Supernatural Horror in Literature [for The Science-Fantasy Correspondent]

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1936

(Summary of preceding parts published in The Fantasy Fan)

 

I. Introduction.

 

The emotion of fear, and the instinctive revolt of the human ego against the limitations of time, space, and natural law, are so deeply embedded in our personalities that they have always existed and must always exist as motivating elements in art and literature. Fantasy must be reckoned with as a permanent though necessarily restricted element in aesthetics. And because pain is stronger than pleasure, because religions have absorbed the brighter side of our myth-making tendencies, and because the unknown always contains an element of terror despite its fascination, it is the darker side of fantasy which must necessarily remain the most convincing. The universality of a leaning toward dark fantasy is shewn by the fact that most authors of all kinds have occasionally produced specimens of spectral literature. Mere physical gruesomeness or conventional ghosts cannot make true weird art. 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 daemons of unplumbed space. 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.

 

II. The Dawn of the Horror Tale.

 

Elements of cosmic terror appear in the earliest specimens of human literature, largely connected with the darker phases of ancient religions. They are more common, perhaps, in the Oriental and Nordic traditions than in the classic Graeco-Roman tradition. In the Middle Ages they became greatly intensified because of the prevailing superstition, and because of the presence of a persistent “Witch-Cult” of evil and degenerate persons which kept alive certain very primitive rites from pre-Aryan religions and held secret and hideously orgiastic meetings or “Sabbats” in lonely places on traditional dates like May-Eve and Hallowe’en. Another contributing source was the existence of perverse diabolic groups who parodied and inverted the rites of Christianity in repulsive ceremonies like the “Black Mass”. Magic and witchcraft were commonly credited, and interest was lent them by the ceaseless quest of alchemists for the secret of gold-making and the formula for an elixir of eternal life. At this period touches of weird horror were scattered all through oral and written literature. They occurred in the Teutonic myths, in the Celtic legends of the Arthurian cycle, in poets like Dante, and in every kind of popular balladry. And this condition continued through the Renaissance, colouring Elizabethan drama and coming down to meet the rapid development of a special horror-literature in the eighteenth century.

The weird or horror story as a definite type begins in the eighteenth century. Its rise was promoted by the translation of the Arabian Nights into European languages, and by that general reaction from classicism toward mediaeval wonder and grotesqueness which formed part of the so-called “romantic movement”. Specialised horror-literature first appeared in German balladry, but very soon took up its chief abode in the domain of the novel.

 

III. The Early Gothic Novel.

 

The first weird literature in English consisted of novels in which the scene was generally some vast and dismal castle of awesome antiquity, full of terrible secrets, and haunted by apparitions either real or false. Because of their connexion with mediaevalism and the vogue of Gothic architecture, these tales were commonly called “Gothic novels”. Most of the Gothic tales seem very flat and artificial to us today, since they relied greatly on mere literary conventions. There was usually a diabolic villain with strange powers, a distressed and insipid heroine, a noble and manly hero, and most of the other hackneyed stage properties. Weirdness was supplied by such standard devices as pallid ghosts, strange lights, damp trap-doors, creaking hinges, extinguished lamps, mouldy hidden manuscripts, shaking arras, and the like. In most of the earlier novels all weird phenomena had a natural (though generally badly strained) explanation, but later on frank supernaturalism had free play. The first of the English Gothic novels was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. This seems extremely flat in retrospect, since it has a brisk, cheerful style (like much of the pulp magazine “weird” fiction of today), and is full of naive extravagances. Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron, published in 1777, marks a great improvement. Both of these novels involve real ghosts. It was, however, with Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, whose novels had “rational” explanations, that horror-fiction acquired real impetus. Mrs. Radcliffe had phenomenal skill in evoking feelings of deep and genuine horror through the use of certain details, effects, and atmospheric touches, so that her work remains important despite its often tedious length, clumsy explanations, and watery romantic dilutions. Her best and most famous novel is The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794. The first American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, was to some extent an imitator of Mrs. Radcliffe, and his Wieland; or, the Transformation, published in 1798, forms a weird classic worth reading.

 

IV. The Apex of Gothic Romance.

 

Matthew Gregory Lewis, in The Monk (1795), reintroduced the genuine supernatural element into Gothic fiction, and gave an impetus to the type of tale in which the hero-villain sells his soul to the devil. He was, however, surpassed in subtlety and power by Charles Robert Maturin, whose long novel Melmoth, the Wanderer (1820) contains touches of true cosmic horror seldom reached in the Gothic school

 

V. The Aftermath of Gothic Fiction.

 

Gothic fiction was voluminous beyond all calculation, and existed in Germany as well as in England. Most of it was very naive and poor in quality, and from the first it was powerfully satirised by the unsympathetic. It did, however, exert a tremendous influence, and has left a permanent impress on weird literature. Again and again to this day echoes of some of its characteristics are encountered. Melmoth was the last great Gothic novel, but specimens of varying merit continued to appear for many years. Meanwhile the Arabian Nights tradition was occasionally perpetuated; the chief Orientale of this type being William Beckford’s colourful and exotic History of the Caliph Vathek, originally written in French and published in 1784. Over a century afterward the Episodes of Vathek were discovered among Beckford’s papers. A wave of interest in “occult” charlatanry—“Rosicrucianism” and the like—gave a new mystical tinge to some of the English fiction of this period; and a rising regard for science shews itself in such works as Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modem Prometheus (1817), in which a young medical student creates, with hideous consequences, an artificial semi-human being from the charnel loot of the churchyards. Dr. Polidori’s “The Vampyre” also belongs to this age, as do Thomas Moore’s The Epicurean, the weird episodes in Scott, and the darker items of Capt. Mar-ryat. Edward Bulwer-Lytton represents the occultist side of the period, and produced “The House and the Brain”, Zanoni, and A Strange Story. Others working in the same essentially romantic and quasi-Gothic tradition from the middle nineteenth century until recent times are Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, William Harrison Ainsworth, Wilkie Collins, Sir H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir A. Conan Doyle, and H. G. Wells. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights stands outside this line in a class by itself—being a tale of life, and of human passions in agony and conflict, with an especially cosmic setting affording room for horror of the most spiritual sort.

 

VI. Spectral Literature on the Continent.

 

Horror-literature has not been neglected on the European continent. The German writer Hoffmann (1776-1822) produced a large number of grotesque and fantastic tales which had a wide influence, but which do not strike the profoundest depths of cosmic fear. A more powerful and moving German classic is La Motte Fouque’s Un-dine, in which a water-spirit seeks to acquire a human soul by wedding a human being. Some of the eerie atmospheric touches in this tale are unsurpassed in literature. Wilhelm Meinhold is the earliest German exponent of realistic weirdness, his representative novels being The Amber Witch and Sidonia the Sorceress. Germany’s leading contemporary fantaisiste is Hanns Heinz Ewers, author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but the greatest singular weird novel modern German authorship is Gustav Meyrink’s elusively curious tale of the old Prague ghetto—The Golem.

The French take less readily to weirdness than do the northern races, but have nevertheless produced notable classics in that field. Balzac introduced weird touches, and Gautier will be remembered for his “Clarimonde” (“La Morte Amoreuse”). Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony is in the truest sense a fantasy. Later French authors are divided in their treatment of the weird—some dealing chiefly with dark abnormalities of human psychology, and others continuing the tradition of the actually spectral. In the former class may be mentioned the great poet Baudelaire and the novelist Huysmans; in the latter class the fiction-writer Prosper Merimee. De Maupassant’s weird tales lie on the borderline, and may be regarded as the products of a realistic mind with increasingly morbid predispositions. Another favourite genre of the French is the conte cruel, or tale of torture, physical horror, or hideous suspense. In this field, which of course stands only on the outer margin of true weirdness, Villiers de l’Isle Adam and Maurice Level have performed notable work.

 

VII. Edgar Allan Poe.

 

Despite all attempts at detraction and belittlement from his own time to ours, the American Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) remains the greatest single figure in the history of spectral literature. As an artist and influence alike his power was tremendous. He took the human emotion of cosmic fear out of the realm of namby-pamby romance and moral allegory and gave it its first independent and aesthetically serious exploitation—incidentally devising out of his own genius the potent narrative pattern which has moulded all subsequent short fiction, weird and non-weird alike. Poe was the first

to understand the true psychology of man’s shadowy mental gropings, and the first to write of them with a purely aesthetic object. He was not without some of the extravagances of his age, and he drew often on the machinery of the Gothic tale; yet as a whole he regenerated and revitalised everything he touched—emerging as the father of the entire subsequent race of weird writers, realistically psychological and spectrally fantastic alike. His own work has a peculiar power over the emotions which quite defies analysis. The whole style—every turn of phrase, every modulation of rhythm, every casual image, every trivial incident and detail, every careless allusion—is saturated with the dark ultimate purpose, and contributes its individually imperceptible effect to the final monstrous climax. No competitor exists—a attempts to minimise this elusive and unholy power by pointing out the limitations of individual stories are little short of pathetic, revealing the blindness and insensitiveness of the critics themselves. In conscious scope, Poe was local rather than literally cosmic. For him, the illimitable abysses of horror lay not outside the universe but within the human mind and spirit. Much of his work deals wholly with morbid psychology, and a whole division of it stands outside the weird realm as the parent of modern detective fiction. But the cosmic touch and feeling are always there—in poems and stories alike. High spots in the pageant are “MS. Found in a Bottle”, “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, “Metzengerstein”, “The Man of the Crowd”—and above all else those two incomparable triumphs, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia”. Poe’s command of those musical, prose-poetic effects later achieved so finely by Wilde and Dunsany is shewn in fantasies like “The Masque of the Red Death”, “Silence—a Fable”, and “Shadow—a Parable”. Detailed and accurate human characterisation was seldom attempted by Poe, since he dealt in dreams and phenomena rather than in personal pictures. His chief type of central figure is a lone, sad, defiant, strangely learned, nobly descended but impoverished seeker after unearthly and forbidden secrets—a type derived partly from the hero-villain of Gothic romance (as was likewise the somewhat similar Byronic hero) and partly from Poe’s own character and situation. Poe was from the first much more appreciated in continental Europe than in the Anglo-Saxon world, and in France he formed the primary inspiration of the Symbolist and Decadent schools of poetry represented by Baudelaire, Mallarme, Leconte de Lisle, and their congeners.

 

VIII. The Weird Tradition in America.

 

A strong special bias in favour of the weird existed in early America because of the gloomy Puritan heritage and because of the presence on every hand of black, unplumbed woods full of hostile beasts and savages, and suggesting even darker adversaries of mankind. While Poe represents the more modern and scientific aspect of that tradition, the older romantic and morally allegorical aspect is represented most brilliantly by the New England novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, born in 1804 among the whispered legends and black witchcraft-memories of ancient Salem. Gentle melancholy, dark sorrow and indignation at the baseness of mankind, an inclination to see dark secrets beneath deceptive exteriors, and a keen sensitiveness to the intimations of unreality in every-day objects and scenes, may be said to form the salient Hawthorne characteristics. Add to this a supremely graceful style and a deep saturation in the lore and atmosphere of his native New England, and the sombre artist stands portrayed. Supernaturalism for its own sake is seldom found in Hawthorne. Rather do we meet it as the vehicle for an allegory, or the delicate colouring of some memorable scene, in his pensive and modulated writing. Greatest of Hawthorne’s weird works is the novel The House of the Seven Gables, which centres around one of those grey-peaked, gloomy dwellings of mediaeval type that preceded the more cheerful and familiar types of colonial architecture in our coast towns, and that may still be found in Salem’s obscurer byways. In this subtle masterpiece the age and gloom of the spectral, sagging edifice become attributes of a half-suspected malign life, and the careers of various inmates are strangely moulded by its influence.

Hawthorne left no well-defined literary posterity. His mood and attitude belonged to the age which closed with him, and it is the spirit of Poe which survived and blossomed. Among the earliest of Poe’s disciples may be reckoned Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862), whose “Diamond Lens” and “What Was It?” have become classics. The latter story forms the first well-shaped narrative of a tangible but invisible being, and is the obvious prototype of de Maupassant’s “Horla”. O’Brien’s early death in the Civil War deprived weird literature of a substantial, though scarcely titanic, figure.

 

(from this point follow text of original version)

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