I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 90
With my rotten memory I lose the details of half the stuff I read in six months’ or a year’s time, so that in order to give any kind of intelligent comment on the high spots I selected, I had to give said spots a thorough re-reading. Thus I’d get as far as Otranto [Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto], and then have to rake the damn thing out and see what the plot really was. Ditto the Old English Baron. And when I came to Melmoth I carefully went over the two anthology fragments which constitute all I can get of it—it’s a joke to consider the rhapsodies I’ve indulged in without having ever perused the opus as a whole! Vathek and the Episodes of Vathek came in for another once-over, and night before last I did Wuthering Heights again from kiver to kiver.
Lovecraft was, indeed, at times scrupulous to a fault. He spent three days reading E. T. A. Hoffmann at the New York Public Library, even though he found him dull and, in his essay, dismissed him in half a paragraph as being more grotesque than genuinely weird. Of course, he took his short cuts, too: his remark above about the two “anthology excerpts” that were all he could get of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer refers to George Saintsbury’s Tales of Mystery (1891), containing excerpts from Ann Radcliffe, M. G. Lewis, and Maturin, and Julian Hawthorne’s magnificent ten-volume anthology, The Lock and Key Library (1909), which Lovecraft had obtained in one of his New York trips of 1922. He drew very heavily upon this latter compilation: the few scraps of Graeco-Roman weird literature he cites (insignificant things like the ghost story in Apuleius and Pliny’s letter to Sura) come from this set, as do the four stories he cites by the French collaborators Erckmann-Chatrian.
Lovecraft had, of course, read much of the significant weird literature up to his time, but he was still making discoveries. Indeed, two of the writers whom he would rank very highly were encountered only at about this time. He first read Algernon Blackwood (1869–1951) as early as 1920, at the recommendation of James F. Morton; curiously, however, he did not care for Blackwood at all at this time: “I can’t say that I am very much enraptured, for somehow Blackwood lacks the power to create a really haunting atmosphere. He is too diffuse, for one thing; and for another thing, his horrors and weirdness are too obviously symbolical—symbolical rather than convincingly outré. And his symbolism is not of that luxuriant kind which makes Dunsany so phenomenal a fabulist.” Lovecraft next mentioned him in late September 1924, when he reported reading The Listener and Other Stories (1907), containing “The Willows,” “perhaps the most devastating piece of supernaturally hideous suggestion which I have beheld in a decade.” In later years Lovecraft would unhesitatingly (and, I think, correctly) deem “The Willows” the single greatest weird story ever written, followed by Machen’s “The White People.” Blackwood does not come up for much mention again until early January 1926, but by then Lovecraft had read several of his other early collections—The Lost Valley and Other Stories (1910), Incredible Adventures (1914), and others. He had not yet read John Silence—Physician Extraordinary (1908), but would do so soon; finding some of the tales extremely powerful but in some cases marred by the stock use of the “psychic detective.”
As with Machen and Dunsany, Blackwood is an author Lovecraft should have discovered earlier than he did. His first book, The Empty House and Other Stories (1906), is admittedly slight, although with a few notable items. John Silence became a bestseller, allowing Blackwood to spend the years 1908–14 in Switzerland, where he did most of his best work. Incredible Adventures (the very volume toward which Lovecraft was so lukewarm in 1920) is one of the great weird collections of all time; Lovecraft later said that it featured “a serious & sympathetic understanding of the human illusion-weaving process which makes Blackwood rate far higher as a creative artist than many another craftsman of mountainously superior word-mastery & general technical ability . . .”
Blackwood was frankly a mystic. In his exquisite autobiography, Episodes Before Thirty (1923)—which completes that curious trilogy of great autobiographies by weird writers, with Machen’s Far Off Things (1922) and Dunsany’s Patches of Sunlight (1938)—he admitted to relieving the heavy and conventional religiosity of his household by an absorption of Buddhist philosophy, and he ultimately developed a remarkably vital and intensely felt pantheism that emerges most clearly in his novel The Centaur (1911), the central work in his corpus and the equivalent of a spiritual autobiography. In a sense Blackwood sought the same sort of return to the natural world as Dunsany. But because he was, unlike Dunsany, a mystic (and one who would, perhaps inevitably, later find himself attracted to occultism), he would see in the return to Nature a shedding of the moral and spiritual blinders which in his view modern urban civilisation places upon us; hence his ultimate goal was an expansion of consciousness that opened up to our perception the boundless universe with its throbbing presences. Several of his novels—notably Julius LeVallon (1916), The Wave (1916), and The Bright Messenger (1921)—deal explicitly with reincarnation, in such a way as to suggest that Blackwood himself clearly believed in it.
Philosophically, therefore, Blackwood and Lovecraft were poles apart; but the latter never let that bother him (he was just as hostile to Machen’s general philosophy), and there is much in Blackwood to relish even if one does not subscribe to his world view. But this philosophical divergence may account for Lovecraft’s lack of appreciation of some of Blackwood’s less popular works. In particular, the emotion of love figures heavily in such works as The Wave, The Garden of Survival (1918), and others; and it is not surprising that Lovecraft remained cold to them. More seriously, Blackwood’s interest in children—in spite, or perhaps because, of his lifelong bachelorhood—is exemplified in such delicate works of pure fantasy as Jimbo (1909), The Education of Uncle Paul (1909), and several others; Lovecraft, although appreciating Jimbo keenly, tended to dismiss the others as intolerably whimsical and namby-pamby. The accusation may stand when dealing with such weak novels as A Prisoner in Fairyland (1913) or The Extra Day (1915), but it is unjust to Blackwood’s finest works in this vein. Horror, in fact, is frequently not an explicit goal in Blackwood, who much more often sought to evoke the sensation of awe; this is what makes Incredible Adventures the masterwork that it is. Lovecraft would, in the end, attempt—and perhaps succeed—in doing the same thing in his later work. It was not long before Lovecraft was ranking Blackwood—correctly—as the leading weird writer of his time, superior even to Machen.
Montague Rhodes James (1862–1936) is a much different proposition. Weird writing represents a quite small proportion of his writing, and was indeed merely a diversion from his work as educator, authority on mediaeval manuscripts, and biblical scholar. His edition of the Apocryphal New Testament (1924) long remained standard. James took to telling ghost stories while at Cambridge, and his first tales were recited at a meeting of the Chitchat Society in 1893. He later became Provost of Eton and began telling his tales to his young charges at Christmas. They were eventually collected in four volumes: Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary (1904); More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911); A Thin Ghost and Others (1919); and A Warning to the Curious (1925). This relatively slim body of work—which comprises less than 650 pages in the later omnibus, The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James (1931)—is nonetheless a landmark in weird literature. If nothing else, it represents the extreme refinement of the conventional ghost story, and James’s perfection of this form seems to have led directly to the evolution of the psychological ghost story in the hands of Walter de la Mare, Oliver Onions, and L. P. Hartley. James was a master at short story construction; the structure of some of his lengthier tales is at times so complex that there is an extreme disjunction between the actual chronological sequence of the story and its sequence of narration. James also was one of the few who could write in a fairly chatty, whimsical, and bantering style without destroying the potency of his horrors; Lovecraft, while admiring this feature in James, took care to warn younger associates not to try to duplicate it. Like Lovecraft and Machen, James has attracted
The structure of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is exceptionally elegant. The ten chapters break down as follows:
II. The Dawn of the Horror-Tale
III. The Early Gothic Novel
IV. The Apex of Gothic Romance
V. The Aftermath of Gothic Fiction
VI. Spectral Literature on the Continent
VII. Edgar Allan Poe
VIII. The Weird Tradition in America
IX. The Weird Tradition in the British Isles
X. The Modern Masters
The introduction lays down the theory of the weird tale as Lovecraft saw it. The next four chapters discuss the weird tale from antiquity to the end of the Gothic school in the early nineteenth century, after which a chapter focuses on foreign weird fiction. Poe occupies a central place in the historical sequence, and his influence becomes evident in the final three chapters.
I have previously mentioned the relative paucity of criticism on weird fiction up to this time. Lovecraft read Edith Birkhead’s The Tale of Terror (1921), a landmark study of Gothic fiction, in late November; and, in spite of August Derleth’s statements to the contrary, it is quite clear that Lovecraft borrowed heavily from this treatise in his chapters (II–V) on the Gothics, both in the structure of his analysis and in some points of evaluation. Lovecraft cites Birkhead by name, along with Saintsbury, at the end of chapter IV. Eino Railo’s The Haunted Castle (1927) came out just about the time of Lovecraft’s own essay; it is a very penetrating historical and thematic study that Lovecraft read with appreciation.
Conversely, the only exhaustive study of modern weird fiction was Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917), which Lovecraft would not read until 1932; but when he did so, he rightly criticised it as being overly schematic in its thematic analyses and hampered by an amusing squeamishness in the face of the explicit horrors of Stoker, Machen, and others. Lovecraft’s essay, accordingly, gains its greatest originality as an historical study in its final six chapters. Even today very little work in English has been done on foreign weird writing, and Lovecraft’s championing of such writers as Maupassant, Balzac, Erckmann-Chatrian, Gautier, Ewers, and others is pioneering. His lengthy chapter on Poe is, I think, one of the most perceptive short analyses ever written, in spite of a certain flamboyancy in its diction. Lovecraft could not summon up much enthusiasm for the later Victorians in England, but his lengthy discussions of Hawthorne and Bierce in chapter VIII are highly illuminating. And his greatest achievement, perhaps, was to designate Machen, Dunsany, Blackwood, and M. R. James as the four “modern masters” of the weird tale; a judgment that, in spite of the carpings of Edmund Wilson and others, has been justified by subsequent scholarship. Indeed, the only “master” lacking from this list is Lovecraft himself.
At this point it might be well to discuss in general how complete Lovecraft’s treatise is. Critics have not been inclined to agree with Fred Lewis Pattee’s dictum that it “has omitted nothing important”: Peter Penzoldt chided Lovecraft for not even mentioning Oliver Onions and Robert Hichens, while Jack Sullivan has taken Lovecraft to task for his scanty mention of Le Fanu. After my own recent rereading of Le Fanu’s largely verbose and unimaginative work, I am by no means ready to admit that Lovecraft is seriously in error here. It is true that he had not even read Le Fanu when he wrote the first version of his essay; at this time he knew him only by reputation. He later read Le Fanu’s mediocre novel, The House by the Churchyard (1863) and had a justifiably low opinion of it. What work by Le Fanu deserves any attention at all is his short stories and novelettes, and these had evidently become quite scarce by the early twentieth century. When, in 1932, Lovecraft read “Green Tea” (Le Fanu’s one unqualified masterwork) in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Omnibus of Crime (1928), he still did not feel the need to revise his estimate significantly: “I at last have the ‘Omnibus’, & have read ‘Green Tea’. It is certainly better than anything else of Le Fanu’s that I have ever seen, though I’d hardly put it in the Poe-Blackwood-Machen class.”
But beyond even its perceptive discussions of individual writers, beyond the sure grasp it displays of the historical progression of the field—and recall that this was the first time when such an historical survey was attempted (Scarborough’s was a thematic study)—“Supernatural Horror in Literature” gains its greatest distinction in its introduction, which simultaneously presents a defence of the weird tale as a serious literary mode and elaborates upon such earlier writings as the In Defence of Dagon essays in its clarification of what actually constitutes a weird tale. In the former task, Lovecraft declares resoundingly in the opening sentence that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” a “fact” that “must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form”; he goes on to refer, with tart sarcasm, to the weird tale’s struggle against “a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to ‘uplift’ the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism.” All this leads, as it did in In Defence of Dagon, to a champion of the weird as appealing largely “to minds of the requisite sensitiveness”; or, as he states at the end, “It is a narrow though essential branch of human expression, and will chiefly appeal as always to a limited audience with keen special sensibilities.”
In defining the weird tale, Lovecraft has made contributions of lasting importance. A critical passage in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” attempts to distinguish between the weird and the merely grisly: “This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.” The mention of psychology is critical here, for it leads directly to Lovecraft’s canonical definition of the weird tale:
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 daemons of unplumbed space.
It could well be said that this is nothing more than an after-the-fact justification of Lovecraft’s own brand of cosmic horror; but I think it has a wider application than that. Essentially, Lovecraft is arguing that supernaturalism is central to the weird tale, because it is this that distinguishes weird fiction from all other types of literature, which deal strictly with what is possible and therefore have substantially different metaphysical, epistemological, and psychological overtones. Lovecraft does, in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” discuss a few instances of non-supernatural horror—Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd,” some of Bierce’s grim tales of psychological suspense—but they are very few; and he explicitly segregates the conte cruel—defined as a story “in which the wrenching of the
In recent years a great deal of material published under the guise of weird fiction falls into the category of psychological suspense (or “dark suspense” or “dark mystery,” to use once-fashionable if ill-defined terms). The springboard for much of this writing is Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959), certainly a very able piece of work; but more recent works—especially those that involve the already clichéd topos of the serial killer—do not seem to come to terms with either their generic or their ontological status. Are the writers of such works attempting to maintain that “gruesome physical horror” at times can become so extreme as to be emotionally or metaphysically equivalent to supernatural horror? How are their works different from mere suspense stories? These questions remain unanswered, and until they are answered, Lovecraft’s definition of the weird tale must stand.
Lovecraft admitted that the writing of this essay produced two good effects; first: “It’s good preparation for composing a new series of weird tales of my own”; and second: “This course of reading & writing I am going through for the Cook article is excellent mental discipline, & a fine gesture of demarcation betwixt my aimless, lost existence of the past year or two & the resumed Providence-like hermitage amidst which I hope to grind out some tales worth writing.” The second effect is one more in a succession of resolutions to cease his all-day and all-night gallivanting with the gang and get down to real work; how successful this was, it is difficult to say, in the absence of a diary for 1926. As for the first effect, it came to fruition in late February, when “Cool Air” was apparently written.