"Serious weird stories are either made realistically intense by close consistency and perfect fidelity to Nature except in the one supernatural direction which the author allows himself, or else cast altogether in the realm of phantasy, with atmosphere cunningly adapted to the visualization of a delicately exotic world of unreality beyond space and time, in which almost anything may happen if it but happen in true accord with certain types of imagination and illusion normal to the sensitive human brain.” (87)
- H. P. Lovecraft Supernatural Horror in Literature
I’ve always loved a good horror story. I read widely in the genre when I was younger, and have continued seeking out interesting stories that manifest the gothic and spooky quality that has always fascinated me. Looking back, I think that perhaps horror tales and ghost stories were my first taste of the ‘mystical’ dimension of reality; that quality of the mysterious that embraces, thrills and often awakens us to deeper dimensions of the ‘real.’ Though tainted with the veneer_ if not the substance_ of supernaturalism, horror tales and ghost stories invoke a sense of wonder that may help jumpstart a more genuine mysticism as one matures and grows into an awareness of Earth & Cosmos and one’s place in it.
Over the years I have read the classics, from The Castle of Otranto to Poe, Bram Stoker and some modern authors, from Shirley Jackson to Stephen King and Peter Straub. Along the way I often heard of another writer – H. P. Lovecraft – though I never read him. I had encountered his influence, though, without knowing it, behind some of the old movies (in particular, one Roger Corman film starring Vincent Price; The Haunted Palace, mis-marketed as a story by Edgar Allan Poe) that I used to watch as a kid, as well as in the artwork of HR Giger, who’s vision of the aliens in Ridley Scott’s film Alien I have always thought of as sublimely beautiful as well as horrific.
I started to read Lovecraft (herein after abbrev. ‘HPL’) last summer, after attending “Origins” in Columbus, OH, where I ended up purchasing a copy of the Library of America edition of his stories. By that point, we had started getting interested in playing horror themed board games, such as Arkham Horror and (my favorite) Mansions of Madness. I wanted to get into the literary source of the stories behind these games, and so I set out to read HPL. My initial reaction to his tales was – I have to say -- less than positive. I put the collection down after reading no more than a few of his early short stories, having found them trite, full of adolescent over-statement, puerile emotion and such vague description that I felt I was reading the ranting of a complete novice writer.
Now, having played Mansions of Madness for over a year, we went again to Origins, where I found artifact after artifact of the Lovecraftian world for sale, on display or bodied forth in games we played or in the images on T-shirts. This year, instead of being drawn to his actual writings, I found myself attracted to collections of fantasy art based in HPL’s fictional world. I bought one volume; as I’m obviously still intrigued by the world of HPL’s fiction, even if I’d been put off by his prose. After coming back from Columbus, a friend of mine gave me a copy of HPL’s famous essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1973; 1945), which I set out to read, thinking it might give me a different angle of entry into HPL’s world. It did.
I finished the essay in late June, and I have to say that for the most part I enjoyed it. It reminded me of gothic tales and authors of the supernatural and of horror that I’d studied back in the 1980’s and that I still have a certain affection for, as culling forth memories of an earlier stage in my life. The essay is not so much theory – though there is some – as it is a tour of authors from the genre and HPL’s evaluations of them. It is essentially a review of weird fiction up to the author’s own time.
Along the way, HPL rendered-out fairly chilling descriptions of some of the great stories of the genre, from Frankenstein to Wuthering Heights to Dracula. His high estimation of some authors and his low opinion of others, though, tended to be tied to how well they advocated the ‘supernatural.’ He openly despised the ‘naturalizing’ tendency in modern literature from the Enlightenment onward, and I’d say this stems from his own proclivities toward superstition; whether he was actually superstitious himself, or whether he used its themes to communicate something of his own ‘cosmic dread.’ He also chastised authors who put forward ‘moralizing’ or didactic stories under the guise of the supernatural! [Yet this is what he seemed to be doing in one or more of the early stories of his I’d read last year!] He vents against ‘modern sophistication’ at several points, and seems against any ‘rationalizing’ of weird events.
While I might agree with his assertions about what makes a weird tale great (per the quote at the head of this blog), I pulled back from HPL’s rhetoric and uncritical praise of certain authors at several points. He puts forward an idea of “spiritual horror,” but I’m afraid he means something very different than I do when I muse about the role of horror in an earhen spirituality. ‘Spiritual horror,” for me, does not depend upon there being anything supernatural in the world; _but more on that later. After doing some reading on his life and philosophy, I no longer think that HPL actually believed in the existence of the creatures that populate his fictional universe; but that the monsters, creatures and spirits in horror genres are, for him, metaphors for something just as horrifying to him: the huge, dark, impersonal cosmos that dwarfs us and – at least in HPL’s mind – makes us feel insignificant. [This is the ‘cosmic dread’ that plagued many people in the first half of the 20th century, and that I’ve blogged about elsewhere at this site.].
As the essay progressed toward the 20th century, there was a definite tendency for him to praise authors who emphasized “atmosphere” over character and story; a pillar of his own ‘method.’ There was even one quote, about mid-way through the book, from an author who seemed to be justifying HPL’s tendency toward gross generalization and lack of specificity in description of horrors—the quoted author making it seem that hyperbole would better excite true horror in the reader of the story than an actual description of the object of horror. While there is something to this; the ‘hidden’ horror is often more frightening than when its actually revealed in full view – the way in which Lovecraft seems to use this method tends toward gross generalization that doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t elicit the fear response the way it does in other writers.
Unfortunately, as the essay progressed into the 20th century, where HPL was able to review his contemporaries, he was more than wont to approve authors with his own tendencies toward hyperbole, lack of concreteness in description and vague generalization. More disturbing than his poetics, is the racism and ethnocentrism implicit in some of the literature he is praising, from the work of Rudyard Kipling to stories about ‘strange native cults,’ ‘Witch Sabbaths’ and ‘orgies,’ all of which seem to put the hair up on the back of HPL’s neck. _Which is weird, because HPL rails against prudery and Puritanical values at certain other points in this essay.
Though HPL decries ‘narrow morality’ and even criticizes ‘Puritans,’ his own proclivity to see anything Pagan and even just non-Western as ‘evil,’ betrays outdated and prejudicial biases. Perhaps these views were not yet “outdated” in the early 20th century; before the birth of Neo-Paganism – but they are certainly repugnant to a contemporary reader. If he ever encountered real witches out in the woods dancing naked and worshipping the Goddess, I suppose he’d see a ‘Satanic cult’ and be ready to get out his brand to light a fire beneath them? He is also prejudiced against Native Americans, intimating at one point that the reason early American writers infused the gothic and horror genres with a new ‘verve’ stemmed from their being influenced by ‘the presence of Indians;’ I suppose because the customs and appearance of Native Americans would have seemed ‘savage’ or ‘satanic’ to HPL? He also goes on at a couple of points about the Witch Cult in Salem, MA, and makes much of N Hawthorne being descended from one of the witch trail judges; as if Hawthorne gained some particular insight into the weird from his ancestry? [Rather, if I remember from the reading I once did on him, NH was a bit embarrassed by being descended from a witch trial judge. I seem to remember that he worked to overcome any association with that fact in the public mind, being very much a man of the Enlightenment. But I will have to check my old notes on this, though.]
Though I very much enjoyed reading the earlier parts of Lovecraft’s essay, it was more for reasons of personal reminiscence than for any actual intellectual advancement or creative stimulation, and I have come away from it with some of my earlier impressions about Lovecraft being largely reinforced. His ethnocentrism saddened me, as it defaces his own fiction. It was so apparent in his remarks about Irish myth and mysticism; the Irish being for him not yet ‘marred’ by ‘modernism’ and therefore more ‘open’ to the mysterious and the weird. He seemed to believe that the Irish were actually living in contact with ‘demons’ dwelling beyond the hill-forts and sídhe of the faeries. _A typical narrow-minded Christian belief. He also speaks in the same vein of Slavic and other Eastern European cultures; relishing their lack of ‘sophistication,’ seeing in their folklore evidence of the supernatural horrors that he himself was writing about.
The emphasis on ‘atmosphere’ crops up repeatedly in HPL’s essay, and he seems to have gotten this theme from EA Poe, whose critical approach HPL appears to understand and appreciate. The chapter on Poe was as accurate a portrayal of EAP’s stories and poetics as you could want, so it makes me wonder how HPL could have gone so wrong in his own writings? Is it because he was writing for a pulp audience, and he knew it_ and therefore didn’t strive for any sophistication of style, or any nuance of perspective? I don’t think so, as HPL criticizes sophisticated writing; e.g., in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James—while simultaneously holding the story up as an example (even if a weak one, in his view) of horror – as well as the modern tendency to naturalize and therefore dismiss horror. [Because of his remarks about the story, I’m inclined, now, to re-read The Turn of the Screw, which would no doubt displease HPL—he would perhaps be chagrined that his essay led me to want to read such an ‘elitist’ story.]
This essay has once again left me wondering about HPL’s level of talent, as well as his legacy—his influence on film, horror and gaming. He was well-read, intelligent and devoted to the genre in which he worked; yet he seems self-contradictory and somewhat inconsistent of motive. Despite that, many of the themes of his writing, and especially the mythos of Cthulhu, seem to be widely hailed contributions to the genre of horror. They influenced at least two of the three great horrors writers of the late 20th century – King and Straub – and can be found in the background of a number of films. What is to account for this influence? I think it may have to do with the sense of “cosmic dread” and the complementary feeling of helplessness that his stories evoke. While perhaps not as well written as they could have been, the few stories I have read I would say are appropriate for a young, adolescent audience; a reader who has not yet matured to understand and appreciate plotting, literary description and character development?
I admit that I have not read the bulk of his fiction – much less delved into his poetry and letters – so I may alter my appreciation of HPL’s fiction at some point on down the road. Unfortunately, in reading about him, I have found the same accusations of racism, ethnocentrism, misogyny and puritanical values that I have arrived at through my own brief encounter with his fiction. That being said_
One idea that kept cropping up in the essay that really got me thinking was the idea of “spiritual horror.” While I take it that for HPL this would necessarily refer to the effects of a supernatural phenomenon; that is—the impact of horror upon the human spirit, conceived in a religious or at least superstitious way – I have naturalized the term “spiritual” [I can hear HPL groaning] and wonder about the effect of horror upon our earthen soul. By ‘soul’ I mean – as always in these blogs – the whole of the human being-in-becoming; not a supernatural detachment that flits away after the death of the body (though I do not deny the possibility of an ‘afterlife’). To read horror without the gauze of supernaturalism covering our eyes and darkening our minds is to experience – if the story is well written – an existential crisis, symbolically wrought. It is to confront mortality in a metaphorical motif where our potential end is not something we would wish for_ and yet cannot avoid. “They’re coming to get you Barbara” – to borrow a line from a classic film. And they do get Barbara in the end!
Reading horror, knowing full well that there is no actual supernatural threat, is a very different experience from reading horror as a believer in the supernatural—yet it can still be a profound experience and have a spiritual effect. The stories, however, have to be deep and satisfying in an existential way. The characters have to be fleshed out and be developed in such a way that the spiritual reader can relate to their fear, pathos, and ultimate fate in the story. In a story that elicits “spiritual horror,” the monsters are going to be little more than set dressing; they may be interesting in themselves and even have character development and a story-arc—but they are not literally real. They are not what is coming to get us. Rather, they tend to represent subconscious fears; they are projections—and they are metaphorical or allegorical with regard to our existence and the various problems of our society, but they are not the actual threat to our existence. They point to something deeper that we fear; either in ourselves or in our society_ or perhaps even in the cosmos as a whole where we find ourselves existing.
I intend to continue reading HPL, mainly because of his influence, but also because (1) I like many of the themes of his stories, even if I am not much moved by his narrative style, and because (2) I may have misjudged him. Perhaps he is not saying the kinds of things that elicit the ‘fear response’ in me; simply because his rhetoric about demonic forces and devilish monsters strikes me as out-dated; as it derives from a Christian mythology that is no longer valid (even for believers). His references to “dark sabbats” and his references to “sexual orgies” remind me of the kind of things you would have found in the witch trial transcripts from four hundred years ago! _Even still, there may be more to Lovecraft than I have yet discovered.