H.P. Lovecraft: The Godfather of Horror/Science Fiction
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft
A tired quote, perhaps; maybe one you’ve seen before, splashed across the screen of some movie or game that tried to make you feel some kind of way about something. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
My relationship with H.P. Lovecraft began far later than one might think. My mother-in-law had gotten me one of those massive compilation tomes you can pick up at Barnes & Noble (the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes, Grimm’s complete fairytales, etc.). I’d heard of him in passing, a few of my friends in high school had gotten really into his mythos, but I’d never actually read any of his stuff.
From the minute I flipped to “The Call of Cthulhu,” I kicked myself with every page I turned for not giving him a chance earlier. I was literally stunned (I can count on one hand the number of times an author has done that to me) by the world he created. And a world it is.
With every story he wrote, Lovecraft built and molded and expanded this terrifying vision of what lurks beyond the banal rationality of human sight (There’s a few five-dollar words for you).
In trying to classify his writing style, I found myself coming back to the same word over and over again: Restraint. Now, anyone who’s read anything he’s written is looking at this post like I’m insane. Bear with me.
Yes, his style is incredibly baroque, and he never uses one word when six will do. That’s not the point. The point is that rarely does he ever give the reader more than a glimpse behind the curtain, and when he does, it’s always a very slow burn.
“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” takes place in a decrepit hamlet on the coast of Massachusetts. In the opening paragraphs, the reader is informed that the titular town has been the subject of a massive federal investigation, the results of which have been kept very hush-hush.
As is his way, he begins at the end. He knows the reader wants to understand why a thing has happened, not just that it has.
With every page, he peels back layer after layer, slowly plunging the reader into the depths (ocean puns) of the mythology he has created. Every answer brings more questions, every revelation brings more fear.
Until, at last, the real fun begins.
In many ways, Lovecraft’s main characters are blank slates, mannequins the reader can project themselves onto. Occasionally they will have special knowledge in their particular field, but more often than not they are ordinary men thrust into extraordinary circumstances. “Innsmouth” is no exception.
And what does an ordinary man do when confronted by plots and beings and magic beyond his mortal comprehension? He runs his ass off.
Rather than a John Wick-style fight sequence, Lovecraft describes the main character’s abject terror as he listens to footsteps creeping up the hall, and a key being inserted into the lock of his hotel room door.
Instead of getting involved in a Rambo-esque assault, he has the character scrambling across rooftops and hiding in doorways, never able to clearly see what is trying to get him.
It is not the pulse-pounding, adrenaline-fueled, thrill-ride that seems to have unfortunately become the industry standard. It’s quiet, it’s slow, it’s restrained.
I hate to sound like a curmudgeonly old fart here, but when it comes to Lovecraft, I feel like they just don’t make them like him anymore. H.P. Lovecraft lived in a time where it was okay to have a short story or a novella, a time where, if a piece of writing wasn’t long enough for a book, they’d serialize it in a magazine. He used the way writing was disseminated to his advantage, packing wonderful storytelling into a small, self-contained package.
Gone is the heyday of the pulp magazine, hell, the literary magazine, where writers old and new could send their work. Where the film adaptation wasn’t the end goal, and the novel wasn’t the only way to get your work seen.
I miss those days… I wasn’t even around for them, but I miss them.
Alright, enough waxing poetic, back to Lovecraft.
What I find most intriguing about his writing style is that when you start to examine his body of work, you notice that it’s kind of formulaic. I’m not suggesting that if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all, but most of his stories follow a similar pattern in that you’re getting the events after the fact, often from someone who was directly involved in them. Essentially, you already know how the story ends.
To look at it, one would think that that kind of writing would diminish the tension he worked so hard to craft; but it doesn’t. “The Call of Cthulhu,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Whisperer in Darkness,” “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (one of my personal favorites), they all follow this pattern, yet each time I’m riveted to the page.
It’s a writing style I’ve found compelling from the moment I opened that massive tome of stories, and one I’ve experimented with in the past, if only to figure out how the hell he does it.
While this post may not have been a deep dive into the nuts and bolts of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing, I certainly hope it was enough to whet the appetite of those readers who have never picked him up before. Or, if you have, maybe it’ll get you to read him again. I’m looking at the book right now, planning to crack it open and return to the terror-filled worlds he created.