7. Supernatural Horror in Literature
When I began this series so many weeks ago, I promised to discuss whether anyone has cause to believe the Old Ones are real entities.
The Old Ones are the beings from the void, the chaos of the universe, who are malevolent only in their indifference to the fragility of life on Earth. I’ve discussed Azathoth in a previous week – Lovecraft’s incarnation of a senseless, uncaring universe, the progenitor of all life who does so without purpose or meaning. That we are a cosmic mistake or joke is the most powerful blow Lovecraft could ever have delivered to the delicate human ego, and the true horror of his stories often derives from the full frontal exposure to our own meaningless in the vastness of the cosmos. Cthulhu, his most famous creation, is an Old One, as is Nyarlathotep.
Neil Gaiman included an anecdote in his foreword to the Dell compilation, The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death, about a “thin, elderly man” who asked a panel of authors whether they agreed with him that the Old Ones had spoken through HPL to plant the seeds for their eventual return. I have read similar propositions on an array of forums, social media updates, and other online ephemeralities, never knowing for sure if the one suggesting it is serious or not.
Lovecraft lived in a time of war. Many humans before him had lived through war, but none through a war that consumed the world with carnage. New technologies enabled people to kill other people in higher numbers and in more grotesque ways, to mangle and maim and worse, to psychically harrow. The first World War marked a change for humankind. Battles of the past lasted days; battles in this war were festering, sprawling months-long hellholes in which young men huddled in muddy trenches among the bodies of the fallen and their own shit with no chance of escape. Lice, dysentery, and other diseases infested the trenches. If you didn’t die by enemy fire, you died by the horrors of the body. Eventually, the survivors returned home, but did not speak of what they had seen.
Historian W. Scott Poole makes a case for the loss of our collective innocence with the advent of world war in his book, Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror.
Poole asserts that the horror film as we know it spawned from the survivor’s fears of the corpse, for they had seen many, and of the unresolved terrors of a world gone mad. This was a war where the innocent were unduly affected: mass starvation, whole cities destroyed, civilians’ lives forever altered if they lived. Lovecraft, though he attempted to sign up for military service was rejected for his poor health. He didn’t see the war firsthand, never understanding how fortunate he had been, though I believe he channeled the voice of horror for a world shocked into silence.
Are the Old Ones real? In a sense.
I imagine Lovecraft’s idea on the insignificance of humanity was shaped by war. How could he not when life suddenly seemed so expendable? It is difficult for us in the 21st century to imagine the innocence the world may have known before World War I, as we have lived in a near constant state of horror with wars, genocides, and delightful new inventions like rape camps and refugee boats doomed to slow starvation at sea. The Great War, as it was called, was shattering. Every generation since has dealt with the buckshot pieces of it. So, if the Old Ones are representations of the horrors we inflict upon one another, then yes: the Old Ones exist, and are as grim and terrible as you could ever imagine.
“Let’s talk monsters. Exactly what is a monster? Begin by assuming that the tale of horror, no matter how primitive, is allegorical in nature; that it is symbolic. Assume that it is talking to us, like a patient on a psychoanalyst’s couch, about one thing while it means another.” Stephen King, Danse Macabre.
Lovecraft wrote 107 stories that we know of, 101 extant. Out of the dozens of choices laid before me, the story I picked to conclude my blog series is his seminal essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” The copy I read is included in the Modern Library definitive edition of At the Mountains of Madness. (Shoutout to Boni & Liveright!) Its oft-quoted introductory line is likely one you have heard before: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Fear of the unknown is what fuels horror. Our minds conjure terrors even the greatest horror writers could never flesh. Stephen King said the key to great horror is to hold off revealing the monster for as long as possible. Once it is seen, the size of it measured, and it is given a name, it becomes defeatable. If you’ll forgive me for repeating myself in this series, Dumbledore was right. (Or, J.K. Rowling was.) “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” We will always be more afraid of what a villain might do than the villain himself, and it is this fear that freezes victims in their tracks, making them susceptible to all manner of mundane evils.
Yes, evil is mundane. It is banal and rote. It is the military men who show up day after day to carry out the murders of a genocidal regime. (See: Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Georgia, don’t stop there, keep looking, it’s not hard to come up with a list.) Evil is the most mundane entity in the universe. It happens among us every day and we expect it, we’re accustomed to it. We don’t even feel the shockwaves of misery that ripple out when a child is beaten senseless by a loved one, we are so numbed to the horrors of our daily experience on this planet. And yet, it happens. A few years ago a little girl was abducted, raped, and murdered right here in my neighborhood. Early on, when they still hoped she was alive, the police went from house to house and searched every closet, crawl space, and dumpster. They searched my house. When they finally found her and what had happened, I couldn’t have been more shocked to learn her murderer-rapist was a young man I had passed on the sidewalk. He didn’t stand out in any way. He was a student at the community college. I often saw him with his backpack, and he carried a TI calculator. Mundane as ever, I said hello a couple of times. It never occurred to me what he was about to do.
Do I fear every khaki-wearing, calculator-carrying college student now? No. That’s silly. They’re too much a part of my everyday, and Salt Lake is a college town. Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo discusses the true nature of evil in his work, The Lucifer Effect. His premise: after witnessing firsthand how easily human beings became monsters in his failed Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo came to understand that evil is a choice, and that we all have exactly the same capacity for choosing evil as anyone. We are in denial of this. We would much rather believe there are good people, and every so often, bad people. In fact, Zimbardo’s testimony in the trials of American military who tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib remains controversial because it was so difficult to accept – that you are as evil as the guy next to you under the right circumstances.
Evil is mundane because it is circumstantial. American retailers often cite the 80/20 rule: that 10% of shoppers will do the ‘right’ thing in all instances. They won’t shoplift, price swap, or damage goods and leave them unreported. Another 10% will do the ‘wrong’ thing every instance: a store to these customers is an opportunity for gain. The bigger percentage, the 80%, are influenced by circumstance. If the staff seems lackadaisical, if no one seems to be looking, or if there is a reason one might use to justify their actions such as, “their prices are too high anyway,” you can bet that person (who is otherwise ‘good’ in other instances) will do the ‘wrong’ thing. You, reader, are part of the 80%. I guarantee it. I am also a member of the 80%, whether I like to admit it or not. We are susceptible to evil – the evil of not reporting a neighbor who brutalizes her family members for fear of losing social grace, the evil of running a stop sign because you’re late, (yes, even that is evil, because it is putting your needs above the safety of others,) the evil of taste-testing the merchandise in the bulk bins, for which you will never pay. If I believed in hell and damnation, I would say these are the black smudges on our souls. Too many of them and you’ve bought a ticket to Purgatory. I will leave the hell and damnation ideas to Nathaniel Hawthorne. The human mind seems nearly incapable of comprehending the evil we actually live with, and yet creates avatars of lurking menace that are revisited again and again. Generations have thrilled to read or see on the silver screen Mary’s Shelley’s Frankenstein and I predict generations more will. Why must we have monsters, I wonder, when we are such monsters? Monsters, and horror, seem to be the only dialogue we have with evil.
Lovecraft touched on this in his essay, “that no amount of rationalisation, reform or Freudian analysis can quite annul the thrill of the chimney-corner whisper or the lonely wood. There is here involved a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind,” and this is the part that really thrills me, that the exploration of horror is “coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it.” What society considers mere pulp writing is actually the flip side of a religious coin. He goes on to say that while the religions of the world have claimed the domain of the light as theirs, the dark still exists, and it falls to the authors of horror to give understanding of it. Think about that next time you read The Shining.
In his stories, Lovecraft took care to create atmosphere and quietly mounting fear, citing in his essay that good horror stories draw on such things, especially sensation and emotion. For him, it is not the same as a story that relies on gore and the gross-out; they serve different purposes. Reading this, it is easy to envision him as a kind of high priest of horror, the spiritual guide for a church left wholly in the shadows. It is as if Lovecraft is envoking scripture when he dissects and discusses the greatest horror literature of his time and what came before him. I get a thrill while reading “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” H.P. Lovecraft knew and recalled with diligent precision the near-sacred writings of his genre.
Cosmic horror, at least the naming of it, was Lovecraft’s invention, but in the essay he references folklore and “archaic ballads” as the original sources of it, particularly Arthurian legends. Mentions of this existential fear of the grandeur of the world is, according to Lovecraft, embedded in ancient religious rituals. We understand on a sub-conscious level the whisperings of darkness in the religious rites of today. The formation of religion had served to comfort and shepherd the mind against the great unknown. Religion stripped away leaves the yawning abyss. Lovecraft gazed into it, on more than one occasion. An avowed atheist, he took his disdain for organized religion to the grave.
Many of his stories trade on the New England fear of witches and refer to the beliefs of the Puritans. Even in his essay on supernatural horror he mentions the dark sabbaths of those who signed the devil’s book. Despite his atheism, I wonder if Lovecraft ever examined his beliefs about the devil? To me, God and Devil go together. Either all are rejected, or none. Though his mentions of witchcraft are brief in the essay, there must have been something that prompted me to write a note in my slanting script, did HPL believe in witchcraft/Satan? I’m not sure I would have the means to find out.
Lovecraft begins the meat of his essay with a nod to the poets who channeled the Gothic feeling that spoke to him. He acknowledges that the weird fiction he wrote was a direct descendent of the Gothic writers, a “child of the 18th century.” He refers to Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Charles Brockden Brown, and Matthew Gregory Lewis, author of the eerily macabre classic, The Monk. He goes on to reference the writing of the early 19th century, the supernatural horror we most often think of when searching for the origin of the scare: the ghost stories of Charles Dickens, the novels of the Bronte sisters, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This essay of his is thorough and well-paced; he moves through the literature of each period with a graceful assessment, and in the end, I’m dumbfounded by the sheer number of stories he references.
My eyes began to bulge and my mind boggle at the size his library must have been, and like a doomed protagonist in one of his own tales I became possessed of a desire to know what works he owned. Fortunately, there is a book written on the topic by, of course, S.T. Joshi, described by the curators of the John Hay Library as “A reconstruction of the contents of the private library of H.P. Lovecraft, which was dispersed soon after his death. Compiled from various sources, principally a list of books in Lovecraft's house before the dispersal, prepared by his neighbor Mary Spink, and references in Lovecraft's correspondence, as well as copies of books known to have been owned by him.”
And here, my heart sinks: his books were ‘dispersed’ soon after his death. As rare booksellers, we at Weller’s are acquainted with calls from surviving loved ones who frankly don’t know what to do with the collection of books in front of them. Someone in their life was a bibliophile collector. Most humans don’t amass large libraries in their homes; the care and cataloging of these private libraries, a collection of books read and appreciated by the owner and not merely amassed for display is rare and wonderful. The library Lovecraft owned should have been preserved after his death not only for its provenance as the collection of a writer whose influence on Science Fiction and Horror is still known today, but because these kinds of libraries aren’t created everyday. They are spectacular creatures in their own right. I mourn the loss of Lovecraft’s library.
The simple fact is that the life span of a well-made book is much longer than that of the one who owned it. Our books out-live us. This means that, barring incineration or willful destruction, the books H.P. Lovecraft personally owned and read, those that informed his sensibilities and culminated in the erudition shown in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” likely still exist.
Do their owners know of their provenance? It is possible to comb through auction catalogs and trace the paths of books that may have been sold as Lovecraft’s own. As for current listings, I didn’t find any in my hour’s search, though I did see a listing for three schoolbooks said to have belonged to the author with his schoolboy ownership marks inside. These had been recovered from the home of his aunt, Lillian Phillips, who survived him.
The lure of finding books once known to have belonged to H.P. Lovecraft is a subtil one. (Subtil in the sense of a serpent tickling at my ear; the modern and accepted spelling is ‘subtle,’ but I believe a good throwback to the King James Bible now and again is good for the ol’ noggin.) The best I can offer in this post is a list of the books Lovecraft was known to have in his possession as of this 1932 letter to Clark Ashton Smith.
Of course, Lovecraft references Poe. He cites Poe as the true father of the horror story for his adept control of the psychological, the “fountain-head of all modern diabolic fiction.” The way Lovecraft pays homage to his favorite writer is reason enough to read the essay:
“Penetrating to every festering horror in the gaily painted mockery called existence, and in the solemn masquerade called human thought and feeling, that vision had power to project itself in blackly magical crystallisations and transmutations; till there bloomed in the sterile America of the [1830s and 40s] such a moon-nourished garden of gorgeous poison fungi as not even the nether slope of Saturn might boast.” Lovely.
Lovecraft was an ardent fan of the work of Poe, Algernon Blackwood, and Lord Dunsany, and he spent some time discussing Ambrose Bierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well. There is much to glean from his essay on supernatural horror. Even if I tried, I couldn’t sum it up, as I have already gone on for pages and barely nicked the edges. There are too many roads and diversions, too many densely packed insights and moments to savor. “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is one to own and read again, to hold close as a sacred doctrine and acknowledgment of the duality of humankind.
This concludes my blog series, RedEmma’s Lovecraft Halloween Blog. At the time of posting, we are observing Armistice Day, renamed Veteran’s Day in our modern times, but originally a solemn remembrance of the armistice that ended a bloody and terrifying war. We are just beginning to understand the psychic devastation World War I wreaked upon our consciousness. Since then, we have lived in a world at war. Let us honor the fallen, today, and also remember to face down the monsters; if you’re looking for them, you’ll find them within the pages of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.