Supernatural Horror in Literature: Dawn of the Horror Tale

Original essay by HP Lovecraft. Annotations and illustrations curated by Anika Cabot, for American Eldritch no. 1.


            Cosmic terror appears as an ingredient of the earliest folklore of all races, and is crystallised in the most archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings. It was, indeed, a prominent feature of the elaborate ceremonial magic, with its rituals for the evocation of daemons and spectres, which flourished from prehistoric times, and which reached its highest development in Egypt and the Semitic nations[18]. Fragments like the Book of Enoch[19] and the Claviculae of Solomon[20] well illustrate the power of the weird over the ancient Eastern mind, and upon such things were based enduring systems and traditions whose echoes extend obscurely even to the present time. Touches of this transcendental[21] fear are seen in classic literature, and there is evidence of its still greater emphasis in a ballad literature which paralleled the classic stream but vanished for lack of a written medium. The Middle Ages, steeped in fanciful darkness, gave it an enormous impulse toward expression; and East and West alike were busy preserving and amplifying the dark heritage, both of random folklore and of academically formulated magic and cabbalism[22], which had descended to them. Witch, werewolf, vampire, and ghoul brooded ominously on the lips of bard and grandam[23], and needed but little encouragement to take the final step across the boundary that divides the chanted tale or song from the formal literary composition. In the Orient, the weird tale tended to assume a gorgeous colouring and sprightliness which almost transmuted it into sheer phantasy. In the West, where the mystical Teuton[24] had come down from his black Boreal forests[25] and the Celt[26] remembered strange sacrifices in Druidic[27] groves, it assumed a terrible intensity and convincing seriousness of atmosphere which doubled the force of its half-told, half-hinted horrors.

        Much of the power of Western horror-lore was undoubtedly due to the hidden but often suspected presence of a hideous cult of nocturnal worshippers whose strange customs—descended from pre-Aryan[28] and pre-agricultural times when a squat race of Mongoloids[29] roved over Europe with their flocks and herds—were rooted in the most revolting fertility-rites of immemorial antiquity. This secret religion, stealthily handed down amongst peasants for thousands of years despite the outward reign of the Druidic, Graeco-Roman[30], and Christian[31] faiths in the regions involved, was marked by wild “Witches’ Sabbaths” in lonely woods and atop distant hills on Walpurgis-Night[32] and Hallowe’en, the traditional breeding-seasons of the goats and sheep and cattle; and became the source of vast riches of sorcery-legend, besides provoking extensive witchcraft- prosecutions of which the Salem affair[33] forms the chief American example. Akin to it in essence, and perhaps connected with it in fact, was the frightful secret system of inverted theology or Satan-worship which produced such horrors as the famous “Black Mass”[34]; whilst operating toward the same end we may note the activities of those whose aims were somewhat more scientific or philosophical—the astrologers, cabbalists, and alchemists[35] of the Albertus Magnus[36] or Raymond Lully type, with whom such rude ages invariably abound. The prevalence and depth of the mediaeval horror-spirit in Europe, intensified by the dark despair which waves of pestilence[37] brought, may be fairly gauged by the grotesque carvings slyly introduced into much of the finest later Gothic ecclesiastical work[38] of the time; the daemoniac gargoyles of Notre Dame and Mont St. Michel being among the most famous specimens. And throughout the period, it must be remembered, there existed amongst educated and uneducated alike a most unquestioning faith in every form of the supernatural; from the gentlest of Christian doctrines to the most monstrous morbidities of witchcraft and black magic. It was from no empty background that the Renaissance magicians and alchemists—Nostradamus[39], Trithemius[40], Dr. John Dee[41], Robert Fludd,[42] and the like—were born.

            In this fertile soil were nourished types and characters of sombre myth and legend which persist in weird literature to this day, more or less disguised or altered by modern technique. Many of them were taken from the earliest oral sources, and form part of mankind’s permanent heritage. The shade which appears and demands the burial of its bones, the daemon lover who comes to bear away his still living bride, the death-fiend or psychopomp[43] riding the night-wind, the man-wolf, the sealed chamber, the deathless sorcerer—all these may be found in that curious body of mediaeval lore which the late Mr. Baring-Gould[44] so effectively assembled in book form. Wherever the mystic Northern blood was strongest, the atmosphere of the popular tales became most intense; for in the Latin races there is a touch of basic rationality which denies to even their strangest superstitions many of the overtones of glamour so characteristic of our own forest-born and ice-fostered whisperings.

            Just as all fiction first found extensive embodiment in poetry, so is it in poetry that we first encounter the permanent entry of the weird into standard literature. Most of the ancient instances, curiously enough, are in prose; as the werewolf incident in Petronius[45], the gruesome passages in Apuleius[46] the brief but celebrated letter of Pliny the Younger[47] to Sura, and the odd compilation On Wonderful Events by the Emperor Hadrian’s Greek freedman, Phlegon[48]. It is in Phlegon that we first find that hideous tale of the corpse-bride, “Philinnion and Machates”, later related by Proclus and in modern times forming the inspiration of Goethe’s[49] “Bride of Corinth” and Washington Irving’s[50] “German Student”. But by the time the old Northern myths take literary form, and in that later time when the weird appears as a steady element in the literature of the day, we find it mostly in metrical dress; as indeed we find the greater part of the strictly imaginative writing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Scandinavian Eddas and Sagas[51] thunder with cosmic horror, and shake with the stark fear of Ymir[52] and his shapeless spawn; whilst our own Anglo-Saxon Beowulf and the later Continental Nibelung[53] tales are full of eldritch[54] weirdness. Dante is a pioneer in the classic capture of macabre atmosphere, and in Spenser’s stately stanzas will be seen more than a few touches of fantastic terror in landscape, incident, and character. Prose literature gives us Malory’s[55] Morte d’Arthur, in which are presented many ghastly situations taken from early ballad sources—the theft of the sword and silk from the corpse in Chapel Perilous by Sir Launcelot, the ghost of Sir Gawaine, and the tomb-fiend seen by Sir Galahad—whilst other and cruder specimens were doubtless set forth in the cheap and sensational “chapbooks”[56] vulgarly hawked about and devoured by the ignorant. In Elizabethan drama[57], with its Dr. Faustus, the witches in Macbeth, the ghost in Hamlet, and the horrible gruesomeness of Webster[58], we may easily discern the strong hold of the daemoniac on the public mind; a hold intensified by the very real fear of living witchcraft, whose terrors, first wildest on the Continent, begin to echo loudly in English ears as the witch-hunting crusades of James the First[59] gain headway. To the lurking mystical prose of the ages is added a long line of treatises on witchcraft and daemonology which aid in exciting the imagination of the reading world.

            Through the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century we behold a growing mass of fugitive legendry and balladry of darksome cast; still, however, held down beneath the surface of polite and accepted literature. Chapbooks of horror and weirdness multiplied, and we glimpse the eager interest of the people through fragments like Defoe’s[60] “Apparition of Mrs. Veal”, a homely tale of a dead woman’s spectral visit to a distant friend, written to advertise covertly a badly selling theological disquisition on death. The upper orders of society were now losing faith in the supernatural, and indulging in a period of classic rationalism. Then, beginning with the translations of Eastern tales in Queen Anne’s[61] reign and taking definite form toward the middle of the century, comes the revival of romantic feeling—the era of new joy in Nature, and in the radiance of past times, strange scenes, bold deeds, and incredible marvels. We feel it first in the poets, whose utterances take on new qualities of wonder, strangeness, and shuddering. And finally, after the timid appearance of a few weird scenes in the novels of the day—such as Smollett’s[62] Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom—the released instinct precipitates itself in the birth of a new school of writing; the “Gothic” school of horrible and fantastic prose fiction, long and short, whose literary posterity is destined to become so numerous, and in many cases so resplendent[63] in artistic merit. It is, when one reflects upon it, genuinely remarkable that weird narration as a fixed and academically recognised literary form should have been so late of final birth. The impulse and atmosphere are as old as man, but the typical weird tale of standard literature is a child of the eighteenth century.


[18]          Semitic Nations – The first organized states (and members of a language family that can traced back at to at least the 30th century BC), who would seize control of Mesopotamia, and indeed, the course of early Western Civilization, during the Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires (2335 BC – 539 BC).

[19]          Book of Enoch (300 BC – 1st Century): pre-rabbinical Apocrypha that elaborates on the story of the Great Flood; introduces the human-angel hybrid cryptids known as Nephilim; and describes a vision of heaven and its fragrances as revealed to Enoch on a long walk with YHWH.

[20]          Keys of Solomon (Clavicula Salomonis + Clavicula Salomonis Regis, 14th – 17th Century): grimoires of spells and incantations attributed to the biblical Solomon.

[21]          Transcendental (adj.): of, or relating to, a spiritual or nonphysical world.

[22]          Cabbalism (n.): occult science or doctrine, practiced in secret (from: Kabbalah, an esoteric Jewish tradition of mysticism)

[23]          Grandam (n.): an old woman, or female ancestor. 

[24]          13. Teuton (n.): Proto-Germanic Indo-European tribal society, with common heritage descended from the culture of the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 BCE – 600 BCE).

[25]          Boreal Forest (n): primarily coniferous woodland in the cold temperate biome of the Taiga.

[26]          Celt (n.): Indo-European tribal society, displaced in the 1st Century after the Great Migration of the Germanic peoples. The Celts would become Romanized over the course of several centuries.

[27]          Druidic (adj.): relating to the Druids, Celtic and Galatian priests of the Iron Age (1200 BCE – 700 AD).

[28]          Aryan (adj.): of or relating to ancient Indo-Iranian tribes. At the time of Lovecraft’s writing, the term was used to describe all Proto-Indo-Europeans, due to erroneous anthropology.

[29]          Mongoloid (n.): archaic, wildly offensive. One of three proposed ‘major races,’ this early ethnological term was once used to describe Central/East Asian peoples.

[30]          Graeco-Roman (adj.): of or relating to the classical period between 8th century BC and the 4th century AD, in which two Mediterranean empires were overseen by a continuous pantheon of gods based on planetary forces.

[31]          Christian (adj.): of or relating to the monotheistic religion whose cultural prominence dates back to its adoption by the Roman empire in the 4th Century AD.

[32]          Walpurgis Night (April 6th): ancient spring festival with bonfires and dancing, celebrated in Central and Northern Europe on the eve of May Day.

[33]          Salem Witch Trials (1692 – 1693): infamous American witch trials that resulted in hundreds of accusations and 28 deaths.

[34]          Black Mass (n): a sacrilegious parody of the catholic mass ritual.

[35]          Alchemists (n): practitioners of Hermetic protoscience, combining principals of chemistry with spiritual theory.

[36]          Albertus Magnus (~ 1200 – 1280): Catholic Saint, German cosmic philosopher,

[37]          Black Death (1236 – 1353): an epidemic of bubonic plague that killed between 75 and 200 million Europeans. 

[38]          Ecclesiastical Gothic Architecture (12th Century – 16th Century): elaborate cathedrals which attempted to convey the glory of Providence through grandiose design and intricate décor.

[39]          Michel de Nostradame (1503-1566): French healer during the Black Plague, prominent soothsayer and astrologer.

[40]          Johannes Trithemius (1462 – 1516): German abbot and polymath; innovative and influential cryptographer.

[41]          John Dee (1527 – 1608): Elizabethan advisor, astronomer, pioneer of Enochian magic.

[42]          Robert Fludd (1574 – 1637): Hermetic physician, antagonist of natural scientists.

[43]          Psychopomp (n): a spiritual guide for the recently deceased.

[44]          Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834 – 1924): prolific English antiquarian, folk scholar, Anglican Priest, and archeologist.

[45]          Petronius Arbiter (27 – 66 AD): Judge of Eloquence under Emperor Nero, author of the Satyricon.

[46]          Lucius Apuleius (125 – 180 AD): Priest of Asclepius, Dionysian initiate, author of Metamorphosis, a bawdy picaresque. 

[47]          Pliny the Younger (61 – 112 AD): career politician who served under four different Roman emperors; author of the Epistulae, a massive collection of letters. His letter to Sura detailed the first Haunted House tale.

[48]          Phlegon of Tralles (2nd Century): Roman paradoxographer, and historian of Classical Greece, credited with the first Vampire story.

[49]          Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832): German author and illustrator, lawyer, Bavarian Illuminist, and confidant to the Duke of Weinmar.

[50]          Washington Irving (1783 – 1859): first American Literary celebrity, satirist, and New York socialite. Author of “Sleepy Hollow.”

[51]          Eddas and Sagas (13th and 14th Century): oral traditions of Norse Mythology, which were collected and translated by European scholars.

[52]          Ymir (n.): Father of the Ice Giants and primeval villain of the Norse myths, born from the illimitable void in the merger of fire and ice.

[53]          Nibelung (n.): a race of Germanic dwarves, antagonists of Siegfried in the Nibelung Cycle of the Eddas.

[54]          Eldritch (adj.): Of unknown realms, otherworldly.

[55]          Sir Thomas Malory (1416 – 1471): an english knight and widely-loathed scourge upon the gentry; he is thought to have written Le Morte d’Arthur during a prison sentence (if he is indeed the true author).

[56]          Chapbook (n): a cheap, pocket-sized publication.

[57]          Elizabethan Drama/Renaissance Theatre (1567-1642): Shakespearian Enlightenment; English language revenge tragedies, city comedies and history plays, notable for uniting social classes inside spaces designed as microcosms of the universe.

[58]          John Webster (1580 – 1634): Jacobian dramatist with a penchant for brutal tragedies, and a contemporary of Shakespeare.

[59]          James VI and I (1566-1625): the first king to rule both of the sovereign states of Scotland and England; author of Daemononlogie, a condemnation of sorcery and witchcraft.

[60]          Daniel DeFoe (1660-1731): British pamphleteer, novelist, and spy for William the Third.

[61]          Queen Anne (1665 – 1714): Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland, oversaw the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

[62]          Tobias Smollett (1721 – 1771): Scottish historian, picaresque novelist, and naval surgeon serving the HSS Chinchester.

[63]          Resplendent (adj.): attractive, impressive; richly colorful.

American Eldritch Journal 01 Card