In addition to writing weird fiction and horror, H.P. Lovecraft wrote about writing it. The first part of Amy H. Sturgis' look at those stories is here.
“Supernatural Horror in Literature"
(1927, revised in 1933 and 1934) Lovecraft’s single most important literary essay followed six years after "In Defense of Dagon." "Supernatural Horror in Literature" was first published in The Recluse
in 1927, and later revised in 1933 and 1934 and serialized in Fantasy Fan
from 1933 to 1935. By the time of its original publication, Lovecraft had several professional fiction publications to his credit. He had even turned down the editorship of Weird Tales
. This essay was an ambitious undertaking, the result of years of systematic reading and analysis.
It remains today one of the most comprehensive and insightful surveys of the historical development of the horror tale. In it Lovecraft traced weird fiction from the ancient Egyptian and Semitic tales through the centuries to the contemporary authors he considered to be modern masters, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and M.R. James.
The essay established Lovecraft as an authority in the field, and also served as a catalyst for his own fiction: within a year of completing the main body of the essay, he penned such notable works as "The Call of Cthulhu," "Pickman’s Model," "The Silver Key," "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," and "The Colour Out of Space."
Beyond its historical survey, the essay provides several useful windows into Lovecraft’s own art. First, Lovecraft defines the weird tale, another term for imaginative fiction. His definition directly builds upon ideas he articulated in "In Defence of Dagon," specifically that imaginative fiction creates a certain mood or atmosphere, and it allows the reader to transcend the laws of nature that constrain us in our everyday lives.
This escape from the scientific laws that govern our existence is liberating in a sense, Lovecraft implies, but it is far more horrifying, because it invites the unknown, the oldest and most lasting source of human fear.
To use his words: "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 dæmons of unplumbed space."
"The Call of Cthulhu," first published in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales, exemplifies these traits. As the narrator recounts the steps he followed to piece together bizarre evidence left by his late grand-uncle and uncovered by his own investigations, the tension in the atmosphere builds. The reader wonders how a hideous bas-relief sculpted in a troubled artist’s sleep, a degenerate cult in the Louisiana bayou, and the tragic fate of a ship in the Pacific Ocean could be connected.
The accumulated clues point to an ancient extraterrestrial entity who waits beneath the sea to rise up and vanquish mankind. These discoveries generate more questions than answers, however, while suggesting that we are not capable of accepting the revelation in its entirety. The opening lines of the story set the tone for the horror to come: “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
The cosmic outlook apparent in "The Call of Cthulhu," and in Lovecraft’s very definition of the weird tale, is one of the features Lovecraft traces through the historical development of the genre in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” S.T. Joshi points out in the introduction to 2000’s The Annotated Supernatural Lovecraft in Literature that this is another useful insight the essay offers, because it shows how Lovecraft identified in the work of his predecessors the qualities that are found most clearly in his own fiction.
For example, although the book predates many of the scientific discoveries that so captivated and convinced Lovecraft, he recognizes Charles Robert Maturin’s 1820 Gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer as an early and key iteration of the cosmic idea.
Melmoth tells the tale of a man who has sold his soul for an additional 150 years of life and now searches for another to take over the compact in his place. Lovecraft sees in this work, despite its frequent rambling and clumsiness of prose, "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."
Lovecraft sought to cultivate these things, especially "an understanding of the profoundest sources of actual cosmic fear," in his own art.
Beyond the essay’s historical survey of the genre, definition of the weird tale, and identification of Lovecraft’s literary traits in his predecessors, "Supernatural Horror in Literature" also allows readers to discover possible direct inspirations for specific stories Lovecraft wrote.
Lovecraft shows familiarity with and appreciation for Herbert S. Gorman’s novel The Place Called Dagon (1927). Lovecraft describes the book as relating "the dark history of a western Massachusetts back-water where the descendants of refugees from the Salem witchcraft still keep alive the morbid and degenerate horrors of the Black Sabbat."
It seems likely that this work influenced several of Lovecraft’s stories, most notably The Shadow Over Innsmouth (first published in book form in 1936), which relates the dark history of a decaying New England coastal town where the degenerate descendants still keep alive the morbid horrors of the Esoteric Order of Dagon cult. In both works, the protagonist learns much of the secret history of the locales from the recollections of seedy alcoholics who dwell on the many horrors they have seen.
In this and other cases, "Supernatural Horror in Literature" explores works that may have served as ancestor texts for Lovecraft’s creations.
Even as Lovecraft proves exceptionally knowledgeable about the historical contexts of individual writings and the development of the genre over time, he also asserts the timelessness of weird or imaginative fiction.
He claims that the fear of the unknown, and the appeal of that fear, is part of human nature. He therefore thought that the work he loved, and perhaps even the fiction he hoped to contribute, would have a long shelf life indeed:
When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is super-added, 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.
Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction (1935) /“Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” (1937)
Two of the last variations on this theme that Lovecraft wrote were “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction,” first published in the Winter 1935 issue of The Californian
, and “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” published posthumously in the May-June 1937 issue of Amateur Correspondent
. Both revisit “In Defence of Dagon” by emphasizing that the goal of imaginative fiction is the evocation of a feeling in the reader. To use his words from “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction,” “All that a marvel story can ever be, in a serious way, is a vivid picture of a certain kind of human mood.”
In these essays Lovecraft reiterates previous points he made in past essays, and shares additional thoughts on the genre which, in turn, illumine his own writing.
For example, in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” he suggests that, along with “the unnatural” and “barren immensity” he describes in “In Defense of Dagon,” another aspect of horror is time.
“The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression."
One thinks immediately of Lovecraft’s "The Shadow Out of Time," first published in the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories. This tale follows a protagonist possessed by a Yithian, an alien who studies various times and locations by taking over the bodies of creatures who live in different periods and places. Because of the mind-exchange the narrator experiences, he dreams of the ancient past and fears for his sanity.
Lovecraft leaves the reader with a chilling revelation, underscoring the terror of time.
“No eye had seen, no hand had touched that book since the advent of man to this planet. And yet, when I flashed my torch upon it in that frightful abyss, I saw that the queerly pigmented letters on the brittle, aeon-browned cellulose pages were not indeed any nameless hieroglyphs of earth’s youth. They were, instead, the letters of our familiar alphabet, spelling out the words of the English language in my own handwriting.”
Lovecraft further discusses how the central mood of the weird tale, whether built upon the unnatural, barren immensity, time, or any other ingredient, can best be achieved. In “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” he advocates devoting steadily increasing attention on the fantastic element of the story: "This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately – with careful emotional ‘build-up’ – else it will seem flat and unconvincing.” The “impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena” must not be treated as “commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions,” he argues.
This perspective conflicts with the advice of John W. Campbell, Jr., the influential editor of Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell urged his writers to treat the amazing with a certain nonchalance, to make the extraordinary seem ordinary, even comfortable. Genre scholar Edward James explains in 1994’s Science Fiction in the 20th Century, Campbell sought “stories of a future whose plausibility was established not only by some hard-headed extrapolation but also by a carefully realized social and cultural context, with a ‘lived-in’ feel.”
Lovecraft, however, did not want his reader to grow complacent in the worlds he devised. He did not wish for his readers to feel welcomed into his stories, but to run from them screaming.
Yet Campbell and Lovecraft shared common genre ground. In “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft again reveals how the imagination chafes against the rigid universal laws by which our material selves are constrained: “I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best – one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity.”
He is careful to note that he seeks “the illusion” of transcending the laws, which he often provides in his stories through extraterrestrial beings and their architecture and accessories, and not dismissal of the laws themselves.
For example, in “Haunter of the Dark,” first published in the December 1937 issue of Weird Tales, the protagonist learns humans can traverse time and space by summoning the Haunter of the Dark using an alien artifact, the "crazily angled stone” known as the "Shining Trapezohedron." This crystal, a technological apparatus, represents knowledge at an awe-inspiring level, not simple-minded magic or fantasy.
It is no surprise that Lovecraft praises some of the best of science fiction in “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction,” including “semi-classics like The War of the Worlds, Last and First Men, Station X, ‘The Red Brain,’ and Clark Ashton Smith’s best work" as exemplifying “great possibilities in the serious exploitation of the astronomical tale.”
Lovecraft was an author in the tradition of weird fiction, but he was also a pioneer of genre criticism, and a genuine, dedicated fan. His defenses of his work did not spring from hubris, but rather from a deep-seated desire that readers judge his work, and that of fellow imaginative fiction authors, against the goals and purposes of the genre, and not other, unrelated criteria.
His detailed explanations of his own methods came more from humility than pride, and always from love of the literature and its corresponding ideas. This is clear in "In Defence of Dagon," in which he writes, “what I have said of imaginative literature may help to explain what it is that I am feebly and unsuccessfully trying to do . . . I am a self-confessed amateur and bungler, and have not much hope of improvement – but the visions clamour for expression and preservation, so what is one to do?”
Lovecraft had, if nothing else, the consolation of his conviction that the tradition in and about which he wrote was timeless. The creators of the imaginative tale and their audience might be small, but they would always be. As insignificant as he was in the cosmic scheme of things, Lovecraft was not, and would never be, alone.
To use his words in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” “There will always be a certain small percentage of persons who feel a burning curiosity about unknown outer space, and a burning desire to escape from the prison-house of the known and the real into those enchanted lands of incredible adventure and infinite possibilities which dreams open up to us, and which things like deep woods, fantastic urban towers, and flaming sunsets suggest."
It is to us that "certain small percentage of persons" in short, to us that Lovecraft continues to speak today.