“The sinister, the terrible never deceive: the state in which they leave us is always one of enlightenment. And only this condition of vicious insight allows us a full grasp of the world, all things considered, just as a frigid melancholy grants us full possession of ourselves. We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror.” – Thomas Ligotti
Before the niche categorisation of horror fiction there was weird fiction. Predating the tropes, clichés and genre-centric motifs that would come to define a piece of literature as horror, science fiction or fantasy, weird writing was an amalgam of all these things. In many instances, works of weird fiction actually established said tropes for the first time, before their eventual distillation under the genre-umbrellas we recognise today. As it sits critically between the gothic fiction of the eighteenth century and contemporary horror, it therefore represents an important stepping-stone in the evolution of my subject matter.
Weird fiction’s predilections were less romanticised than those of its gothic fiction predecessor. This is unsurprising, given the changed nature of the times in which it was penned. The concerns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were, naturally, different to those of the eighteenth century. Themes of religion and God still persisted but they were joined by other, more progressive interests and questions, not least the sciences, rising tensions for race, ethnicity, class, and man’s subsequent place in the universe. As with most fin-de-siècle societies, these were turbulent times with regards to philosophy and existentialism. It is no surprise, then, that these themes feature extensively as the subject of weird fiction. This kind of speculative writing lent itself beautifully to the exploration of new ideas, emerging concepts and the unknown. It is also no surprise that such vast, overarching ideas translated into the sublime. What is of interest is the form this sublime takes.
One common theme across almost all interpretations of the sublime is its association with divinity. An individual witnesses something so overwhelming and unfathomable that they cannot comprehend it. Their mind is defeated, and in that moment of defeat gives rise to a feeling for something transcendental, beyond conscious thought or language. Traditionally, this is interpreted as God. Longinus refers to the oratorical sublime “inspir[ing] and possess[ing] our words with a kind of madness and divine spirit” in the first century CE. Addison and Shaftsbury differ over their musings into the nature of the sublime but are unified in their agreement that God is the ultimate source. I could go on! What interests me about weird fiction is the appearance of themes and characters that challenge this.
For the first time, fiction blended science with the supernatural: mathematics, not magic, gave rise to portals. Monsters became the biological products of interracial fears. Gods still featured but these were monstrous, indifferent beings, dead or sleeping, sources of the sublime still but far removed from benevolence. This kind of sublime could not inspire transcendence, or, if it could, it was a much different kind of enlightenment, the results of which saw more than a handful of Lovecraft’s protagonists reduced to madness.
“What lay behind our joint love of shadows and marvels was, no doubt, the ancient, mouldering, and subtly fearsome town in which we live – witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham, whose huddled, sagging gambrel roofs and crumbling Georgian balustrades brood out the centuries beside the darkly muttering Miskatonic.” — HP Lovecraft
If there is a point at which the relationship between horror fiction and the sublime more closely begins to resemble its contemporary marriage, when the sublime abandons its reliance on such overarching concepts as nature or religion, it is here, amid the sagging, downtrodden streets of Lovecraft’s fiction, and those of his contemporaries. Huddled under sunken doorframes, hiding out the driving rain, we witness for the first time a glimpse of postmodern sublime in early horror literature.