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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.


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