Antechamber to Horror II

Some scene-setting extracts from H.P. Lovecraft’s review essay Supernatural Horror in Literature:

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form.

***

The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from every-day life. Relatively few are free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond to rappings from outside …

***

Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure, and because our feelings toward the beneficent aspects of the unknown have from the first been captured and formalised by conventional religious rituals, it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore. This tendency, too, is naturally enhanced by the fact that uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities. When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is superadded, there is born a composite body of keen emotion and imaginative provocation whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself. Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.

***

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.

***

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.

***

Before Poe the bulk of weird writers had worked largely in the dark; without an understanding of the psychological basis of the horror appeal, and hampered by more or less of conformity to certain empty literary conventions such as the happy ending, virtue rewarded, and in general a hollow moral didacticism, acceptance of popular standards and values, and striving of the author to obtrude his own emotions into the story and take sides with the partisans of the majority’s artificial ideas. Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove—good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing—with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathiser, or vendor of opinion. He saw clearly that all phases of life and thought are equally eligible as subject-matter for the artist, and being inclined by temperament to strangeness and gloom, decided to be the interpreter of those powerful feeling, and frequent happenings which attend pain rather than pleasure, decay rather than growth, terror rather than tranquillity, and which are fundamentally either adverse or indifferent to the tastes and traditional outward sentiments of mankind, and to the health, sanity, and normal expansive welfare of the species.

Poe’s spectres thus acquired a convincing malignity possessed by none of their predecessors, and established a new standard of realism in the annals of literary horror.

***

The public for whom Poe wrote, though grossly unappreciative of his art, was by no means unaccustomed to the horrors with which he dealt. America, besides inheriting the usual dark folklore of Europe, had an additional fund of weird associations to draw upon … from the keen spiritual and theological interests of the first colonists, plus the strange and forbidding nature of the scene into which they were plunged. The vast and gloomy virgin forests in whose perpetual twilight all terrors might well lurk; the hordes of coppery Indians whose strange, saturnine visages and violent customs hinted strongly at traces of infernal origin; the free rein given under the influence of Puritan theocracy to all manner of notions respecting man’s relation to the stern and vengeful God of the Calvinists, and to the sulphureous Adversary of that God, about whom so much was thundered in the pulpits each Sunday; and the morbid introspection developed by an isolated backwoods life devoid of normal amusements and of the recreational mood, harassed by commands for theological self-examination, keyed to unnatural emotional repression, and forming above all a mere grim struggle for survival—all these things conspired to produce an environment in which the black whisperings of sinister grandams were heard far beyond the chimney corner, and in which tales of witchcraft and unbelievable secret monstrosities lingered long after the dread days of the Salem nightmare.

***

Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen; author of some dozen tales long and short, in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness…. Of Mr. Machen’s horror-tales the most famous is perhaps “The Great God Pan” (1894), which tells of a singular and terrible experiment and its consequences. … Melodrama is undeniably present, and coincidence is stretched to a length which appears absurd upon analysis; but in the malign witchery of the tale as a whole these trifles are forgotten, and the sensitive reader reaches the end with only an appreciative shudder and a tendency to repeat the words of one of the characters: “It is too incredible, too monstrous; such things can never be in this quiet world. . . . Why, man, if such a case were possible, our earth would be a nightmare.”

***

For those who relish speculation regarding the future, the tale of supernatural horror provides an interesting field. Combated by a mounting wave of plodding realism, cynical flippancy, and sophisticated disillusionment, it is yet encouraged by a parallel tide of growing mysticism, as developed both through the fatigued reaction of “occultists” and religious fundamentalists against materialistic discovery and through the stimulation of wonder and fancy by such enlarged vistas and broken barriers as modern science has given us with its intra-atomic chemistry, advancing astrophysics, doctrines of relativity, and probings into biology and human thought.

August 13, 2013admin 22 Comments »
FILED UNDER :Horror

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22 Responses to this entry

  • fotrkd Says:

    Nick, I’ve got rather a lot of Presbyterian blood in me (as you may have gathered), so it’s hard for me to tell, but are you saying – to put it cryptically – trust your butterfly? A rather wonderful and fragile creature, and the closest to spontaneous order we have? And possibly try to stop squashing any others that you might come by?

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    It’s all Greek to me?

    [Reply]

    fotrkd Reply:

    Hmm… Then I think I must have got lost when I wandered in here.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Or my cryptography is fritzed (wrong butterfly?).

    fotrkd Reply:

    I think possibly I’m not your huckleberry as Val Kilmer didn’t say.

    Mark Warburton Reply:

    Speaking of horror and philosophy, have you heard of Eugene Thacker, Nick?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_Thacker he wrote a book about how horror touches on anti-humanistic/speculative realist notions of an ‘outside’ of thought etc. ‘Horror of Philosophy, vol. 1 – In The Dust Of This Planet’ it’s called. vol. 1 of 3.

    Many of his interests parallel yours. And although he is left-leaning, he isn’t all that politically-minded. Kind of an effeminate vampire-cyber-punk.

    [Reply]

    Handle Reply:

    No one knows that every butterfly wants to go back to being a caterpillar. They miss the taste of tender leaves.

    [Reply]

    Posted on August 13th, 2013 at 4:35 pm Reply | Quote
  • Kgaard Says:

    Potentially useless comment here: Horror has never resonated with me. I never go to horror movies. I think most people never go. Poe I found tedious. I will say that I loved Apocalypse Now — and actually find it hard to understand David Goldman’s view that the movie was dreadful. I think it’s one of the best movies of all time. In fact, for years, when asked, I would reply that Apocalypse Now was my favorite movie. But horror has little to do with it. I think. I thought the movie was just really, really cool. Brando’s speech about little arms was, I grant you, very intense, and a crucial part of the whole thing. But I thought the movie was more about strangeness and weirdness and cultural dislocation than horror. Perhaps Conrad did a better job of getting at horror with Heart of Darkness. Yes … I think he did.

    As an aside, one reason so many horror movies are getting made now is because they are cheap to make so anyone can do one. I have a high school friend who is in the movie business and did one for $200,000 that they were able to get into Redbox. (Overall it was a flop though.) There is a cult following for those things …

    Anyway, I am reading your horror efforts partly out of curiosity to understand where you are going with it …

    [Reply]

    Posted on August 13th, 2013 at 7:39 pm Reply | Quote
  • Matt Olver Says:

    Since the age of 12 I have always found Birmingham England’s finest rock act — Black Sabbath — to be the musical epitome of horror, the supernatural, occultism, mysticism, magic, ushering in and eulogizing on the horrors of war and the apocalyptic. It was a crime they were not inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for such a long time. One of England’s underrated treasures for sure. I am lucky enough to have seen the original lineup twice in concert. All hail John Ozzy Osbourne.

    [Reply]

    Posted on August 13th, 2013 at 9:17 pm Reply | Quote
  • Neener Says:

    This is going into crank territory, I don’t actually believe what I’m about to write, but I’ll put it out there anyway …

    Nick, are you aware that there are parts of the western esoteric tradition (mostly associated with the left hand path currents, what Christians would call black magic and Satanism) that think that Lovecraft was a conduit to these entities through dreams and visions?

    Most of this is associated with Kenneth Grant who was a student of Crowleys: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typhonian_Order#Kenneth_Grant.27s_Typhonian_Order

    Grant believes that Lovecraft disguised his occult experiences as fiction.

    See also the recent book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Dark-Lord-Lovecraft-Typhonian/dp/0892542071

    Also see this paper on Lovecraft’s influence on Western occultism: http://irishgothichorrorjournal.homestead.com/LovecraftOccultism.html

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    We’ll get to that, I promise. You can see the deep connection to your previous points, about the epistemological conundrum concerning the relation of the horrified ‘subjective’ state and an apprehension of reality? Insofar as horror is cognitive it cranks open this path automatically — although perhaps without the full theatrical extravagance found in Grant. (Traditional religious approaches, insofar as they attend to the problem of providence with sufficient seriousness, find themselves engaged in very similar thought-processes).

    [Reply]

    Neener Reply:

    Yeah, Lovecraft’s words about “awed listening” and a “profound sense of dread” makes me wonder if there is a deep evolutionary reason for this connection. There is a book called Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution by Hart and Sussman that goes into this. They argue that for the majority of our evolutionary history we weren’t apex predators, but were in fact, the prey. For most of our deep past we were hunted in the dead of night by fanged beasts. Being cornered in a cave with your family by a pack of lions would certainly bring about that profound sense of dread.

    As a speculative sidenote and thinking out loud here, if there were in fact some sort of phenomenon associated with all the religious traditions on the planet, then that phenomenon seems to play right into our psychology in two ways. Firstly, by manifesting itself in ways that create awed or horrified states of mind that play on our deep evolutionary history, e.g. talking bushes on fire, or the apocalyptic imagery associated with Revelations, or the “First Vision” of Joseph Smith (Smith had his vision in the forest alone, with feelings that something was stalking him):

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Vision#Story_of_the_vision

    Secondly, by having a raw feed into our minds it makes sense that it is hard to capture that raw feed into actual words or imagery, e.g. the many contradictions or physical impossibilities in religious texts.

    [Reply]

    Alex Reply:

    Éminence grise.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    There seems no doubt that the ‘Schwa’ complex of Western folk occult imaging has now passed, almost as definitively as the ‘little people’ before. Are there any leading candidates for what is replacing it (as something surely has to)?

    [Reply]

    John Hannon Reply:

    The Mantis Entity seems to be in the ascendancy right now.

    Alex Reply:

    The greys certainly gave good value while they were with us.

    Maybe BEKs will be the next little thing? (Given the catalytic book, film or TV show.)

    Alex Reply:

    “These little people of the earth rise up and rejoice in these times of ours. For they are glad, as the Welshman said, when they know that men follow their ways.”

    Posted on August 14th, 2013 at 5:10 am Reply | Quote
  • Alex Says:

    HPL’s money quote:

    For those who relish speculation regarding the future, the tale of supernatural horror provides an interesting field. Combated by a mounting wave of plodding realism, cynical flippancy, and sophisticated disillusionment, it is yet encouraged by a parallel tide of growing mysticism, as developed both through the fatigued reaction of “occultists” and religious fundamentalists against materialistic discovery and through the stimulation of wonder and fancy by such enlarged vistas and broken barriers as modern science has given us with its intra-atomic chemistry, advancing astrophysics, doctrines of relativity, and probings into biology and human thought.

    Which nails the bifurcation in horror (fiction) between supernaturalism and naturalism, religion and irreligion, Counter-Enlightenment and ‘Dark Enlightenment’. Horror as romantic reaction to Aufklarung, a yearning for miracle, mystery and ‘Gothic’ Verdunkelung, the certain possibility of spiritual death and damnation — versus the horror of obscene matter, the uncertainty of bodily defeat and dissolution.

    In the blue corner, Machen:

    Our stupid ancestors taught us that we could become wise by studying books on ‘science,’ by meddling with test-tubes, geological specimens, microscopic preparations, and the like; but they who have cast off these follies know that they must read not ‘science’ books, but mass-books, and that the soul is made wise by the contemplation of mystic ceremonies and elaborate and curious rites.

    In the red corner, Crowley:

    I resolved that my Ritual should celebrate the sublimity of the operation of universal forces without introducing disputable metaphysical theories. I would neither make nor imply any statement about nature which would not be endorsed by the most materialistic man of science. On the surface this may sound difficult; but in practice I found it perfectly simple to combine the most rigidly rational conceptions of phenomena with the most exalted and enthusiastic celebration of their sublimity.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    These ‘cornerings’ are very helpful, but there is also the diagonal, along which the most dynamic developments seem to take place.

    [Reply]

    Alex Reply:

    Agreed, but it seems a most agonistic dialectic, like Rebecca’s children jostling in her womb. One must finally describe the other in its own terms.

    It might seem that history has favoured the red corner and the Great Beast has the Welsh Wizard on the ropes. (Stoker registered a tipping-point in his introductory note to Dracula: “… a history almost at variance with the possibilities of latter-day belief …”) That leaves the blue corner, for good or evil, with the subterranean power of repressed forces.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    I’m still holding out for abysmal cybergothic time-splicing around the back …

    Posted on August 14th, 2013 at 11:15 pm Reply | Quote
  • Antecâmara do Horror II – Outlandish Says:

    […] Original. […]

    Posted on October 27th, 2016 at 11:51 pm Reply | Quote

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