A Study of the Monsters in Beowulf, Dracula and Lovecraft
Bart Mulderij S2910187 Dr K.E.E Olsen
13/06/20 16752 Words
MA Thesis Literary Studies Track: English Literature and Culture.
University of Groningen
Monsters have come to play an important part in modern-day entertainment as numerous books, films, series and games of both the physical and digital kind offer writers the opportunity to shock their audiences with terrible creatures. One of the most remarkable contributors to the long list of monsters in English literature has been H.P. Lovecraft. His fiction has inspired, directly and indirectly, artists of all kinds and the mythos he created lives on long after his death. However, despite his influence, Lovecraft himself has remained somewhat of an obscure author. With this thesis I hope to bring more academic attention to Lovecraft and his work whilst at the same time examining the several of his more famous monsters in a broader context of monsters in English Literature.
This dissertation would not have been possible without the guidance of my supervisor Dr K.E.E Olsen. I remain grateful for her feedback and advice as well as her patient understanding whilst helping me rectify any mistakes. Our conversations about monsters have been enjoyable and a great source of inspiration for me. Furthermore, I would like to thank my mother for providing me with a place to work and conduct my studies in peace, even in the face of a global pandemic that has significantly disrupted daily life.
Bart Mulderij June, 2020
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Monster of Beowulf 6
Chapter 2: Dracula 16
Chapter 3: Lovecraft and Cosmic Horror 24
Chapter 4: Lovecraft’s Monsters 33
Works Cited 49
Appendix: Cthulhu Sketch 53
This dissertation examines the monsters in Beowulf, Dracula, and the following short stories by H.P. Lovecraft: ‘Dagon’, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ and ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. Although these works have individually been analysed, little attention has been paid to the manner in which the monster is constructed changes throughout the ages. These five texts have been selected because they are well-known and have become important moments in the development of monster literature.
Furthermore, the monsters found in these texts share common themes such as corruption and a fear of outsiders. At the same time, the texts by Lovecraft display a move away from humanoid monsters towards less definable creatures. By comparing Beowulf and Dracula with the works of Lovecraft, this dissertation shows that although the monsters in these texts might appear to be disparate, the role of the monsters and the fears they exhibit remains largely consistent despite significant changes in the physical shape of the monsters that can be found in the Lovecraft texts.
Instead, this dissertation argues that the real change occurs not in the monster but in the encounter between monster and hero. From this, it can be concluded that, as mankind’s understanding of the natural world grew, the fear of the unknown became more prominent and that this influenced the change from a physical confrontation between hero and monster to a battle of the mind.
The 1928 short story ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ by H.P. Lovecraft introduced the world to its titular monster: an enormous cosmic being with a vaguely humanoid shape, a head like an octopus and dragon wings. 1 It would become the figurehead of the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, a lose collection of all the places, characters and monsters that appeared in the works of Lovecraft as well as other authors inspired by his creations. Even today, the Mythos has a considerable influence on modern media. It has spawned numerous films including ‘Colour Out of Space’ by Richard Stanley (2020), based on the Lovecraft story of the same name, and ‘Underwater’ by William Eubank (2020), which is loosely inspired by ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. Besides films, the creations of Lovecraft have served as the inspiration for numerous board and video games with the 1981 roleplaying game ‘Call of Cthulhu,’ allowing fans and newcomers alike to create their own terrifying adventures by using the stories as backdrop and inspiration. Ever since, the Cthulhu Mythos, especially Cthulhu itself, has become a recognizable part of pop culture much like characters such as a Darth Vader and Batman.
Even if people have never read anything by H.P. Lovecraft, many will at least be able to identify Cthulhuas a “green octopus monster”. At the same time, Lovecraft’s stories have become the subject of academic research which, amongst other things, also focuses on the various monsters found in his works. These monsters are plentiful and at the same time very different in form when compared to more traditional monsters found in English literature. As Cohen’s Monster Theory demonstrates, there is much to be gained from the study of monsters. His chapter on the ‘seven theses’ provides a concrete framework that allows a cultural reading of these monsters, using them for a better understanding of the cultures that spawned them (3-20). Many different monsters are discussed in Monster Theory, ranging from those found in Beowulf, to vampires and even more modern creations such as the Alien from the 1979 eponymous film and the dinosaurs from ‘Jurassic Park’. However, H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters are left completely undiscussed in Monster Theory.
1 For a sketch of the monster by H.P. Lovecraft himself, see appendix.
Given their influence on pop culture I believe that there is much to be gained from an in- depth analysis of Lovecraft’s monsters, especially in relation to earlier monster literature. The creatures of the Cthulhu mythos are remarkable for their “weirdness”. They break away from traditional monsters that are, despite their deformity, still recognizable as either human or animal.
Lovecraft’s creations tend to be either amorphous or a blend of features that renders them difficult to recognize as creatures of nature. It is in this distortion of the traditional monster, which is by its very nature already deformed, that Lovecraft’s biggest contribution to literature is found. This thesis will examine how this distortion is achieved by comparing Lovecraft’s monsters to those of several critical works of English literature. For this purpose, I have selected Beowulf and Dracula as both provide several monsters that are well-known and well-researched. Within monster theory, they are important works and more can be learned how they establish their monsters by contrasting them with several of Lovecraft’s short stories. I have chosen to use ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ and ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’, supplemented by the much shorter ‘Dagon’. These stories all contain different monsters, both in appearance and function, but are bound together by similar themes as well as some possible intertextual references between ‘Dagon’ and ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’.
Additionally, all the aforementioned texts are some of Lovecraft’s better known works that can be readily found in various anthologies. In this thesis I will provide an in-depth analysis of the
monsters in these three texts as well as the protagonists that encounter them. I argue that, despite the shape of the monsters being unprecedented, there are actually many similarities between
Lovecraft’s monsters and those in Dracula and Beowulf and that the real change occurs in the interaction between the protagonist and the monster rather than the monster itself having changed in any meaningful way.
Chapter 1: The Monsters of the Beowulf
First, I shall examine the nature of several monsters in Anglo-Saxon literature in order to establish their distinct monstrous properties before further exploring the cultural significances that these properties exhibit. For this purpose I will restrict my research to Beowulf as it contains several recognisable monsters. The epic poem is over three thousand lines long and details –for the most part– the exploits of its eponymous hero as he fights to safeguard the realm of men from the various monsters that act as the primary antagonists in this story. Three of these monsters can be readily identified: Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon, each of these being a uniquely diverse and progressively more challenging opponent to Beowulf that deserves further examination.
Grendel is the first monstrous being that is encountered in Beowulf, where he is presented as an ellengǣst ‘powerful demon’ that in þӯstrum bād ‘darkness stayed’ (l. 86-7), a fēond on helle
‘enemy in hell’ (l. 101), grimma gǣst ‘grim demon’ (l. 102) and wonsǣlī wer ‘wretched creature’ (l.
105). These descriptions demonstrate that from his earliest introduction, there can be little doubt about him being a creature of evil. The passage describing Grendel is immediately preceded by a section detailing the creation of the world by God:
Ðā se ellengǣst earfoðlīċe
þrāge ġeþolode, sē þe in þӯstrum bād, þæt hē dōgora ġehwām drēam ġehӯrde hlūdne in healle. Þǣr wæs hearpan swēġ, swutol sang scopes. Sæġde sē þe cūþe rumsceaft fīra feorran reċċan,
cwæð þæt se ælmihtịga eorðan worh(te), wlitebeorhtne wang, swā wæter bebūgeð, ġesette siġehrēþiġ sunnan ond mōnan, lēoman tō lēohte landbūendum,
ond ġefrætwade foldan scēatas leomum ond lēafum, līf ēac ġesceōp cynna ġehwylcum þāra ðe cwice hwyrfaþ.
Swā ðā drihtguman drēamum lifdon, (l. 86-99) 2
2 All references are to the fourth edition of Klaeber’s Beowulf. All translations are mine.
Then the powerful demon impatiently suffered distress, he who dwelt in darkness, that every day he heard the noise of revelry loud in the hall. There was the sound of the harp, sweet song of the poet. He said who knew the creation of men told from afar, said that the Almighty wrought the earth, a bright field as (far as) the water surrounds (it), set up triumphantly sun and moon, bright luminaries as a light for the land dwellers, and adorned the corners of the earth with limbs and leaves, life He also shaped for all of the species that live and move. So the retainers lived in joys.
By contrasting this poetic version of the creation myth with the nature of Grendel, the poet clearly creates a distinction between a world of order and light, created by God and represented by the hall Heorot, and chaos, represented by the monster whose progenitor is described as of Cain’s kin (107).
Anderson rightly calls him an ‘alien spirit’ (93) and observes:
For all the attributes of goodness in civilization and in God's creation, their opposites converge in Grendel: light versus darkness, joy versus misery, music versus noise, companionship versus slaughter, sleep versus night-stalking, feasting versus cannibalism, community versus solipsism. (93)
Cain can be seen not only as a murderer but also an enemy to order created by God. This connection is drawn upon in the parallel between Grendel and Heorot as it is symbolic of a conflict between the world of order and society and the encroaching chaos of the world beyond. It is no surprise then that Grendel is referred to as a mearcstapa (l. 104) which can be translated as ‘wanderer of the border(lands)’ or ‘march-stalker’ (Anderson, 90), placing him outside of society geographically as well as spiritually. Through the invocation of his ancestor Cain, Grendel has been linked to the act of murder and kin slaying, which means that his exile is not merely due to his distance to the centre of society but likely also to his actions. This ‘mark of Cain’ can be interpreted as that Grendel was already a murderer of some sort before he commits his first act of violence in the poem. Grendel could have been exiled for a previous murder and is now seeking revenge against the society that banished him. This interpretation would humanize Grendel by giving him a motive for his destructive behaviour beyond a simple lust for blood, whilst maintaining his monstrous identity as he is still a figure that represents behaviour that is deemed thoroughly wrong.
However, such a reading highlights one of the more important issues of Grendel as a
monster: Since we have no substantial physical description of him or his mother, it becomes difficult to quantify either of them as truly monstrous based on appearance alone. In fact, there appears no scholarly consensus on the exact physical shape of both Grendel and his mother, and several interpretations have been suggested by scholars such as trolls, the undead, demons, spirits, ogres and giants (Anderson 90-2). Thus, they are best described for the purpose of this argument as
‘ambiguously human monsters’ (Mittman and Kim, 341) as this characterization allows discussion of these monsters without the argument being bogged down by the details of their unknowable appearance. The fact that their appearance is a point of contention matters because, in a way, this is an inversion of the usual manner in which the monstrous is depicted and clearly described in literature. During the Anglo-Saxon period it was generally understood that one’s physical appearance was a reflection of their personality. In an environment where appearance and personality are analogous, a grotesque body could be “read” as a grotesque soul which explains the hideous appearance of many monsters (Mittman and Kim 336). However, Beowulf seems to forego this step altogether, leaving Grendel quite shapeless. Instead, it is only possible to analyse the other aspects of Grendel, such as his actions, his habitat and the few other descriptors that the text provides. The lack of further details regarding his appearance can potentially make it difficult to understand Grendel’s significance as a monster. The behaviour Grendel displays is telling of his monstrous status. He is described as being incredibly strong and cannibalistic, too:
Wiht unhaēlo, grim ond grǣdiġ ġearo sōna wæs, rēoc ond rēþe, ond on ræste ġenam þrītiġ þeġna; þanon eft ġewāt hūðe hrēmiġtō hām faran,
mid þǣre wælfylle wīca nēosan. (l. 120b-125)
The unholy creature, grim and greedy, was immediately ready, savage and cruel, and seized from their rest thirty thanes; from there he, exulting with plunder, departed again, travelling home with the slaughter, to seek his dwelling.
It is interesting to note that Grendel is described as carrying off thirty thanes, which seems very similar to Beowulf who is described as having þrītiġes manna mæġencræfton his mundgripe ‘thirty
men’s strength in his hand-grip’ (l. 379b-380). It follows that both warriors are extremely strong but the text also invests Grendel with something recognisable, whilst also investing Beowulf with something monstrous. In a way, these two creatures are both not fully human. Mittman and Kim argue that the monstrous in early medieval England is a product of the combination of the two cultures that created the Anglo-Saxon identity: Christian and Germanic (334-5). As such, the conflict that is so clearly exemplified by Grendel is between ‘the state and of an externalized embodiment of what that state excluded’ (355). In this view, Anglo-Saxon culture is actively trying to define what it is, i.e. Christian, and excluding what it is not, i.e. pagan. The interplay between beliefs can be quite clearly seen in the feasting of human flesh and blood that Grendel partakes of, which is an obvious taboo that clearly delineates what was deemed acceptable behaviour. Orchard notes that Anglo-Saxons appeared to have been greatly concerned by the drinking of blood which
‘to Christian ears must have sounded an unholy offence: there are numerous biblical prohibitions against the drinking of blood’ (64). To an Anglo-Saxon audience, such a transgression alone must have been enough to condemn Grendel as a horrible monster without even taking his inhuman strength or provenance into account.
Grendel’s mother is, in a way, very similar to her son as neither is given a physical description. Instead, Grendel’s mother is referred to as an āglǣċwīf (l. 1259), a term that in itself has proved problematic for scholars because its exact translation is unclear, but according to Klaeber (348) can be taken to mean ‘female adversary’. She is later described as having the idese onlīcnæs (l. 1351) or likeness of a woman or lady, which suggests that she has at least some features that are distinctly humanoid and even feminine. Even so, it is still difficult to create a clear picture and throughout the past she has been depicted as a hideous troll-like monster, a beautiful woman and near enough everything in between. It is difficult to read her physical appearance.
Instead, she has to be examined in a similar manner as Grendel in order to understand her monstrous nature. Grendel’s mother has a very limited role in the story, and because of this any examination of her as a character is restricted to two particular scenes: her killing of Æschere and
the subsequent fight with Beowulf in her lair. In both instances she is depicted as a violent figure, strong enough to overwhelm Hrothgar’s hæleþa lēofost (l. 1296) most-loved hero and drag him off.
This is no mean feat and it suggests that both Grendelkin enjoy supernatural strength. This strength is displayed again later on during her battle with Beowulf. Although the melee with Grendel is quickly decided in favour of the hero, the mother proves to be a much more dangerous opponent who comes close to besting Beowulf. During the fight in her lair, she manages to work Beowulf to the ground and mount him in order to deliver the killing blow:
Ġefēng þā be eaxle —nalas for faēhðe mearn—
Ġūð-Ġēata lēod Grendles mōdor;
bræġd þā beadwe heard, þā hē ġebolgen wæs, feorhġenīðlan, þæt hēo on flet ġebēah.
Hēo him eft hraþe andlean forġeald grimman grāpum ond him tōġēanes fēng;
oferwearp þā wēriġmōd wigena strenġest, fēþecempa, þæt hē on fylle wearð.
Ofsæt þā þone seleġyst, ond hyre seax ġetēah
brād [ond] brūnecg; wolde hire bearn wrecan, (l. 1537-46)
Then the prince of the War-Geats grabbed her by the shoulder —not at all did he regret the feud— Grendel’s mother; the hard man of conflict heaved, now that he was enraged, the deadly foe, so that she fell on the floor. She again quickly gave him reward, with grim grips and grasped at him; then, weary in spirit, he stumbled, the strongest man, fighter on foot, so that he was in fall. Then she straddled the hall-guest and drew her seax,3 broad and with bright edge; she wished to avenge her son.
The struggle that is depicted here shows that she is dangerous and more than a match for Beowulf.
Only through divine intervention is he able to defeat her, his hand finding the grip of a sword that is ġīganta ġeweorc (l. 1562) or the work of giants.4 The nature of this sword is all the more interesting if we compare the fight against Grendel’s mother to that between Beowulf and Grendel. In both cases, mundane weapons appear to be worthless. Anderson suggests that in Grendel’s case this is due to a ‘spell against weapons’ and notes that ‘when the Geatish retainers drew swords against the
3 A short sword or knife.
4 The use of the word gígantas in this line indicates that these are giants of a different than the eotenas (112a) mentioned earlier in the text. Eotenas supposes an Old Norse connection, to that of the jötunn jötnar, a race of supernatural beings whereas gígantas has been argued to refer to the antediluvian giants of Genesis (Mellinkorff 154-6).
monster to no avail. In this passage, the disjointed syntax mirrors the Geats' confusion and frustration as they attempt to help their leader in battle, without success’ (112). In the case of Grendel’s mother, Beowulf discovers that his sword, Hrunting would not bite (l. 1523). It is only when he picks up the giant-forged weapon that he is able to strike her down. Anderson suggests that the protection enjoyed by the Grendelkin is demonic in nature as it is a ‘form of wiccecrcæft’ (113) or witchcraft. This invulnerability makes the monster difficult to slay and legitimizes the need for a hero who is capable of overcoming this obstacle. Another aspect of the fight with Grendel’s mother is that it introduces the lair of the monster to the audience. Whereas earlier the poem only describes Grendel’s domain as marshland, it is now revealed that Grendel and his mother inhabit their own version of a hall. Orchard makes the observation that ‘her underwater dwelling is described in human, almost homely terms,’ of which the ‘walls, like those of Heorot itself, were bedecked with weapons’ (30).This is indicative of several things: The Grendelkin are portrayed as rulers over a watery domain which is contrasted to the humans of Heorot who reside firmly on land. At the same time, the physical location of this hall is at the bottom of a mere which invests the location with an underworld-like property that reinforces the idea that the Grendelkin are demon-like in nature.
Olesiejko names it a ‘war-hall’ that exists in contrast to Hrothgar’s mead-hall, signifying the functional difference (62). This illustrates that the Grendelkin are not only demonic but also act as a perversion of societal ideals. They represent everything that is wrong or otherwise not according to societal norms.
The poem presents the mother as a more formidable opponent to overcome, suggesting that the danger to society that she represents is perhaps more menacing. To some degree, this can be explained simply through her gender. By being a woman that partakes in violence, Grendel’s mother automatically becomes monstrous because she breaks the gender roles imposed by Anglo- Saxon society where normally women are barred from fighting and killing. Instead, they were seen as peace-weavers; which is particularly clear in this poem (Nitzsche 289-90). Grendel’s mother’s behaviour thus serves as an inversion of quintessential female in Beowulf, which makes her all the
more terrifying. According to Hennequin, the mother’s monstrous nature can likewise be deduced from the reaction that the men have to her appearance: ‘Experienced warriors do not fear incompetent or harmless opponents, nor do they forget their helmets in the face of attack. The Danes may actually be more afraid of the mother than of Grendel’ (506). From the outset, she can be seen as a monster, dangerous and scary but the poem also provides context to help us better understand her as a character. She appears only after Beowulf has dealt a mortal blow to Grendel, by tearing off his arm (l. 816b-820), to take revenge for the death of her son. The difference in motivation is important. As earlier, Grendel came in the hall only to steal men away to eat, making him seem more like a beast than a man. Revenge, on the other hand, is very much a human concept which displays an understanding of social dynamics. Grendel’s mother only ever kills one man –an eye for an eye—whereas Grendel takes at least thirty. Grendel’s mother is taking part in violence out of necessity since she is the last living member of her “family” and thus the role of avenger lands on her shoulders (Johnston 70). However, Johnston argues that Grendel’s mother operates outside the laws of men and cannot take ‘legal vengeance’; she has therefore no access to the system of blood-money and because of this her only recourse can be in the life of another (Johnston 70). She is not monstrous because of her appearance, or even her prodigious strength, but rather her breach of societal boundaries by partaking in violence.
A final aspect of monstrosity that can be found in Grendel’s mother is linked to the sexual nature of her encounter with Beowulf. This passage is laden with double-entendres that suggest a twisting of gender roles in coitus which reflects anxiety about (perceived) masculinity. As presented above, the fight between Beowulf and the mother quickly dissolves into a melee in which she manages to work the hero to the ground, mounting him and drawing her seax (l. 1537-46). In this moment she attains physical dominance over her ‘guest’ and in doing so she moves away from the typical passive role of the woman (Nitzsche 294). From this it follows that Beowulf’s role as the male party in this encounter is changed or at least threatened. The appearance of a sword does not only suggest capitation and castration as suggested by Nitzsche (294) but, at a more fundamental
level, swaps the roles between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. She becomes the penetrator and he the penetratee with the only thing saving him in this encounter being his mail shirt. The retaliatory beheading by Beowulf that follows becomes a reassertion of male dominance as the giant-forged sword is as much a phallic icon as the mother’s seax. Although threatened, Beowulf eventually maintains his position as dominant male, but this episode does demonstrate how the threat that Grendel’s mother poses functions on several levels. She is at once a physical threat to the safety of the hall, an inversion of the male and female gender roles and a danger to the heroes’ sexual identity.
The dragon is the final monster presented in Beowulf and in a way it is the most straightforward to interpret because of its nature and the existence of other dragons in Old Norse and Germanic legends. By introducing a dragon in Beowulf the poet invokes the memory of Sigurd, the slayer of Fafnir (Acker 18), a Germanic hero. The fight with the dragon is significant for three key elements: Firstly, it is a fight against a monster that, unlike the Grendelkin, can easily be classed as non-humanoid, which already marks it as other. Secondly it is the most destructive monster, as it is shown burning down swathes of land. And finally, it is the fight where Beowulf is delivered a mortal blow, although not without first slaying the dragon. The dragon is described as being fīftiġes fōtġemearces ‘fifty foot measures long’ (l. 3042) and spews flames (l. 2312).
Curiously, it is also described as a hordweard or ‘hoard-guardian’ (l. 2293b). In Beowulf the dragon’s hostility is caused by the theft of a cup from its hoard (l. 2304-6). This enrages the dragon, causing it to take flight, although no description of wings is given (Johnston, 99) and burn large swathes of land, houses and all (l. 2312-4). Compared to the few men killed by Grendel and his mother, this appears to be a serious escalation of destruction. It would appear then that the dragon is being used as a severe punishment for greed but ironically, it has been argued that it is just as much a warning against greed. Johnston remarks that the dragon is morally wrong for seeking revenge and that
Treasure is to be used to create bonds of loyalty, although in itself it is lovely and precious. Hoarding it is just plain [sic] and, in their view, the dragon's anger is no excuse for its destructiveness. (99).
Johnston contrasts the dragon’s hoarding with the many instances earlier in the poem where warriors are granted rewards for the service. One example of this is the instance where Beowulf is promised wundnan golde ‘twisted gold’ (l. 1382) if he takes revenge for the death of Æschere. The act of sharing is established as good and vital to a strong and healthy community. By introducing the dragon, the poet reinforces the idea of how destructive greed can be as it sits on its pile of treasure. Having swooped in to take control of a hoard of treasure, the dragon sits on without sharing (l. 2270-81). The dragon thus exemplifies exactly that what makes a bad king: greed.
According to Neville, the dragon thus disrupts the regular flow of gift giving that grants a society the ability to form bonds and establish security because it keeps ‘treasure out of circulation’ (112).
Of these treasures, the cup is most noticeable as the item that is stolen, which causes the dragon to attack and burn down the hall. Additionally, Neville argues that the fact that this particular treasure is a cup is not coincidental. Rather, it is a deliberate symbol that is representative of a drinking from the king’s cup as a sign of loyalty (113). The cup is an important treasure that has not been allowed to enter the cycle of gift giving, potentially weakening the strength of society. The community is furthered weakened by the death of Beowulf’s death, showing how the dragon’s presence is problematic for the people in more than one way. Although the size of the dragon alone is enough to make it a frightening beast, it only becomes truly monstrous when it begins to form an active threat towards the social cohesion of society. The interruption of the gift-giving cycle by taking the cup away from society directly harms the ability of the people to create bonds of loyalty between the king and his retainers. The danger the dragon presents is not only rooted in his ability to burn down the hall with fire. The more insidious threat is that through its mere presence: the dragon weakens society as a whole, which in turn leaves it all the more vulnerable to further destabilization. The destruction of the hall is only a physical expression of that vulnerability which is further emphasized by the dragon killing the king as well. The loss of the hall and the king set in
motion the final disintegration of society as the rituals that held it together can no longer be performed. This leads to an irreversible state of weakness that eventually allows foreign invaders to come and conquer Beowulf’s people.
In conclusion, I have shown that the monsters primarily symbolize the threat of aberrant behaviour or specific groups of society, such as women or outcasts. Their encounters with society, and later on the hero, are always violent and the outcome is seldom positive. With every monster Beowulf slays the next one rears its head until finally Beowulf himself is slain by a monster. This indicates that although all these creatures have monstrous qualities, some of those are more threatening to the hero and by extension, society. From this follows that whilst the breaches embodied by Grendel or his mother, such as cannibalism and violent women, might be dangerous, the interruption of ritual and tradition has a far larger impact on society as a whole and can facilitate its downfall by weakening social cohesion.
Chapter 2: Dracula
Having examined Beowulf as the first monster tale in English, I will now turn my attention to the 1897 gothic horror novel by Bram Stoker: Dracula. Although a thousand years easily separate these two works, they both represent important milestones in the body of English monster literature.
Whilst they are by no means the only works of their time to feature monsters, they serve as good examples of the changes that occur in monster literature. They are both well-known pieces in addition to featuring several monstrous creatures. An example of the diversity of monsters in Dracula would be the female vampires who occur at several points in the novel and who are, although less important to the plot than their male counterpart, a sign of the novel condensing several pre-existing vampire myths. The occurrences of such monsters make them useful for the purpose of this chapter as they will allow me to discuss the monsters of Dracula as well as vampires in the Victorian era in a broader sense. Dracula, like Beowulf, presents both male and female monsters of a similar kind, allowing a more rounded examination and comparison of both sets of monsters.
The vampire is a complex creature and one that existed in many parts of the world long before Stoker wrote Dracula. For now I shall confine myself to the European variety of which Miller observes that in the middle of the eighteenth century that there was ‘a rash of vampire sightings documented in several parts of central and eastern Europe’ and that ‘these claims were so widespread that in some countries, government officials became directly involved’(3). This vampire frenzy would lead to the creation of many reports and observations which would have contributed to the creation of an actual vampire myth although it is uncertain if later authors were influenced by these stories directly or were even aware of their existence. Nevertheless, there are several aspects of the vampire that have become fundamental to the monster’s identity. One such important aspect of vampire lore is the traditional categorization of the vampire as part of the so-called undead, i.e.
creatures that remain animate even after their natural life has ended. As such, they come to actually
occupy a space between life and death, belonging to neither. However, despite their curious relationship with mortality, I would argue that in essence vampires are not all that different from the Grendelkin monsters found in Beowulf as described above. The main reason for this is that both species are regarded as being (amongst other things) evil spirits that have come to haunt man until they are vanquished. Vampires as portrayed in Dracula are a culmination of centuries of legends and stories, often originating from a time and place where they could have been considered real.
This is best explained by Oldridge, who describes the pre-modern worldview as one which allowed for the existence of undead creatures and ‘demonic resurrection of the dead’ (84). He argues that ‘it is clear that people from all social ranks, including the most highly educated members of the community, had access to a store of knowledge that made reports of the roaming dead both explicable and intellectually credible’ (87). As a creature that is resurrected from the dead, the vampire is inherently monstrous since they defy not only the natural laws but, from a Christian perspective, also serves as a perversion of the Resurrection found in religious texts. Furthermore, the drinking of blood is in itself problematic and harkens back to one of the oldest taboos in in many cultures: cannibalism. At the same time, it could also be recognized as a perversion of the Eucharist which, paired with the Resurrection, creates a monster that is by their very nature unholy and in complete opposition to Christ. In this regard the vampire is also eerily similar to the Grendelkin. However, the vampire would prove to be a versatile monster and, during the nineteenth century, they would accumulate new meanings and come to represent new societal apprehensions.
In Dracula, the vampire’s nightly reign of terror over the innocent gained a sexual overtone and the spread of his vampiric affliction resonated with fears of disease and contagion.
Bram Stoker was not the first to write Victorian vampire novels. In fact, there are several works of literature from the 19th century that predate Dracula that seem to be mostly forgotten nowadays by the general public. Beresford has identified several key works that could potentially have informed Stoker’s writing: Polidori’s The Vampyre, Rymer’s Varney, the Vampyre, and Le Fanu’s Carmilla (115). Of these Beresford singles out Polidori’s work as the first essential vampire
story which took existing elements found in folklore such as the ones described above and added the ‘aristocratic vampire’ (116). This creates an interesting new dimension as the monster, typically living outside of society, is now also decidedly a part of it. In addition, he is portrayed as being at the top of society which suggests that he should be representing the best of humanity. In truth, the vampire does the opposite, portraying the worst instead. Bereford further notes several important aspects driving the narrative of these vampire tales: an overly curious protagonist and a vampire seducing a mortal. (119-20). Carmilla, just like The Vampyre, contains the element of the vampire in the role of seducer, but here the male vampire has been replaced by a young woman. The matter is complicated by the fact that the object of her desire is another girl, thus adding the notion of homosexuality to the monster. Such a theme is not present in Stoker’s work and instead, Dracula introduces the existence of female vampires in the form of a trio of women, often dubbed the
“Brides of Dracula”, although the exact relationship between them and Dracula is unclear.
However, their existence does suggest Stoker was familiar with Carmilla or at least its general concept.
Bereford offers several observations regarding the underlying mechanics of how a vampire works in these novels, which I believe resonates with elements found in earlier medieval monster texts such as in Beowulf. This pattern can be divided into two phases, which do not have to occur in any particular order but are as following: First, the vampire is in their prime and strong. The vampire is more alive than (un)dead at this stage. The monster then begins to weaken, necessitating a ‘revivification through love or blood’ (22-3). The need to feed leads to a state of haunting, to which the only solution is the slaying of the monster. The disparity between these two states suggests that vampires at the first mentioned stage are perhaps less monstrous and more human- like. At this point a vampire is closer to the living than the dead and they do not have a need to act monstrously. However, the existence of such a pattern of alternating states then creates a paradoxical situation in which a vampire feeds in an attempt to recover some of the humanity they have lost. At the same time however, the very act of feeding on blood makes them distinctly
unhuman. By feeding, the vampire breaches a social taboo which necessitates its removal from society. This aligns with Halberstam’s observation that these monsters represent those ‘who must be removed from the community at large’ (150). In addition, it has been argued that the vampire is an expression of sexuality (Drawmer 39). Although this is perhaps most obvious in a work such as Carmilla where the sexual orientation itself is central to the story, such themes appear to be prevalent in other works as well. Polidori’s The Vampyre features a vampire seducing several women, with deadly consequences, and a similar theme can be found in Dracula. At first, Lucy Westenra is shown to be a beautiful young woman who entertains several suitors and who expresses a desire to marry all three of them (73). Although she ends up marrying Arthur Holmwood, a nobleman, the expression of her desire to marry more than one man does indicate a deviation from societal norms, one she is acutely aware of as she calls it ‘heresy’ (p. 73). However, her desires create parallels with Dracula’s own devious nature, and it is no surprise then that she should fall victim to Dracula’s predations. Eventually, lust causes her untimely death despite the efforts of her fiancé and friends to save her. The similarities between Dracula’s nocturnal visits and the visits of Lucy’s suitors cannot be ignored and whereas the latter is portrayed as something not inherently negative as it confirms to societal rules, the former is. This is to say that Lucy entertaining male suitors during the day is acceptable even if her wish to marry more than one man is not. Her interactions with Dracula are markedly more pernicious. As Dracula begins to drain her blood, she is left pale and weakened (113) although the cause is not yet known at first. Besides anaemia and a subsequent degradation of Lucy’s health being an effect of Dracula’s vampirism, Drawmer mentions that this is a sign of the link between sexuality and death (44). She argues that the act of vampirism can be read as a perversion of regular intercourse. It is an inversion of the concept of sex as a life-giving action and as such emphasises the wicked nature of Dracula as he is unable to create new life. The monster can only destroy. Furthermore, it should be noted that Dracula appears to be the only character that is sexually active in any way whatsoever. The female protagonists Lucy and Mina, although engaged, do not appear in any situation where they are even remotely sexually
active. However, they are both attacked by Dracula at different stages of the novel. Mina’s encounter with the vampire is vividly portrayed as follows:
‘with his left hand he held both Mrs Harker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare chest which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink’ (319)
The sexual elements present in this scene are hard to miss as Dracula is partially naked and Mina in her nightdress. Their embrace could have been romantic, were it not for its forceful nature. Instead, what is portrayed is much more of a rape scene, with an unwilling Mina forced to drink Dracula’s blood. However, this does an excellent job of displaying the perverse sexual nature of the attacks, and it illustrates the element of corruption that the vampire brings with it. Both women in the story are forced to drink Dracula’s blood, potentially turning them into vampires as well, should they die.
Drawmer describes this as Mina’s ‘transformation from chaste female to infected, and ultimately infectious woman’ (44), emphasising how female sexuality was still regarded as negative and potentially dangerous in society at the time. Such a negative representation of sexuality aligns with the earlier portrayal of Lucy’s inability to choose one suitor, rather marrying all of them, which can be observed as expressing essentially negative desires. Lucy’s monstrous identity as a vampire is then later on further emphasized as she is implied to be hunting and feeding on small children for sustenance (203). By portraying her in such a manner, she is not only changed from woman into monster but also into a monstrous mother. She now derives her sustenance from the child rather than the reverse. Throughout the novel she is an object of desire for both the suitors and the monster but she ends up becoming just as wicked as the story’s eponymous villain through her interactions with him.
This idea of evil being infectious leads to the notion that the vampire is in fact the carrier of disease. Although vampirism, with its supernatural elements such as consigning the afflicted to a state of undeath, might initially seem like a curse, the way in which the vampire behaves is more akin to that of a disease. Dracula is very clear about how vampirism is transmitted through blood as can be seen above. This ordeal involves no spell, curse or magic potion but rather the more believable act of introducing the infected blood into the victim’s body. To a modern audience, this ought to be reminiscent of several blood-borne diseases. Dracula is then not only a danger because he preys on humans for sustenance but because his actions leave his victims tainted. It is not difficult to read a fear of contagious disease in Dracula, especially as this would echo, as Drawmer notes, ‘contemporary concerns about the spread of the untreatable tuberculosis’ but also ‘fears of the spread of venereal disease’ (44). Dracula, however, is more than simply an evil bringer of disease. He is also an outsider not only by his monstrous nature but also his physical location. The conceit of the plot is that the count is wishing to buy property in England and that Jonathan Harker is sent to Transylvania to assist Dracula with the transactions. In doing so, he inadvertently enables the vampire to cross over to England to spread his disease there. This suggests that there was not only a cultural fear of people as potential disease bringers but that this apprehension was most likely aimed at foreigners from abroad. It is not surprising then that the preferred way of combatting Dracula’s infection of Lucy is by blood transfusion. As she grows weaker and threatens to succumb, Dr Van Helsing observes: ‘This is dreadful. There is not time to be lost. She will die for sheer want of blood to keep the heart's action as it should be. There must be a transfusion of blood at once. Is it you or me?’(p. 141). Although interesting on its own for being a relatively new science at the time, the use of blood transfusion carries with it significant symbolical weight. By attempting to cure Lucy by giving her the blood of her fiancé as well as the other suitors, her body becomes a battleground between good and evil, fought over by men. Whereas Dracula drains her of her “good blood” leaving her empty and weak or at best, with his own infected blood, Arthur supplies her with his own, uncorrupted, vital blood. Although Dracula turns out to be victorious in the end, his efforts
are at least temporarily halted, which implies that this infection can, to some extent, be driven back by the blood of the hero. However, once it has taken hold, it turns out that this disease can only truly be beaten by the destruction of its carrier: The monster.
Throughout Dracula, the fight with Dracula is fought mostly by proxy and the blood transfusions are a good example of this. Few are the physical confrontations found earlier in medieval writing. Although in both Dracula and Beowulf the monster-slaying expert is a foreigner called to solve the problem, their approaches could not be more different. Where Beowulf fights with the strength of thirty men, Van Helsing comes armed with medical knowledge and the latest scientific advances such as blood transfusion (p. 141) as well as considerable knowledge of vampire lore as displayed by his use of garlic and other such methods of indirectly fighting Dracula.
Throughout the story, his knowledge proves to be the key for the protagonists to fight the supernatural threat and it becomes clear that brute force no longer suffices. Instead, science proves the answer where violence initially cannot. The contrast between the fight between Beowulf and Grendel and between Van Helsing and Dracula seems quite stark then but in essence these encounters play out very similarly. The hero (even if Van Helsing is not the protagonist of the narrative) can defeat the monster because he possesses something the other men do not. Beowulf has his unusual strength whilst Helsing has his unusual knowledge. In these stories they come to represent something vital about the conflict between man and monster: Hope. Beowulf slays both Grendel and his mother, and likewise, Dracula, Lucy and the female vampires at the castle are all destroyed in the end by the male protagonists who take on the more traditional role of a hero fighting evil in physical combat. However, it would be unfair to discount the actions of Mina Harker. She proves to be an invaluable asset during the fight with Dracula, not only by collecting information and combining it in one place, an act of great foresight, but also through her connection to Dracula. After being infected with his blood she shares a sort of telepathic bond with the vampire and is able to use this to hunt him down in an interesting twist of fate, demonstrating the possibility of using the monster’s own powers against it. Throughout the novel, Mina is shown to be smart,
level-headed, empathic and chaste. Thus, it can be argued that through her virtues nature, she is allowed to persevere where Lucy fails. In fact, her actions enable the men to ultimately overcome the monsters. Mina and Van Helsing represent the intelligent hero and heroine that uses their mental faculties to best a monster whereas the young men, Mina and Lucy’s husbands as well as the suitors, represent more of a traditional hero like Beowulf that seeks to best the monster in physical confrontation. And yet both types of hero show the same thing, namely that there is the promise that the evil creature can be beaten definitively. However, this similarity will become vital later on in this thesis as the monster does not always prove to be a force that can be conquered.
In short, Dracula presents the monster as not only a perversion of societal norms but as a vector of disease that through its actions can spread corruption throughout society. In this regard it differs from monsters such as Grendel or his mother, whose attacks, whilst harmful, do not directly corrupt the other members of society, and as such, these monsters can be slain in a rather direct and expedient manner. However, I have illustrated that, despite the obvious differences in historical periods, the manner in which the monster is created is still very much the same in Beowulf and Dracula. The monster is an outsider that seeks to harm society because such malice is either in its nature or as a result of the limitations imposed by society. In both cases these monsters are invested with a demonic origin that drives them to be antithetical to the society they terrorize. Dracula cannot stop being a vampire just as little as Grendel can stop being an evil spirit of sorts. Their actions are intelligent and malicious but they can be explained and understood. Similarly, the monsters that have been discussed so far can be beaten because they can be understood even if the fight itself still requires a physically strong hero. Beowulf recognises that he need not bear arms against Grendel but that he should against Grendel’s mother. Likewise, Van Helsing instructs his companions in the correct way of slaying a vampire. These are monsters that are, above all else, knowable even if they are monstrous.
Chapter 3: Lovecraft and Cosmic Horror
In order to give a better understanding of the works that I will be discussing in the next chapter I shall first give an overview of H.P. Lovecraft’s works and the sub-genre of horror literature called cosmic horror that they created. This should furnish the reader with a better grasp of what is important in these so-called ‘weird tales’ and help understand Lovecraft’s vision for and approach to horror. Fortunately, the long essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ by Lovecraft provides an ideal basis for such a discussion as it is essentially equal part a survey of horror literature over the years and a treatise on creating effective (supernatural) horror stories. From this discussion it becomes clear that Lovecraft had a concrete vision of what cosmic horror should be and how it should be written. In turn, this vision allows for a better analysis of some of his most successful works. Joshi remarks that:
Lovecraft, in a major departure from the previous horror tradition – and, in many ways, from the entire Western literary tradition, which habitually if unconsciously stressed the centrality of human beings to the cosmos – would emphasize the insignificance of humanity in a universe that appears to be boundless both in space and in time (Introduction, xi)
Such a break in tradition is remarkable considering the previously mentioned continuity within monster literature spanning a period of nearly a millennium. In order to better understand what brought about such a shift in approach, I will discuss the author’s background, his theoretical approach and the main concepts that are key to understanding the texts discussed in the next chapter.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born to a fairly affluent family in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890. His mother’s side of the family was a ‘proud and distinguished one’ (Joshi, ix), possessing enough wealth to be considered upper class. On the other hand, his father’s side could be traced
back to medieval England. His ancestry had significant influence on the development of Lovecraft, who would come to consider himself a gentleman who was part of the New England upper class.
Many of his stories would subsequently be written with characters from very similar backgrounds.
In addition to this, Lovecraft is described as an Anglophile who even maintained an English spelling in his writing (Joshi, A Dreamer, 15-6), which makes him as much an American author as an English one. In 1898 his father died, leaving him in the care of his mother, who sheltered him greatly but at the same time eschewed emotional closeness (Joshi, introduction, ix). Lovecraft’s grandfather, a wealthy industrialist, took up the role of father figure, and it was through him that the young author-to-be would first come in contact with horror stories as well as with texts of a scientific nature. From this point on, he would develop a keen interest for the sciences, especially astronomy, and he spent a large amount of his time on reading and even began to make his first forays into writing (ix-x). This fascination with science would feature greatly in his novels and often his protagonists would be of a similar inclination such as students and professors. At the same time, however, his upbringing left him reclusive. Lovecraft would develop an aversion to a great number of things although he would be mostly characterized by the racist overtones found in his works. To this day, his often overly negative portrayal of people of different races as evildoers has remained a point of contention. Kneadle (180) and Joshi (xiv) have arguedthat his racist beliefs do not diminish the unique position his works take in the body of English literature and the influential nature they would have on later authors.5 More recently, other commentators have taken a different attitude to Lovecraft’s racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and sexism. Wisker, for example, comments on the prevalence of sexism in Lovecraft’s works, in which women are often cast as vile and dangerous creatures (46-52). This increasingly critical position towards Lovecraft is best exemplified by the 2015 decision to no longer use a bust of the author as a trophy for the World Fantasy award. The change was a result of a public campaign that called into question such
5 Whilst scholars often acknowledge that Lovecraft was a racist, this is often either explained or even justified as being a product of the time. For examples, see: Joshi, ‘Why Michel Houellebecq Is Wrong about Lovecraft’s Racism’ and Lovett-Graff ‘Shadows Over Lovecraft: Reactionary Fantasy and Immigrant Eugenics’.
celebration of an outspoken racist author.6 In regards to the authors that influenced Lovecraft, he owed a great debt to Poe, whom he himself names as a great inspiration (Supernatural Horror in Literature, Ch. VII), as well as Mary Shelly (Supernatural Horror in Literature, Ch. V) and Bram Stoker (Supernatural Horror in Literature, Ch. IX). Although he discusses the merits of many other authors in his treatise, these names stand out as some of the most prolific horror writers in English literature. Lovecraft could be considered the founder of a very specific sub-genre of horror, but from his own writing it becomes clear that this was but a logical culmination of a tradition much older than himself. However, the changes that occur with the establishment of cosmic horror are so radical that Lovecraft was perhaps understating his own influence on the genre.
Cosmic horror is, as the name suggests, a form of horror that is characterized by the contrast created by the imagined enormity of the cosmos and the insignificance of humans, both as individuals and as a species. By portraying the universe as cold and uncaring, the genre attempts to invoke a sense of terror through the simple implication of a single, uncomfortable truth: In the grand scheme of things, our actions and lives have very little meaning. This nihilistic worldview is then further supplemented by the inclusion of all sorts of beings that are either too alien or too monstrous to be properly perceived or understood. Although Cthulhu,7 appearing in the short story
‘The Call of Cthulhu’, has become the most iconic of these monsters, he is by no means the only one of his kind. Instead, Lovecraft created an entire body of monsters with equally unpronounceable names and indescribable forms such as ‘Shub-Niggurath’ and ‘Yog-Sothoth’, which have since become collectively known as “Great Old Ones”. These beings are formed into a loose pantheon of ancient and alien creatures that ‘once ruled earth but have since fallen into a deep slumber from which they are increasingly threatening to awake’ (Simmons, 2). In this regard, these beings have very little in common with monsters from earlier periods. They possess, if at all, no recognisable
6 Many recipients of the award in the past four decades have belonged to those groups that were the subject of Lovecraft’s bigotry. See: Flood, Alison. ‘ World Fantasy award drops HP Lovecraft as prize image.’ The Guardian;
Cruz, Lekina, Cruz.‘“ Political Correctness” Won’t Ruin H.P. Lovecraft’s Legacy.’ The Atlantic.
7 Cthulhu is the titular monster of the 1928 short story ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ portrayed as an otherworldly and enormous sea-dwelling being with the wings of a dragon and a tentacle, squid-like face.
physical form, humanoid or otherwise, and are therefore very different from the vampire or the werewolf who through their monstrous nature are merely deviants of regular humans. Likewise, these Great Old Ones can hardly be compared to monsters such as the dragon in Beowulf. Whilst these creatures do possess some similar characteristics, namely their function as slumbering threats that could bring about the end of the world if disturbed, they are still monstrous renditions of existing animals. The Great Old Ones are of a less obvious origin and the typical Lovecraftian monster will often be described as an amorphous shape with numerous eyes, maws, and tentacle- like appendages and possessing a variety of magical or supernatural powers. There is very little in our world to which they can be directly compared so that these Great Old Ones are largely an original creation, which serves to further shock both the readers and the characters of his stories.
However, it is impossible to discuss Lovecraft’s monsters without further acknowledging that they are inspired by feelings of xenophobia. As mentioned above, Lovecraft was averse to many things: essentially everything that was not his beloved Providence with its strong Anglo- Saxon lineage. Sadly, this means that the author’s racist ideas about the superiority of “white culture” would become an important aspect of these monsters. They can quite easily be read as symbolic of the perceived threat of other races or cultures encroaching on a predominantly white world. Some other elements, names such as ‘Shub-Niggurath’8 have become increasingly problematic in the past decades. The monster is also referenced as ‘The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young’ in several short stories. This title frames the monster as being inspired by a goat-like Satan and shows how Lovecraft would sometimes callously use racially insensitive elements merely for flavour. The discussion of Lovecraft’s racism has been an important part of the discourse surrounding his work. Perhaps the debate can be best exemplified by Joshi’s response to Houellebecq’s assessment that Lovecraft’s works were, at their core, racist. Here Joshi argues that Lovecraft was not so much hostile to other races and cultures as he was indifferent (44). He further
8 It has been suggested by Price (1994, xii) that Shub-Niggurath was originally inspired by the god Sheol Nugganoth from Lord Dunsany’s ‘Idle Days on the Yann’, with which Lovecraft would have been familiar.
states that it is difficult to see the workings of racism in Lovecraft’s later works9 because the creatures here become less human in their appearance overall (47). Finally, he puts forward the regrets Lovecraft expressed over his earlier, conservative ideas as a redeeming factor (48). The problem with Joshi’s apologia is that, whilst obviously stemming from a place of love for the author, it favours an overly simplistic approach to Lovecraft and his works that ignores the fact that racism does not have to be overt to be present. In other words, even if the monsters become less recognisable as humanoid in some of his works, that does not mean that they cannot symbolize a fear of the other. Instead, they represent Lovecraft’s increased understanding of this fear and a more sophisticated application of it. However, his racism can hardly be excused, even in a time where eugenics and race theory were much more accepted. While Lovecraft’s later regrets are commendable as signs of personal growth they do not take away from the fact that his earlier are problematic. I would suggest that the true academic value of Lovecraft’s work lies in examining to how fears of the other and the unknown can inform the creation of monsters and to let this serve as a reminder of how xenophobia and racism are as much a part of the past as they are of the present.
Besides disturbing monsters, the protagonist as narrator is also a common, and often important, aspect of the cosmic horror story. The narrators are all gentlemen of a learned disposition such as students and professors. Matolcsy notes that as ‘scholars, the mindsets of Lovecraftian protagonists involve the materialistic, the logical, the rational, and the empirical’ (176). They are all observers of the natural world, which can be studied and understood. This makes them perfect candidates to encounter events and creatures that according to their understanding of the natural world should not be possible. According to Matolcsy, their background establishes their supposed sanity which is set up so that it might be shattered by a ‘lovecraftian failure of cognition’ (176). This failure creates a situation where the protagonists are forced to accept that their previous worldview was incorrect, which in turn opens up the door to a slew of other possibilities. Now, the characters and readers are left wondering what other monstrosities might exist. The invocation of such feelings
9 The turning point for this would be after Lovecraft’s two year sojourn in New York where he would be confronted with a great variety of people from many different backgrounds.
of uncertainty is what lies at the heart of cosmic horror. Matolcsy argues that within these stories anomalies such as monsters have always existed, either on Earth or elsewhere, and will remain a lingering threat (178-9).They are indicative of the fact that mankind’s knowledge of the cosmos is severely flawed and limited, which poses a challenge to the rational beliefs held by the protagonists.
Such an approach is to be expected as Lovecraft himself lived around the turn of the 20th century, which saw immense leaps in technological progress and scientific discovery that would eventually culminate in world-shattering events such as World War I. The genius of Lovecraft lies in the manner in which he grasped the ever-expanding understanding mankind has of the cosmos and in which he turned it into a source of terror. In essence, he posed that some things are best left undiscovered.
An often repeated line by Lovecraft comes from his treatise on supernatural horror: ‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown’ (Supernatural Horror in Literature, Ch. I). At first glance, this statement may appear to be an open door. After all, it holds true in many of the stories, including the ones discussed in earlier chapters. The scene at Grendel’s Mother’s mere in Beowulf, for instance, creates tension due to the reader’s awareness of the hero’s imminent entrance into the otherworld that is, by its very nature, unknown. However, by mentioning that fear is the oldest emotion Lovecraft also raises an important point about the possible ancient origins of horror. Moreland agrees with Lovecraft’s observation about the origin of these stories; he notes that that traditionally The Castle of Otranto written by Walpole in 1764 is often recognized by scholars as the beginning of horror as an official genre, but not of horror fiction. He also suggests that ‘cosmic terror, and stories designed to stimulate negative and ambivalent emotion more generally, does indeed appear in the earliest folklore’ and even names Beowulf and its precursors as examples (49-50). In his essay, Lovecraft continues by asserting the value of the genre:
Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a natively inspired idealism which
deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to uplift the reader towards a suitable degree of smirking optimism (Supernatural Horror in Literature, Ch. I).
Here, Lovecraft explains in his usual baroque style the kind of optimism he sought to counter- balance in his prose through the means of a dreaded unknown. He describes the genre as a response to the twentieth-century idealist worldview found in the writing of the time that had its origins in an age of rapid technological and industrial progress. In his eyes cosmic horror goes against such prose through raw emotion: the fear of the unknown which he goes on to explore:
The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extra-terrestrial reasons, and thus clearly belonging to spheres of existence where we know nothing, and wherein we have no part (Supernatural Horror in Literature, Ch.I).
It becomes clear that what Lovecraft sought to create in his stories was a world in which modern optimism is no longer applicable and where the heroes are little more than children in a world that is well beyond their control and understanding. This is markedly different from tales such as Beowulf and Dracula, where the protagonists are able to resist and fight whatever monstrous creatures they come into contact with. In both these earlier examples it is understood that the hero has a chance to triumph and to a certain degree they do because in every instance the monster is slain, even if this may be at the cost of the hero’s life. Despite Beowulf’s tragic end in battle against the dragon, he does not perish until after the beast is slain. In tales of cosmic horror, this is no longer the case. Not only are these beings simply too powerful to be defeated but their strange nature makes them virtually unassailable, leaving the heroes with little to no means of resisting whatever horror they have encountered. At best they might be able to delay or contain it but, as soon as the being is discovered, the most important damage is already done. The protagonist has paid the price for his curiosity, leaving his worldview in tatters and the character unhinged. Because