H. P. Lovecraft and the Literature of the Fantastic: Explorations in a Literary Genre

Examination Thesis, 2005
97 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Fantastic: Defining a Literary Genre
2.1 The Problem of Terminology
2.2 Minimalistic Concepts of the Fantastic
2.2.1 Tzvetan Todorov’sEinführung in die fantastische Literatur
2.2.2 Uwe Durst’sTheorie der phantastischen Literatur
2.3 Maximalistic Concepts of the Fantastic
2.3.1 H. P. Lovecraft’sSupernatural Horror in Literature
2.3.2 Florian Marzin’sDie phantastische Literatur
2.4 Summary

3. The Fantastic in American Literature
3.1 The Fantastic Tradition in America
3.1.1 Monsters from the Sea
3.1.2 Fear of the Unknown
3.1.3 The Puritan Way of Life
3.1.4 Witchcraft
3.1.5 An Obsession with Death
3.1.6 The Decline of a Region
3.2 Some American Writers of the Fantastic
3.2.1 Washington Irving
3.2.2 Nathaniel Hawthorne
3.2.3 Edgar Allan Poe
3.2.4 Henry James
3.2.5 Stephen King

4. Weird Tales of Cosmic Fear: The Fantastic in H. P. Lovecraft
4.1 Recluse, Dreamer, Racist, or Genius: The Life of H. P. Lovecraft
4.2 H. P. Lovecraft’s Literary Achievement
4.3 H. P. Lovecraft’s Literary Influences
4.4 H. P. Lovecraft as Cult Figure and His Impact on Modern Popular Culture
4.5 Literature of Cosmic Fear: H. P. Lovecraft’s Concept of Fantastic Fiction
4.6 A Brief Study of Three of H. P. Lovecraft’s Short Stories
4.6.1 The Dunwich Horror
4.6.2 The Horror at Red Hook
4.6.3 The Call of Cthulhu

5. Conclusion

6. List of Works Cited and Consulted

1. Introduction

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed stories that in some way deal with the supernatural or fantastic, either in the form of movies or literature. As a child I didn’t care much for the usual stories about the “happy little elves in fairy-tale land” and the like, but preferred reading vampire stories – those were vampire stories adapted for young readers, of course, and they wouldn’t really scare anyone but the most faint-hearted, but they were still vampire stories. I also developed an interest in horror films at a relatively early age, despite the fact that my first encounter with this genre was a rather unpleasant one. The first horror film I saw was a 1980s remake ofThe Fly, a genre classic that was originally released in the 1950s, and it literally scared the living hell out of me. It was so bad that halfway through the movie, too frightened to watch it any longer, I buried my face in a pillow and started screaming like some deranged mental patient – and I won’t even talk about the gruesome nightmares I had during the weeks that followed.

Yet, curious as it may seem, this experience apparently didn’t traumatize me enough to have me keep my hands off of such subject matters for the rest of my life. Soon enough my interest in the horror-film genre was rekindled, and I discovered many a classic that I haven’t grown tired of watching to this very day. Apart from the movies, I also increasingly turned to narratives dealing with supernatural themes. These themes would range from science fiction (ah, those good old Perry Rhodan stories…) over fantasy (luckily I discovered theLord of the Ringstrilogy long before the – admittedly excellent – film version by Peter Jackson, or I might never have read this milestone of fantasy literature) to the more gory horror stories of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and the likes. Particularly my appreciation for Stephen King’s novels made me want to explore the field of the more classic “horror story” (an admittedly awkward and very often inappropriate term, but I shall come to that at a later stage in this paper), as these stories and their respective authors have obviously been a major influence and source of inspiration for King’s work. This at first led me to H. P. Lovecraft, the one representative of the genre I probably admire the most, and later also to writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Washington Irving, some of whose stories I have read and, for the most part, greatly appreciated during my years as a university student.

What it is that fascinates me and many other people about the eerie, blood-curdling, and often quite macabre themes predominant in this field of literature and film is difficult for me to tell. I don’t know very much about psychology, so I have no ambition to come up with an elaborate scientific argument about this phenomenon; in fact, I’m not even sure if it can really be explained adequately. Nevertheless, I have always held the opinion that people’s fascination with such stories must somehow be connected with our atavistic instincts. Mankind may consider itself to be very advanced and far removed from its animal roots, but in truth we still carry our violent and aggressive tendencies with us, just like we are subject to the urge to feed or reproduce ourselves. Since we can’t let these aggressive tendencies run free in the organized, more or less civilized society we live in, we have to suppress them. But there must be a part of our brain, something like a ‘dark’ corner of our mind, in which they resurface and ultimately result in our fascination for the sinister, negative aspects of life. And this is where the genres of fantastic film and literature come into play, as it is certainly conceivable that they serve as a kind of vehicle allowing us to indulge in the sinister, negative aspects of our personality without actually living them out, for instance by committing acts of violence or, more generally, by doing something that doesn’t comply with the norms and values of our culture and is therefore considered unacceptable by modern society.

Despite all this, however, fantastic literature and horror movies would never be considered enjoyable by so many people if it weren’t for the fact that a part of us is always aware that what happens in these stories is only fiction. When we watch a horror movie, for example, we know it is only a product of the entertainment industry featuring actors and various special effects, and we are capable of differentiating between what happens on the screen and real life – something a child isn’t always able to do, which might explain my somewhat hysterical reaction upon watching my first such film. In consequence we can calmly lean back in our sofas at home or in our seats at the cinema, watching the actors die slow, considerably painful deaths while at the same time stuffing ourselves with popcorn or potato chips and having a beer or two. After all, who would want to watch horror movies – or read horror stories – if they weren’t any fun?

Leaving such considerations aside, I would now like to make a few remarks about the aim and structure of this paper, which is titled “H. P. Lovecraft and the Literature of the Fantastic: Explorations in a Literary Genre.” As this title suggests, I will attempt to point out some of the major characteristics of this literary genre and combine this rather theoretical approach with a study of the work of one of its most prominent representatives, the aforementioned American author Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937).

Consequently, the first major part of this paper will be dedicated to a brief study of the genre of fantastic literature in general, particularly the highly problematic task of defining the distinctive characteristics of this genre. The second part will then deal with the contribution which American authors have made to the genre of fantastic literature. Here I will try to cover the fantastic tradition in America (particularly in New England) and the prevalent features and themes marking this American branch of the genre, as well as present some of the most important American writers of the fantastic. Finally, the third section of this paper will be about the life and work of one of the chief American writers in the field of fantastic prose fiction, H. P. Lovecraft. After a look at Lovecraft’s life and personality, a critical evaluation of his literary achievement and literary influences, and a discussion of his impact on modern popular culture, I will deal with his specific concept of fantastic literature and the aspects of his work that link him to as well as those that set him apart from other (American) writers of the fantastic. Brief case studies of three of Lovecraft’s short stories will then conclude this paper.

2. The Fantastic: Defining a Literary Genre

2.1 The Problem of Terminology

Before we can look at some of the various attempts that have been made to define the fantastic as a literary genre, we will first have to deal with another related issue – that of terminology, which is indeed a highly problematic one. After all, before anyone can even think about devising an elaborate argument concerning the defining characteristics of a literary genre, he has to come up with a fitting label for that genre, a label he uses more or less consistently as he is developing his argument. This may sound trivial at first, and it certainly is in the case of most literary genres, which are known under one unambiguous term accepted and accordingly used by everyone who deals with them in any way. In the case of the fantastic, however, things are much more complicated.

Terms that have been commonly applied to the field of literature also known as the fantastic – the term that I will mostly adhere to in this paper – include Gothic fiction, supernatural fiction, ghost story, weird tale, fantasy, horror fiction, and others. This incomplete list should be sufficient in order to demonstrate the utter confusion and anarchy that reigns with regard to terminology in the field of the literature of the fantastic. One of the major reasons for this unsatisfactory state of affairs lies in the fact that apart from France, where the term “fantastic” orle fantastiquehas its origin, hardly any serious academic research was conducted in the field of fantastic literature before the 1970s (cf. Durst 2001, pp. 18 ff.). In English, American, or German encyclopedias, for instance, “fantastic” as a literary term was nowhere to be found until about the mid 1960s, whereas French encyclopedias had included entries under that heading as early as in the nineteenth century. Obviously fantastic narratives, orcontes fantastiques, had traditionally been held in much higher esteem in France than in most other countries, where many academic critics contemptuously dismissed fantastic fiction as an inferior form of literature not worthy of any serious attention. In the United States, for example, fantastic stories disappeared almost completely from the more or less respectable mainstream or general-interest magazines by around the 1930s and from then on were published almost exclusively in dubious pulp fiction magazines. This transformation of the fantastic into a kind of “underground” or “cult” phenomenon certainly didn’t help to dissipate the unfavorable reputation it had with most academic critics.

As stated above, the situation changed to some degree in the 1970s, which is mainly due to the reception of Tzvetan Todorov’s highly influential (and highly controversial) theoretical paper on fantastic literature,Introduction à la littérature fantastique(1970), which will be briefly discussed at a later stage in this paper. A large number of academic publications on the fantastic in literature sprang up in Todorov’s wake, particularly in Germany, where research in the field became quite widespread and was even more common than in France for some time. In more recent years, however, scholarly interest in the fantastic seems to have diminished considerably, not only in England and America, which had never really followed suit in the first place, but also in France and Germany, with Uwe Durst’sTheorie der phantastischen Literatur(2001) being one of the few major works published in the last couple of years. Sadly, all the research that has been done on the fantastic so far hasn’t managed to bring any order into the terminological chaos mentioned earlier.

In spite of the multitude of different labels under which the fantastic has been discussed to the present day, the label “fantastic,” for all its flaws, still seems to be the most accurate. “Gothic fiction” is a term very closely associated with the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and therefore seems somewhat awkward when used for anything written outside that period (cf. Joshi 1990, pp. 2 ff.). “Supernatural fiction” (also sometimes referred to as “supernatural horror”), while being a relatively broad term encompassing a large subset of the fantastic, has the decisive disadvantage that it doesn’t cover those fantastic texts that never unambiguously state the existence of the supernatural (as is the case, for example, with Henry James’ famous short novelThe Turn of the Screw), or those whose outcome clearly negates the existence of the supernatural by offering a scientific or otherwise realistic explanation for the strange events taking place in the narrative (as is the case with those texts in which it turns out that the protagonist was only dreaming or hallucinating). “Ghost story” has been used by some authors (including Peter Penzoldt in his early effortThe Supernatural in Fiction(1952)) as a cover term for all sorts of supernatural stories, even those that do not deal with ghosts or apparitions, based on the assumption that the majority of supernatural stories do in fact feature ghosts. While this assumption is in itself highly questionable, it also seems illogical that a “ghost story” could mean anything but a story with a ghost in it. Therefore “ghost story,” in its proper narrow sense, can only be a label for a relatively small subset of the fantastic.

The problem with “weird tale” or “weird fiction,” a very general term which, according to S. T. Joshi, the world’s leading expert in the field of Lovecraft studies, includes fantasy, supernatural horror, non-supernatural horror, and quasi science fiction (cf. Joshi 1990, p. 6), is that it is too closely associated with the work of H. P. Lovecraft and some of his literary affiliates. The term “weird tale” is used repeatedly as well as given a definition in Lovecraft’s long essaySupernatural Horror in Literature(1927), and while it is definitely a very fitting label for his specific concept of fantastic literature, it also has some implications making it advisable to stick to “fantastic” as a general term for the entire genre (see chapter 2.3.1).

“Fantasy” is very difficult to define because it comes in a bewildering variety of forms, yet most of it appears to fall in the category of “imaginary-world fantasy,” i.e. the action takes place in an imaginary world where the physical laws of the real world are not supposed to exist in the first place (cf. Joshi 1990, p. 9). One of the best examples for this form of fantasy literature is J. R. R. Tolkien’sThe Lord of the Rings. Overall, fantasy literature – despite the similarities – has some distinct features setting it apart from fantastic literature, so that it should be seen as a literary genre of its own rather than a subcategory of the fantastic. The same goes for science fiction, although some of Lovecraft’s stories, as well as stories by many other writers of the fantastic, obviously include elements of science fiction and also fantasy.

Finally, “horror fiction” is a label that immediately brings up images of axe-wielding killers, chainsaw massacres, and zombies hungry for human flesh. While there is also something like “psychological horror” which bears no resemblance to such subject matters, the term “horror” still reeks heavily of excessive bloodshed and gore. These things do of course have a rightful place in the spectrum of fantastic literature, but they form only a small component of it, so that “horror fiction” hardly seems like an appropriate label for the whole genre. In consequence, despite its shortcomings and the fact that it is not used very frequently in Anglo-American literature, “fantastic literature” is nevertheless the most fitting term, if only because there is no better one to replace it.

2.2 Minimalistic Concepts of the Fantastic

Now that the question of how to label the field of literature we are concerned with in this paper is more or less settled, we can turn to the objective of defining the characteristics that set it apart from other literary genres. As we will see presently, this task is even more complicated. The difficulties already start with the fact that there is considerable disagreement among academic critics as to whether the fantastic can even be seen as a literary genre, let alone the question of when it first started. Accordingly, some scholars have gone as far as to deny the existence of a literary genre of the fantastic, postulating that the fantastic is merely an aesthetic category similar to the beautiful, the sublime, or the ugly, and that aesthetic categories as such are independent of any genre boundaries (cf. Durst 2001, pp. 21 ff.). They go on by saying that the fantastic actually had always existed, though it had been given different names in the past. Such an understanding of the fantastic as an aesthetic category implies that the term can be used to denote other forms of art outside the field of narrative literature, and it is indeed not completely out of the ordinary to come across labels like “fantastic poetry,” “fantastic drama,” “fantastic painting,” “fantastic film,” or even “fantastic music.”

Others define the fantastic not as a genre, but as a structure, a view that makes sense when the fantastic is seen as the field of literature in which the structure of the fantastic is the prominent feature. Still others, including the aforementioned S. T. Joshi, state that the fantastic became a definite literary genre only when it went “underground,” i.e. around the 1930s, when the advent of the pulp magazines, especially in the United States, banished it to a kind of literary ghetto (cf. Joshi 1990, pp. 3-4). While all these different standpoints undoubtedly have their preferences, particularly considering the difficulties of identifying the genre-defining features of fantastic literature, it might still be quite enlightening and rewarding to at least try to come up with a definition of the fantastic as a literary genre, regardless of how such an endeavor turns out in the end.

When looking at the efforts that have been made in this area so far, it is possible to distinguish between two major strands of thought: so-calledminimalisticconcepts of the fantastic as opposed tomaximalisticconcepts. Simply put, the difference between these two approaches to defining the literature of the fantastic lies in the number of authors, texts, or themes that are included under the label “fantastic literature”: whereas maximalistic concepts tend to see the fantastic as a rather wide and loosely defined genre containing a large number of authors and texts, minimalistic concepts tend to see the fantastic as a more closely defined genre, i.e. they are much more exclusive with regard to the number of authors and texts that are considered to belong to it. To this day, maximalistic approaches are still more prevalent in the field of theoretical discourse, whereas minimalistic approaches are represented only by a minority of academics.

The common feature of all minimalistic concepts of the fantastic is the view that fantastic literature is based on the unsolved dispute between two incompatible, i.e. contradictory, explanations for the events in a narrative (cf. Durst 2001, pp. 37 ff.). The events can be explained in two different ways: in accordance with the laws of nature, i.e. as a result of natural causes, or as a result of causes that are in direct contradiction to the laws of nature (‘supernatural’ causes). The first major work based on such an understanding of the fantastic was Bulgarian-born Tzvetan Todorov’s structuralist approachIntroduction à la littérature fantastique[1], which was originally published in 1970 and is still one of the most influential, yet also one of the most controversial, theoretical investigations in the field of fantastic literature.

2.2.1 Tzvetan Todorov’s Einführung in die fantastische Literatur

According to Tzvetan Todorov, the fantastic is the clash between two contradictory realities, one of which is of natural character whereas the other is of supernatural character. As soon as a text clearly chooses one of these two conflicting realities, the fantastic is left behind and the text enters the realm of a neighboring genre (cf. Durst 2001, p. 37). The defining element of the fantastic is theuncertaintythe reader feels with regard to the validity of the laws of nature:

Das Fantastische liegt im Moment dieser Ungewißheit; sobald man sich für die eine oder die andere Antwort entscheidet, verläßt man das Fantastische und tritt in ein benachbartes Genre ein [...]. Das Fantastische ist die Unschlüssigkeit, die ein Mensch empfindet, der nur die natürlichen Gesetze kennt und sich einem Ereignis gegenübersieht, das den Anschein des Übernatürlichen hat. (Todorov 1972, p. 26)

What we can infer from this definition is that thepure fantastic(le fantastique pur) is not so much an independent genre of its own, but that it lies on the exact borderline between two neighboring literary genres, namely theuncannyand themarvelous(see figure 1). Consequently, the fantastic is ever threatened and can evaporate at any moment, thus taking the text across the borderline and into the realm of the uncanny or the marvelous (cf. Todorov 1972, p. 40). Only those narratives in which the aforementioned uncertainty is maintained right up to the very end belong to the pure fantastic. Examples for this category include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) and Henry James’ novellaThe Turn of the Screw(1898).

In contrast, narratives included under the labelpure uncanny(l’étrange pur) feature events that can be fully explained in accordance with the laws of nature, yet are still in one way or another incredible, extraordinary, shocking, unique, disconcerting, or unheard-of and therefore cause a feeling of fear within the reader (cf. Todorov 1972, pp. 44 ff.). Todorov mentions Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) as an example for this kind of narrative. The genre of thefantastic-uncanny(le fantastique-étrange) constitutes a blend between the uncanny and the fantastic. This category consists of texts that feature the ambiguity (i.e. the uncertainty concerning the validity of the laws of nature) characteristic of the fantastic, but ultimately offer a rational explanation for the seemingly supernatural events: deception, fraud, coincidence, insanity, dreams, or drugs. Thefantastic-marvelous(le fantastique-merveilleux) moves in the opposite direction: it also features the ambiguity of the fantastic, but in the end, the existence of the supernatural has to be acknowledged. Thepure marvelous(le merveilleux pur) contains texts in which the physical laws of nature are voided and the supernatural elements aren’t perceived as anything extraordinary either by the characters or by the reader. The best example for this category is the classic fairy tale. Todorov distinguishes the pure marvelous, which doesn’t offer any justification for the supernatural elements, from theimperfectly marvelous(le merveilleux imparfait), where the supernatural receives at least some justification (the four subcategories of the imperfectly marvelous, namely the hyperbolically marvelous, the exotically marvelous, the instrumentally marvelous, and the scientifically marvelous, need not concern us here). The following diagram briefly sums up Todorov’s terminology:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1:The fantastic and its adjacent genres; the pure fantastic is represented by the bold line in the middle (source: Todorov 1972, p. 43; slightly altered)

Todorov further elaborates his definition of fantastic literature by pointing out three preconditions for the fantastic. Firstly, the text has to force the reader to look at the world described in the text as a real world with living and acting persons, and make him feel uncertain with regard to the question whether the events described in the text require a natural or a supernatural explanation (cf. Todorov 1972, p. 33). Todorov assumes an implicit reader who is assigned a specific role in the narrative by the author, not an explicit or empirical reader. It is necessary for the implicit reader to read the text in an unbiased way in order for him to experience the ambiguity or uncertainty intended by the author:

Das Fantastische impliziert also die Integration des Lesers in die Welt der Personen. Es definiert sich aus der ambivalenten Wahrnehmung der berichteten Ereignisse durch den Leser selbst. Wir müssen sogleich präzisieren, daß wir dabei nicht diesen oder jenen bestimmten wirklichen Leser im Auge haben, sondern eine „Funktion“ des Lesers, die im Text impliziert ist [...]. (Todorov 1972, p. 31)

Secondly, the uncertainty felt by the reader can also be felt by an acting person in the text (e.g. the narrator). Thirdly, the reader has to assume a certain attitude with regard to the text: he has to refuse an allegorical interpretation as well as a poetic interpretation of the events in the narrative; the reader of fantastic literature has to read the text in a ‘literal’ way instead. It is important to note that only the first and third precondition for the fantastic are actually obligatory and therefore genre-defining, whereas the second one does not necessarily have to be fulfilled. According to Todorov, however, most fantastic texts meet all three demands.

With regard to the various themes featured in fantastic texts, Todorov spares himself the labor of putting together a long list of individual themes (apparitions, vampires, werewolves, witches, etc.), but divides the themes of the fantastic into two major groups:I-themesandyou-themes. The I-themes are mainly based on the individual problems or struggles of a person, such as, for example, insanity, metamorphosis, duplication of personality, or transformations of time and space. The you-themes are based on the problems of a person in conflict with others and are for the most part associated with sexuality or sexual desire in one way or another. They include incest, homosexuality, sexual relations involving more than two persons, sadism, necrophilia, and vampirism. When looking at this enumeration it is not surprising that Todorov saw one of the primary functions of fantastic literature in the transgression of boundaries, i.e. he saw the fantastic as a means to pick up subjects that were otherwise considered taboo, as well as a means to fight against moral or social conventions and censorship.

One of Todorov’s most controversial theses is his assertion that fantastic literature ‘died’ at the beginning of the twentieth century. For one, he says that more modern texts don’t evoke feelings of uncertainty any more, either because the readers have evolved and tend to see reality as a much more complex structure than they did in the past, or simply because authors do not intend to create a sense of ambiguity any more. The other main reason Todorov gives for the supposed death of the fantastic is that the advent of psychoanalysis has rendered it expendable. There is no longer any need to deal with taboos indirectly in the form of fantastic literature, since these taboos have become the subject of psychoanalytic research. In other words, the dawning of psychoanalysis hasn’t completely destroyed the taboos; they have simply shifted:

Die Psychoanalyse hat die fantastische Literatur ersetzt (und damit überflüssig gemacht). Man hat es heute nicht mehr nötig, auf den Teufel zurückzugreifen, um über eine exzessive sexuelle Begierde sprechen zu können [...]: die Psychoanalyse und die Art der Literatur, die, direkt oder indirekt, von ihr inspiriert ist, handelt davon in unverhüllten Begriffen. Die Themen der fantastischen Literatur sind buchstäblich zum Gegenstand der psychoanalytischen Forschung der letzten fünfzig Jahre geworden. (Todorov 1972, p. 143)

I have already alluded to the mixed reception of Todorov’s theory. While it has certainly had a major impact on the theoretical discourse in the field of fantastic literature, many of its theses have also been heavily disputed, and partly for a good reason. (The list of people that did not at all agree with Todorov’s theory includes the well-known Polish writer of science fiction, Stanislaw Lem, who in 1974 wrote an essay titled “Todorov’s Fantastic Theory of Literature,” in which he gives Todorov a thorough bashing, though not always in very convincing fashion.) I will only mention a few points of criticism in this place. One of them is obviously that Todorov’s definition of the fantastic is exceedingly restrictive. Only a very limited number of narratives meet all the demands for a pure fantastic text, especially when it comes to maintaining until the very end the uncertainty felt by the reader. Consequently, a large number of texts and authors that so far have been considered to fall under the category “fantastic literature” – and justifiably so – would, according to Todorov’s definition, be excluded from that category.

Another drawback of Todorov’s definition is that one single sentence added to a narrative would be enough to upset its affiliation with the genre of the (pure) fantastic and take it into another genre. Many texts conform to the criteria of the pure fantastic until their last pages, at which point the mysterious events are either given a logical explanation, or the reality of the supernatural is affirmed. It seems overly pedantic to deny such texts the label “fantastic,” based only on one short remark that spoils their ambiguity.

Finally, Todorov’s declaration of the death of fantastic literature in the early twentieth century is highly questionable. I will not even begin listing some of the authors of the fantastic that would be affected by this rather untimely demise. Moreover, the reasons given for the supposed death of the fantastic are quite dubious. Notwithstanding the significant contribution of psychoanalytic research, the allegation that psychoanalysis took the place of fantastic literature and ultimately made it expendable raises the question why fantastic literature has become so amazingly popular in the twentieth century, with writers such as Steven King selling books in the millions. Obviously the taboos that have always been a central theme in fantastic texts are still very appealing to the common reader, no matter how much more enlightened and open-minded (western) society may have become since the nineteenth century. And it appears unlikely that many people in search of a little morbid entertainment would prefer a lengthy tome on psychoanalysis over an exciting fantastic narrative in order to get their thrills.

In conclusion, Todorov’s theory definitely has its shortcomings, yet he deserves a lot of credit for his attempt at disposing of the disorder so prevalent in the field of fantastic studies. There is no doubt his work was the starting point for all investigation in the field of fantastic literature that took place within the last thirty years.

2.2.2 Uwe Durst’s Theorie der phantastischen Literatur

Uwe Durst’sTheorie der phantastischen Literatur(2001) is one of the few noteworthy theoretical investigations in the field of fantastic literature published in recent years. Durst is obviously an ardent supporter of Tzvetan Todorov’s structuralist approach, and therefore it is not surprising that his theory owes heavily to his influential forerunner. He also uses every opportunity to defend Todorov against his numerous critics, and while he concedes that the former’s theory has its occasional flaws, he basically just elaborates it and develops it a step further, so that we need not discuss Durst’s comprehensive effort in great detail here.

The model by way of which Durst intends to replace Todorov’s previous model (see figure 2) is based on the antipolarity between anormal reality(Normrealität, reguläres System R) and adeviant reality(Abweichungsrealität, wunderbares System W), i.e. it designates a spectrum of narrative systems of reality. The fantastic lies in the exact middle of the spectrum (Nichtsystem N). Regular systems of reality (R) are usually of a realistic character, whereas deviant systems (W) are classified as marvelous. The major difference with regard to Todorov’s model is that the uncanny is not explicitly mentioned here, as it can manifest itself on the realistic as well as on the marvelous side of the spectrum and consequently doesn’t have the same genre-differentiating function as the other two (cf. Durst 2001, p. 90).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2: The narrative spectrum according to Durst; the fantastic lies exactly in the middle (N)
(source: Durst 2001, p. 89)

In agreement with Todorov’s concept, Durst assumes an implicit reader as a precondition for the fantastic. He further agrees with Todorov in that he also defines the fantastic as a thin line (cf. Durst 2001, p. 101). It is based on a method of alienation by which a regular system of reality is called into question by a second, marvelous system of reality. It is in the exact middle of the spectrum where we find an uncertainty and ambiguity in which the laws of the two conflicting systems of reality overlap and exclude each other. The fantastic, consisting of two systems of reality and denying them at the same time, is marked by competition, negation, and incoherence and is therefore called anon-system(Nichtsystem N). It constitutes a special case within literature since it is the only narrative genre that doesn’t have a system of reality: as soon as a text leaves the non-system and the narrated world enters the coherence of the regular or the marvelous system, the fantastic irrevocably disappears.

Apparently in anticipation of the criticism his concept might draw, Durst himself mentions its most severe deficits (cf. Durst 2001, p. 110). First of all, only the position of the non-system can be clearly determined, whereas there are insurmountable difficulties when it comes to determining exactly where on the two sides of the spectrum realistic and supernatural texts are to be placed. Who is to decide which is “more marvelous”: a vampire story or a classic fairy tale? Durst’s model was obviously designed to describe fantastic texts as well as texts that shift to the other side of the spectrum in the course of the action; it is not really suited for all other kinds of narratives. Another point of criticism is that the model does not thoroughly differentiate the two sides of the spectrum: individual regular systems often differ a great deal from each other, i.e. they are not always fully compatible with regard to the laws governing them; the same goes for marvelous systems as well.

2.3 Maximalistic Concepts of the Fantastic

For maximalistic theoreticians, fantastic literature comprises all texts in whose narrated, fictitious world the laws of nature are violated. As opposed to minimalistic concepts of the fantastic, uncertainty or doubt with regard to the actuality of supernatural events within the narrative are not considered genre-defining (cf. Durst 2001, pp. 27 ff.). However, there are some marked differences among maximalistic definitions. We can basically identify two major subgroups: ahistorical and historical maximalistic definitions of fantastic literature.

The former tend to equate fantastic literature with all texts which, according to the present state of scientific research, contain supernatural elements. Representatives of this approach include H. P. Lovecraft, who basically takes a similar point of view in his theoretical essay on fantastic literature titledSupernatural Horror in Literature(1927; see chapter 2.3.1). The problem with this ahistorical approach is that it is highly undifferentiated and consequently includes a vast number of texts that most theoreticians rightfully do not consider to belong to the field of fantastic literature (in its more narrow sense). For example, if we resorted to this approach, classic fairy tales, many texts in the bible, science fiction, fantasy (in the vein ofThe Lord of the Rings), classical Greek myths (such as Homer’sOdyssey), or some of Shakespeare’s dramas (such asMacbeth) would all deserve the label “fantastic literature.” What we can infer from this is that supernatural elements alone are obviously not sufficient evidence in order to characterize a text and place it in a certain genre.

The second, historical kind of maximalistic definitions is a little more advanced in a way that it only considers those texts fantastic in which the supernatural intrudes into a more or less “contemporary” reality, thereby excluding texts that were written well before the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries. The supernatural is seen as violently breaking into reality, suddenly confronting unsuspecting people living their normal everyday lives with the inexplicable:

Im Phantastischen [...] offenbart sich das Übernatürliche wie ein Riß in dem universellen Zusammenhang. Das Wunder wird dort zu einer verbotenen Aggression, die bedrohlich wirkt und die Sicherheit einer Welt zerbricht, in der man bis dahin die Gesetze für allgültig und unverrückbar gehalten hat. Es ist das Unmögliche, das unerwartet in einer Welt auftaucht, aus der das Unmögliche per definitionem verbannt worden ist. (Caillois 1974, p. 46)

In addition to this, most maximalistic concepts rely on criteria outside the narrative in order to distinguish the fantastic from neighboring literary genres. For example, the fear of the unknown or supernatural felt by the external (explicit) reader of a fantastic text is often seen as a genre-defining characteristic. Another criterion frequently used in maximalistic concepts is the author as a person. By making him a feature of the genre and excluding all texts whose author actually believes in the truth of the supernatural events related therein, it is intended to set the fantastic apart from non-fantastic texts, such as religious writings.

Other than criteria outside the narrative, maximalistic definitions also often refer to the supposedly typical themes of fantastic literature as a distinctive feature. Many works in the field contain seemingly endless lists of fantastic themes, but the usefulness of such toilsome efforts is highly doubtful, since such lists can’t possibly ever be fully complete, and the divisions that are made are always to a certain degree arbitrary. In conclusion, the problem with all maximalistic approaches to defining the fantastic – the ahistorical as well as the historical ones – is that they all group together an excessively large number of texts that are sometimes quite different from each other, and do not make any further differentiations within that group. Or, as Uwe Durst put it: “Die maximalistischen Definitionen der phantastischen Literatur gleichen dem Versuch, eine Theorie der Tragödie zu schreiben, die in gleicher Weise auf die Komödie und darüber hinaus auf das Sonett anwendbar ist.” (Durst 2001, p. 36)

2.3.1 H. P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature

H. P. Lovecraft’sSupernatural Horror in Literature(1927) in many ways is a remarkable literary essay – S. T. Joshi has even called it “one of the finest historical analyses of horror literature” (Joshi and Schultz 2001, p. 255) –, if not so much because it offers a brilliant general definition of fantastic literature, but because it is one of the first to provide a coherent historical analysis of the entire range of fantastic fiction from antiquity to Lovecraft’s day. It also points out Lovecraft’s specific concept of the fantastic quite well. Since I will come to that later in this paper (see chapter 4.5), I will only make a few rather general remarks at this point.

Lovecraft’s essay is an analysis of fantastic literature written from a historical perspective, which is clearly reflected by the structure of the paper. It consists of ten chapters: 1. Introduction, 2. The Dawn of the Horror-Tale, 3. The Early Gothic Novel, 4. The Apex of Gothic Fiction, 5. The Aftermath of Gothic Fiction, 6. Spectral Literature on the Continent, 7. Edgar Allan Poe, 8. The Weird Tradition in America, 9. The Weird Tradition in the British Isles, and 10. The Modern Masters. Whereas the second to tenth chapters are mainly a discourse on various phases of fantastic literature in chronological order, along with a discussion of various representative authors and their work (it is noteworthy that Poe, whom Lovecraft greatly admired and was also heavily influenced by, is the only writer honored with an individual chapter), it is in the introduction that Lovecraft points out his conception of fantastic literature:

The one test of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere, the better it is as a work of art in the given medium. (Lovecraft 1973, p. 16)

This reference to the “psychology of fear” is truly characteristic of Lovecraft’s understanding of fantastic literature – or the weird tale, as he would call it – and has been picked up by numerous representatives of the maximalistic approach to the fantastic, who see the fear the reader feels when he is confronted with the eerie or supernatural as a central feature of the genre. It should be mentioned, however, that this psychological viewpoint has been fiercely attacked by many minimalistic theoreticians, stating that such considerations could not be taken as a serious attempt at differentiating the fantastic from other literary genres: “Wenn man diese Äußerungen wörtlich nimmt und akzeptiert, daß man beim Leser das Gefühl der Angst feststellen können muß, dann muß man daraus folgern [...], daß die Gattung eines Werkes von der Nervenstärke seines Lesers abhängt” (Todorov 1972, p. 35).

2.3.2 Florian Marzin’s Die phantastische Literatur

The second example for a maximalistic concept of fantastic literature I will briefly discuss in this place is Florian F. Marzin’s well-known theoretical investigationDie phantastische Literatur(1982). At first sight, Marzin’s approach seems to bear some similarities to Uwe Durst’s minimalistic concept of fantastic literature (see chapter 2.2.2). Marzin sees the fantastic as a literary genre marked by twospheres of narrative action(Handlungskreise). The first sphere is identical to the one we find in all sorts of non-fantastic literary texts and stands for theempirically tangible world(empirisch erfahrbare Welt), i.e. the ‘real’ world based on the laws of nature and science (cf. Marzin 1982, pp. 117 ff.). This first sphere constitutes the foundation for the emergence of the fantastic. The second sphere is determined byirrational events(Welt des Irrationalen), and its phenomena are in direct contradiction to the scientific principles of the rational, empirical world of the first sphere (cf. Marzin 1982, pp. 125 ff.).

According to Marzin, all texts containing elements of both spheres fall under the label “fantastic literature,” denoting his definition as a maximalistic approach. However, it is not enough for the two spheres to simply exist side by side within a narrative; the structure of fantastic literature is a result of the interdependence, or overlapping, of the two spheres of narrative action (cf. figure 3). Only when the spheres overlap can the individual elements of one sphere influence the other. The sequence, extent, or relative importance of the elements of the respective spheres is not an essential feature in this context.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 3:The interdependence of the two spheres of narrative action (source: Marzin 1982, p. 151)

Altogether, Marzin takes a position that’s clearly different from Todorov’s in a way that the uncertainty or ambiguity felt by the reader concerning the actuality of the supernatural events taking place in the narrative is not of any importance for his definition of the fantastic. He even goes so far as to plainly deny the existence of texts in which the ambiguity is sustained until the very end, i.e. those texts which, according to Todorov, alone form the category of the “pure fantastic” (see chapter 2.2.1). Marzin claims that such a text would indeed constitute an extraordinarily special case for which he, even after diligently surveying numerous works, had not been able to find even a single specimen (cf. Marzin 1982, p. 177). While Todorov may have overemphasized the significance of such texts in his theory of fantastic literature, and while they are indeed quite rare, there still can be no doubt that such texts do exist (I have already mentioned Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and James’The Turn of the Screwas prime examples in this context), making Marzin’s assertion appear rather unsubstantial.

2.4 Summary

The previous remarks in this chapter, I believe, have made it quite clear that defining the fantastic is a very sensitive and controversial issue that might as well be impossible to settle to everyone’s satisfaction. Maximalistic definitions of the fantastic are not always very helpful because they usually group together an exceedingly large number of texts that are often considerably different from each other. Minimalistic definitions, while reducing the catalogue of fantastic texts to a relatively small number, are overly restrictive in that they inevitably exclude many texts that have always been discussed as fantastic literature, and it simply feels wrong to leave them out. It seems as if the only thing most theories agree upon is that the fantastic is an independent literary genre distinguished from neighboring genres by the way it links together two different layers of reality, namely a normal, empirical reality and a counter-empirical, supernatural reality (cf. Berg 1991, p. 31).

So far, this dilemma has not been solved. Disappointing though it may be, the only conclusion I can come up with at this point is that there is no clear-cut definition of fantastic literature, and that there is no way of ultimately deciding which authors, individual works, or themes are part of this highly elusive genre and which aren’t. When we look at the research that has been done on the subject right up to the present day, we find nothing more than the – mostly divergent – individual opinions of numerous scholars. In the end, one must concede that the answer to the question of what should and should not be included under the label “fantastic literature” is still very much a matter of each and everyone’s personal opinion and taste.

3. The Fantastic in American Literature

3.1 The Fantastic Tradition in America

When were the beginnings of American literature? This plain question is surprisingly difficult to answer, as there are various possibilities of determining the starting point of literary production in America. One could say that American literature began with the first written records (cave paintings etc.) or even the first oral traditions of the Native Americans. It could also have begun with the discovery (though it was really more of a rediscovery) of America by Columbus in 1492. It might have started in 1607, when Jamestown, Virginia, was founded as the first English settlement on the continent. It might have begun with the landing of the Mayflower and the founding of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620. Another possible starting point is the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Finally, one could argue that the starting point of American literature was the inauguration of George Washington as the first president of the United States of America in 1789.

All of these approaches are valid, and arguments can be found to support each of them. Anyway, assuming that there was no such thing as American literature before the thirteen colonies on the Atlantic united to become an independent nation, one could say that the fantastic has played an absolutely central role in American literature right from the start. After all, the beginnings of American literature and the heyday of the Gothic novel would then roughly fall in the same period, and American authors in the early days were naturally still heavily influenced by their European (particularly English) role models. Or, as Leslie Fiedler put it inLove and Death in the American Novel(1960), “until the gothic had been discovered, the serious American novel could not begin; and as long as that novel lasts, the gothic cannot die” (cf. Martin and Savoy 1998, p. 4).

It is only fitting in this context that the very first professional novelist in the United States, Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), primarily wrote Gothic novels in the vein of Ann Radcliffe, the best-known perhaps beingWieland; or, the Transformation(1798),Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker(1799), andArthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793(1799-1800). Based on these novels, Brown is rightfully regarded as a key figure in the tradition of Gothic fiction. In its European form, the Gothic mainly featured imagery that was simply non-existent, and therefore symbolically ineffective, in America (ruined castles etc.). By shifting the settings of his works to American locales such as forests, towns, outlying estates, or abandoned farms, yet retaining the typical Gothic mood of emotional and psychological extremity, he made a significant contribution to the “Americanization” of the Gothic.

Although the fantastic in America does not exist apart from its specific regional manifestations, its origins naturally lie in New England, which has by far the longest and most colorful fantastic tradition of all. It is not by coincidence that many of the most renowned American writers of fantastic fiction were New Englanders – including Irving, Hawthorne, Poe (though he spent much of his life elsewhere), and Lovecraft –, and best-selling novelist Stephen King upholds this remarkable tradition until the present day. That being said, it is inevitable that a look at the fantastic tradition in America is primarily a look at the fantastic tradition in New England.

One of the most important sources that inspired fantastic literature in New England were of course the tales the first European settlers brought with them from the Old World. Indeed, there is a marked continuity between the fears and wonders of the Old World and the folklore and literature of the new, since many of the inhabitants of New England continued to dread Europe’s legendary monsters – such as giant ocean serpents, witches, demons, vampires, werewolves and other shape shifters, or less threatening creatures, such as fairies, elves, or nature spirits. Considering the unbroken popularity of fantastic tales, we can assume that contrary to Todorov’s premature declaration of the death of the fantastic, such fears have by no means fully disappeared today (cf. Ringel 1995, p. 4).

3.1.1 Monsters from the Sea

Among the myths brought to New England by the first settlers is that of gigantic sea monsters inhabiting the Atlantic and attacking unsuspecting sailing ships. As early as in the days of medieval sea travel, monsters of the sea were dreaded as one of the known hazards of navigation on the Atlantic Ocean. The maps used by the earliest explorers of the North American continent likewise depicted ocean serpents, giant octopuses, or sea dragons assaulting desperate mariners. These drawings were by no means merely ornamental, but instead marked the sites where sailors might expect to encounter such monsters. It was only by the eighteenth century that these drawings evolved into the ornamental dragons often found in the corners of naval charts. It should also be noted in this context that literary descriptions of the nature of sea monsters, allegedly based on eyewitness accounts, were quite popular throughout the seventeenth century. (The standard work on the subject of sea monsters is Belgian biologist Bernard Heuvelmans’In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, published in 1968.) Such accounts would usually describe sea monsters as black, with sharp scales and flaming eyes, and with long hair hanging from their necks (cf. Ringel 1995, p. 2).


[1]For this paper I have consulted the German translation, titledEinführung in die fantastische Literatur; hence some of the terms and quotes in the following paragraphs will be in German.

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H. P. Lovecraft and the Literature of the Fantastic: Explorations in a Literary Genre
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
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Lovecraft, Literature, Fantastic, Amerikanische Literatur, Amerikanistik, Fantastische Literatur, Horror, E. A. Poe, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen King, Henry James, New England, Cthulhu, Ancient Ones, Myth Cycle, Science Fiction, Folklore
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Bernd Steiner (Author), 2005, H. P. Lovecraft and the Literature of the Fantastic: Explorations in a Literary Genre, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/70465


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