I like writing this series. I really do. It’s rewarding in a number of respects. But some years are less enjoyable to cover than others. 1894, for example, had A Prisoner of Zenda, but not much else that was fun. 1895, on the other hand, has a splendid array of science fiction and fantasy, both in novels and short stories, and is generally just a banner year for fantastika. And so it was a delight for me to write about.
Welcome back to the Victorian Hugo Awards, what I hope will be a semi-regular column in which I award honorary Hugo Awards to the best novels and short stories of the Victorian era.
The final ballot for the 1895 Hugo award for novels would have been: Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan, J. Meade Falkner’s The Lost Stradivarius, George Macdonald’s Lilith, and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, with Wells taking home the Hugo.
Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933) was an American writer, quite successful during his lifetime, who wrote everything from science fiction to romances to historical fiction. When he’s remembered today, it’s for The King In Yellow, which is a landmark work of horror (and was a notable influence on the first season of True Detective).
The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories about a fictional play, The King in Yellow, which drives those who read it insane and which has a calamitous effect on modern culture. The King in Yellow combines the brisk style of the better commercial stories of the 1890s–a style which holds up well today–with a Decadent, fin-de-siècle sensibility. In a couple of the stories Chambers does use a vivid and impressionistic style, but generally he underplays the horror where the Decadent writers overwrote, and to much better effect.
The King in Yellow, besides being entertaining horror, was also an extremely influential work on Lovecraft, who freely acknowledged how influential Chambers’ work was on him and wrote that The King in Yellow “really achieves notable heights of cosmic fear.” Chambers was the first really popular author to write cosmic horror of the Lovecraftian style in the Lovecraftian mode. Previous cosmic horror writers, like Arthur Machen, had retained the Victorian mindset of good-versus-evil, but for Chambers the question of good or evil is irrelevant—an approach Lovecraft would imitate.
Marie Corelli I’ve mentioned before. Her The Sorrows of Satan is about the redemption of Satan and the travails of a female writer. Lili Loofbourow’s Los Angeles Review of Books article on Corelli makes a good case for Corelli’s importance, and is well worth reading, even if–with respect, Ms. Loofbourow–it is ENTIRELY TOO KIND TO THE GODAWFUL WRETCHED EXCRESCENCES that are Marie Corelli’s novels. I am, perhaps, not the best critic when it comes to Corelli; I’m only capable of hate-reading her, in much the same way that some people hate-watch Seinfeld and Girls. But I at least have the consolation of knowing that generations of critics have agreed with me about The Sorrows of Satan. (It’s on the ballot because it was so popular that her many fans would have voted it on to the ballot, in much the same way that J.K. Rowling appeared on Hugo ballots in the modern era. But, then and now, critics felt that The Sorrows of Satan was perfectly wretched, “Corelli’s most extravagantly narcissistic romance”).
In its way The Sorrows of Satan is archetypal Corelli: a Mary Sue writer, unjustly hated by the corrupt literary establishment, proves her wonderful awesomeness through a wonderfully awesome act—in this case, the redemption of Satan Himself. In the words of Brian Stableford, “It was in The Sorrows of Satan that Marie Corelli reached the pinnacle of her unique literary achievement. As delusions of grandeur and expressions of devout wish‑fulfilment go, the fascination of the Devil was an unsurpassable masterstroke.” Corelli vehemently denied that Mavis Clare was a self-portrait, and possibly even believed it, but critics—and the modern reader—know otherwise.
J. Meade Falkner (1858-1932) was an English antiquarian and novelist. The Lost Stradivarius is about the discovery of an English college student and musician who sees a ghost, discovers the ghost’s old violin, a Stradivarius, and becomes possessed by it. Unlike with The Sorrows of Satan, I’m at odds with the critics regarding The Lost Stradivarius. John Clute calls it “compellingly told,” and E.F. Bleiler says that it is “a sophisticated supernatural story... one of the 19th century’s classics.” One contemporary review called it “clean, well-written, and wholly interesting.” My judgment is that it’s written in a thick, slow, mid-century style with a marked lack of narrative momentum and horror that is by turns overdone and unsubtle or annoyingly vague. I had the nagging feeling throughout that I should be liking it a great deal more than I was. But it was popular with critics and would have received enough votes to appear on the final ballot, so who am I to talk?
George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish clergyman, editor, and writer, best known today for his fantasies and his writing for children. Lilith is about the spiritual rebirth and salvation of the narrator and of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. The critics are split about Lilith. On the positive side, some claim that it is the ultimate MacDonald novel, even more than Phantastes; there is a regard for the imagery and lyricism, the admittedly powerful symbolism and allegory. On the negative is the view that Lilith is MacDonald’s “problem text;” there is an unpleasant underlying message, a disappointingly anti-climactic ending, and what John Clute calls a general failure to be in control of the material. I incline toward the latter view. But I think a combination of MacDonald’s name and the contemporary critical reception of Lilith would have put it on the final ballot.
Finally, H.G. Wells and The Time Machine. Most of you will have read it in primary school, or high school—it’s both a classic of science fiction as well as a member of the literary canon. But if you haven’t looked at it recently, you should, because it is well worth re‑reading. It’s a combination of great entertainment, interesting ideas, and the application of the Wellsian ideology. As entertainment, the novel works well, and if the Traveler’s relationship with Weena is hardly the love story later movie versions of the book have made it, the novel has enough other interesting and enjoyable moments. Wells’ ideas are quite satisfying. Although they are clichéd now, the concepts of traveling through time, of future humanity developing into separate species, and of traveling to the earth’s final days are developed simply, clearly, and effectively in this, one of their first fictional renditions. Wells’ style–straightforward narration coupled with apt description–grounds the novel well, so that the fantastic elements become easier for the reader to accept. And Wells’ ideology, while offensive to the conservative Victorians of Wells’ day, who objected to his conclusions, is logical (if not agreeable) to the modern reader. Despite the quality of the other novel finalists, The Time Machine would have swept the awards ballot.
Also receiving votes: J.K. Bangs’ amusing afterlife romp A Houseboat on the River Styx; Guy Boothby’s supervillain‑as‑anti‑hero A Bid For Fortune (the first Doctor Nikola novel); Frank Constable’s Frankenstein‑but‑with‑a‑monkey The Curse of Intellect; George Griffith’s Angel of the Revolution‑lite The Outlaws of the Air; and Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters, average but no more.
A strong year for short stories, with more good stories than there is space for on the ballot. Most of the also‑receiving‑votes would have been finalists in other years—1894, I am looking at you—and several of them are classics.
The final ballot for the 1895 Hugo award for short stories would have been Ralph Adam Cram’s “The Dead Valley,” Ralph Adam Cram’s “No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince,” M.R. James’ “Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book,” A.T. Quiller‑Couch’s “The Roll Call of the Reef,” and Wirt Gerrare’s “Mysterious Maisie.” James would have won the Hugo.
Cram (1863‑1942) is best known as one of the best church architects in American history, and during his lifetime was an outspoken cultural commentator and proponent for the Gothic revival in American architecture. But although he thought poorly of modern life, he did write a number of fine horror stories. “The Dead Valley” is one of his best. It’s about a young Swede’s encounter with a particularly repellant and dangerous mountain valley. “The Dead Valley” is a crackerjack horror story about a classic horror fiction Bad Place. The story takes the folklore approach of refusing to explain the Valley’s existence, of refusing to pretend that Olof is any sort of adventure story hero, and refusing to pretend that any sort of positive resolution or defeat of the Valley is possible. Cram’s style is unaffected and clean. He draws the reader in with straightforward narration, wasting little space on irrelevancies. But Cram is also excellent at describing the imagery of the Valley. The story relies on landscape and nature imagery and descriptions of light and color to convey the horror of what Olof finds, and Cram is successful at describing those images. “The Dead Valley” hasn’t aged at all and is a worthy nominee.
Cram’s “No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince” is one of the best haunted house stories of the 19th century. It’s about a haunted house in Paris and the narrator’s decision to spend the night in it. Cram tells the story in a witty and descriptive style, full of small, nice touches. Cram’s scene‑setting is concise, and he ably conveys why Paris is such a great locale for a story like this. As a horror story, “No. 252” works well. Cram invokes Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” and, to better effect, Bulwer‑Lytton’s “The Haunters & the Haunted,” which not only nicely hints at the horrors to come but prepares the reader to be frightened by those horrors. (Modern readers will no doubt be unaffected by the reference to Bulwer‑Lytton, but it must be remembered how well‑known his work was in the 19th century. Mentioning “The Haunters & the Haunted” in the course of a haunted house story, before the scary parts have begun, is similar to a modern possession horror story mentioning “The Exorcist.” It frames the story within a context the reader is likely to know while preconditioning the reader for what is to come). Although Cram built the frightening atmosphere more gradually in “The Dead Valley,” the scare in “No. 252,” when it comes, is effective.
Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) was the Dean and later provost of King’s College in Cambridge and was in his lifetime one of the foremost medievalists in Europe. He is known today as one of the best writers of the supernatural of any century. His “Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book” is about an English antiquarian’s visit to an old French church and his unfortunate discovery of an old scrap book. James’ work is sometimes described as “donnish horror,” in the same way that the work of Michael Innes and other similar writers is described as “donnish mysteries,” but that is not a particularly helpful way to describe James’ work. James puts his knowledge of antiquities to use and often has academics as his main characters, but rather than using an academic setting James usually sends his professorial protagonists out into the world. James’ work is erudite, but he carries his knowledge lightly so that one isn’t bludgeoned with it, but rather informed by it. James’ narrative style is conversational, the phrasing is modern and naturalistic, and his descriptions, though short, are vivid enough to be memorable, and in some cases quotable. He does well at building an ominous environment, so that the reader’s fright builds as the danger does, and revealing that horror at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. James also usually has his protagonist/victim warned about what is to befall him, but the protagonist ignores the warning(s)—so the reader knows what is coming, but the protagonist doesn’t. In James’ hands this does not make the story predictable, but instead heightens the anticipation. All of these aspects of James’ work are on display in “Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book,” which is one of James’ best stories and would have won the Hugo.
Sir Arthur Quiller‑Couch (1863‑1944) was a British poet, novelist, and critic who wrote under the pseudonym of “Q.” He was known in his lifetime not just for his writing but also as an educator and lecturer. He was prolific as a writer, and “Roll Call” is his most anthologized story. “The Roll Call of the Reef” addresses themes that are more uncommon than common in 19th century ghost stories: fidelity, brotherhood, and the love soldiers have for each other. “Roll Call” succeeds on several levels. Q creates a convincing seaside milieu; he was knowledgeable in rural folklore and puts his knowledge to excellent use here. Q creates character well; in relatively few sentences the trumpeter and the drummer come to life. Q tells a good story, with memorable imagery and some well‑crafted lines. And it is to Q’s credit that he manages to evoke emotions in the reader and make the end of the story touching.
“Wirt Gerrare” was the pseudonym of the British writer William Oliver Greener (1862‑1946), a novelist and authority on firearms. “Mysterious Maisie” is a story in his collection Phantasms, about a psychic occult detective. “Mysterious Maisie” begins normally enough, with the narrator going to work in a strange house as a nurse and companion to the titular Maisie, an old, nearly blind woman. Unfortunately, Maisie is a black magician whose house is host to the worst of magical rites. The narrator only barely escapes, and that after being psychically scarred. “Mysterious Maisie” has a mounting sense of insanity and achieves, at its peak, a hallucinogenic, nightmarish state and a feeling of the intrusion of Wrongness. Greener makes a critical mistake in interrupting the mood with several pages of dialogue. This disrupts the story’s atmosphere, but then the narrator is again endangered and the ominous, alien atmosphere resumes. Assuming the voters had noticed “Mysterious Maisie,” they would have voted it on to the ballot.
Unread by me (it’s not available online) is Vincent O’Sullivan’s “The Monkey & Basil Holderness;” O’Sullivan was one of the central figures in the English Decadent movement of the 1890s and wrote some wonderful horror stories. “Basil Holderness” is supposed to be one of his best, but is quite rare and not available online. I don’t doubt that it would have made the final five, though; Jessica Amanda Salmonson, an expert on this era’s horror and O’Sullivan, says of “Basil Holderness” that “the story of Basil & his monkey has lost none of its shocking nature in the century since, & is probably the grimmest & most perverse of all “beauty & beast” variants ever penned.”
Also receiving votes: Mrs. Alfred Baldwin’s overrated “The Empty Picture Frame,” Arthur Machen’s Machen‑esque “Novel of the Black Seal” and “The Novel of the White Powder,” Fiona Macleod’s splendid Irish folklore horror stories “Ahèz the Pale” and “The Sin‑Eater,” John Munro’s space opera “A Message From Mars,” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s gruesome “The Body Snatcher.”