The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from every-day life. Relatively few are free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond to rappings from outside, and tales of ordinary feelings and events, or of common sentimental distortions of such feelings and events, will always take first place in the taste of the majority; rightly, perhaps, since of course these ordinary matters make up the greater part of human experience. But the sensitive are always with us, and sometimes a curious streak of fancy invades an obscure corner of the very hardest head; so that no amount of rationalisation, reform, or Freudian analysis can quite annul the thrill of the chimney-corner whisper or the lonely wood. There is here involved a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind; coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it, and too much a part of our inmost biological heritage to lose keen potency over a very important, though not numerically great, minority of our species.
- H. P. Lovecraft, introduction to Supernatural Horror In Literature
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was one of the most influential alumni of the original Golden Age of pulp fandom, his name becoming synonymous with existential 20th century Horror and dread. He even published in the original Amazing Stories, when Hugo Gernsbeck was at its helm, with ‘The Colour Out Of Space’ appearing in the September 1927 issue. Lovecraft and his circle of admirers encapsulate the wonders (and pitfalls) of Fandom and of the Amateur Press, and in a way were an early example of Social Networking and the art and culture that follows.
So it is with great joy that I introduce a long critical essay by Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror In Literature, written between 1925 and 1927 and revised and expanded in 33-34. In the essay, Lovecraft dissects the roots of the Horror genre, and breaks down the difference between scary stories and what would become known as ‘weird tales’ or ‘cosmic horror’
This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of the morbidly unnatural; but these things are not the literature of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space. (pg. 3)
Lovecraft proves to be a stellar psychopomp into the disturbeng roots of Horror, showing a clear trajectory from Gothic romance and thrillers, like Wuthering Heights, through to the “Modern Masters” of Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. The essay is broken into 11 easily potable chapters, touring multiple continents and centuries. His writing was lucid and passionate, often times drily hilarious, even if critics love to criticize his criticism (M. R. James found it to be “Most offensive”). This is most likely due to the fact that Lovecraft had a real Anglo-Teutonic worship, and seemed to assume that anything coming from the Great White North was culturally superior, including their horror stories. This has been misread by many naysayers as a latent anti-Semitism (Lovecraft was notoriously Xenophobic) but I would advise the modern, open-minded reader to lay these passing comments aside, and focus on his knowledge, wit and passion.
Lovecraft was a self-taught master of the Horror genre; he seemed to read everything. He had the anachronist’s taste and style, with a clear ringing prose, unfailingly sure of himself. In this essay, he makes the best possible guide into the shadowy underworld of early Horror. I was introduced to dozen of weird tales I had never even heard of, and reminded of dozens more that I have adored, that I long to revisit again. He’s got a true fan’s heart, with a Master’s pen, making this essential reading.
Diving into the dusty stacks contained within has shed some light on some classics of the genre. Some are pulp and some are genius and many of them have come into the public domain since its initial publication, and been archived on the internet. I’ve picked out a couple of my favourites, for your consideration.
The Castle Of Otranto
Thought to be the first literary Horror novel.
The Mysteries Of Udolpho
“A Romance Interspersed With Some Pieces Of Poetry”
“To the familiar Gothic trappings of her predecessors Mrs. Radcliffe added a genuine sense of the unearthly in scene and incident which closely approached genius; every touch of setting and action contributing artistically to the impression of illimitable frightfulness which she wished to convey.” (pg. 9)
Ambrosio or The Monk
“This young author, educated in Germany and saturated with a body of wild Teuton lore unknown to Mrs. Radcliffe, turned to terror in forms more violent than his gentle predecessor had ever dared to think of; and produced as a result a masterpiece of active nightmare whose general Gothic cast is spiced with added stores of ghoulishness.” (pg. 10)
Melmoth The Wanderer
“The framework of the story is very clumsy; involving tedious length, digressive episodes, narratives within narratives, and labored dovetailing and coincidence; but at various points in the endless rambling there is felt a pulse of power undiscoverable in any previous work of this kind–a kinship to the essential truth of human nature, an understanding of the profoundest sources of actual cosmic fear, and a white heat of sympathetic passion on the writer’s part which makes the book a true document of æsthetic self-expression rather than a mere clever compound of artifice.” (pg. 10)
Translated from the French of Antoine Galand
“…introduced to European literature early in the eighteenth century through Galland’s
French translation of the inexhaustibly opulent Arabian Nights, had become a reigning fashion; being used both for allegory and for amusement. The sly humour which only the Eastern mind knows how to mix with weirdness had captivated a sophisticated generation, till Bagdad and Damascus names became as freely strewn through popular literature as dashing Italian and Spanish ones were soon to be.” (pg. 13)
The Magus or Celestial Intelligence, Being A Complete System Of Occult Philosophy In Three Parts
It’s incredible that you can find books like this online. I used to pay $75 for tomes like this!
Edgar Allan Poe
Selected Poems & Stories
How long has it been since you’ve read Edgar Allan Poe:? I think the #1 best result from reading this essay is that it has re-whet my appetite fort the master’s work!
“He saw clearly that all phases of life and thought are equally eligible as a subject matter for the artist, and being inclined by temperament to strangeness and gloom, decided to be the interpreter of those powerful feelings and frequent happenings which attend pain rather than pleasure, decay rather than growth, terror rather than tranquility, and which are fundamentally either adverse or indifferent to the tastes and traditional outward sentiments of mankind, and to the health, sanity, and normal expansive welfare of the species.” (pg. 22)
Essential weird Americana! Highly Recommended!
“Mr. Machen, with an impressionable Celtic heritage linked to keen youthful memories of the wild domed hills, archaic forests, and cryptical Roman ruins of the Gwent countryside, has developed an imaginative life of rare beauty, intensity, and historic background. He has absorbed the mediaeval mystery of dark woods and ancient customs, and is a champion of the Middle Ages in all things — including the Catholic faith” (pg. 37)
Also very highly recommended! Maybe start with “The White People”
Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen are probably the best things to come out of reading Lovecraft for me, apart from a wild and antiquated vocabulary. Essential reading, mysterious and magickal. Start with “The Willows”, if you’re looking for an entryway.
I once traded an anarchist folk singer a Lord Dunsany novel for an Irish revolutionary text, on a train ride from Chicago to San Fransisco. I think he got the better deal.
Clark Ashton Smith
Clark Ashton Smith was one of the most prevalent and popular of Lovecraft’s devotees, who would go on to become one of the major contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos. As pulpy as it comes, Smith’s writing will ignite your inner 12-year old. Try “The Empire Of The Necromancers”, then read them all!
William Hope Hodgson
The House On The Borderlands
The Night Land
WHH is also essential Weird Fiction, criminally underrated, often overlooked. The House On The Borderlands is spooky, surreal, grotesque (but not gory); a feast for the tentacled and bespectacled. Start there, then check out The Night Land and some of his Carnacki stories!
We are living in a world that H. P. Lovecraft fans helped dream and build, with fans and enthusiasts sharing interests and ideas, defying norms and conventions, to make something weird and wonderful. Supernatural Horror In Literature exemplifies a number of topics that I have been recently investigating, @ Forestpunk. It showcases the critic’s role as a curator of the choicest media, weeding out the dross so you don’t have to. It is exhaustively thorough; even the most hardened horror enthusiast will most likely have missed a percentage of these gems. It also highlights the Internet’s ability to hyperlink and archive every available piece of culture that has been produced, and Lovecraft’s essay could be seen as an early and expert WikiPedia entry on Cosmic Horror.
Major big thanks to Donald Correll, of www.donaldcorrell.com, for his annotated online version of this text, saving me the work of hunting down every link myself. It must’ve been a major labor of love, and was incredibly useful in putting this piece together. I cherrypicked a few of my favorites from the massive list, but here’s the whole thing!
And here’s a Podcast that features readings referenced in the essay.
Reading this has immersed me in a world of Classic Horror, prepping me for a series of articles I’ll begin next week. Hunkered down, here in the bunker, dedicated to bringing you the weirdest of the weird; the darkest of the dark. Stay tuned!
Whatever universal masterpiece of tomorrow may be wrought from phantasm or terror will owe its acceptance rather to a supreme workmanship than to a sympathetic theme. Yet who shall declare the dark theme a positive handicap? Radiant with beauty, the Cup of the Ptolemies was carven of onyx. (End.)