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Reviewed by:
  • Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction, and: Aliens in the Home: The Child in Horror Fiction
  • Donald A. Ringe
S. L. Varnado. Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1987. 160 pp. $19.95.
Sabine Büssing. Aliens in the Home: The Child in Horror Fiction. Contributions to the Study of Childhood and Youth 4. Westport: Greenwood, 1987. 224 pp. $32.95.

To take these books together is to perceive at once the problem of definition faced by critics of the popular genres and the quite different views they can take of individual works depending upon the perspective from which they see them. In Haunted Presence, S. L. Varnado concentrates on the Gothic or supernatural tale and attempts to distinguish it from other forms of fantasy in terms of its essential realism. If the Gothic tale is to succeed, he believes, the events described must seem to the reader to correspond "to some element in reality." Varnado finds that element in the numinous, a "unique category of experience" that he defines as "the feeling of the supernatural." It is "an affective state in which the percipient-through feelings of awe, mystery, and fascination—becomes aware of an objective spiritual presence." In his survey of Gothic fiction, Varnado argues for the presence of the numinous as the quality that "defines the purpose and the aesthetic value of Gothic literature. It is an element, moreover, that in his view has persisted in the genre from the beginning to the present day.

In Aliens in the Home, Sabine Büssing confronts a similar problem, for her subject, modern horror fiction, merges on its borders with fantasy and science fiction, and although she admits that no foolproof definition will distinguish among the genres, she presents her subject as a literature of fear "which subsists both on the terrors it describes and the dread and anxiety it evokes within the reader." She distinguishes it as well from Gothic fiction, a kind of literature that, she believes, definitively declined a century and a half ago. In her view, the tale of horror is the "rightful successor" to the Gothic tale and differs from it in that the fear it evokes is not the numinous fear of Gothic fiction described by Varnado. That fear, she argues, has been largely extinguished in the nonbelieving twentieth century. Her view of some classic Gothic tales, therefore, must be quite different from his. To Büssing, for example, The Turn of the Screw is a modern horror story; to Varnado, it is a Gothic tale with a strong element of the numinous.

The books are also very different in the approaches they take to their materia] and in their methods of presentation. Varnado bases his study on the works of a single theologian, Rudolf Otto (1860-1937), who set forth the concept of the numinous in his Idea of the Holy. Varnado simply accepts Otto's discussion of the numinous in its sacred and profane aspects and applies his findings to the works of several significant Gothic writers who, in his opinion, not only "exhibit as their main interest the sense of the numinous" but also "introduced new themes or techniques which were to become representative." One chapter deals with the classic Gothic writers: Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, and Charles Robert Maturin. A chapter each is then devoted to Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and Bram Stoker. An additional chapter treats three modern writers: Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and H. P. Lovecraft. Varnado's discussion is well focused and persuasive, for the sense of the numinous is clearly present in all the writers he treats. But his interest is very narrow and his discussion so limited to Otto's theories that his book is likely to strike the reader as rather thin in development. [End Page 317]

Büssing approaches her subject in a much different way. She has read a very large number of horror stories containing children—most of them in English but some also in French and German—and she discusses her subject under a number of different headings. A brief introduction treats the child...


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