Supernatural Horror in Literature

The Lovecraft series continues with a famous critical essay he wrote.

Raw Feed (2005): Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft, 1927.Dagon and Other Macabre Tales

I’d heard for decades that this is a classic essay of criticism in the horror field, and I can see why.

Lovecraft cast a far net and in many languages for stories containing an element, a sensation (even if only a passing one in the rationalistic Gothics of Ann Radcliffe), of supernatural horror.

He read a lot of authors like Oliver Wendall Holmes, Henry James, and E. M. Forester not normally associated with the supernatural but who produced a few such works.

Most important, though, is what all this reading reveals about Lovecraft.

I don’t know when he read these various works — the essay’s publication goes back to 1927 — so it’s hard to state what works inspired his works, but a lot of images and motifs from Lovecraft’s work are mentioned, particularly in regards to Gothics: lurkers in the cellar (“The Alchemist“), evil portraits (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), and family curses.

He spends a lot of time mentioning those who have influenced him the most.  [Lovecraft wrote this essay in 1925 through 1927.] 

Lord Dunsany, who Lovecraft regarded, even though the focus of Dunsany’s work was not primarily horror, as containing horrific moments which was enough for Lovecraft, as the most cosmic of writers.

Arthur Machen he thought the master of “cosmic fear” with his rural settings and plots laid out with gradual hints as well as linking modern horror to the ancient world.

From Algernon Blackwood, he took the notion of “an unreal world constantly pressing” upon ours.

But it is Edgar Allan Poe he clearly regards as his most important model, indeed the most important horror writer. For Lovecraft, Poe’s careful diction, attention to atmosphere, the truncating of character and plot to the essential scene of horror, his work on the art and theory of the short story was what made him important. Indeed, in trying to describe Poe’s importance and effects, Lovecraft sometimes lapses into embarrassingly purple and sometimes obscure prose. He seems to have thought that the language of his stories is the only way he could convey an impression of Poe.

He liked the ghost stories of M. R. James which were free of sterile occultism and scientific pedantry.

While the essay shows who and what inspired so much of Lovecraft, it also, by what it doesn’t say about other writers, shows us what makes Lovecraft unique.

While he thought scientific pedantry and rationalized horrors undercut the horror tale, he curiously comes close to using them. Some of his greatest works —  “The Colour Out of Space“, “The Shadow Out of Time“, “The Whisperer in the Darkness“, and “At the Mountains of Madness” — all feature a fair amount of science (and, at least in the case of the last one, some rather, for the time, outre geology [in its references to the yet unaccepted idea of continental drift] — and, of course, there is the quantum mechanics of “The Dreams in the Witch House“).

The key, of course, is that the science doesn’t really explain anything. In fact, it usually emphasizes how wrong and impossible the events are. The scientific details build credibility and verisimilitude but aren’t a rationalization. And, for a devout materialist like Lovecraft, violation of physical law and scientific knowledge was troubling and disturbing and provided the right sort of frisson for him so, according to his own principle, it should to his readers.  The physics and mathematics of his cosmic tales are not there as rationales but enablers of an even more cosmic horrors than provided by traditional horrors, earthly cults, and terrestrial monsters. They were a break with sterile occultism and folklore (though he certainly used real and invented folklore in his best work too) as the source of terror.


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