In Supernatural Horror in Literature, H.P. Lovecraft surveys an array of horror tales (aka weird tales or weird literature) from the genre’s primitive origins through 1927. His treatise on horror literature endeavors to study just what exactly inspires dread in the mind of the reader. As an aside, Stephen King picks up the study with his Danse Macabre published in 1981. Lovecraft laments back then, that the appeal of his genre was limited. The then-modern mind could not free itself from the distractions of everyday life to immerse itself in the dread-provoking, imaginative worlds horror writers invent. How true this must be in 2005!
Lovecraft begins his essay by stating that the oldest and strongest emotion is fear – especially fear of the unknown. For a successful horror author to trigger fear, he or she must provoke an unexplainable dread of unknown forces pervading the tale. The author suspends a sliver of reality or nature just enough to introduce possibility into the reader’s mind. This uncertainty, commingled with the portent of mortal danger and unknown, unspeakable evils lurking in the periphery, is the backdrop to a successful horror tale. Lovecraft presents many examples of primitive, gothic, German, Irish, British, and American horror literature in his expansive essay.
Primitive storytellers infused tradition with supernatural phenomena in ballads and tales. These tales told of alchemy, cabbalism, cosmic battles, esoteric druid sacrifices, Teutonic boreal forests, witches, and other nocturnal worshippers. Lovecraft notes that the gentlest Christian doctrines to the darkest, “most monstrous morbidities of witchcraft and black magic” exhibited an air of the supernatural during the middle Ages. Lovecraft also considers Beowulf, the corpse-bride in Phlegon, the ghost of Sir Gawain in Morte d’Arthur, Dr. Faustus of Elizabethan drama, the witches in Macbeth, and the ghost in Hamlet to complete his survey of early horror literature. The appearance of gargoyles, mounted on the cathedrals of Europe, set the stage for the early gothic novel writers.
Lovecraft introduces us to Horace Walpole who ushered in the requisite dank, haunted castle of most gothic novels with his 1764 Castle of Otranto: “This novel dramatic paraphernalia consisted first of all of the Gothic castle, with it’s awesome antiquity, vast distances and ramblings, deserted or ruined wings, damp corridors, unwholesome hidden catacombs, and a galaxy of ghosts and appalling legends as a nucleus of suspense and daemoniac fright.
” Add to this the assorted evil nobleman, persecuted heroine, and immaculate hero and you have the basis for an early gothic novel. Lovecraft then introduces Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) who deftly inspired dread with her choice of settings and small hints of the horrors to come.
The early gothic novel led the way for a spate of gothic romance writers such as Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey) and Charles Robert Maturin (Melmoth). Haunted castles led the way to haunted monasteries and sleuthing clerics. Mary Shelley emerged with her classic The Modern Prometheus (Frankenstein) never to repeat her initial success. Shelly inspired thought-provoking discussion. What if man tried to play God? She opened the doors for the quasi-moral, semi-gothic tradition of Robert Lewis Stevenson with his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to traversing the windswept Yorkshire moors of Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights. Oddly, Lovecraft barely mentions Bram Stoker’s Dracula, instead opting to reserve an entire chapter to Edgar Allen Poe.
While other writers of the day were imitating each other, Edgar Allen Poe developed a profound understanding for the human psyche and what terrorized it. Lovecraft divides Poe’s tales into different classes including supernatural horror tales. The other tales could be categorized as precursors of detective tales, grotesque but not terror, and terror without being grotesque. Poe employed his knowledge of psychology in this latter groupp. While perfecting the horror genre, Poe also made popular the short story according to Lovecraft. Ligeia and The Fall of the House of Usher are among his best. From Poe, Lovecraft continues his survey of American authors. Nathaniel Hawthorne, great grandson of the famed Salem-witch-trial judge, D.H. Lawrence, Ambrose Bierce, and Henry James, found their way into Lovecraft’s study.
Lovecraft ends his essay by reviewing the modern writers of his day. With the surge of interest in psychology and spiritism of the Victorian age, ghost stories became more popular and convincing than ever before.