Lovecraft’s Aesthetic: Atmosphere, Sensation, and the Supernormal

One thing H.P. Lovecraft despised in authors of horror was “natural explanation” which he felt marred the atmosphere and the cosmic aesthetic. Speaking of “Monk” Lewis and his Gothic novel he’d say: “One great thing may be said of the author; that he never ruined his ghostly visions with a natural explanation.”

This sense that in the aesthetic of horror the mystery should never be reduced by some false scientific explanation is at the heart of Lovecraft’s fiction and critical appraisal in his Supernatural horror in Literature. The other aspect of a weird tale he insisted on was atmosphere and strong sensation: “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.” The importance of “atmosphere,” the cosmic point of view, the superiority of impressions and images over the “mere mechanics of plot”— this is Lovecraft’s core aesthetic, and has stood the test of time and has been little improved upon by subsequent scholarship. This is the core of that aesthetic of horror and the weird:

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.1

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