The Theory of the Weird Tale
H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
What sets Lovecraft apart from virtually all his predecessors (and, for that matter, successors) in weird fiction is that he developed a detailed and ever-evolving theory of the weird tale that, to be sure, structured his own work but whose cogency makes it a compelling theoretical construct for the entire genre. Some critics have maintained that this theory is largely self-serving—a justification of the specific brand of weird tale he himself was writing—but, aside from a possible overemphasis on the “cosmic” (Lovecraft’s signature contribution to the field), it is capable of far wider application.
One of the earliest expressions of his “cosmic approach”—one that fuses his philosophical understanding of the insignificance of humanity in a universe of infinite extent in both space and time—occurs in the so-called In Defence of Dagon essays of 1921:
I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos—to the unknown—which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background. (CE 5.53)
Although perhaps himself unaware of it, Lovecraft has by this statement created a manifest distinction between himself and nearly all the literature, weird or mainstream, that preceded him.
Lovecraft emerged at a critical juncture in the history of supernatural fiction. His wide readings among his predecessors, and his profound knowledge of science and philosophy, led him to conclude that many of the standard tropes and motifs of weird fiction were stale and played out. It is noteworthy that there is not a single instance of the standard ghost, vampire, witch, werewolf, or haunted house in any of Lovecraft’s tales; where these motifs are used, they are usually modified almost beyond recognition and, more significantly, updated so that they can pass aesthetic muster in an age whose immense strides in scientific knowledge had rendered these conceptions virtually unusable because of their reliance on outmoded religious presuppositions. Lovecraft, as a lifelong and resolute atheist, could not bring himself to subscribe to such conceptions, and this fact alone represents an immense break with previous literary tradition.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Lovecraft’s most important contribution, as far as the history of weird fiction is concerned, is a fusion of the supernatural with the burgeoning field of science fiction. For all its anticipations in the work of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, science fiction has canonically been thought to commence with the publication of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories in 1926. Lovecraft himself published “The Colour out of Space” (1927) in Amazing in 1927, and late in life he published two of his most impressive “cosmic” narratives, At the Mountains of Madness (1931) and “The Shadow out of Time” (1934—35), in 1936 issues of another leading science fiction pulp, Astounding Stories.
The stories of Lovecraft’s first decade of mature fiction-writing (1917—26) are on the whole conventional, although with a few striking specimens. They indicate his slow and unsystematic departure from conventional Gothicism into a distinctive amalgam of horror and science fiction. “The Tomb,” theoretically set in New England but really in a never-never-land of his own imagination, could have been written by Poe; it even includes a poem (a drinking song—anomalously for one who was a lifelong teetotaller) reminiscent of the poems in “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But “Dagon,” written only a month or so later, already foreshadows his later work: a strikingly cosmic tale of an undersea mass that emerges to the surface of the Pacific as the result of an earthquake, it suggests the existence of an entire civilisation of undersea creatures who threaten the very existence of the human race: “I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed … I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind—of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascent amidst universal pandemonium” (F 27).
Lovecraft’s discovery of Lord Dunsany in 1919 in some sense represents a deviation from the supernatural realism that would become his dominant mode of writing: in the two years that followed, Lovecraft produced an array of obvious Dunsany imitations that, although several are noteworthy in their own right, are on the whole slight and derivative. Ultimately, Lovecraft came to absorb the Dunsany influence and meld it with his evolving worldview; indeed, as we shall see, he eventually attributed to Dunsany the core inspiration for the pseudomythology that has become the most recognisable feature of his work.
During this period Lovecraft continued to write tales of supernatural horror, some of them powerful. Three can perhaps be singled out: “The Picture in the House” (1920), “The Outsider” (1921), and “The Rats in the Walls” (1923).
“The Outsider” is worth discussing first, for it is manifestly a backward-looking tale that, as Lovecraft himself admitted, “represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height” (Selected Letters 3.379). This broodingly atmospheric tale of a man who appears to emerge out of the tower of a castle that is, paradoxically, underground and finds that his entry into a brightly lit room causes fear and consternation among a group of partygoers features a climax that is perhaps not entirely unexpected: the man himself is the monster that he sees reflected in a mirror. Nevertheless, the poignancy of the concluding paragraph cannot be gainsaid: “For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass” (F 169). The tale is capable of multiple interpretations, of which the psychologically devastating effects of knowledge—a theme that Lovecraft utilised in many subsequent tales—is perhaps the most pertinent.
“The Picture in the House” is one of the first tales where Lovecraft made extensive use of his deep knowledge of New England history and culture. As a Rhode Island rationalist and atheist, Lovecraft saw only horror in the crabbed psychology of the witch-hunting Puritans of Massachusetts, and “The Picture in the House” is a searing portrayal of the grim effects that ignorance, isolation, and inbreeding can engender. It is the tale that introduces us in passing to the city of Arkham, the first of an entire constellation of imaginary locales in New England that have themselves taken on a life of their own in subsequent literature, and which marks Lovecraft as a noted regionalist. His use of an archaic New England dialect, placed in the mouth of the hideous denizen of the remote house, who has prolonged his life unnaturally by cannibalism, is chillingly effective.
With “The Rats in the Walls” Lovecraft attains the pinnacle of his work in the old-time Gothic tradition. Although set in England, it is a kind of fusion of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and The House of the Seven Gables. An American industrialist, Delapore, returns to England to reclaim an ancestral estate but finds that a nameless army of rats—which only he and his cat can hear—are infesting the place; but in the end he learns something far more horrifying: his own family has for generations been a family of cannibals—a revelation that causes Delapore himself to regress instantly upon the evolutionary scale, until he is found crouching over the half-eaten form of a friend. The sheer narrative artistry of the story—one of the most flawless short stories in all weird fiction—may deflect our attention away from its richness of theme and substance. Far from merely being the story of a supernatural curse, the tale is aggressively modern in its pungent depiction of the truth of Darwin’s theory—something that can be seen as early as the juvenile tale “The Beast in the Cave” (1905), as well as in “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1920), where a staid English nobleman discovers his ancestry from an ape.
This use of modern science reaches a pinnacle, during this period, in “The Shunned House” (1924), ostensibly another House of the Seven Gables imitation but in reality something very different. The tale has been thought to be a kind of vampire story, but the vampire in question is very unorthodox. What exactly has been causing the frequent deaths over generations in a colonial house in Providence? The protagonist and his uncle ultimately learn the truth: a descendant of a purported werewolf, Jacques Roulet, of Caude (an actual individual whom Lovecraft found discussed in John Fiske’s Myths and Myth-Makers ), came to Providence and resided in the house. But this apparent conventionalism masks a profoundly new and quasi-scientific approach to the whole vampire legend:
We were not, as I have said, in any sense childishly superstitious, but scientific study and reflection had taught us that the known universe of three dimensions embraces the merest fraction of the whole cosmos of substance and energy. In this case an overwhelming preponderance of evidence from numerous authentic sources pointed to the tenacious existence of certain forces of great power and, so far as the human point of view is concerned, exceptional malignancy. To say that we actually believed in vampires or werewolves would be a carelessly inclusive statement. Rather must it be said that we were not prepared to deny the possibility of certain unfamiliar and unclassified modifications of vital force and attenuated matter; existing very infrequently in three-dimensional space because of its more intimate connexion with other spatial units, yet close enough to the boundary of our own to furnish us occasional manifestations which we, for lack of a proper vantage point, may never hope to understand… .
Such a thing was not surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic science. (F 305—6)
This is an immensely important statement, for it translates the entire story to the realm of science fiction—as does the dispatching of the hideous entity, not by a cross or a stake through the heart, but by a dousing with hydrochloric acid.
These stories set the stage for the most representative phase of Lovecraft’s literary career—the stories of his final decade of writing, which, although remarkably few in number, effected a revolution in the weird tale.