H.P. Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

I am in the midst of an extended reading of Stephen King‘s Dark Tower Cycle, including the extra books that connect most intimately with King’s great mythic universe (see Mathew Olson’s essay here; I’m rereading ‘Salem’s Lot now with Wolves of the Calla). This multi-year project of reading, combined with my interest in Stephen King as supernatural writer, my love of gothic and vampire fantasy, my slow discovery of literary history at the hand of C.S. Lewis, and my work in teaching literary theory led me to place Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (1981) on my digital bedside table. Knowing how influential H.P. Lovecraft was to King, someone recommended Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature as a warm up to Danse Macabre. I’m glad they did.

Lovecraft is no doubt the king of the early 20th-century horror genre. I don’t always love his prose style and his (thankfully sparse) dialogue is abominable. But he can evoke an atmosphere that commands attention as he draws from myth, legend, superstition, religion, the occult, faërie, folktale, and rumour to create weird tales and horror stories that readers loved in his day and love still. Lovecraft was terribly influential for King, who in many ways exceeds Lovecraft in popular appeal and breadth of possibilities for the genre.

With these strengths in hand, and despite these disadvantages, H.P. Lovecraft provides the reader with an engaging long essay/short book in Supernatural Horror in Literature. Though I am not a critical scholar on the development of the macabre, and remembering that Lovecraft was writing 90 years ago–long before Stephen King and the explosive popularity of horror films–I was surprised by the ease with which Lovecraft tells the story of the development of horror stories. Though the last half of the essay descends into description and summary without thematic connection, and though we have a “tell” rather than “show” author at points–he uses the word “hideous” and variants more than 30 times, rather than actually creating a feeling of hideousness–Lovecraft is convincing in his grasp of the general development of the genre. In particular, this essay shows that Lovecraft was remarkably well read, providing a reading list in his analysis of the genre that would delight and disturb readers for a decade.

Having enjoyed this essay so much, I thought that I would share with your one of its strongest features, the introduction. It acts as an introduction to his survey as well as a trigger warning to two kinds of people.

First, he admits that he is dealing with tales of terror: not all will want to follow in this particular journey. Second. Lovecraft roots horror writing within sound historical, literary, and psychological soil, inviting the genre to be considered on its own literary merits rather than as merely another stream of pulp fiction to opiate the masses. It’s a gutsy move, yet done unselfconsciously. Indeed, Lovecraft uses a genre that is not yet matured–zombie fiction–to imagine the plight of those “free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond” to the imaginative scope of the macabre.

For those of us who feed on genre fiction, who live in the literary ghettoes defined by the suspension of disbelief, the introduction is a lot of fun. I hope you enjoy this introduction to Supernatural Horror in Literature by H.P. Lovecraft. Lovers of Lovecraft might appreciate Dr. Amy H. Sturgis SignumU class, “Literary Copernicus: The Cosmic Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft,” which is on sale for audit in celebration of H. P. Lovecraft’s birthday (see here). It would also be a nice background to Dr. Dimitra Fimi’s class, “Folkloric Transformations,” which focusses on werewolf and vampyre fiction.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to uplift the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.

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.

Man’s first instincts and emotions formed his response to the environment in which he found himself. Definite feelings based on pleasure and pain grew up around the phenomena whose causes and effects he understood, whilst around those which he did not understand—and the universe teemed with them in the early days—were naturally woven such personifications, marvellous interpretations, and sensations of awe and fear as would be hit upon by a race having few and simple ideas and limited experience. The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extra-terrestrial reasons, and thus clearly belonging to spheres of existence whereof we know nothing and wherein we have no part.

The phenomenon of dreaming likewise helped to build up the notion of an unreal or spiritual world; and in general, all the conditions of savage dawn-life so strongly conduced toward a feeling of the supernatural, that we need not wonder at the thoroughness with which man’s very hereditary essence has become saturated with religion and superstition. That saturation must, as a matter of plain scientific fact, be regarded as virtually permanent so far as the subconscious mind and inner instincts are concerned; for though the area of the unknown has been steadily contracting for thousands of years, an infinite reservoir of mystery still engulfs most of the outer cosmos, whilst a vast residuum of powerful inherited associations clings around all the objects and processes that were once mysterious, however well they may now be explained. And more than this, there is an actual physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue, which would make them obscurely operative even were the conscious mind to be purged of all sources of wonder.

Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure, and because our feelings toward the beneficent aspects of the unknown have from the first been captured and formalised by conventional religious rituals, it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore. This tendency, too, is naturally enhanced by the fact that uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities. When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is superadded, there is born a composite body of keen emotion and imaginative provocation whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself.

Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.

With this foundation, no one need wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear. It has always existed, and always will exist; and no better evidence of its tenacious vigour can be cited than the impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them. Thus Dickens wrote several eerie narratives; Browning, the hideous poem “Childe Roland”; Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Dr. Holmes, the subtle novel Elsie Venner; F. Marion Crawford, “The Upper Berth” and a number of other examples; Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, social worker, “The Yellow Wall Paper”; whilst the humourist W. W. Jacobs produced that able melodramatic bit called “The Monkey’s Paw”.

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.

Naturally we cannot expect all weird tales to conform absolutely to any theoretical model. Creative minds are uneven, and the best of fabrics have their dull spots. Moreover, much of the choicest weird work is unconscious; appearing in memorable fragments scattered through material whose massed effect may be of a very different cast. Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation. We may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect, or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives often possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfil every condition of true supernatural horror-literature.

Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point. If the proper sensations are excited, such a “high spot” must be admitted on its own merits as weird literature, no matter how prosaically it is later dragged down. The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere, the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.

This piece was published in 1927 in the single issue magazine, The Recluse, and updated in the early 30s. It is included in a couple of collections, including Dagon. For the full online edition see here


About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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19 Responses to H.P. Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

  1. Pingback: H.P. Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” — A Pilgrim in Narnia – neweraofhorror

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I encountered Lovecraft – including this (as a little book: the Dover reprint with Bleiber intro the odd cover of which you include in your characteristically interesting gallery!) before I encountered any Inkling (as far as I recall), though after I had embarked on getting acquainted with science fiction and horror classics (Frankenstein, Dracula, and assorted Poe stories among the latter), and I’d have to dig up copies to check acquisition dates to be sure if I encountered any others commended by Lovecraft here, on my own before reading this (such as Machen and Blackwood) – so good a time it was for reprints of others as well as Lovecraft – but I think of this as a great book for ‘recommended further reading’ (I still want to go back to it and do some catching up!).

    Rereading this makes me want to compare Chesterton on ghost stories, and Tolkien on fairy stories, and parts of Williams’s Witchcraft which sound similar, and also makes me wonder about what-all ‘theoretical writings’ they and Lovecraft may have read – such as Rudolf Otto’s great work first translated into English in 1923 as The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (if Wikipedia has this right).

    But I was surprised by that last paragraph, which made me think of Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism!


    • Ahoy! You caught what I was trying to do! Yes, this whole book echoes Lewis’ approach at times when describing great books. But the “experiment” is there in the final paragraph. Did Chesterton ever do this, turn the critical lens from quality of text to response of the reader? I’m pretty certain Lewis never encountered this book, though Dale Nelson has suggested pretty carefully a Lewis-Lovecraft link.
      And Lewis read Otto, but Lovecraft?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Good question – I don’t think I know about GKC, in this context. I just saw, but have not yet read, a post entitled “Why Reading Jane Austen Is Essential To Understanding Virtue And Vice” (by Bre Payton) – which not only made me think of your enjoyment of her works (also en famille), but of something I thought I remembered as Chesterton’s observation with her as an example (which I now cannot find!) about the danger of later readers thinking they can learn much about earlier historical periods as such by reading good novels. That would be some sort of an accent on reader in interaction with text – if I am remembering it correctly! In searching in vain, I did encounter an interesting discussion of “a certain indescribable thing called glamour” a “quality (which some have called, but hastily, the essential of literature)” which has to do with seeing people “through an atmosphere” – in chapter II, “The great Victorian Novelists”, in his ‘Home University Library’ contribution, The Victorian Age in Literature.


  3. “I have sometimes wondered whether the ‘excitement’ may not be an element actually hostile to the deeper imagination. In inferior romances, such as the American magazines of ‘scientifiction’ supply, we often come across a really suggestive idea. But the author has no expedient for keeping the story on the move except that of putting his hero into violent danger. In the hurry
    and scurry of his escapes the poetry of the basic idea is lost. In a much milder degree I think this has happened to Wells himself in the War of the Worlds. What really matters in this story is the idea of being attacked by something.” [C S Lewis]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. dalejamesnelson says:

    The Lewis quotation on Wells’s The War of the Worlds is worth continuing:

    —What really matters in this story is the idea of being attacked by something utterly ‘outside’. As in Piers Plowman destruction has come upon us ‘from the planets’. If the Martian invade4rs are merely dangers — if we once become mainly concerned with the fact that they can -kill- us, why, then, a burglar or a bacillus can do as much. The real nerve of the romance is laid bare when the hero first goes to look at the newly fallen projectile on Horsell Common. ‘The yellow-white metal that gleamed in the crack between the lid and the cylinder had an unfamiliar hue. -Extra-terrestrial- had no meaning for most of the onlookers’. But -extra-terrestrial- is the key word of the whole story. And in the later horrors, excellently as they are done, we lose the feeling of it.—-

    It’s interesting, by the way, that Lewis refers to the attack from something “utterly ‘outside'” — since “outside” will be found to be an important word also for Lovecraft’s theory of the story of “cosmic horror.”

    Many years ago, I wrote an essay on Lewis’s interest in, and comments on, weird fiction — as it were “‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ by C. S. Lewis.”

    Dale Nelson

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Patrick and Dale,

      Thanks for these accents – wow, I think I need to reread ‘On Stories’: I didn’t remember that passage!

      And, rats! – I don’t know my way around Piers Plowman well enough to place that reference… (but searching the scan in the Internet Archive of the Attwater translation as included in Everyman’s Library finds it in Passus XX!)

      How different those ‘planetary’ destructions in Langland and Wells are, in details, and their ‘theodicies’ with them… and yet there is ‘cosmic horror’ in both – and it gets me wondering how far Piers Plowman feeds Lewis’s conception in That Hideous Strength (and that, in turn, interprets part at least of Williams’s The Place of the Lion…).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lewis, in my opinion, correctly prophesied our destination if author’s and readers “seeking only the recurring tension of imagined anxiety” prevail on our shelves in “On Stories”.

        “Surely, surely, I thought, the sheer excitement, the suspense, was not what had kept him going back and back to Fenimore Cooper. If that were what he wanted any other ‘boys blood’ would have done as well.” … “For I wanted not the momentary suspense but that whole world to which it belonged – the snow and the snowshoes, beavers and canoes, warpaths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names.”

        “But I think Mr Green is very much nearer the mark than those who assume that no one has ever read the romances except in order to be thrilled by hair-breadth escapes. If he had said simply that something which the educated receive from poetry can reach the masses through stories of adventure, and almost in no other way, then I think he would have been right. If so, nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I really should reread the whole thing! This is interesting to compare with Tolkien on the differences between the narrative and the dramatic in “On Fairy Stories”, and his case for the greater imaginative richness of narrative.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Dale, do you think that essay worth reprinting?


      • dalejamesnelson says:

        Brenton, you’re asking me here about whether my piece on C. S. Lewis and weird fiction is worth reprinting. I think so. I’m hoping that eventually a book can gather many of my pieces for the New York C. S. Lewis Society, in whose bulletin that one appeared. In the meantime, I’ve sent the piece (about 8,000 words) to you by email.

        Dale Nelson


  5. pcbushi says:

    When you’re ready to trace the string a bit further back, I guess it’ll be time to explore Poe’s work! =)


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