W. Paul Cook wants an article from me on the element of terror & weirdness in literature, but I shall take my time about preparing it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 19 Nov 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.492
In November 1925, while living alone at 169 Clinton Street in Brooklyn, New York, H. P. Lovecraft was asked to write for his friend W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal, The Recluse. Up to this point, Lovecraft had been a fan of weird fiction and read many of the major works in the field, and a reader and contributor to Weird Tales for the last two years, but had never undertaken a systemic course of reading on weird fiction. Now without a wife or regular employment, he had an excuse to do so—as well as the resources of the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library to draw on.
A significant chunk of this reading, and the initial chapters of what would become “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was completed by May 1926; in April of that year, he moved back to Providence, Rhode Island. The final sketching and typing of the long essay was delayed by further discoveries at the Providence Public Library, and Lovecraft continued to make last-minute alterations up until 1927; the essay was finally published in The Recluse in August 1927.
I want to get down to the publick library & read that Timothy Dexter book, (of which Tryout has just sent me another fine review) as well as Gemmill’s new work on the Salem witch trials, & a volume of two or three years ago on the tale of terror.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clarke, 19 Nov 1925, LFF 1.493
[…] went out to the Bklyn. Library, got Birkhead’s history of “The Tale of Terror”, came home & read it through, & retired 7 a.m.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clarke, 25 Nov 1925, LFF 1.495
Chapters III & IV of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” are devoted to Gothic literature, and while Lovecraft did peruse the Gothics, one of his major acknowledged sources for these early chapters was The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (1921) by Edith Birkhead, an assistant lecturer in English literature at the University of Bristol. Birkhead’s study was pioneering in many ways, but as David Punter points out in The Literature of Terror, not only was it a very readable and accessible volume, but it was free of the defensive attitude toward genre fiction that characterized many other works on supernatural and Gothic fiction.
Even in the 1920s, there was something a little trashy and disreputable about such literary fare; penny dreadfuls and purple prose. Folks today still make fun of a novel starting “It was a dark and stormy night…” but that was the actual opening to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s neo-Gothic novel Paul Clifford (1830), which Birkhead mentions in passing. Even Lovecraft was not above taking a shot at such works, referring in his essay to:
[…] the dreary plethora of trash like Marquis von Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries (1796), Mrs. Roche’s Children of the Abbey (1796), Miss Dacre’s Zofloya; or, The Moor (1806), and the poet Shelley’s schoolboy effusions Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne (1811) (both imitations of Zofloya) […]
While Lovecraft did read several Gothic novels in the course of his research, the ones listed above are not books which Lovecraft tracked down and read for himself: he was distilling Birkhead’s more detailed history of Gothic literature for his own purposes. No doubt Lovecraft also appreciated that Birkhead did not stint on attention to American Gothic authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe in her chapter on “American Tales of Terror,” and her description of Poe in particular has many echoes with Lovecraft’s own stylistic efforts:
But Poe’s psychology went deeper than that of the writers of romance. His art was much subtler, finer, and more self-conscious than theirs. He was a penetrating critic of his own work, and was deeply interested in craftsmanship. No doubt he analysed the structure of his tales as closely as that of his poem, The Raven, and studied constantly their precise effect on the mind of the reader. In his best tales we feel that he knows from the first sentence exactly what the end is to be. In choosing his subject, he intentionally shuns the normal and turns to the odd, the exceptional and the bizarre. He watches for the airy, gossamer filaments of sensation that float unrealised through most men’s minds and transfers them to his stories. He imagines obscure feelings as intensely as he imagines actual scenes. It seems as if he had brooded so long over his story and become so completely absorbed into its atmosphere that the fine shades of emotion are as real to him as the background he has conceived as a setting. He does not aim at depicting character. The people in his tales are little more than algebraical symbols. he prefers to follow the twists and turns of a brain working under some abnormal influence. His not interested in healthy human minds or hearts. […] His pictures are sometimes so vivid that they make the senses ache. Like Maturin, he even resorts to italics to enforce his effect. He crashes down heavily on a chord which would resound at a touch. […] While he was writing, Poe did not for a moment let his imagination run riot. the outline of the story was so distinctly conceived, its atmosphere so familiar to him, that he had leisure to choose his words accurately, and to dispose his sentences harmoniously, with the final effect ever steadily in view. the impression that he swiftly flashes across our minds is deep and enduring.
—Edith Birkhead, The Tale of Terror 219-220
Lovecraft’s opinion on Birkhead’s book was mixed. While he did not hesitate to recommend it to his friends and correspondents, notably August Derleth (who would write his thesis on “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890“) and Donald Wandrei (who was taking an honors course in Gothic fiction at university), to Wandrei he admitted:
I read the Birkhead book on “The Tale of Terror”, but found it exceedingly ill-proportioned & imaginatively unappreciative.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 11 Dec 1926, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei 22
No doubt, this was due to the relative narrowness of the scope of The Tale of Terror, and because Lovecraft’s own tastes—reflected in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—were focused on the uncanny and supernatural, more than the merely terrible or gruesome phases of literature, and because Birkhead’s remit ran out before she tackled contemporary weird fiction or writers such as Arthur Machen or M. R. James. In other places, Lovecraft was more effusive in his praise:
Do you know Railo’s “The Gothic Castle” & Birkhead’s “The Tale of Terror”? Both are excellent exposition of the earlier phases of horror-fiction in English—the Walpole-Radcliffe-Lewis-Maturin type. I could lend you the Birkhead book.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 22 Mar 1932, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 92
Eino Railo was a Finnish scholar whose treatise The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism was published in English in 1927. Lovecraft would count his work along with Birkhead as one of the default textbooks on Gothic fiction, although he read it too late to incorporate into the first publication of his own article:
Speaking of Gothic source material—Cook has just lent me a brand new book by one Eino Railo (never heard of him before) which for thoroughness throws Birkhead altogether into the shade—although its scope is even narrower.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 22 Oct 1927, LWP 171
Lovecraft did not cease collecting material after “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was published, but continued to collect notes with an eye toward a revised version of the text, incorporating more material he subsequently found on important authors like William Hope Hodgson. In this, Wandrei was very useful in pointing Lovecraft toward some other sources:
By the way, in looking through the bookstacks of the University library the other [day], I came across “The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction”, by Dorothy Scarborough; it does not seem to be especially good as a monograph but it mentions a great many books and tales which I do not know. I have also discovered at the U. a professor whose speciality is the eighteenth century and who is fond of Gothic literature. He says a French book on the subject has just been issued, under the title, I think, “Le Roman de Terreur”. I don’t remember the author’s name, but I’ll find it out. The book apparently has not come into the library as yet; hence I can’t say how good it is.
—Donald Wandrei to H. P. Lovecraft, 28 Feb 1927, LWP 59-60
Dorothy Scarborough, PhD., was an English instructor at Columbia University, and her work The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) is an extensive survey of the entire field of supernatural works in English, though even with this vast scope and a bibliography of some three thousand titles, she admits in her preface that it isn’t possible to mention every title, the field is simply too vast. Still, her volume represents one of, if not the, first major assay of the field of supernatural fiction in English. Her general expertise on ghost stories was acknowledged in several collections, notably The Best Psychic Stories (1920), Humorous Ghost Stories (1921), and Famous Modern Ghost Stories (1921)
The other work Wandrei mentions is Le roman “terrifiant”: ou, Roman noir de Walpole à Anne Radeliffe et son influence sur la littérature française jusqu’en 1840 (The ‘Terror’ Story, or the Black Novel from from Walpole to Anne Radeliffe and its influence on French literature until 1840,” 1923) by Alice M. Killen, a revision of her 1920 thesis. This is a strictly French-language work on the Gothic novel in much the same vein as Railo and Birkhead, although again with a narrower focus. Lovecraft didn’t read French and never saw Killen’s book, though he continued to cite her as an expert in the field—but he did read Scarborough.
Thanks tremendously for the Scarborough book, which I read with keen interest & am going to return the first moment I can get to a post office. It was certainly kind of you to send it. The material is really of great value, & I am immensely glad I had a chance to go through it. As you say, the weakest parts are those dealing with later work. The author does not mention M. R. James, & her prim distaste for Machen’s macabre suggestions is rather amusing. Likewise, her efforts to be continually jocose & flippant become a little strained as one reads on. There is no conflict with my article, because the scope & method of the work are entirely different. This book covers not only horror but all forms of the supernatural, & includes the comic & the lightly whimsical as well as the grotesque & the terrible. Also, its plan of development & system of emphasis is entirely different. What I am trying to do is give a list of especially notable works containing supernatural horror; listing them by periods & authors & allotting them notice on the basis of their strength & merit in the given field. Dr. Scarborough, on the other hand, is trying to trace certain types of subject-matter through literature in a less critical way—being interested in the mere mention of a certain superstition by an author, & listing items simply because they deal with such-&-such—not because they have a special power to influence the emotions. This system involves a radically different form of outline, as you see. Instead of going ahead chronologically & treating the most powerful books of each period, Scarborough follows first one stream of subdivided subject-matter & then another—i.e., ghosts, devil, vampire, werewolf, wandering Jew, metempsychosis, alchemy, folklore, science, &c. &c. In the course of this scheme she lists many things so pallid & inane that one can hardly think of their deserving a place except from the standpoint of academic scholarship. And yet, for all that it’s a valuable book. It certainly brings out many essential facts & tendencies amazingly well, & will bear comparison with anything else on this theme ever written. The separate & perhaps encyclopaedic bibliography edited by Dr. S. must be another item of great importance. Let me know any time you want to see the Birkhead book. […] I obtained several hints from Scarborough, & also copied two tributes to the weird as a genre from the introduction—Lafcadio Hearn’s & the author’s own. Whether I’ll ever get around to preparing a second & amended edition of my article, I’m sure I don’t know.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 31 Mar 1932, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 95
As it happened, Lovecraft did get that chance. Charles D. Hornig, the editor of The Fantasy Fan fanzine, serialized the revised essay in parts from 1933-1935…at which point the series ended, having only published up to the revised chapter VIII. The full revised text was not published until two years after Lovecraft’s death, in The Outsider and Others (1939, Arkham House).
The influence that Scarborough had on Lovecraft’s revised version of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is hard to measure. A comparison of the original 1927 text and the 1939 text show some substantial revisions, some of which might be due to additional authors and insights provided by Scarborough, but others which concern contemporary authors that Scarborough’s book doesn’t touch upon. Yet for the rest of his life, Lovecraft generally acknowledged the authority of Birkhead and Scarborough in passages like:
Weird elements have permeated literature since prehistoric times—flourishing in Elizabethan drama & forming a distinct school since the middle of the eighteenth century. (cf. “The Tale of Terror” by Edith Birkhead; “The Haunted Castle”, by Eino Railo; “The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction”, by Dorothy Scarborough—all presumably obtainable at the public library […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, 12 Apr 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 30
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Lovecraft’s acknowledgement of the expertise of these two women is how unremarkable it is. Lovecraft at no point makes any issue of their gender, and while he does not agree with them in all particulars, he also does not associate the source of that disagreement with their being women. He acknowledged their expertise and scholastic efforts, at least in their letters. While “Supernatural Horror in Literature” only credits Birkhead and not Scarborough, that is no doubt because he leaned much more heavily on Birkhead’s scholarship in the early chapters on the Gothics.
Since his death, Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” has probably become his most influential essay, a survey and definition of the field of weird fiction which, while not as exhaustive as that of Birkhead, Railo, Killen, and Scarborough, is more focused on what we think of as the “weird tale” today. Like Roger Bacon, if Lovecraft saw a little further than other weird talers during his lifetime, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants like Birkhead and Scarborough, and all those who cite his essay are in turn being influenced by these great women scholars of the weird.
Edith Birkhead’s The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance may be read for free online here.
Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction may be read for free online here.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).