The terror and horror writer H. P. Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is a long-form essay that discusses the history of terror, fear, and horror embodied in literature. Lovecraft’s essay begins with a description of the psychology of the human race from its infancy, wherein fear is one of “[t]he oldest and strongest emotions of mankind . . . and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” As Lovecraft makes quite clear throughout this essay, it is this fear that must be exercised in the “fear-literature” or “horror-literature,” as he calls them, that is penned by the multitude of writers in this genre.
Much of the essay is a historical review of the Gothic literary tradition from its origins in the mid-eighteenth century through the present-day (which at the time of writing was the late 1920s). Lovecraft touches upon the aristocratic origins of Gothic fiction in Britain, the Continental influences that altered the genre, as well as the American Gothic transformation that continued to breathe life into the tradition.
Aside from being an essay highlighting the masters in the field, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” lays down Lovecraft’s aesthetic vision for those who write this kind of fiction. For Lovecraft, despite the fact that “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 . . .” Yes, this was written forty years before man walked on the moon, but I believe his statement still holds true. Despite all our voyages into outer space, the universe is still so vast and unknown to us that this stirs us not just with awe but with fear and terror as well.
Lovecraft tells us that in “The true weird tale . . . [a] certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, . . . 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.” Lovecraft is saying that the best type of weird fiction reaches beyond Nature’s boundaries—her fixed, orderly laws, which by being routine allow us to feel secure—and opens up the mind to the suggestion that on the border of the comfort zone provided by Nature there are malignant, unknown forces that can trespass at any moment and shatter our sense of security, causing us to fully experience the primitive terror and fear of our ancestors when they encountered the unknown.
“Atmosphere,” Lovecraft writes, “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.” This belief goes hand-in-hand with his concern over impressing upon the mind the sensations and emotions of fear and terror in response to experiencing the unknown forces of the world. All literature should make readers think and feel, but fiction especially is about getting readers to respond emotionally; responding to literature through feeling and sensation is fundamental to reading fiction, to reacting to events and characters in the tale being told, and this holds most true, according to Lovecraft, for the weird tale and fear-literature.
“The one test of the really weird tale is simply this—whether of not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; . . . [such as] the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” Lovecraft’s goal for horror or fear literature is exciting this deep feeling of crippling dread in readers through contact with forces that may or may not exist at the edges of the cosmos; the possibility of the realness of this type of phenomena must be paramount; that this phenomena has the potential not only to be a fact but a fact that can make itself vigorously present in our lives at any time, breaching Nature’s laws and turning our minds inside out with terror and fear, must prey on the reader as he or she is reading and even afterward.
For those with no knowledge of the Gothic literary tradition, Lovecraft’s essay is a good place to start because most of the texts he discusses are still in print. Lovecraft’s aesthetics of fear, terror, and horror is worth analyzing in greater detail once you’ve read this essay and his most famous short stories, especially if you wish to really take a giant “leap into the depths of ‘unplumbed space’ ” and begin writing your own weird fiction.