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

Even though he was a strict materialist of the old school, he believed that scientific imagination reduced the world to fixed and quantified natural explanation, and that the world is and will remain in excess of such rudimentary and pragmatic explanandum. In his need to create a fiction that would dramatize the horror of the unknown and impossible he sought to break free of sufficient reason and produce a literature of shock against the natural. And, yet, he despised the religious reductions of monotheistic religious imaginaries, too. He praised the ancients for their vivid imaginations, but criticized their literalisms and reductions of the mysteries of the cosmos to natural explanations.

One must remember that our supposed secular society is but a continuation of the religious consciousness devoid only of its God, the theology of the monotheistic faiths shorn of their maker still resides in the explanatory mechanisms of a strict tyranny of method and objectivity. Only in our own time (for the past few decades, and since changes in physics between Einstein and Quantum theory) have the tables on physicalism been questioned and overturned. The whole tradition from Leucippus, Democritus, Lucretius down to our time of the atomist theories have slowly given way to an unsubstantial and weird materialism that defies the old cosmic view of the Greeks and Enlightenment.

Against the horror of social effect and natural explanation Lovecraft spawned an aesthetic of dread:

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. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere, the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.

Unknown spheres and powers… listening rather than seeing, the suspension of sufficient reason (i.e., those uniform laws of Nature, etc.) – all this contributes to the aesthetic appeal of that subtle genre of horror Lovecraft sought as cosmicism.

If there was one writer who for Lovecraft brought this aesthetic to life it was Algernon Blackwood above all his contemporaries, and yet – ever the true literary critic Lovecraft balanced his praise and admiration with a deft critique of that author’s failings as well:

Algernon Blackwood, amidst whose voluminous and uneven work may be found some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age. Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood’s genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences, or the preternatural insight with which he builds up detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision. Without notable command of the poetic witchery of mere words, he is the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere; and can evoke what amounts almost to a story from a simple fragment of humourless psychological description. Above all others he understands how fully some sensitive minds dwell forever on the borderland of dream, and how relatively slight is the distinction betwixt those images formed from actual objects and those excited by the play of the imagination. Mr. Blackwood’s lesser work is marred by several defects such as ethical didacticism, occasional insipid whimsicality, the flatness of benignant supernaturalism, and a too free use of the trade jargon of modern “occultism”. A fault of his more serious efforts is that diffuseness and long-windedness which results from an excessively elaborate attempt, under the handicap of a somewhat bald and journalistic style devoid of intrinsic magic, colour, and vitality, to visualise precise sensations and nuances of uncanny suggestion. But in spite of all this, the major products of Mr. Blackwood attain a genuinely classic level, and evoke as does nothing else in literature an awed and convinced sense of the immanence of strange spiritual spheres or entities.

As one sees above there is a difference between “supernormal” and “supernaturalism” in Lovecraft’s aesthetic which I believe many of even his current readers confuse. At the heart of his aesthetic is this notion of cosmicism devoid of any religious connotation, and yet still open to the unknown and incomplete outer limits of thought and sensation. Ever the enemy of moralisms (i.e., ethical didacticism), he was also against the insipidity of much spiritualism and the “occult” of his day which he rightly associated with a deep seated need to bring the supernatural back into our secular word by means of false systems of rituals, technics, and practices one sees in both its quasi-Western and quasi-Eastern forms such as the Golden Dawn of which W.B. Yeats and other High Modernists would partake, and – as well, the Theosophical camps of Madame Blatavasky and her successors with their amalgam of Buddhist and Atlantis mythos and spiritualism of the Great White Brotherhood. Against such secularist religious and supernatural buffoonery he preferred the concept of Supernormal.

As he’d say in his “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,”

Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately— with a careful emotional “build-up”— else it will seem flat and unconvincing. (CE 2.177)

Yet, his sense of realism is a far cry from a Flaubert with the staid and minute detail of every aspect of social life, instead for Lovecraft even if the utterance is interpreted metaphysically, it should not be understood as signaling Lovecraft’s acceptance of the sort of non-supernatural phenomena— necrophilia, cannibalism, gruesome murders— that he had previously disallowed: these would not be representative of “non-supernatural cosmic art.” Rather, what we find in Lovecraft’s own later fiction is an instantiation of this conception by means of what Matthew H. Onderdonk termed the “supernormal”: “scientifically conceived gods and associated lore to take the place in literature of the simon-pure supernaturalism and more strictly poetical gods of our past days.” What this means is that the various “supernatural” phenomena in Lovecraft’s tales no longer defy natural law as such, but only our conceptions of natural law. This is made clear in a very carefully written passage:

“I choose weird stories because they suit my inclinations best— one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.” (CE 2.175-76)*

Lovecraft was not happy with the approach of the sciences of his day which he felt reduced every aspect of existence to a quantified and physicalist explanation that missed the excess and unknown worlds surrounding us, and yet he was also very much against those who retreated into supernaturalisms of any type or form – even secularisms. It was against received wisdom and traditions that enslaved and dominated people’s lives with those intemperate forms of ethical didacticisms; as well as brandishing any form of soteriological or redemptive vision. Being a true son of Lucretius he believed we should face death and the unknown with equanimity and not reach after false reasons and superstitions, but rather open ourselves to the great unknown cosmic frontiers of the mind beyond which thought falters and yet begins to awaken to the shock of those powers that are nameless, impersonal, and indifferent to the human.

  • (See the prefaces in The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature)

  1. Lovecraft, H. P.. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged (Kindle Locations 254-257). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.

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