3. Unknown Wonder
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” H.P.Lovecraft, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’
It has become apparent that the Romantic Sublime is the form of the sublime that I have recognised up until now when reading particular kinds of horror fiction, linked as they are by the time period in which the Romantic Sublime and Gothic fiction appeared, the mutual themes of the supernatural, and the reliance of this sublime on art/literature as a means of being invoked. While interpretations of the sublime vary between schools of philosophy, critical theory, theology and ethics – to name but a few – it is the Romantic Sublime of the eighteenth-century that invests importance in art, and, subsequently, literature, as a sublime medium. My preoccupations are for contemporary instances of sublime horror, but it is still noteworthy to examine more closely the relationship between the Romantic Sublime and Gothic fiction, if for no other reason that to better inform and reflect on any contemporary conclusions I might later come to.
Aside from the century in which they both rose to inception and the emphasis on art/literature as form, it is Gothic fiction’s soul that seems responsible for invoking the sublime in readers. By this, I mean the tropes that define the genre: terror, the supernatural, old gods, castles, forests, storms and ancient rituals, each serving to imbue the grandeur, the otherworldliness, the unfathomable and the mystic associated with sublime. But what is it about these things that suggest sublimity?
The sublime is evoked by vastness, representations of the divine, and the unfathomable. Whether it is an object, a concept or a geographical location – and almost anything can be sublime, under the right conditions – it is the inability of the human mind to comprehend the sight before it that defeats it, in turn opening it up to that which lies beyond thought or language. In the context of Gothic fiction, it therefore appears that this kind of fiction is sublime because of the otherworldly and ultimately unfathomable qualities of the key elements that constitute it; towering castles, sprawling forests, irrevocable decay and the supernatural. These Gothic tropes are either too vast, timeless or alien for us to appreciate, and from this sense of the unknown springs the sublime. I refer back to the above quote by Lovecraft, attesting to the nature of fear: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Taken to its source, the same unknown that terrifies us can also take us beyond fear, and, to those open to reflection, the sublime state of mind that wells briefly into being when thought and language fails us. It is interesting to conclude that ‘the unknown’ seems the underlying link here, at least between the Romantic Sublime and Gothic fiction. Going forward to examine contemporary sublime theories and horror fiction, this will certainly be something to consider.
It is also interesting to note that Lovecraft identifies a marginal audience for readers of weird fiction, attesting in ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ that “The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from everyday life. Relatively few are free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond to tappings from outside.” These are sentiments echoed by French theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard, when he writes of the sublime that it “cannot be taught… it requires a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to detect the presence of this ‘inexplicable’ and ‘hidden’ phenomenon.” For the English Romantics, attuned and open to the imagination, the sublime began to denote a realm of experience beyond the rational or the measurable, arising chiefly from terrifying and awe-inspiring natural – and supernatural – phenomena.