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A Sense Of Dread: Lovecraft’s Definition Of Supernatural Horror

“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.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1927)

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An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia terms “Supernatural horror” “HPL’s most significant literary essay and one of the finest historical analyses of horror literature”.

H.P. Lovecraft is writing about literature but he seems to believe in a certain human condition. This raises interesting questions. Does it mean that he believed that his “cosmic horror” is a real thing? Did he really believe in supernatural beings as intruders into our world as a fact or was his primary concern what could make a supernatural-horror-story most efficient? We know that later Lovecraft gave advice on how to do a horror story and had a diary with ideas what might make good horror effects. He wrote a lot about writing techniques but we don’t  really know so much about his innermost religious or philosophical beliefs. Of course there is a whole mythology here – a very strong one which had an incredible influence later on movies and literature and there is even a term for Lovecraft’s philosophy: “Cosmicism”. But we should be careful, because there is many interpretation here which doesn’t necessarily mean  that it always represents  Lovecraft’s real opinion.  We are better advised to hear what he says.  In 1918 H. P. Lovecraft  wrote a letter about religion to his friend Maurice W. Moe,  In the letter it is said:

“I desire to know approximately what my life is in terms of history—human, terrestrial, solar, and cosmical; what my magnitude may be in terms of extension,—terrestrial, solar, and cosmical; and above all, what may be my manner of linkage to the general system—in what way, through what agency, and to what extent, the obvious guiding forces of creation act upon me and govern my existence. And if there be any less obvious forces, I desire to know them and their relation to me as well”.

Lovecraft sounds more like a scientist and as we know from his works which are often somewhere in-between science-fiction and horror he was very rational. It seems the traditional horrors and superstitions didn’t work for him any longer. His monsters are indescribable – in one of his best stories he confronts his reader’s with the horrors of an abstract or scientific idea: “The Colour From Outer Space” makes us mad because it  deals with a color we don’t know and if we start to imagine such a color it drives not only the hero of his story into madness. Lovecraft’s horrors are extreme trips into unknown territory.

Why put Lovecraft such effort into the creation of such intellectually complex horrors rather than using the simple madman, ghost, ghoul or vampire?

It is an interesting parallel that his writings about the nature of supernatural horror stems from the same decade where science made really big steps forward, Albert Einstein published his relativity theories, nuclear science was making its discoveries which later changed the course of mankind forever. Industrialization was taken into new dimensions and memories of the horrors of an “industrial war” (WWI) were still fresh.  In the arts the German expressionism created images which looked like their were stemming straight from Lovecraft’s universe.

As a person strongly interesting in science Lovecraft’s new conception of horror was only naturally. There is a certain irony here for those who are familiar with Lovecraft’s stories that today’s discoveries and theories about “Dark Matter” and the demonic particles in Quantum Theories sound more like Lovecraft’s ideas rather than a real existing thing. In quantum physics, ” that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature” have become a reality if we believe our scientists.

But there is more here than meets the eye. Lovecraft’s definition of the supernatural horror is much different as in today’s horror cinema where the fantastic is often replaced by the axe-swinging madman or CGI-Ghosts which are very human-like.

Lovecraft did know that if dealing with the unknown it is something which goes beyond human comprehension. Horror to Lovecraft is often something the hero of his story can’t really understand. The monstrosity can’t be measured.

This is not only a conception in literature this is indeed human experience if we try to understand the very essence of visionary experience, records of wonders and otherworldly encounters and life-changing confrontations with energies from the otherworld. These reports are full of violations of laws of nature and seeing things which couldn’t described properly afterwards.

As said in the previous post about Ludwig Tieck’s novel from the era of Romanticism we find traces of visionary experience often in fiction even if the writer has had completely different intentions.

If we follow Lovecraft’s essay we also understand why it is so difficult to do a real good story about cosmic fear because it is not something which could be developed in the storyline. Particularly the movies have difficulties to create such effects because the very nature of “cosmic horrors” lies not so much in the precise mechanics of the plot but there is a vagueness, something which couldn’t even exactly planned in a script:

“Atmosphere 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”.

“We may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect, or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives often possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfil every condition of true supernatural horror-literature. Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point. If the proper sensations are excited, such a “high spot” must be admitted on its own merits as weird literature, no matter how prosaically it is later dragged down. 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. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere, the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.”

I can say that “this atmosphere” and the  “cosmic horror” has been the motive at the core of the idea of the Forest Dark Project. There is a hidden dimension in our world which resists to be revealed easily. Writing supernatural horror is a consistent struggle to capture maybe little pieces of that “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces”; these forces which roamed the planet long before the beginnings of mankind, but were described in the the stories by H.P.Lovecraft and others.

They’re still here and keep watching us. Some of the paranoia-movies of the 50ties grasped that cosmic fear which mankind is familiar with for a very long time. Even there are only a few ones in any generation – we see cosmic fear in the best works of Stephen King also – who are really interested in the hidden dimensions behind our realm of reality – the tradition continues.

It’s the writers and artists like Lovecraft who had chosen to become “The Real Nightwatch”: the people watching out in the night and later tell us about the most ‘undescribable  and blasphemous things’ roaming the woods deep in the night.


Otherworldly Temptation: The Runenberg

“A young hunter was sitting in the heart of the Mountains, in a thoughtful mood, beside his fowling-floor, while the noise of the waters and the woods was sounding through the solitude”. The Runenberg (1804)
by Ludwig Tieck, translated by Thomas Carlyle

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Can a novella, a fairy tale or a poem better grasp the truth behind visionary experience as a witness account of Ufo-encounters or near-death experiences?

Yes, in a certain way fictional literature or art can be a better tool to understand the realms of the Otherworld rather then mere collections of „supernatural events“ or  „scientific“ research of the paranormal.

Otherworldy experience and the influence of the otherworld seems to happen somewhere in between inner and outer experience of reality. It happens in a realm, which is both „subjective“ or „psychological“ and „objective“. It’s paradox. This is what makes research extremely difficult and why there isn’t an entirely convincing theory for example about Ufo-incidents, which cannot be challenged.

In some fiction however we get the right feeling – particularly in literature we find the most convincing accounts of otherwordly encounters, even the supernatural or the question „is it real or not“ is not the primary concern of the creator or writer.

The best works of fiction, music, films and the arts allow us to see reality through a hyperrealistic filter. We see more than usually meets the eye. We get a deeper understanding of reality since what we think is for real is only part of a larger reality. It’s not like our reality is here and the Otherworld is next door. Our world is part of the Otherworld or the invisible world. Art is one possibility to look through a peeping hole into a larger universe.

In the arts the era of Enlightenment was followed by the epoch of Romanticism with many artists having a strong interest in a sinister and phantastic universe: in the 18th century the old folk tales were rediscovered and became part of the „Kunstmärchen“, fairy tales which weren’t supposed to read to little children before they went to bed. They might not as dark as the Gothic novels but the „dark romance“ looked deep in the „dark forests of the human soul“.

One master-storyteller was Ludwig Tieck who wrote a couple of novellas. One of them is called „The Runenberg“, which has even a Lovecraftian feeling.

We meet Christian, a young hunter who recently left his parents and spends most of his time in nature. In the beginning of the story he appears to be in a sad mood. He is homesick. He does something nearly unconsciously which becomes the inciting incident of the story: “Unthinkingly, he pulled a straggling root from the earth; and on the instant, heard, with affright, a stifled moan underground, which winded downwards in doleful tones, and died plaintively away in the deep distance”. The root is an alraune root or mandragola, which has a certain reputation in connection with the magic. Obviously its somehow the “switch” which opens some gate to the otherworld. Later Christian meets a stranger and tells him his life-story.

The stranger listens attentively and makes him aware of “the Runenberg”:

“while they both wandered on through a dark alley of the wood. They now came out into the open country, and the light of the moon, which was standing with its horns over the summit of the hill, saluted them like a friend. In undistinguishable forms, and many separated masses, which the pale gleam again perplexingly combined, lay the cleft mountain-range before them; in the background a steep hill, on the top of which an antique weathered ruin rose ghastly in the white light.

Our roads part here, said the stranger; I am going down into this hollow; there, by that old mine-shaft, is my dwelling: the metal ores are my neighbours; the mine-streams tell me wonders in the night; thither thou canst not follow me. But look, there stands the Runenberg, with its wild ragged walls; how beautiful and alluring the grim old rock looks down on us! Wert thou never there?

Never, said the hunter. Once I heard my old forester relating strange stories of that hill, which I, like a fool, have forgotten; only I remember that my mind that night was full of dread and unearthly notions. I could like to mount the hill some time; for the colours there are of the fairest, the grass must be very green, the world around one very strange; who knows, too, but one might chance to find some curious relic of the ancient time up there?

You could scarcely fail, replied the stranger; whoever knows how to seek, whoever feels his heart drawn towards it with a right inward longing, will find friends of former ages there, and glorious things, and all that he wishes most”.

Again, here we have the “Werifesteria“ element (wandering longingly through the forest in search of mystery).

This is what Christian is really looking for (maybe for a long time) and the stranger’s words become his “call to adventure”.

As we know some calls to adventure are dangerous, and this one is definitely a dangerous one.

Even in the first place what happens seem to be more an erotic fantasy when Christian climbs the mountains, sees a light in the ruins and then a naked beautiful woman which hands him a tablet of stones. Its clearly an apparition and we do not know exactly if it’s a dream or real: “Suddenly he saw a light, which seemed to move within the ruined edifice. He looked towards the gleam; and found that he could see into an ancient spacious hall, strangely decorated, and glittering in manifold splendour, with multitudes of precious stones and crystals, the hues of which played through each other in mysterious changes, as the light moved to and fro; and this was in the hand of a stately female, who kept walking with a thoughtful aspect up and down the apartment. She seemed of a different race from mortals; so large, so strong was her form, so earnest her look; yet the enraptured huntsman thought he had never seen or fancied such surpassing beauty. He trembled, yet secretly wished she might come near the window and observe him. At last she stopped, set down the light on a crystal table, looked aloft, and sang with a piercing voice”

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It’s hard to oversee the similarity between the description of the woman and the entities described by Referend Kirk in “The Secret Commonwealth”. Some elements are even similar to modern descriptions of encounters with humanoid aliens.

The state of mind of Christian after this encounter bears strong similarities of the experience of UFO-abductees or visionary experiences:

„As it were, a dark night, with curtains of cloud, fell down over his soul: he searched for his former feelings, for that inspiration and unutterable love; he looked at the precious tablet, and the sinking moon was imaged in it faint and bluish.

He had still the tablet firmly grasped in his hands when the morning dawned; and he, exhausted, giddy and half-asleep, fell headlong down the precipice.

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The sun shone bright on the face of the stupefied sleeper; and, awakening, he found himself upon a pleasant hill. He looked round, and saw far behind him, and scarce discernible at the extreme horizon, the ruins of the Runenberg; he searched for his tablet, and could find it nowhere. Astonished and perplexed, he tried to gather his thoughts, and connect together his remembrances; but his memory was as if filled with a waste haze, in which vague irrecognisable shapes were wildly jostling to and fro. His whole previous life lay behind him, as in a far distance; the strangest and the commonest were so mingled, that all his efforts could not separate them. After long struggling with himself, he at last concluded that a dream, or sudden madness, had come over him that night; only he could never understand how he had strayed so far into a strange and remote quarter“.

What follows is an account which nearly spans the whole lifetime of Christian after this event. It would be too much to get into all the details of the story but the bottom line is this:

The hero of this story never gets over this otherworldly experience. He is wasted for his lifetime even he lives a normal life for a long time after the event: He marries, has a reunion with his father, has children, becomes a popular farmer and could be happy.

But he never forgets the other „immortal“ realm and when someday again a stranger enters his life he is drawn again towards the mysterious mountain.

In the end he has left his family and lives as a madman in the woods together with a hag, which seems to be the same person as the beauty in the ruin. And it appears that also the stranger and the woman are the same person.

There are a couple of remarkable things about this sinister tale. It fascinated scientists and one thing, which makes it so extraordinary is its ambiguity: W. J. Lillyman, an American literature professor wrote in 1970 (University Of California, Santa Cruz,

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„’Der Runenberg’ is a highly equivocal tale, its central ambiguity being whether the forces which the hero encounters on the mountain are daemonic and destructive or whether they represent the real divine, the ultimate truth of existence. This ambiguity is brought about and maintained by several artistic devices: the neutral narrator, the Biblical parallels and allusions, the indecision of the hero, the opposing realms of the organic and inorganic. There are no events in the tale, nor statements made by one or the other of the characters which would prove objectively the validity of one of their views of reality”

This might be the key why this tale is also interesting in terms of how we feel about (real) otherworldly encounters and visionary experience:

In the strongest tales we feel a truth, which is known to mankind since its very beginning.

But there is also an uncertainty and an ambiguity about the status of reality in any account of visionary experience. It is this paradox and even contradictionary feeling that we think this is somehow real but in the same moment we don’t know what’s really going on, that makes the strongest tales or accounts of the supernatural convincing.

Then we have remarkable parallels with typical elements of real accounts of visionary experience and witness reports of modern Ufo-Abductees:

“The tablet” – Jacques Vallee who collected the most convincing reports of Alien encounters often found stories where some sort of items or even bread were given by the aliens (or elves or demons in more ancient stories) which either vanish or changed from something very valuable into something useless. The gold of the otherworld is obviously worthless in our realm (the tablet and even gold appears however again in the novel but the gold is obviously cursed and the tablet has a sinister power, which is also a typical quality of items which have a connection with the other world).

The hero is wasted: this happens in endless accounts of otherworldly encounters and modern stories – these encounter can be very dangerous. Even the witness isn’t dead after such an encounter his life is changed forever, even there is a difference here in this story that the hero is able to successfully lead a life and is not an outsider (like many Ufo abductees), but he is on the list and somehow the otherworldly forces “connect” again with his mind.

The mysterious woman and the strangers as shape shifters – this is also a similarity with many accounts however there is usually not so much interaction.

A subterranean world, cold crystals and minerals, cold light: before the inhabitants of the Otherworld become airborne as aliens in our modern times there is a long tradition of inhabitants of a subterranean other world and here the connection with the otherworldly forces is made through old mines and shafts. A cold and crystal world is often an essential part of descriptions in visionary encounters. Even we might assume that Christian sees “Maja” – a deceptive realm of the other world – this imaginary is archetypical for otherworldly visions.

Furthermore what makes “The Runenberg” outstanding is its description of haunted places. The storyteller knows very well about the archetypes in the forest dark and as an artist he describes the stations of our heroes’ journey sometimes in a way which gives us a cold shiver, somehow his hero seems to have been in the “Mountains of Madness”.

“Let us go, that the shadows of the mountains may be soon out of view; it always makes me sorrowful in the heart to see these wild steep shapes, these horrid chasms, these torrents gurgling down into their caverns. Let us get upon the good, kind, guileless level ground again”.

The mountain puts not only our hero Christian under its magic spell it has power over his family. It shows us how our lives are directed by hidden influences and strong uncontrolled forces – a reality also my movie project deals with.

In Tieck’s story we sense also the Great Old Ones and their influence on Earth and we learn about the secrets in the mountains and deep in the forest dark.

Imagine what kind of rituals must have taken place on that mountain.

The Wood-Woman Christian sees sings:
What can the Ancient keep
That they come not at my call?
The crystal pillars weep,
From the diamonds on the wall
The trickling tear-drops fall;
And within is heard a moan,
A chiding fitful tone:
In these waves of brightness,
Lovely changeful lightness,
Has the Shape been form’d,
By which the soul is charm ‘d,
And the longing heart is warm’d.
Come, ye Spirits, at my call,
Haste ye to the Golden Hall;
Raise, from your abysses gloomy,
Heads that sparkle; faster
Come, ye Ancient Ones, come to me!
Let your power be master
Of the longing hearts and souls,
Where the flood of passion rolls,
Let your power be master!

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