Introduced and annotated by Arthur B. Evans In its day, Dorothy Scarborough’s book The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) was considered to be the best scholarly study on the subject. As the author points out in the book’s preface, the sheer size of its corpus was impressive: “the supernatural in modern English fiction has been found difficult to deal with because of its wealth of material. While there has been no previous book on the topic, and none related to it ... the mass of fiction itself introducing ghostly or psychic motifs is simply enormous” (v). Scarborough divided her book into seven chapters: The Gothic Romance, Later Influences, Modern Ghosts, The Devil and His Allies, Supernatural Life, The Supernatural in Folk-Tales, and Supernatural Science. The last chapter stands out from the rest and prompts one to wonder if “The Scientific Supernatural” might have been a better chapter heading. But this question of nomenclature and appellation goes to the heart of why Scarborough has been called “a pioneer” and “the first academic critic of science fiction” (Westfahl 293). Scarborough’s criticism hails from a time of genre fluidity, long before the fantastic came to be neatly categorized into the labeled boxes of “science fiction,” “fantasy,” and “horror,” and long before its history was meticulously delineated by the likes of Hugo Gernsback, J.O. Bailey, and Darko Suvin. Despite what some might construe as the book’s theoretical datedness, Scarborough did identify the scientific supernatural as “a lineal descendant of the Gothic and thus part of the established literary tradition” (Clareson 92). And she was among the first to understand that the “sorcerer has given place to the bacteriologist and the botanist ... and it is from the laboratory that the ghostly stores are now evolved rather than from the vault or the charnel-room as in the past” (251-52). Today, perhaps her greatest claim to fame is that she offers us a glimpse into an sf history that never was, another path the genre might have taken, by showcasing a host of new authors and works—not only writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells but also many others such as Barry Pain, Algernon Blackwood, and Josephine Daskam Bacon. One could even argue that the book’s somewhat undifferentiated approach to questions of genre underscores the extent to which Scarborough treats all forms of speculative fiction inclusively instead of exclusively—seeing them as “historically situated forms that constantly change shape and boundary” (Luckhurst 404). In this regard, the book also speaks to the shifting status of science itself, where certain “supernatural” tropes (such as communicating plants) once deemed to be purely magical have, in fact, become the subject of cutting-edge scientific research today. Finally, more than anything else, Scarborough’s essay should be viewed as a kind of exegetical time machine, transporting readers back to those pre-pulp years of the last century, where she offers eyewitness testimony that “there is a genuine revival of wonder in our time” (5) and that “one of the distinctive features of recent literature” is its use of science as “an excellent hook to hang supernatural tales upon” (251-52).
This essay was originally part of the author’s PhD dissertation at Columbia University. Soon after, it appeared as a chapter in her book The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917): 251-80. The book is available online as file #47204 in Project Gutenberg. A dozen or so footnotes citing book titles have been incorporated into the text. All other matters of style remain unchanged from the original, as transcribed for Project Gutenberg. See the Notes at the end of the essay for documentation of her many in-text references.
"Dorothy Scarborough. 'Supernatural Science' (1917)." Edited and annotated by Arthur B. Evans. Science Fiction Studies Vol. 48.2 (July 2021): 193-217. https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/documents/scarborough.htm