Supernatural fiction  

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"Thus was the inventor, or at least first distinguished artist who exhibited the fantastic or supernatural grotesque in his compositions, so nearly on the verge of actual insanity, as to be afraid of the beings his own fancy created."--"On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition" (1827) by Sir Walter Scott

"THE aim of this book is to give some account of the growth of supernatural fiction in English literature, beginning with the vogue of the Gothic Romance and Tale of Terror towards the close of the eighteenth century."--The Tale of Terror (1921) by Edith Birkhead

"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" (1927) by H. P. Lovecraft

This page Supernatural fiction is part of the fantasy series.Illustration: Screenshot from A Trip to the Moon (1902) Georges Méliès
This page Supernatural fiction is part of the fantasy series.
Illustration: Screenshot from A Trip to the Moon (1902) Georges Méliès

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Supernatural fiction is a classification of literature used to describe fiction exploiting or requiring as plot devices or themes some contradictions of the commonplace natural world and materialist assumptions about it. It includes the traditional ghost story, and was propelled to prominence in Europe by the eighteenth century explosion of popular Gothic fiction. It includes both fiction with a religious message, and some that is directed against the religious concepts of natural law by postulating anti-natural phenomena and beings.

Most but not all supernatural fiction would be taken to be genre fiction; The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is an example of a work of literary fiction that is also largely concerned with supernatural fiction elements, making play of the possibility that they are psychological at root, but requiring the option that they are not for effect. John Banville is a contemporary writer of supernatural literary fiction.

While a great deal of supernatural fiction was written in the century up to 1950, the genre arguably died around then, except for stilted imitation and children's literature. The bulk of fiction dealing with the occult had been posed as supernatural, but somewhere between Arthur Machen and a writer like Dennis Wheatley the effects had become threadbare.

This dwindling of supernatural fiction can be attributed to a number of causes. The newer genres of horror fiction and fantasy fiction, while growing out of some of the basic propositions and generic conventions, were more energetic, attracted talented authors, and disposed gradually of the older arch style and fusty Edwardianisms. Surrealism was similarly against 'natural law', wholeheartedly, but postulated that the daily world we live in contains the very 'decadent' elements, which in the older supernatural fiction were shown as breaking through some barrier to meet us. After Sigmund Freud, and in a general realignment of thinking on mythology post-1945 (courtesy for example of Northrop Frye, Robert Graves and numerous art historians), European thought had less need to be reminded of the supernatural in the form of repressed Somethings.



The author of The Rise of Supernatural Fiction 1762–1800 states that the origins of supernatural fiction come from Britain in the second half of the 18th century. Accounts of the Cock Lane ghost were featured in the newspapers in 1762, and an interest in Spiritualism was also currently prevalent. There was a need for people to see real ghosts and experience them vicariously through the writings of fiction.

S. L. Varnado argues in Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction that the beginning of an interest in the supernatural comes from humanity's craving for the experience of the divine, so that even the old mythological tales of the knights of King Arthur give the reader a sense of the presence of "holy" things. The author does then go on to trace this influence further into the future with the Gothic literature movement.

The famous horror writer H. P. Lovecraft cites man's fear of the unknown as the origin of supernatural fiction in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" (1927). He also goes on to describe the literary genre's roots in Gothic literature. The description in Wuthering Heights (1847) of the natural surroundings in which the novel takes place and the eerie mood it evokes is cited as one of the first instances of supernatural horror's being evoked in literature.

In the 20th century, supernatural fiction became associated with psychological fiction. In this association, descriptions of events that occur are not explainable through the lenses of the natural world, leading to the conclusion that the supernatural is the only possible explanation for what has been described. A classic example of this would be The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James, which offers both a supernatural and a psychological interpretation of the events described. In this example, ambiguity adds to the effects of both the supernatural and the psychological.

Some examples of the genre include:

Supernatural fiction continues to be a staple of comic book and graphic novel writing, and the basis for films. That is, it is only its purely prose expression that sagged, mid-twentieth century.


See also

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