Lovecraft examines the roots of weird fiction in the gothic novel (relying heavily on Edith Birkhead's 1921 survey The Tale of Terror), and traces its development through such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe (who merits his own chapter), and Ambrose Bierce. Lovecraft names as the four "modern masters" of horror Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood and M. R. James.
An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia calls the work "HPL's most significant literary essay and one of the finest historical analyses of horror literature." Upon reading the essay, M. R. James proclaimed Lovecraft's style "most offensive."However, Edmund Wilson, who was not an admirer of Lovecraft's fiction, praised the essay as a "really able piece of work...he had read comprehensively in this field — he was strong on the Gothic novelists — and writes about it with much intelligence".