I recently re-listened to a program about H.P. Lovecraft. It prompted me to think about the element in his writing for which he is best known: cosmic horror as embodied by Cthulhu (who has become quite popular recently; you can even buy a cute Cthulhu stuffy).
But cosmic horror, also known as Lovecraftian horror–what is that? Keep in mind that HPL was an atheist and rationalist. He most definitely had no time for magic or godlike supernatural powers.
HPL was inspired by the vastness of the known universe, and especially the not-known universe. The word vigintillion (meaning the number 1 followed by 63 zeroes) appears in a few of his stories. He was thrilled by the idea of the utter unknown, and how little humans (even educated, refined, white men of New England) matter in the grand scheme of things. The utter indifference of the cosmos to humanity is Lovecraft’s horror.
The beginning of his story “The Call of Cthulhu” pretty much sums up the idea:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
I can relate to this. At one time, I hoped to write a piece of fiction that could be called Lovecraftian, but I have never done so. Yes, my novel The Friendship of Mortals is based on Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,” but it’s not cosmic horror in any sense. Come to that, the original story isn’t either. It precedes HPL’s exploration of that realm. Herbert West is an atypical Lovecraft character in that he has a smidge of personality, which was what inspired me to build a novel around him.
The reason none of my fiction can be called Lovecraftian is because it’s character-driven. It contains supernatural elements and even a bit of horror, but it’s really about what happens within and between the characters. To be honest, at times the supernatural stuff (revivified corpses, mysterious forces, and artifacts of power) is difficult to incorporate into the stories in a plausible way. True Lovecraftian fiction might be described as situationally-driven. The point of the story is a slow, gradual, apprehension of the situation by the character. Understanding is followed rapidly by terror.
In HPL’s stories, the point-of-view characters (they can’t really be called ‘protagonists’) are merely human vehicles to deliver the manifestations of inhuman, indifferent, monstrous entities to the reader. In no way are those stories about the characters. Yes, they have names, professions, family backgrounds and all that. But they are not struggling with relationships, bosses, addictions, or mental breakdowns (not until later, anyway). Their sole focus is whatever manifestation of cosmic horror HPL wants to show the reader. Even though I’ve read “The Call of Cthulhu” many times, I don’t remember the main character’s name. And that doesn’t even matter.
So what elements are needed in a story of Lovecraftian horror?
- A main character with an orderly, unremarkable life without extremes or hazards, but who is alert and articulate. This person is a happy solitary, a single academic or similar. Not someone with a lot of people in their immediate surroundings. First person or close third person p.o.v.
- A richly imagined setting. It could be almost anywhere, but should be realistic, to make its eventual wrongness seem, well, wrong.
- A subtle and gradually increasing sense of wrongness in the surroundings.
- An eventual sense of isolation of the narrator or p.o.v. character, brought about by the discovery of the cosmic horror.
- A creeping sense of existential peril as a result of recognizing the cosmic horror.
- The precise nature of the horror is never fully revealed (even when there are tentacles).
- Destruction or madness of the p.o.v. character as the result of interaction with the cosmic horror. Note: there is no doubt that the character was sane at the beginning. This is not “unreliable narrator” territory.
A perfect example of this type of story is “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. It’s a novella originally published in 1907, and so precedes Lovecraft’s stories by a couple of decades. In fact, HPL cites it in his study Supernatural Horror in Literature as one of the finest pieces of writing in that genre. “The Willows” has all the elements I have listed. The characters are two ordinary guys on a canoe trip down the Danube River. The narrator is unnamed, and his companion is referred to only as “the Swede.” The only conflict between them is about the significance of phenomena observed in their camp on a tiny island in the river, overgrown with willow bushes. The narrator believes he is more sensitive to subtle influences than the oblivious Swede. Gradually, he becomes aware this is not so. Trust me, the story is subtly terrifying, even without a tentacle in sight.
Before I put away my pen and computer for good, I still hope to write a truly Lovecraftian story. One day I’ll re-read this post and take a shot at doing just that.
(If they let me.)
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