The h2g2 Guest Lecture: Dorothy Scarborough on Science Fiction

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Did you ever wonder what science fiction and fantasy criticism looked like in the early days? Here are excerpts from the work of one of the first critics of the genres, Dorothy Scarborough of Columbia University. Dr Scarborough wrote The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction in 1917. It became an important reference for critics and scholars of comparative literature. It might surprise you to see where some of your favourite film and TV tropes and memes originated.

Chapter VII: Supernatural Science

Professor Branestawm

The application of modern science to supernaturalism, or of the supernatural to modern science, is one of the distinctive features of recent literature. Ghostly fiction took a new and definite turn with the rapid advance in scientific knowledge and investigation in the latter part of the nineteenth century, for the work of Darwin, Spencer, Huxley, and their co-laborers did as much to quicken thought in romance as in other lines. Previous literature had made but scant effort to reflect even the crude science of the times, and what was written was so unconvincing that it made comparatively little impress. Almost the only science that Gothic fiction dealt with, to any noticeable extent, was associated with alchemy and astrology. The alchemist sought the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life while the astrologer tried to divine human destiny by the stars. Zofloya dabbled in diabolic chemistry, and Frankenstein created a man-monster that was noteworthy as an incursion into supernatural biology, yet they are almost isolated instances. Now each advance in science has had its reflection in supernatural fiction and each phase of research contributes plot material, while some of the elements once considered wholly of the devil are now scientific. The sorcerer has given place to the bacteriologist and the botanist, the marvels of discovery have displaced miracles as basis for unearthly plot material, and it is from the laboratory that the ghostly stories are now evolved, rather than from the vault and charnel-room as in the past. Science not only furnishes extraordinary situations for curdling tales, but it is an excellent hook to hang supernatural tales upon, for it gives an excuse for believing anything, however incredible. Man is willing to accept the impossible, if he be but given a modern excuse for it. He will swallow the wildest improbability if the bait be labeled science or psychical research1. No supernaturalism is incredible if it is expressed in technical terminology, and no miracle will be rejected if its setting be in a laboratory. One peculiar thing about modern scientific thought in its reaction upon fiction is that it is equally effective in realism, such as shown in the naturalistic novels of Zola, the plays of Brieux and others, and in supernaturalism, as in the work of H. G. Wells, for instance, where the ghostly is grafted on to cold realism.

The transition from the sorcerer, the wizard, the warlock of older fiction to the scientist in the present has been gradual. The sorcerer relied wholly upon supernatural, chiefly diabolic, agencies for his power, while the wizard of the modern laboratory applies his knowledge of molecules and gases to aid his supermortal forces. Modern science itself seems miraculous, so its employment in ghostly stories is but natural. The Arabian Nights’ Tales seem not more marvelous than the stories of modern investigations. Hawthorne’s narratives stand between the old and the new types of science, his Rappaccini, Dr. Heidigger, Gaffer Dolliver, Septimius Felton and his rivals in search for the elixir of youth, as well as the husband who sought to efface the birthmark from his young wife’s cheek, being related in theme to the older conventional type and in treatment to the new. Poe’s scientific stories are more modern in method and material, and in fact he made claim of originality of invention for the idea of making fiction plausible by the use of scientific laws. His Descent into the Maelstrom, MS. Found in a Bottle, and other stories were novel in the manner in which they united the scientifically real and the supernatural. The Pit and the Pendulum, with its diabolical machinery, is akin to the modern mechanistic stories rather than to anything that had preceded it. Poe paved the way for H. G. Wells’s use of the ghostly mechanical and scientific narratives, as his stories of hypnotism with its hideous aftermath of horror must have given suggestion for Arthur Machen’s revolting stories of physical operations with unearthly consequences. An example of the later manifestations of supernaturalism in connection with science is in Sax Rohmer’s tales of Fu-Manchu, the Chinese terror, the embodied spirit of an ancient evil that entered into him at his birth, because of his nearness to an old burying-ground, and who, to his unholy alliance unites a wizard knowledge of modern science in its various aspects. With every power of cunning and intellect intensified, with a technical knowledge of all means with which to fight his enemies, he ravages society as no mere sorcerer of early fiction could do2.

The modern stories of magic have a skillful power of suggestiveness, being so cunningly contrived that on the surface they seem plausible and natural, with nothing supernatural about them. Yet behind this seeming simplicity lurks a mystery, an unanswered question, an unsolved problem. W. W. Jacobs’s The Monkey’s Paw, for instance, is one of the most effectively terrible stories of magic that one could conceive of. The shriveled paw of a dead monkey, that is believed by some to give its possessor the right to have three wishes granted, becomes the symbol of inescapable destiny, the Weird, or Fate of the old tragedy, though the horrors that follow upon the wishes’ rash utterance may be explained on natural grounds. The insidious enigma is what makes the story unforgettable. Barry Pain’s Exchange might be given as another example of problematic magic that owes its power to elusive mystery. The witch-woman, the solitary Fate, who appears to persons offering them such dreadful alternatives, might be conceived of as the figment of sick brains, yet the reader knows that she is not.

Richard Middleton’s The Coffin Merchant seems simple enough on the surface, and the literal-minded could explain the occurrence on normal grounds, yet the story has a peculiar haunting supernaturalism. A coffin merchant claims to be able to know who among passers-by will die soon, and hands a man an advertisement for a coffin, asserting that he will need it. The man later goes to the shop to rebuke the merchant for his methods but ends by signing a contract for his own funeral. On leaving, he shakes hands with the dealer, after which he unconsciously puts his hand to his lips, feeling a slight sting. He dies that night, – of what? Of poison, of fear, of supernatural suggestion, or in the natural course of events? The series called The Strange Cases of Dr. Stanchion, by Josephine Daskam Bacon, shows instances occurring among the clientele of a famous brain specialist, where the materialist might put aside the explanation of the supernatural, only to be confronted by still greater problems. The relation between insanity and ghostliness in recent fiction is significant and forms the crux of many a story since Poe. Mrs. Bacon’s The Miracle, for instance, has its setting in an insane asylum, but the uncanny happenings almost convince us of the sanity of the patients and the paranoia of the outsiders. We come to agree with the specialist that every person is more or less a paranoiac, and none more so than he who scoffs at the supernatural3.


The Fourth Dimension is another motif that seems to interest the writers of recent ghostly tales. They make use of it in various ways and seem to have different ideas concerning it, but they like to play with the thought and twist it to their whim. Ambrose Bierce has a collection of stories dealing with mysterious disappearances, in which he tells of persons who are transferred from the known, calculable space to some “non-Euclidean space” where they are lost. In some strange pockets of nowhere they fall, unable to see or to be seen, to hear or to be heard, neither living nor dying, since “in that space is no power of life or of death.” It is all very mysterious and uncanny. He uses the theme as the basis for a number of short stories of ghostly power, which offer no solution but leave the mystery in the air. In some of these stories Bierce represents the person as crying out, and being heard, but no help can go, because he is invisible and intangible, not knowing where he is nor what has happened to him. H. G. Wells, in The Plattner Case, which shows an obvious influence of Bierce, gives a similar case. He explains the extraordinary happenings by advancing the theory that Plattner has changed sides. According to mathematics, he says, we are told that the only way in which the right and left sides of a solid body can be changed is by taking that body clean out of space as we know it, out of ordinary existence, that is, and turning it somewhere outside space. Plattner has been moved out into the Fourth Dimension and been returned to the world with a curious inversion of body. He is absent from the world for nine days and has extraordinary experiences in the Other-World. This happens through an explosion in the laboratory where he is working, similarly to Wells’s story of Davidson, where the infringement on the Fourth Dimension is the result of a lightning stroke.
Mary Wilkins Freeman deals with the Fourth Dimension in The Hall Bedroom, where the boarder drifts off into unknown space, never to return, from gazing at a picture on the wall, as has happened in the case of previous occupants of the room. Richard Middleton employs the same idea in a story of a conjurer who nightly plays a trick in public, causing his wife to seem to disappear into space. One night she actually does so vanish, never to be seen again….


Psychology furnishes some interesting contributions to recent fiction along the line of what might be called momentary or instantaneous plots. Ambrose Bierce’s The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a good example, – where a man is being hanged and in the instant between the drop from the bridge and the breaking of the neck he lives through long and dramatic adventures, escaping his pursuers by falling into the river and swimming ashore, reaching home at last to greet his wife and children. Yet in a second his lifeless body swings from the bridge. The Warning, by Josephine Daskam Bacon, shows the case of a man who lives years in another country during a few moments of acute mental strain carried to the point of paranoia. Barry Pain has a story where in the time in which a man drives home from the theater he visits another planet and changes the current of his life, while Algernon Blackwood compresses a great experience into a few minutes of dreaming.


We notice in these scientific stories a widening of the sphere of supernatural fiction. It is extended to include more of the normal interests and activities of man than has formerly been the case. Here we notice a spirit similar to that of the leveling influence seen in the case of the ghosts, devils, witches, angels, and so forth, who have been made more human not only in appearance but in emotions and activities as well. Likewise these scientific elements have been elevated to the human. Supernatural as well as human attributes have been extended to material things, as animals are given supernormal powers in a sense different from and yet similar to those possessed by the enchanted animals in folk-lore. Science has its physical as well as psychic horrors which the scientific ghostly tales bring in.

Not only are animals gifted with supernatural powers but plants as well are humanized, diabolized. We have strange murderous trees, vampire orchids, flowers that slay men in secret ways with all the smiling loveliness of a treacherous woman. The dæmonics of modern botany form an interesting phase of ghostly fiction and give a new thrill to supernaturalism. Inanimate, concrete things are endowed with unearthly cunning and strength, as well as animals and plants4. The new type of fiction gives to chemicals and gases a hellish intelligence, a diabolic force of minds. It creates machinery and gives it an excess of force, a supernatural, more than human cunning, sometimes helpful, sometimes dæmonic. Machines have been spiritualized and some engines are philanthropic while some are like damned souls.

This scientific supernaturalism concerns itself with mortal life, not with immortality as do some of the other aspects of the genre. It is concrete in its effects, not spiritual. Its incursions into futurity are earthly, not of heaven or hell, and its problems are of time, not of eternity. The form shows how clear, cold intelligence plays with miracles and applies the supernatural to daily life. The enthusiasm, wild and exaggerated in some ways, that sprang up over the prospects of what modern science and investigation would almost immediately do for the world in the latter half of the nineteenth century, had no more interesting effect than in the stimulating of scientific fictive supernaturalism. And though mankind has learned that science will not immediately bring the millennium, science still exercises a strong power over fiction. This type shows a strange effect of realism in supernaturalism, because of the scientific methods, for supernaturalism imposed on material things produces an effect of verisimilitude not gained in the realm of pure spirit. Too intellectually cold for the purposes of poetry, too abstract and elusive for presentation in drama, and too removed by its association with the fantastic aspects of investigation and the curiosities of science to be very appropriate for tragedy, which has hitherto been the chief medium of expressing the dramatic supernatural, science finds its fitting expression in prose fiction. It is an illustration of the widening range of the supernatural in fiction and as such is significant.

From: Dorothy Scarborough, The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction, 1917, quoted from the Gutenberg edition.

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1Ed note: The fact that somebody in 1917 said what we at the h2g2 Post have been whingeing on about for years is just…breathtaking.2Ed note: Sound like any supervillains you know?3Ed note: Okay, we admit it: we're in love.4Ed note: We call it 'fun with DNA'.

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