Vernon Lee: Weird Psychological Lovecraftian Aesthetics

Anthony Christopher

Anthony Christopher

At first glance, it may seem incongruous or willful to place Vernon Lee — who is associated with fin-de-siècle Aestheticism and Walter Horatio Pater’s circle — alongside of a group of authors that Howard Phillips Lovecraft, in his influential long essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ (1927; revised 1939), identified as the “modern masters” of the weird tradition.1

I begin this article with a consideration of Vernon Lee’s work because it provides a vivid contrast that helps to define the stylistic and thematic characteristics of weird horror writing as it is practiced by Machen, Blackwood, and Hodgson, such that their work can be differentiated from the Victorian ghost story and the literature of the late nineteenth-century Gothic revival. Although weird horror fiction does, in fact, originate from the aforementioned subgenres and movements,2 we will see that it is not reducible to them, and that weird horror has its own distinct trajectory that leads to the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft in the twentieth-century, and beyond. Moreover, I contend that examining the historical and scientific contexts of Vernon Lee’s fiction helps to reveal the forces that drove the emergence of the weird horror genre. In this chapter, I look at Vernon Lee’s landmark 1880 essay on the supernatural, ‘Faustus and Helena,’ as well as her short story ‘Amour Dure’ (1887), which was reprinted in her collection of supernatural tales, ‘Hauntings’ (1890).

I demonstrate that Vernon Lee’s conception of the supernatural is psychological or phenomenological in nature, and usually the result of an intensely emotional and/or imaginative response to an aesthetic impression. For Vernon Lee, ghosts do not haunt locales or antiquarian objects as much as the minds that behold them. Accordingly, I contend that Vernon Lee’s work is less concerned with the nature of the outside world — that is, the world in itself, independent of human perception and cognition. Furthermore, when this real world of physical matter is not bracketed by Vernon Lee, it is presented as explainable by reference to the geological and biological sciences.

In keeping with this staunchly naturalistic outlook, I demonstrate that Vernon Lee conceives of human subjectivity and the forces that haunt it as explicable by the mechanisms of heredity. If the characters in Lee’s story are plagued by ghosts that seem more like possessing demons, it is because they find themselves in the grasp of powerfully self-destructive biological drives and desires that have been inherited from unknown ancestors.3 Thus does the past haunt in Vernon Lee’s supernatural fiction.

Quite to the contrary, we will see that the weird fiction of Machen, Blackwood, and Hodgson is intimately concerned with the nature of the outside world, as well as the obscure realities that potentially underlie it. More specifically, these works of weird horror’s “modern masters” philosophically speculate on the nature of matter, and devise unique ways of destabilizing conventional accounts of physicochemical material that treat it as the substratum of reality: the inert, hard kernels of existence out of which the cosmos and biological life is formed. Such an approach would be absolutely foreign to Vernon Lee. In her view, science is sufficient to explain reality, and any phenomenon termed “supernatural” can be reduced to psychic events.

Thus Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham report that in July 1885, Vernon Lee attended a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research — an organization devoted to studying paranormal phenomena in an objective, scientific manner — and found the proceedings “a very dull business.”4 If anything, the fictions of the so-called “modern” masters of weird fiction would have seemed pre-modern to her, in the sense of coming before the “Copernican” revolution of Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy,5 and indulging in baseless metaphysical speculations about the nature of reality (Immanuel Kant’s noumenon) that have as much empirical, evidential weight as dark-age superstitions.

Although Vernon Lee’s work centralizes haunted aesthetic objects that seem to have a spectral, undead “vitality” to them, we will see that these hauntings do not affect a physical animation of the material out of which these artworks are crafted. Rather, the aesthetic impressions and affects that the artwork creates spawn the ghost in the mind of the observer. All of this goes to say that Vernon Lee’s fiction does not destabilize matter in itself. For her, the paranormal disturbances of haunting transpire within intensive psychological states rather than the extensive realm of physical matter. Therefore, if artworks in Vernon Lee seem disconcertingly alive, it is not so because they have an intrinsic vitality to them; rather, it is because human psychology mediates, and manipulates, the presentation of the physical matter. In short, Vernon Lee’s supernatural is not anomalous in the ontological or metaphysical sense, as it is in the works of Machen, Blackwood, and Hodgson; it is a reflection of aberrant psychology that often has a hereditary aetiology.

That said, it is not the purpose of this chapter to declare once and for all whether Verner Lee’s fiction can be considered weird or not. In ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, Howard Phillips Lovecraft writes: “Serious weird stories are either made realistically intense by close consistency and perfect fidelity to nature except in one supernatural direction which the author allows himself, or cast altogether in the realm of phantasy, with atmosphere cunningly adapted to the visualization of a delicately exotic world of unreality beyond space and time, in which almost anything may happen if it but happen in true accord with certain types of imagination and illusion normal to the sensitive human brain. (81)”

While the first part of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s description of “serious” weird fiction recalls the work of Machen, Blackwood, and Hodgson, in which scientific discourse and the seemingly unexplainable are coupled and made receptive to one another’s influences, the second part of the description focuses on tales crafted around “phantasy” worlds. Thus Howard Phillips Lovecraft suggests that a story transpiring in the realms of psychology or the imagination can be a bonafide weird tale as well. Even though Vernon Lee’s fictions in Hauntings do not take place solely in the human brain — such as, for example, Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s short story “Celephaïs” (1922)6 — one could argue that they fit the description of the second kind of weird tale close enough.7

Paraphrasing Howard Phillips Lovecraft in their preface to ‘The Weird’ (2011), Ann and Jeff VanderMeer write that a weird tale “is a story that has a supernatural element but does not fall into the category of the traditional ghost story or Gothic tale […] it represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane” (xv). The fictions of Hauntings are emphatically not “traditional ghost stories,” although they have much in common with the Gothic, and this genre’s explorations of the pathological interior spaces of human psychology. And Vernon Lee’s tales certainly reach beyond the mundane in that they deal with hereditary impulses and desires that are mysterious and not fully understandable because they seem to originate from outside the human subject. Therefore, there is no reason why weird horror fiction cannot also be imminently psychological.8

This notion would seem to hopelessly complicate my proposed genealogy of weird horror literature. If Vernon Lee’s psychologically-inflected tales can themselves be considered weird, then how can they illustrate the emergence of this genre — one that purportedly evolves in reaction to the tendency to explore psychology and marginalize the outside world? The answer is that Vernon Lee’s work can be regarded as weird based on the fact that it articulates an alternative, counterintuitive conception of the supernatural based on a thoroughgoing scientific rationalism, one that leaves the supernatural as nothing more than the artefact of the operations of sensation and the imagination. This approach, however, runs counter to how the weird developed along its major axis that passes through Machen, Blackwood, and Hodgson — the main vector of weird fiction that leads to the characteristic blend of science-fiction and horror that is the hallmark of the high weird, which arguably achieves its most intense expression in the later fictions of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.9

Put somewhat differently, there are many ways to be weird; in this dissertation, however, I am predominately concerned with tracing out the developmental trajectory that leads to Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s later work, and this trajectory takes shape by opposing many of the tendencies embodied in Vernon Lee’s fiction. To further distinguish VernonLee’s weird fiction from that of Machen’s, Blackwood’s, Hodgson’s, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s, we might note that her fiction is ultimately concerned with the anti-human as opposed to the inhuman.

Vernon Lee’s fiction might be termed anti-human because it dissolves the human subject in the acid of analysis, presenting it as nothing other than the locus of a manifold of different sensations, impressions, desires, and hereditary influences that can exist in open antagonism with one another.

Such thinking accords with the critical, scientific spirit of Vernon Lee’s philosophical outlook. In contrast, the “modern masters” of weird horror concern themselves with inhuman realities: anonymous and impersonal forces in the cosmos, and alien life-forms that have no intrinsic connection to human psychology, and thus resist being fully comprehended, although science can occasionally shed some explanatory light on such creatures. Lee’s horror fiction seems to be fascinated with the nonhuman too, given the way that it appears to animate aesthetic objects, such as haunted portraits, living statues, and magical wedding chests.

Nevertheless, the human subject cannot be dissociated from these objects; in fact, it is a human psychology that bestows these objects with their allure and significance. Only on account of human thought and perception can these objects “come alive.” Therefore, Vernon Lee never leaves the confines of an introverted anthropocentrism. In contrast, the “modern masters” of weird horror dispense with human psychology, opening up space in their fiction to investigate the inhuman and terrifying mind-independent reality of the cosmos.

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