What Is It About H.P. Lovecraft?

Howard_Phillips_Lovecraft

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.” – H.P. Lovecraft, The Mountains of Madness

I’ve said before that if you want to write a genre well, read the authors who inspired it. (Spolier alert for those attending my Realm Makers workshop on steampunk!)

Of course, one’s advice is only good if one takes it.

Finally I’ve gotten around to doing just that, by reading H.P. Lovecraft’s collected tales, novellas, short stories, and collaborations. All of them. The whole shebang. To say that Lovecraft has influenced the steampunk genre is about as much of an understatement as saying that Cthulhu is an oversized octopod.

Maybe I dragged my feet because I’m not much a fan of horror. Maybe I’m just distracted. Either way, I can’t believe it took so long to get past an intellectual knowledge of Lovecraft (and into an experiential one). I’m pretty much blown away.

Let me preface my following enthusiasm by noting that I am aware that Lovecraft is not considered the best writer of his time. And his personal quirks have been well documented elsewhere. But you know when writing gives that goose-bumpy, skin-crawling sensation. And however he accomplishes it (elegantly or not), Lovecraft does that for me.

Perhaps the most outstanding quality of Lovecraft’s work, to me, is that he writes the way I would naturally write—recounting vivid, atmospheric experiences with little development of interpersonal relationships. Or put another way, Lovecraft’s relationships are often not character to character. They are character to environment. This may be a function of the horror genre. Or could it be that Lovecraft had Aspergers?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Being a writer with Aspergers, and a teacher to a number of others, I can say this with certainty: one of our central strengths is writing about fantastical places. Writing about relationships? Not so much.

Perhaps my growing admiration for Lovecraft has something to do with this kinship: as if his pages are a sort of glorious permission that this writing—while not elegant in the conventional sense—has its own undeniable beauty.

Aside from that, what else about Lovecraft makes his work so wonderful? Here are a few observations I think we speculative fictioneers would do well to absorb:

1) Just enough truth makes the lies plausible.

Much has been made of Lovecraft’s mythos. It’s impressive to be sure, but it’s not drawn randomly out of a hat. Lovecraft is obviously well-versed in science, scientific theories, history and myth. He makes use of all of these “facts” to great effect—in service of his self-spun mythology. The Necronomicon is as real and powerful in his writing as his references to Edgar Allan Poe–even though the former is a Lovecraftian invention and the latter actually lived. (Unless, of course, you believe that theory . . .)

2) When a writer eats, the audience gets the crumbs.

This is a classic technique of horror, and Lovecraft uses it to blistering effect. Don’t tell the audience too much at once. Drop detail after delicious detail (the breadcrumbs) instead of the whole feast. Make those details pay off on the other side of the story. And don’t pull back the curtain on what the audience is dying to see, hear, taste, escape or anything else until the very last second. You don’t have to be a horror writer to appreciate this technique. It works as well in high-flying adventure, star-crossed romance, or any other kind of story.

3) Point of view is just a mirage.

“Methinks thou doth protest too much” might be a quote from Shakespeare, but it could certainly be applied to many of Lovecraft’s narrators. Is the narrator reliable? Is he not? Wondering is part of the fun. In the novella “The Mountains of Madness,” for example, the whole notion of madness calls into question the narrator’s yarn. Could it be that he and his co-pilot merely wandered around in the antarctic, their brains half-frozen, instead of really finding an alien civilization? There’s no way to know. Oh, the torture!

4) Place can have personality.

I said before that Lovecraft’s primary relationships seem to be between people and places (or psychological estates, like madness) rather than between people and people. But could we not say that in Lovecraft’s work, place becomes a kind of person all its own?

Cthulhu gets his dapper on over at  Monkey Waffles

Cthulhu gets his dapper on over at  Monkey Waffles

I find this sort of fiction is often frowned on in the modern era. Agents are famous for hanging all sorts of Damoclesian swords over writers’ heads: “There must be dialogue on the first page or two, or I put it down.” That sort of thing. But exploration of place–provided there is danger, conflict, and (above all) mystery–can be just as powerful and tempestuous a relationship to explore. Especially in genre fiction.

I’ve miles to go in the mind of H.P. Lovecraft, yet already, I am so much richer. Certainly I will look differently on those crocheted Cthulhus at my next steampunk conference. And maybe I’ll give a little more place for atmospheric madness in my own work.

After all, it’s the Lovecraft thing to do.
* * *
What’s your favorite Lovecraftian story, and how/when did you discover it? I’d love to hear the tale!

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19 thoughts on “What Is It About H.P. Lovecraft?

  1. hello, just to introduce myself – I got here via the adele comment that you liked 🙂

    really lovely place, lisa!
    my 2 cents here: h.p. is one of my favourite authors of all time.
    and while I understand why his stories might appear mediocre to today’s readers and blockbuster moviegoers, there is a solemn, creepy attitude about his (then) trailblazing writing that was part of what made our contemporary storytelling possible in the first place.

    I say to my cynical friends, look, it’s a bit like watching “hostel”, and hitch’s “psycho” afterwards, and saying, “meeeeh. now that was lame.” – or enjoying “resident evil” and saying “night of the living dead” was boring enough to ooze you into sleep. one must allow one’s modern self to unwind, and to deeply feel the horrors you’re presented with, and let go of our 3d, sfx, hd mindset. just enjoy the creative craftsmanship, let the atmosphere work its magic.
    right? 🙂

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    • Hello, and very nice to meet you! I love the way you’ve unpacked this. “Trailblazing” — what a great word. So many of those “pulp” or “weird fiction” writers (H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc.) made possible the fantastic stories that have come after them. We’re blessed that they committed to follow their visions, despite having a limited (or in Burroughs’ case, fickle, following in their own time). I think you’re right: unplugging and unwinding are key to enjoying these stories. And one thing’s for sure … they do have their own kind of magic! Which is your favorite of Lovecraft’s stories, by the way?

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      • oh gosh. I couldn’t name ONE.
        it’s one of my favourite writers, and there is little I don’t love. I can’t 🙂

        however I can name my all-time-super-duper-uber-mega-favourite short story but is not by lovecraft! it’s c.l. moore’s No Woman Born; and it’s pure gold.

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      • you will enjoy it! there’s the original concept of artificial life (no spoilers here), the human vs. not human dilemma, the female protagonist, the writing, the plot, the take on the creator vs. creature contrast. really exciting 🙂

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  2. I am about to commit a crime. Look away.

    I am a huge fan of Lovecraft. I’ve written things in a Lovecraftian vein and even incorporated elements of the mythos into stories and now into a novel I am co-writing. BUT…..if I have to be honest, and if I look at his writing with a modern’s eye, Lovecraft’s writing falls short of greatness. I could discuss his purple prose, his lack of economy, and his difficulty with pacing, but those could be overlooked if only he had developed the ability to write character.

    Let’s be honest, there is no character development in Lovecraft, and certainly few characters who have any sense of inner conflict apart from..”Holy Hell, what am I turning into?!!!” Your mention of unreliable narrator is spot on, and unreliable narrator is a great vehicle, and one which he never utilized for this reason,for demonstrating character through contrast.

    I am not diminishing what Lovecraft has contributed, just musing on a point or two for debate.

    Thanks for the thoughtful and entertaining posting. I am going to have to make a point of visiting your site more often and checking out your work.

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    • Stewart,

      Thanks for your astute comments; I agree — many aspects of Lovecraft’s craft are stunted, to say the least. (And they’re exactly the struggles I’d expect him to have, by the way, if he was indeed autistic.) Certainly other writers may have had better craft, but apparently their work did not make the emotional connection that his did.

      That’s something I’m coming to terms with in my own writer’s journey right now: that a powerful emotional connection is often not as connected to craft as I’d like it to be. As a young writer, I was taught (even by working fiction writers and screenwriters) that craft is everything. The more I’ve been writing and studying writing on my own, however, I’ve noticed that craft–while very important–cannot guarantee an emotional connection. (My friend Paul just wrote about this issue very poignantly in this post – http://www.asmp.org/strictlybusiness/2014/01/craft-is-not-connection/.)

      Emotional connection is also something autistic people struggle with — not because we don’t want it but because it’s often hard for us to understand and to forge, when everyone else seems to do it intuitively. As my writing matures, I’ve actually tried to “turn down” my obsession with craft that I had in former years and focus more on making that emotional connection. Not that craft should be neglected (and Lovecraft should have used more of it, I suppose). But his lack of craft doesn’t, for whatever reason, completely impede his emotional connection. That is what both astonishes and heartens me about his work.

      Maybe his work is so powerful for me because FEAR is an emotion that people with autism understand perhaps more than any other. (Venturing to speak on behalf of others, which may be perilous, of course.) Lovecraft speaks my language. What I’m experiencing through his work makes me wish I’d found that language sooner. I think it might be my native tongue …

      Thanks for stopping by! Love the conversation! So wonderful to meet you.

      Stay in touch –

      Lisa

      Like

  3. I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes things last, stories and tv shows and films and songs, is a quality entirely separate and distinct from anything that can be assessed or judged by critics, plot or characterisation or dialogue or anything overt. I personally call it magic. I think HPL had it. My favourite story of his is “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”

    Thank you for this piece. I found it fascinating.

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  4. I really dig this article. If you like, Lovecraft, I’d suggest some of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories. I recently picked them up and discovered they are way more cosmic horror/HPL-ish than I knew. Plus it’s cool that the two of them wrote through letters. 🙂

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  5. Pingback: Lovecraftian leftovers for week 18 | The Scrawl of Cthulhu

  6. I’ve been meaning to delve into Lovecraft myself – next time I’m at the library! Promise! And yes, setting is very important, especially in horror, but I try to use it in mystery as well. Dialog on the first page? Whups, broke that rule with my first book. Second book – dialog doesn’t start until well toward the bottom of the first page. Gotta set the scene, but set it in a way that’s interesting and intriguing. (and I love the little crocheted Cthulhu… I have a Ninja Turtle myself… 🙂 )

    Like

  7. Pingback: A Big Thank You! | An Aspie's Voyage

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