|Writers of Gothic tales and writers about them use many of
the same terms, but they often assign different meanings and values to
them. Or they may assign the same Gothic-ficiton-writers to different
categories, e.g., the weird tale or the occult tale or the tale of
terror . For instance, Glen St. John Barclay identifies Le Fanu,
Stoker, and Lovecraft as masters of "occult fiction"; for Edward
Wagenknect, LeFanu, Machen, and Blackwood are masters of "supernatural
fiction"; and S.L. Vernado discusses Stoker, Machen, Blackwood, and
Lovecraft was writers of the "numinous tale."
For these reasons, it is important to be aware of the meanings
a word may have in general and to determine the specific way a writer
is using it, as well as know exactly what you mean when you use the
word. I have grouped words which have similar, overlapping, or
associated meanings together, to highlight their similarities,
differences, and connections.
Mysterium Tremendum, Numinous, Occult,
Paranormal, Preternatural, and Supernatural
The numinous is the divine and the spiritual, or
it may be the revelation or suggestion that a god is present; always,
it inspires awe and reverence. This meaning was in use by 1647. The
adjective derives from the noun numen, meaning deity, divinity;
divine or presiding power or spirit.
Writers exploring occult and supernatural fiction
frequently quote Rudolf Otto, who "defined
numinous as the non-rational mystery behind religion, which is both
awesome and fascinating. It is, he asserted, the permanent and
essential feature of all religion, including Christianity" (S. W.
The occult is what is kept secret or is told only
to the initiated (this meaning appeared in writing in 1533). Later in
the same century, it came to mean something not understood by the mind
or not capable of being understood by the mind; it was, in other words,
mysterious. The final meaning relevant to our course refers to ancient
and medieval sciences or their modern equivalents, like magic, alchemy,
astrology, and theosophy; these occult sciences used agencies of a
secret and mysterious nature, for example, divination, incantation,
magical formulas. Thus, the occult may mean magical or mystical. This
last set of meanings was in use by 1633.
A modern word appearing in 1920, the paranormal
functions according to natural laws which are not yet known and so
cannot now be explained, but the paranormal, it is assumed, can be
Since the sixteenth century, the word preternatural
has described happenings or powers which, it is assumed, follow natural
laws not yet known. With the eighteenth century, the word came to be
used as a synonym for supernatural. The preternatural, though sometimes
mistaken for the miraculous, is merely strange and inexplicable.
Of things in nature and art: Affecting the mind with a sense
of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire
awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty,
vastness, or grandeur.
The supernatural is, as its name literally
indicates, above nature; it belongs to a higher level than nature and
transcends nature; these meanings were current in 1526. So Calvin
said, "Of nature is giltinesse, and sanctification is of supernaturall
grace." Later in the century, the word was extended to mean relating
to, dealing with, or characterized by what is above nature.
Eerie, Uncanny, and Weird
From 1300 on, eerie meant fearful and
timid; today, the word has narrowed to a specific kind of fear–a vague
superstitious uneasiness. It is used as a synonym for weird and
uncanny, as well as for gloomy and strange; the eerie arouses fear.
The usual meaning of uncanny is having a
supernatural character or being mysterious, weird, uncomfortably
strange or unfamiliar. According to the OED, the first recorded
use of this meaning occurred in 1843, and by 1850 it was common. The
word may also mean mysterious, eerie, or ghostly. An uncanny person is
not quite safe to trust to or be involved with, because of having some
connection with supernatural arts or powers; this meaning appeared in
offers his own definition and theory about the uncanny.
This word has a long lineage, its first recorded
use being in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, where it means fate
or destiny. A stock phrase using this meaning is "to dree one's weird,"
that is, to suffer one's fate. A narrowing of this meaning, dating from
1300, is an evil fate which is inflicted by supernatural power, often
in retribution. By the fifteenth century, the word also meant events
which are fated or predestined to happen; by the eighteenth, a prophecy
or prediction of someone's fate. Not until 1814 is weird used
to describe a story about the supernatural or the marvelous.
In the 1930s and 40s a magazine called Weird
Tales catered to readers with a taste for the Gothic and published
several of H.P. Lovecraft's stories.
Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary
distinguishes among these three words:
Weird, eerie, uncanny mean
mysteriously strange or fantastic. Weird, in stricter use,
often implies an unearthly or preternatural mysteriousness; eerie,
a vague consciousness that unearthly or mysterious and, often, malign
powers or influences are at work; uncanny, in its prevailing
but looser sense, unpleasant mysteriousness or strangeness, as of
persons, places, sensations, thought, etc.
The Gothic Experience Page
Revised:August 26, 2008