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During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Walter Pater and others changed the nature of thought concerning the human body and the physical environment that had shaped it. In response, the 1890s saw the publication of a series of remarkable literary works that had their genesis in the intense scientific and aesthetic activity of those preceding decades—texts that emphasized themes of degeneration and were themselves stylistically decompositive, with language both a surrogate for physical deformity and a source of anxiety. Susan J. Navarette examines the ways in which scientific and cultural concerns of late nineteenth-century England are coded in the horror literature of the period. By contextualizing the structural, stylistic, and thematic systems developed by writers seeking to reenact textually the entropic forces they perceived in the natural world, Navarette reconstructs the late Victorian mentalité. She analyzes aesthetic responses to trends in contemporary science and explores horror writers’ use of scientific methodologies to support their perception that a long-awaited period of cultural decline had begun. In her analysis of the classics Turn of the Screw and Heart of Darkness , Navarette shows how James and Conrad made artistic use of earlier “scientific” readings of the body. She also considers works by lesser-known authors Walter de la Mare, Vernon Lee, and Arthur Machen, who produced fin de siècle stories that took the form of “hybrid literary monstrosities.” To underscore the fascination with bodily decay and deformation that these writers explored, The Shape of Fear is enhanced with prints and line drawings by Victor Hugo, James Ensor, and other artists of the day. This elegantly written book formulates a new canon of late Victorian fiction that will intrigue scholars of literature and cultural history.

Anyone interested in horror fiction, and the relation between late-Victorian literature and science will find much of interest in The Shape of Fear . -- Canadian Literature

Engaging and provocative. -- Henry James Review

Uncommonly learned. Navarette contextualizes nineteenth-century horror in relation to the degenerative prophecies of Victorian science, showing that horror literature does not exist in a vacuum, but conforms to the most sophisticated tendencies of nineteenth-century thought. -- Nina Auerbach

Drawing upon a broad range of literary and scientific texts, Susan Navarette's The Shape of Fear seeks to show how fin-de-siecle horror fiction responds to and expresses anxieties about scientific theories of cultural decline and degeneration. -- Nineteenth-Century Literature

Navarette's book is superb. Readable, intelligent, erudite, and original, The Shape of Fear combines close textual analysis with a larger historical and cultural perspective. -- Regina Barreca

An innovative and engaging work that explores the fascination with both language and the body in Decadent literature and, specifically, in 'fin de siecle' horror stories. -- Rocky Mountain Review

The author provides excellent supporting arguments for her contentions. -- Science Fiction Chronicle

Brings an impressive understanding of the ideas generated by nineteenth-century European biology, geology, anthropology, philology, psychology, and criminology to bear upon the ‘literature of horror’ by short-story writers in English at the turn of the century. -- South Atlantic Review

Unlike writers of fin de siecle horror, Navarette locates and fills in gaps and silences by offering alternative critical perspectives on known works and by recuperating critically ignored texts. -- Victorian Review

Navarette's book is an informed and informative contribution to the recent surge of critical studies on the myriad ways in which late-Victorian discourses of cultural decay are mirrored in the realm of popular fiction. -- Virginia Quarterly Review

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Horror tales, Literature and science, Decadence

The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siècle Culture of Decadence
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