Month: February 2015

What is “Lovecraftian”?

While writing my post about Pete Rawlik’s novel Reanimators, I started thinking about Lovecraftian writing in general. You see the term everywhere these days, in blogs, book reviews and descriptions. What does it mean, anyway?

What is a Lovecraftian novel or story, and how does it differ from other types of weird fiction, science fiction or horror fiction?

Tentacles? Surely more than that!

First of all, who was Howard Phillips Lovecraft? He was a writer of weird fiction who lived almost his entire life (1890-1937) in Providence, Rhode Island. Almost unknown during his relatively short life, he achieved enduring fame after his writings caught the popular fancy. Lovecraft’s friends and fellow writers August Derleth and Donald Wandrei are credited with bringing public attention to his work by publishing it posthumously under the Arkham House imprint.

Fiction dubbed “Lovecraftian” covers a wide range:

1. Rewritings or expansions of HPL’s stories. Examples include Pete Rawlik’s Reanimators and my own The Friendship of Mortals, both of which use Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator” as a starting point.

2. Original stories with HPL’s settings, entities and situations, but with new plots and characters. The body of such writings is sometimes described as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Authors include August Derleth and Brian Lumley, among others.

3. Original stories with new themes similar to those of HPL, often referencing his works. Colin Wilson’s story “The Return of the Lloigor” is an example. Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft is another.

4. Original stories that mention HPL or elements from his fiction but with plots that go beyond his characteristic settings and situations . Many present-day writers in horror and the paranormal give a nod or pay tribute to Lovecraft in varying degrees. Stephen King, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell and many others — too many to name, really. Kiernan’s novel The Red Tree, which I recently finished reading, is a perfect example.

I think that to be truly Lovecraftian, a story or novel must include certain qualities and plot elements, such as references to ancient books, other dimensions and displacements in time, but especially the idea that we and our Earth are not the culmination of anything, merely a small blip in the cosmos. The horror, when revealed, must be enormous and incomprehensible, on a cosmic scale.

Fiction of the “classic Lovecraftian” type would include some or all of these:

1. A New England setting.

2. Old houses or other buildings, or subterranean places.

3. Ancient books or manuscripts of secret lore.

4. Concerns with ancestry.

5. Connection with a university or with researchers.

6. No sex and almost no female characters.

7. An earnest, scholarly narrative style.

8. Accidental discovery of shocking secrets by a character (always a man, of a scholarly, solitary type) engaged in genealogical or other research.

9. No magic; presumably all manifestations are natural phenomena, even though some violate the laws of physics as we know them.

10. The idea that the earth, solar system, galaxy and universe have a history independent of any connection to humanity, involving life forms or vast entities that, while indifferent to humans, may pose deadly threats to them, either directly or by actions of worshippers or minions of these entities.

This brings me to religion and magic. Lovecraft’s atheism and scientific rationalism are reflected in his fiction. Magic appears only in Lovecraft’s fantasies, for example The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Even there it is somewhat limited, being part of that fictional world — for example, cats that can fly to the dark side of the moon. As for religion, it’s human beings who worship and act in the name of the Great Old Ones such as Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. The entities themselves appear to be indifferent to humanity.

Personally I think the term “Lovecraftian” is being applied rather too freely these days, as a synonym for weird fiction generally. In a straight-up Lovecraftian story, their main characters may not necessarily be male, but should definitely be unattached and engaged in some sort of scholarly enterprise or genealogical research, rather than sex. Characters with active sex lives are not Lovecraftian in the strict sense, no matter what weird things happen to them.

In fact, I would argue that many of the works in my fourth category of types above aren’t really Lovecraftian at all. They may have been inspired by HPL’s writings or contain references to them, but it takes more than that to be “Lovecraftian fiction.” It’s a subset of weird fiction, not a synonym for it. Writers and reviewers owe it to H.P. Lovecraft and his admirers to be familiar with his outlook and style before applying the term to a piece of writing.

 

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A Peculiar Pastiche: Pete Rawlik’s Reanimators

Several weeks ago I read an interview with author Pete Rawlik on the Lovecraft eZine blog, in which Rawlik referred to his novel Reanimators. I had not heard of this work before so of course rushed to read it. Given my connection with HPL’s character Herbert West, I couldn’t wait to see what another writer had done with him.

Hence this review.

The plot? I was going to say “The plot in brief,” but it’s hard to summarize this novel. It’s a composite of many stories, each based on or involving characters from other stories by Lovecraft. In a way this maintains the spirit of “Herbert West, Reanimator,” which was published as a six-part serial. The main character and narrator (for the most part) is Stuart Hartwell, a fellow student of Herbert West and Daniel Cain (a name from the 1985 movie Re-Animator; the narrator of HPL’s story is unnamed). West and Cain’s early experiments result in the violent deaths of Hartwell’s parents, inducing a desire for revenge that waxes and wanes over many years. During these years, Hartwell practices medicine in Arkham but also pursues research into reanimation, achieving better results than West and Cain, who turn out to be bunglers. Hartwell manages to conceal his research from the authorities while becoming involved with a host of characters including Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee (from HPL’s “The Shadow Out of Time”), Dr. Munoz (from “Cool Air”) and — wait for it — Charlie Chan! Every now and then Hartwell sneaks into Herbert West’s secret laboratory, reads his notes and sabotages his experiments. Eventually, he begins his own grand experiment, with the population of Arkham as unwitting subjects. He also takes a trip into the country around Arkham, meets Lavinia Whately and her father, and witnesses a momentous event near Dunwich. Some time after this, on a visit to Sefton Asylum, Hartwell meets a Russian doctor who had spent some time in Dunwich and examined an amazing boy named Wilbur Whately. In 1914 Dr. Hartwell, like Dr. West, goes to war, where his reanimating reagent proves singularly useful, in a terrifying way. After the war, Hartwell swears off pursuing his reanimation research, but to no avail. Despite his good intentions, his reagent has a bizarre role in the worldwide devastation brought about by the so-called Spanish influenza. This episode is followed by a rather sparse reprise of the concluding chapter of HPL’s “Herbert West, Reanimator,” except it’s Stuart Hartwell who drives the truck that delivers a gang of reanimated dudes and a big square box to West’s house. After this, Hartwell takes a time-out, and the narrative is continued by Daniel Cain, by way of a document discovered among Hartwell’s papers at a later date. Cain relates how he and Herbert West spent part of WWI — in the crumbling Chateau d’Erlette, which is inhabited by a lady and her exceedingly strange son, a talented violist whose name is Erik, nicknamed “Zann” by his mother. ‘Nuff said. West and Cain make a reappearance in Arkham, moving in mere doors away from Hartwell, who is exceedingly annoyed by this proximity, but makes use of it by spying on his (former?) enemies. Combat with syringes and pistol ensues. Hartwell gets involved with rural medicine in the Miskatonic Valley and, along with Lake and Dyer (“At the Mountains of Madness” and Wilmarth (“The Whisperer in Darkness”) witnesses bizarre activities in a village called Quirk. He returns unscathed to his practice, and in 1927 participates in the investigation of strange goings-on in Innsmouth. About this time, Wilbur Whately arrives in the Library of Miskatonic University. Thanks to Dr. Hartwell’s efforts, Henry Armitage (the librarian), is in fine form and plays a heroic role, but soon after this Mrs. Armitage dies. Her deathbed is attended by one Frank Elwood (“The Dreams in the Witch-House”). Elwood gives Hartwell a document he has written, outlining the true story of Keziah Mason and the death of Walter Gilman. Said history is pretty colourful — Keziah Mason was a prodigy and had two twin sisters, and they were all midwives and… Enough, already. Another set of triplets, this time boys from Kingsport, precipitate the final horror, in which a convergence of ancestral follies and scientific travesties plays out, sealing the fate of Stuart Hartwell.

Whew.

My review: I have to give Rawlik full marks for weaving together characters and plot bits from a dozen or so Lovecraft stories, combining them with actual events from history. The prose is vivid in spots, even a little feverish. Rawlik maintains most of the necessary characteristics of a Lovecraftian story — a main character who is a single, unattached male, narration with little dialogue, and no sex. Scientific details are added with authority and reasonable plausibility. Some of the plot elements created to provide background — for example Dr. Munoz’s and Keziah Mason’s backstories — show ingenuity and imagination. Aficionados of HPL would certainly find this novel a gold mine of allusions and expansions on the work of the master. As an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, Reanimators is admirable.

Now the elements that aren’t so good, first among them the fact that a reader unacquainted with the work of Lovecraft would probably find this book incomprehensible. In order to incorporate characters and plot elements from a number of stories, Rawlik sacrifices overall plot integrity. His adoption of Lovecraft’s style — old-fashioned, sometimes pedantic and wordy — becomes tedious at times, and is not helped by the paucity of dialogue. (In the few places where dialogue is used, it has a distinctly livening effect). Most of Lovecraft’s works are short — stories and a couple of novellas. Adopting his style for a novel of more than 300 pages risks straining the patience of readers used to contemporary fast-paced fiction. Like most of Lovecraft’s main characters, Rawlik’s Hartwell doesn’t have much personality. Apart from token chest-beating about his role in some of the disasters that occur, he doesn’t do much self-examination or undergo any development. His function is to tell what happens, but he does not engage the reader. What kept me reading wasn’t sympathy for Hartwell, but merely a desire to find out what happened next.

Finally, I was quite disappointed to find that despite the title of the book, which references “Herbert West, Reanimator,” Herbert West is almost invisible in Reanimators. Creating Hartwell to play the role of a rival and enemy of West was a good idea, but Rawlik sends Hartwell off on side trips in order to bring in all those other HPL plots and people, breaking the original plot thread in the process. There is almost no interaction between Hartwell and West. I wish the author had stayed focused on reanimation and examined different motives for and methods of accomplishing it, ending with a showdown between West and Hartwell. Anyone looking for that won’t find it in Reanimators.

(But something of the sort may be found in a book entitled The Friendship of Mortals, by one A. Driscoll).

The Most Terrifying Story

Among the books and stories I have read, the prize for “most terrifying” goes to… “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood!

Published in 1907, this novella was noted by H.P. Lovecraft in his treatise Supernatural Horror in Literature as a superior example of the terror tale. The story certainly terrified me when I first read it at age 12, and even now, decades later, certain passages from it can bring back a feeling of profound and irredeemable fear. Inducing such fear, of course, is the whole point of horror or weird fiction.

Let’s just have a look at the necessary qualities of this fiction genre. First of all, the author must achieve a feeling of fundamental wrongness in the environment of the main character, or in that character him- or herself. This wrongness must reach out and envelope the reader, who then shares the dislocation of reality and experiences vicariously the state of having no clue as to how to change the situation — a situation which ultimately threatens the well-being or the very existence of the character.

The wrongness or strangeness may be intriguing at first, beguiling even, but eventually it becomes threatening, dangerous, terrifying. We (the fictitious character and the reader) recognize a deadly danger, without knowing what it is or how to deal with it. The result is a fundamental dislocation and isolation.

“The Willows” meets all these criteria to perfection, which is why it is surely one of the most terrifying stories I have ever read. Two friends — young men of the type encountered in English fiction of the early 20th century — are on a canoeing and camping trip on the Danube River. Somewhere beyond Austria, where the river passes through what is now the borderland between Slovakia and Hungary, they enter a region of shifting sandbars and temporary islands overgrown with willows. They camp on one of the islands, and experience a series of minor mishaps and odd occurrences that keep them there an additional night.

At first the narrator feels a strange charm in their physical surroundings — the remoteness, the strong “personality” of the river whose every mood they have come to know, representing wild nature at its finest — and especially the overwhelming presence of the willows. With time, an inexplicable unease develops, but he keeps it to himself because he thinks his companion (known only as “the Swede”) is too unimaginative to appreciate subtle emotions. This has the effect of isolating the narrator with his fears and increasing the tension.

The individual events the campers experience while on the island are not particularly shocking — the sight of a man in a boat making warning signs and crossing himself before vanishing in the distance, a swimming otter that seems to look at them strangely, a missing canoe paddle and a tear in the bottom of their canoe that must be repaired before they can continue their journey, foodstuffs and supplies that seem oddly diminished — but as they add up, the feeling of wrongness becomes undeniable. It builds up gradually while the narrator keeps his fears to himself, but bursts out into terror on the second night, when the two men begin to share their perceptions. By that time, the narrator has seen something inexplicable during the previous night, and has also begun to hear an unaccountable ringing or humming sound that comes and goes.

During the conversation within the safe circle of light cast by the campfire, one of the characters utters sentences that still make me shiver: “All my life,” he said, “I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region — not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind — where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs … are all as dust in the balance — vast purposes, I mean, that deal directly with the soul…” Just typing this out, more than forty years since I first read it, brings back the acute fear I felt then.

And another sentence that has never left me: “To name is to reveal.”

So I won’t say how the story ends, but I must point out the characteristic that makes this tale so disturbing: at no time is the source of terror made explicit. From start to finish it remains amorphous and veiled. To me, this is crucial. The moment the horror is revealed, no matter how evil, grotesque or huge, it loses a great deal of its power. Once you see the tentacles, the thing-to-be-feared changes from an unknown, possibly unknowable it-could-be-anything to… a thing with tentacles. Which may be terrifying, but it’s a terrifying something.

The Irascible Indie. Part 4: Who Are the Real Writers?

If you’ve read the other parts of this series, you may be thinking it’s about how not to promote your writing. If it inspired anyone to seek out the many blogs offering positive advice on marketing and promotion, so much the better. I admit my approach to these aspects of being my own publisher is lackadaisical. But does that make me a Bad Writer?

This might be an answer…

Writer = one who writes.

Real writer = one who makes one’s living by writing.

Hobby writer/dilettante/fake = one who writes for one’s own amusement, with something other than writing as a source of income.

Is it really so?

Real writers have to market, promote, make business plans, etc. (unless they have publishers who do those things for them). Hobby writers can just put their books out there and hope for the best.

Real writers have to work social media, make connections with their readers, create and maintain their brand. Some, perhaps many, hobby writers do these things too, but their livelihood doesn’t depend on it.

Hobby writers (unless retired with adequate pensions) need to spend most of their time and energy at their day jobs. That leaves only “spare time” for both writing and marketing. Which one do you suppose gets neglected?

Things all writers have in common:

1. A compulsion to write.

2. A desire to have their writing read and recognized.

So the only difference between real writers and hobby writers is that real writers need to make a living from their craft.

This leads to the big questions:

1. Are real writers better at writing than hobby writers?

2. Does any of this matter to readers?

The writing itself may be bad or good, regardless of what kind of writer produces it. Hobby writers, under less compulsion to keep producing new works and marketing their existing ones, may take more time and so turn out work of greater quality. Without the need to direct all their writing to a target market, hobby writers are free to write from inspiration, possibly creating works of originality (or weirdness). On the other hand, career writers must sharpen their game if they want to succeed, so have to pay attention to quality as well as quantity.

All writer-publishers should be aware of the “ugly truth” about the publishing business.

But does this mean if you don’t want to market and promote, or are a dismal failure at it, you’re not a Real Writer?

Of course not! It’s only a problem if you expect to sell a lot of books and make a lot of money. Most of us began writing because it’s what we love to do, not in order to set ourselves up for failure and guilt. We all have choices and not everyone is looking for the same rewards, as illustrated by this quote from writer SK Nicholls (commenting on another writer’s blog post about trad vs. indie publishing):  “I have heard people say hobby writers can’t be taken seriously. Only writers writing for money and those who treat writing like a business can succeed. I suppose that depends on your point of view and your definition of success. It certainly isn’t mine.”

It’s crucial to maintain a balance between your expectations of whatever constitutes success for you (money earned, readers attracted, awards bestowed) and the effort you are willing to put into marketing and promotion. The gap may in rare instances be bridged by good luck or magic (but don’t count on that).

For readers, there’s really no point in worrying about whether the writer of a book you are considering is a real writer or a mere hobbyist. Some readers will not read anything that has not been endorsed by critics or reviewers, but most look at the story first. If the story interests and excites them, then they want to know more about the author.

Who are the Real Writers? All of us — all who write with passion and energy, striving to perfect our art. How good we happen to be at selling our work is another matter. There are professional writers and writers who prosper financially, but those are subsets of the broad category. We are all writers.

So endeth the series. The Irascible Indie goes back to reading, mulling, questioning and writing. (And with spring just around the corner, add gardening to that list).