does “contra-knowledge,” and the latter expands more quickly and broadly than the former, since “it is possible to have more than one opposition to a basic idea.”
In Part Two of "The Guide to Supernatural Fiction: A Review," we’ll consider Bleiler’s six statements from which “countless stories can be generated.”