I will not be driven out
of my body! I will not change souls with that
-H.P. Lovecraft "The Thing on the Doorstep".
Today, the horror of the vampire and the conjurations of the witch have become pleasant TV situation comedies. Just as the implacable alien in Campbell's "Who Goes There?" evolved into lovable "E.T.", so does the dreadfully frightening undead bloodsucker of Romanian history evolve into "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" of our soulless material world. The true horrors of modern society morph into the empty youth who ruthlessly shoot down their peers and teachers, while what used to be called "family" dwindles into a quaint supernatural legend from a past century. Poe's obsession with those who lived beyond bodily death seems inconsequential in such a world.
L. Sprague De Camp, in his biography of H.P. Lovecraft, asserted that Lovecraft was conducting guerrilla warfare against society in his stories. Lovecraft enjoyed little public acclaim, and he made less money as a writer in his lifetime than did the kid in his era who delivered morning newspapers. Yet, his work is likely to survive while wealthy and popular commercial writers such as Stephen King may be forgotten by posterity. Then what, indeed, was Lovecraft attacking?
In answering that question, it is important not to be diverted by what has passed for horror since the 1960s. The gruesome and sadistic world of the slasher film and the dada-istic plots of "Nightmare on Elm Street" have convinced some that supernatural horror is a commentary on the murderous impulses of the brain, a tribute to Dr. Freud, whose incestuous love for his sister and his own drug addiction supposedly qualified him to arbitrate the human psyche.
The resonance of Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, M.R.James, Poe, and many other giants in the field of supernatural literature, lies in an understanding of a great divide in human thought. On one side is pure humanism, and inevitable mortality. This is the world of Camus, Sartre, and the non-fiction explanations of human nature such as The Naked Ape. In this horror literature and in film, the terror lies in twisted human mentality and organic monstrosity.
On the other side of the preternatural divide is a place where life is not limited to physical form or to organic life. The Old Ones, as revealed by Lovecraft, wait outside of space and time because time and space are not delimiting concepts to the world of supernatural horror. In this world, the mere humanism is dashed to pieces and the secret world of invisible principalities and powers once more interacts with humans. Vampires are an undead pestilence of horrible implication rather than well-mannered barnacles hungry for sex and red corpuscles, and the incantations of Lovecraft's old wizard Whately bring down powers beyond even the possibility of human understanding.
While few people watched "Scream 2" and walked out intoxicated with a sense of supernatural awe, those who read Lovecraft forgive his stilted and stentorian prose as he creates a certainty of a world that must lie beyond anything we grasp with our senses. The horrors of Lovecraft's Old Ones were overlaid with a sense of supernatural awe. It was important for Cthulhu and unnamable things in graveyards to be beyond true physical description..
At our peril we normalize or stereotype these demon-creatures, and supernatural horror in literature then loses its power to exalt the imagination. True supernatural horror in literature, like primordial religion, brings the mystery of high magic to our lives, however mundane those lives may be. This is a guerrilla war worth fighting.