“Supernatural Horror in Literature“


“Supernatural Horror in Literature“
   Essay (28,230 words); written November 1925–May 1927 (revised in the fall of 1933, August 1934). First published in The Recluse (1927); revised version serialized (incomplete) in the Fantasy Fan (October 1933–February 1935); first complete publication of revised text in O; first separate publication: Ben Abramson, 1945; corrected text in D;critical edition (by S.T.Joshi): Hippocampus Press, 2000.
   This is HPL’s most significant literary essay and one of the finest historical analyses of horror literature. W.Paul Cook had commissioned HPL to write “an article…on the element of terror & weirdness in literature” (HPL to Lillian D. Clark, November 11–14, 1925; ms., JHL) for his nowlegendary one-shot amateur magazine, The Recluse. HPL simultaneously refreshed himself on the classics of weird fiction and began writing parts of the text; most of it was completed before HPL left Brooklyn for Providence in April 1926, but HPL continued to discover new authors and works (e.g., Walter de la Mare in June 1926) and made numerous additions both to the final typescript and, as late as May 1927, to the proofs. The Recluseappeared in August, with HPL’s essay occupying nearly half the issue. It comprises ten chapters: I. Introduction; 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.
   Almost immediately upon completing his essay, HPL began taking notes for works to mention in a putative revised edition. These notes (largely a list of works), entitled “Books to mention in new edition of weird article,” are found at the back of his commonplace book. The chance to revise the text did not come until the fall of 1933, when Charles D.Hornig offered to serialize the text in the Fantasy Fan. HPL revised the essay all at once, sending a marked-up copy of The Recluseto Hornig; but the magazine folded with the serialization only having progressed to the middle of Chapter VIII. Although numerous faint prospects for the continuation of the serialization in other fan magazines emerged over the next two years, the essay was never republished in full until after HPL’s death. In August 1934 HPL’s discovery of William Hope Hodgson impelled him to write the essay “The Weird Work of William Hope Hodgson,” which was to be inserted into Chapter X. In April 1935 HPL read Gustav Meyrink’s novel The Golemand found that his description (based upon the early silent film version) was inaccurate, so he revised the passage accordingly.
   The value of the essay is manifold. It is one of the first to provide a coherent historical analysis of the entire range of weird fiction from antiquity to HPL’s day. Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction(1917) is a thematic study, and Edith Birkhead’s The Tale of Terror(1921) —upon which HPL relied for much of the information in the first five chapters of his treatise—restricts its attention to the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. HPL’s discussions of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, and Hodgson are particularly acute. His identification of the four “modern masters” of weird fiction—Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, and M.R.James—has been vindicated by subsequent research; the only likely addition to this list is HPL himself.
   The work is also of great importance regarding HPL’s own theory and practice of weird fiction. The Introduction enunciates HPL’s mature reflections on the nature and purpose of weird fiction (refined from such earlier texts as In Defence of Dagon[1921]) as “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”—something HPL restated once more in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction.” Throughout the text there are clues as to works that inspired HPL’s own earlier and later works, from Maupassant’s “The Horla” to M.R.James’s “Count Magnus.”
   It appears that The Reclusewas sent to the following authors and critics (see HPL to August Derleth, [January 6, 1928; ms, SHSW]), most of whom are mentioned in the article: Algernon Blackwood, Irvin S.Cobb, A.Conan Doyle, Lord Dunsany, Mary E.Wilkins Freeman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, M.R. James, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Machen, Carl Van Vechten, and H.G.Wells. (M.P.Shiel was an intended recipient, but could not be reached.) James discusses the essay (he calls HPL’s style “most offensive”) in a letter dated January 12, 1928.
   See Fred Lewis Pattee, [Review], American Literature 18 (May 1946): 175–77; E.F.Bleiler, “Introduction to the Dover Edition” of Supernatural Horror in Literature (1973); Jack Adrian, “An M.R.James Letter,” Ghosts and Scholars 8 (1986): 28–33.

An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. .

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