I’ve finally made a start on the complete works of HP Lovecraft. It was a book I treated myself to about two years ago, but the sheer size and weight of it was quite intimidating (seriously, it’s roughly as heavy as a brick)!
While reading, I started to dissect each tale in turn. Yes, I’m a bit weird / dull like that; I like to look at these things analytically, to figure out if they work, and if so, why. This got me thinking about why his stories are so creepy, and how I could use them as a good learning guide.
Firstly, some general comments
Lovecraft is a great writer, there’s no doubt. In my opinion, he picks up where Poe left off, taking slow, creeping horror to new places. I’d say that most writers could learn something from him, in terms of structure, handling of plot, building tension etc.
Speaking honestly though, the racist undertones were quite unpalatable at times. Some will say that we must make some allowances due to the era he was writing in, the established attitudes at the time, and so forth. However, as a white person, I’m always enormously wary of making this judgement call. After all, I’ve never been on the receiving end of racism!
For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to bypass the negative representations of non-white people. With regards to what we should do with problematic texts like this – that’s a whole debate in itself (and one I’m not sure I’m qualified to provide the answer to). Open discussion I feel is the way forward – and acknowledgement of why these depictions / uses of certain words is so very wrong.
Let’s focus on the positives of Lovecraft though – and zone in on the mastery of creating suspense and dread. It’s certainly taught me a few things…
The Lovecraftian structure?
Okay, so this is a layperson’s observations, as I’ve never studied Lovecraft and I’m not an expert. But here are a few things I noticed about the structure of his stories:
- The scene is set, and immediately something is established as a bit ‘wrong’. It could be a house that’s not quite normal to look at, or a character who has unnatural motivations, for example. However, at this stage, not much is given away.
- The ‘situation’ occurs. In one short story, a coffin-maker finds himself trapped in a tomb, for example. In another, a wary man stumbles into a lonely cabin, to find a very strange inhabitant there.
- Next comes the gradual revelation. Here’s where Lovecraft really comes into his own; drip-feeding hints at what is so desperately sinister about the goings-on. In ‘The Temple’, the captain of the submarine notices his crew behaving strangely – first one, then the next. It’s a slow build-up of events that create real dramatic tension.
- There’s also often a monster / supernatural threat. Cthulhu is obviously the most famous of them all, and is easily the best described; as a reader, it’s impossible not to visualise that lumpy, octopus-like head, nor those wings! Again, this is usually hinted at near the start, then expanded upon as Lovecraft draws us nearer to the threat / monster itself.
- Occasionally, there’s a ghastly twist at the end; the classic ‘shock value’ that leaves the reader feeling unsettled and off-kilter. At other times, Lovecraft draws the tale to a more expected conclusion – one we’d been hoping the protagonist would avoid. But nonetheless, there’s something satisfying about that sense of doomed inevitability.
Using the techniques in horror-writing
I’m a massive fan of slow build-ups. Psychological fright has always interested me far more than grisly, blood-thirsty horror. This is probably the best ‘take-home’ a writer can gain from reading Lovecraft. Lure the reader step by step to the point of fear, rather than barrelling them with it all at once. It’s eerier that way!
It’s also worthwhile considering what details really matter. In his short stories, he often ignores the backstories of the characters. After all, we don’t really need to know them intimately; they’re mainly there to act as conduits, for the fright-factor to pass from author to reader.
While reading the tales, I also started pondering on the whole concept of the ‘unnatural’ – and why certain things scare us. To go back to the short story ‘The Temple’ – it makes references to strange schools of dolphins, who seem to assemble around the submarine for no apparent reason. Dolphins aren’t particularly sinister, but by making them behave oddly, Lovecraft introduces this sense of the unnatural, which adds to the growing dread.