Hey folks! I’m FINALLY getting around to reviewing an H.P. Lovecraft book! BUT… It’s not one of his works of fiction… (Sorry!) Instead, I’m looking at an extended essay he wrote on the history and development of a specific type of horror story, which Lovecraft HIMSELF felt was the BEST kind of horror. You know…the kind that HE wrote!
H.P. Lovecraft – Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927 / 2018)
The book I’m looking at today is a 2018 digitization of a long essay that Lovecraft originally published in back in 1927, but which (according to Wikipedia) was edited and republished in the early 1930s, and I’m honestly not sure which version I’ve got with my digitized copy—because the company who published it, Aeterna Classics, gave ZERO history or publication information with this digital book. While I’m on the publisher’s case, there were also a NUMBER of typos in this text, and I’m not usually that bothered by a typo here or there, but there were a LOT in this book, like too many, making me think they weren’t being as diligent with the editing as they should have been—so if I were you, if you are considering getting a copy of this book, I’d either get a paper copy OR try to find a version that isn’t published by Aeterna. (I USED to own a paper copy of this book, but I loaned it to somebody several years ago—and then I forgot who I loaned it to, and I never got the book back… Hopefully, the person I loaned it to enjoyed it!)
What this book ISN’T: Lovecraft is most well known for his weird fiction, particularly for his monstrous, stygian creation Cthulhu, which WAS a horrifying monster that was so awful that merely DREAMING about it could drive someone insane (and seeing it in person was even worse); but Cthulhu is NOW a cuddly, squid-faced plush toy. The creature has become so sanitized and removed from its original context that it clearly constitutes a crime against nature. (I’m losing focus here… Let’s get back on track!) Although Lovecraft is most well known for his horror stories, this book does NOT contain any of his fictional works. Instead…
What this book IS is a long essay in which Lovecraft lays out why he feels SUPERNATURAL horror is superior to all other types of fiction, how it differs from mere grotesque or violent fiction (such as one might find in a mystery novel with lots of dead bodies strewn about), how this type of fiction developed over time, and he presents a detailed examination of some of his picks for the most influential works that include the proper tone and tropes for inclusion in the WEIRD CIRCLE*. *(In another aside, The Weird Circle was also the name of great, old horror radio show, which you can still find online and which often included fantastic dramatizations of supernatural and weird stories, including several mentioned by Lovecraft in this very book! Give it a listen HERE, if you’re interested!!)
Full disclosure: I’m just going to say this now…unless you are a literary scholar or a die-hard fan of horror history, you’re probably NOT going to enjoy this book. The language is a bit dry and pompus, although I personally appreciate Lovecraft’s wit and his sometimes harsh criticisms of the tales he discusses, particularly of works which he felt were more famous or influential than they deserved to be. What I DO NOT appreciate is Lovecraft’s persistent race-based conceits. He isn’t OVERTLY racist in this text, although it’s now pretty well established that Lovecraft DID, in fact, have strong beliefs that we would now label as blatantly racist (according to scholars, like Robert Price and Scott Poole, both of whom have done fascinating, often very funny and entertaining interviews on the MonsterTalk podcast about Lovecraft.) Lovecraft talks about regional differences in story tropes as being RACIALLY distinct, instead of being merely CULTURAL distinctions, which may seem like a subtle difference, but it’s NOT insignificant, and this racialized talk (especially after listening to the MonsterTalk discussions that clearly demonstrated his nasty racial biases) really makes me uncomfortable now—but he does have some interesting things to say about a whole bunch of old horror stories and writers, many that aren’t really talked about anymore, which makes this book a worthwhile read (as long as we are conscious and aware of the racist tropes.)
I’ve read this text a number of times now, and the first time I read through the book, I’d only encountered a handful of the weird authors that Lovecraft mentions, like Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Coleridge, H.G. Wells, and a few other rather famous figures that I’d learned about in high school and early college lit classes. AFTER reading his book, I was inspired to seek out some of the other figures that he spoke of in glowing letters—people like Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, Lord Dunsany, and Clark Ashton Smith, all of whom I really enjoyed reading. In addition, because the number of authors he mentions is so large, each time I reread this book, I note one or two more forgotten names to search for (and many of these authors’ works are now in the public domain, which means that getting a digital copy of their books can be quite cheap or even free! Although, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, you do GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR. If you download a free version of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, it might not have the same attention to detail as a Norton or Broadview edition will have OR any of the extras, like critical assessments or historical and contextual essays! Serious horror nerds LOVE that kind of stuff!)
Not everyone who likes horror is going to love OLD or gothic literature, especially if they’ve come to horror fiction from the more modern, splatter gore or shock-horror era of things, like Saw or Hostel—although Lovecraft would argue that these works, while horrific, are NOT examples of SUPERNATURAL horror of the type that he is championing in this book. For Lovecraft, there MUST be an element of the story that takes the reader OUTSIDE of the mundane world and suggests some unknown, overwhelming darkness or evil that is beyond human comprehension. There isn’t any such “supernatural” element in a work like Hostel, which is purely human inspired evil. Whereas Friday the 13th, even the first film (from 1980), has both “standard” earthly horrors from the extreme violence AND the suggestion of a supernatural element in the character of Jason, who has somehow survived, UNDER WATER, for many years. The boogeyman figure of Jason (who appears at the very end of the first film, then becomes the antagonist for most of the next ten or so films) is ESSENTIALLY a zombie, an unstoppable DEATH figure who deals out punishment—primarily to teenagers who can’t control their hormonal impulses. Since the MECHANISMS by which Jason—who I should mention didn’t jump-scare his way into the public eye until FORTY YEARS after Lovecraft’s death (in 1937)—the MEANS by which he goes from drowning victim to punishing angel are never explained, and this gives the story the ESSENTIAL element of the supernatural that Lovecraft attempts to define in this book, whereas stories, like Saw or Hostel or Psycho, are merely grotesque and violent, and therefore outside of the Lovecraftian arena. The distinction might not seem important, but Lovecraft argues that the supernatural elements of a tale RAISE the effectiveness of the story by acting differently on the mind of the reader than more simple shocks or human inflicted violence. For HIM, the difference is vitally important—and he attempts to argue that the difference is also FELT by the reader, even if it isn’t always acknowledged or understood.
His essay is interesting, in my opinion, especially for the information he includes on the dozens of early horror and weird fiction authors who have slipped out of the modern consciousness—but I’m also an ex-literary scholar AS WELL AS a lover of horror fiction. I can certainly see where some folks might have a hard time following his writing style (as he likes to use esoteric language, including a lot of words that most folks are going to need to look up!) In addition, people who pick this book up looking for a scary Lovecraft STORY are going to be bitterly disappointed, as there’s no fiction to be found here, beyond Lovecraft’s quick retellings of a few major works of weird fiction for analytical purposes. This book is primarily a scholarly look at a very specific genre of fiction—(with a bit of uncomfortable, subtly racist language clogging the essay’s arteries.) However, what the book DOES have going for it is the interesting attempt by Lovecraft at examining WHY certain forms of horror fiction are more effective than others, AS WELL AS the plethora of information he shares (including his personal opinions) on A GREAT MANY early horror writers, covering several hundred years of weird fiction (and poetry.) I’ve returned to this text numerous times in search of new stories to read and enjoy!
SOOOOOO….if you like horror fiction AND you’re interested in seeing how that genre developed over time, this book (with a few reservations) is a great resource. Lovecraft was clearly passionate about scary stories, and many of the works he mentions in this text are some of my favorite spooky stories of all time! (Will you look at that! This review ended up being Halloween appropriate after all, so… BONUS!!!)
Okay, thanks for stopping by!!! Now go read a damn book!!!!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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[This review was originally posted on my Steemit blog on 20 Oct. 2019.]