“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?
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?
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.
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What’s your favorite Lovecraftian story, and how/when did you discover it? I’d love to hear the tale!