Searchlight: Supernatural Horror in Literature

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Most horror fans celebrate H.P. Lovecraft’s birthday this month—August 20th to be exact—as the recent NecronomiCon festival just ended in Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft’s birthplace, with a massive celebration of all things Weird. Lovecraft’s fiction is rather polarizing, stemming from obvious racism in some of his works. My friend Gabino Iglesias, recently commented on social media that “…your horror education isn’t complete if you don’t read him. Read him, and if you think he sucks, never read him again.” Strong words, but something that needs to be said. Regardless if you read his fiction or not, there’s one thing most people can agree on: his long essay, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, remains the standard introduction into weird fiction. Lovecraft’s essay should be the starting point for anyone serious about learning more about those who came before Lovecraft, as well as discovering those writers he thought were the movers and shakers in the field at that time.

Certainly not perfect, Lovecraft manages to stay on point through the essay, providing a fascinating overview of the history of weird fiction, as well as defining, as best he could, the aspects of the horror story and the weird tale—definitions which still hold up quite nicely today. Everyone knows Lovecraft’s definition of the weird tale, but it is important to note his follow up to that definition:


“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.”


Only Lovecraft could make such a definition sound weird yet stay on course.


Beginning with the earliest forms of storytelling, Lovecraft shows us cosmic horror has been with us from the very beginning. Classic literature is jam-packed with horror in all its forms, especially cosmic horror, considering mankind’s inherent nature to explain itself. Ceremonial magic, sacred texts, arcane writings, all form the basis of what was to come, the modern horror story. We then dig deep into the Gothic form, moving through the early efforts onto the Gothic Romance era with works such as The Monk by Matthew Lewis. Lovecraft devotes a whole chapter to Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft was a massive fan of Poe’s work, and it shows here. From there, the essay turns to other American practitioners of weird fiction, as well as the British writers in the field. Concluding properly, Lovecraft finally writes of the Modern Masters; those contemporary writers he was fond of and whose work influenced much of his own, including Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood.

Exhaustive and thoroughly detailed, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ is one of those books readers and writers need to experience as part of their ‘horror education’. Along with Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, it is one of the most influential non-fiction pieces ever written on the subject of horror and weird fiction. There’s even a cool website that breaks down the essay into chalkboard form. Lovecraft’s essay is much more than one long reading list, but I expect of all our to-be-read piles to grow rapidly. Highly recommended, and even if you’ve read it before, there’s nothing wrong with a quick revisit.




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