H.P. Lovecraft: The Fantastic Weird and the Reader’s Sublime

H.P.L. on the Fantastic:

It may be well to remark here that occult believers are probably less effective than materialists in delineating the spectral and the fantastic, since to them the phantom world is so commonplace a reality that they tend to refer to it with less awe, remoteness, and impressiveness than do those who see in it an absolute and stupendous violation of the natural order. … 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. … The artist of the fantastic weird attends to all phases of life and thought, seeing they are equally eligible as subject-matter for the work at hand, and being inclined by temperament to strangeness and gloom, the artist of the fantastic weird is the interpreter of those powerful feelings, and frequent happenings which attend pain rather than pleasure, decay rather than growth, terror rather than tranquility, 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.1

That notion that materialists – and, of course Lovecraft’s materialism was of the older metaphysical variety – already register – according to him the “phantom world” as a commonplace rather than an exception; and, that this indexing and registrar comes not from an author’s intentionality, or textual or structural engenderment, but from the Reader’s own emotional investment – what used to be termed the Reader’s Sublime – in fear and terror that arises in that veritable “mundane point”: the intersection of the real and unreal, phenomenal and noumenal, the gap in the Real that produces the very fantasia that must be traversed in fear and trepidation. Negotiating the unmapped abyss of emotion and the numinous real that has overwhelmed the very defense systems of the symbolic or cultural frames of reference that affects such dire consequences in the Reader’s mind. The fall into that abyss of uncertainty and non-knowledge, that leaves the wary Reader of both life and the Real in a state of intense non-relation, unable to decide whether what she is seeing  is supernatural or uncanny, transcendent of immanent; just here is the wavering of the fantastic that catches one in the interminable zone of doubt, unable to choose. A loss of will – if such a thing ever existed, that brings one into that fold of thought wherein freedom and fatalism seem to have their habitation and their doom.

This is where Todorov’s point I spoke of in my post yesterday of the oscillation between the marvelous and uncanny that is brought into relation with non-relation or distancing, that weaves one into an interval of uncertainty and undecidable doubt, unable to decide if the object of one’s fear and terror is of the supernatural (“marvelous”) or psychological (“uncanny”) variety, whether it is intrinsic or extrinsic to the mind of the beholder – or, rather an actual external thing in the world. It’s the duration of this event within which the one experiencing it as doubt and uncertainty, falls into that abyss of the impossible, unable to know for sure – a loss of faith in the cultural or symbolic defense mechanisms that have held one in the realms of logic and reason:  this interminable undecidability of the relation-in-itself as a non-relational event, rather than the thing-in-itself that oscillates on the edge of the noumenal horizon of the unreal is what locks one in an intensity of trepidation without outlet, caught between fate and freedom. The key here is the concentration on the relation of the non-relation rather than the object itself, because this allows one to convey a difference in the investigation of the fantastic real that is not accounted for in those theories of the metaphysical fantastic of former thinkers of modernity. This shades us back in all those discussions between Kant and the German Idealists; Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and their progeny… culminating in Freud’s, Bataille’s, and Kristeva’s reflections on the fantastic, disgust, and the art of abject horror or weird realism.

I’ll return to this later today as I continue my research… stay tuned.


  1. Lovecraft, H. P.. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged. Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.

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