Writing Excuses 10.3: Lovecraftian Horror
Key Points: Lovecraftian horror does not depend on stupid decisions. Competent, reasonably informed individuals doing all the right things fail because the threat is so much greater than the protagonist. Lovecraftian horror is Eldritch horror, horror with a supernatural component. There’s a lot of craziness. Not generic craziness, smashing of self against brutal insignificance. There are small and large stories, or oceanic themed and cosmic themed. Lovecraft uses the fear of the unknown, and often the person finding out that they are the Other. Don’t forget that other people wrote Lovecraftian horror. The mythos and Lovecraftian horror are not identical. Lovecraftian horror uses layers of isolation.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode Three.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Lovecraftian Horror.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Cherie Priest. Say hello.
[Brandon] So we are recording again live at the Writing Excuses retreat.
[Brandon] Last week we actually introduced a new format to this year’s series of Writing Excuses episodes. Week two is going to be a wildcard. So we’re actually following that format this week.
[Brandon] We’re doing something completely different just so that you don’t get bored of the same topic. And we have the wonderful Cherie Priest on with us. You write some Lovecraftian books.
[Cherie] Most recently, yes.
[Brandon] Define for us Lovecraftian for those who are like, “What the heck is this?”
[Cherie] I don’t have that [garbled]
[Cherie] It’s something that harkens back to Lovecraft. He rather famously said he wanted to write things that would frighten an atheist. So kind of the pivot of Lovecraft that I think is really important is that he walked away from the idea of your characters have to make very stupid decisions in order for horror to proceed. He said, “No, the correct way to go about that is to make the horror and the threat so much greater than your protagonist that even a competent, reasonably informed individual still wouldn’t really have a chance against it.” That’s… I think it’s something that especially after the 80s and 90s, that the slasher flick… It’s a nice reaction to that.
[Brandon] He was writing in the earlier part of the century.
[Cherie] It took 100 years to come back around to it, but…
[Brandon] He had a huge impact on writing and horror and things like this in general. Let’s define a little bit more of the Lovecraftian style so that people know what we mean by this.
[Mary] One of the things that I think is a hallmark of it is what people will call Eldritch horror. Which means that there is… It’s horror with a supernatural component. As Cherie said, something that is greater than mankind. Like Cthulhu is a Lovecraftian creation, and one of the things that everybody is… Has seeped into popular culture, as probably his master plan. That’s an Elder God. The Necronomicon, which is again something that will destroy your mind. I think actually that also is a fairly strong component to Lovecraft, is that the level of… There’s a lot of people going crazy.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s like the ultimate horror to you is going crazy. It’s worse than being killed. Most of his pieces are in first person, which makes… They’re writing after the fact and you can see the effect on their mental state as they’re being driven more and more mad.
[Dan] One of the things, it’s not just that they go generically crazy, but that they are confronted with in most cases the brutal insignificance of human existence. That’s what’s like, “Well, then why should I bother caring about anything anymore?”
[Mary] The losing of self.
[Cherie] He tells them in kind of a macro and a micro. Like some of the stories are very, very small and personal about one weird, strange little thing. The Rats in the Walls.
[Brandon] That’s my favorite Lovecraft, actually.
[Cherie] It’s one weird… It’s a great one. It’s just a very small, very weird little story that happens just right here with this guy. Then you get around to The Mountains of Madness or Call of Cthulhu or one of those, it becomes the entire world versus… So that’s something that’s always been kind of interesting. He… They can to kind of largely break down to his… I thought of it as like the oceanic themed stuff, the things that sleep in the water, and the cosmic stuff, that are the things from outer… That come from outer space and all of that stuff. So he seemed to be looking up and down and it was kind of one or the other.
[Brandon] Now there is an elephant in the room when we talk about Lovecraft. He, as a person, had some very deplorable views. It’s very hard to discuss Lovecraft without bringing it up. Cherie, you mentioned…
[Cherie] I get asked about it a lot. I’m very often, just because of the way the demographic skews, on Lovecraftian panels in conventions and the like. I’m typically the token lady. So they always want to throw that at me. They’re like, “Well, Lovecraft hated ladies and black people and probably all kinds of people.” Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone everywhere, but for me, personally, and for a lot of people I know who are fans of his, even while recognizing the difficulty thereof… Nobody hates anything that they’re not afraid of. Lovecraft was afraid of pretty much everything and everybody. This was a guy, like they say around here, just bless his heart. He was afraid of just everything and everyone. He was afraid of things staying the same, and he was afraid of things changing, and he was afraid of other people. He was afraid of himself. For me, personally, well, I find it difficult to take personally. It’s like this is such a broad problem that this man had. Yes, you should not ignore it, you should not walk away from it. But as a young Gothling who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I didn’t discover Lovecraft until later. It changed the way that I thought of horror. It changed the way that I thought about telling a frightening story. Like, you don’t have to rely on these really obvious tropes. Oh, my God, there’s a Geico commercial right now that I linked on twitter the other day. It just killed me. It’s a bunch of people in a horror movie running away. “Well, why don’t we just get in that running car over there?” “No, let’s go hide in the basement.” “How about the attic?” “How about behind those chainsaws over there?”
[Cherie] In a horror movie, people do stupid things. I’m like, “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” So when I finally came around to Lovecraft, it was my late Gothic revival in my early 20s.
[Brandon] I love the word Gothling.
[Cherie] Thank you. It implies ducklings and we all followed each other. [Garbled] you came around to that.
[Garbled — it’s a traffic? Garbled]
[Brandon] I do think it is… While we really need to acknowledge who he was and things, we can look at the work and why it’s so persistently fascinating and had such an impact on the genre as a whole. As writers, we can dissect that and should dissect that to learn how to be better writers.
[Howard] Well, I think it’s even more important to acknowledge that as execrable as some of his positions were, when you talk about Lovecraftian fiction, when you talk about writing horror where our protagonists are not stupid and where we are up against the evils that are so unspeakably large that we just can’t do anything, lots of people are writing that. You can write that from positions of very, very broad acceptance and open-mindedness, and that’s how I like to write it. I think that’s a challenge that any writer can take up.
[Cherie] One of the things you’re starting to see is a lot of embracing of it. After a fashion, Lovecraft was the ultimate other. He literally thought he was a planet of one. So everything he’s writing… He’s the only person ever. Genre fiction has always been the literature of the other and for the people who felt left out for whatever reason, who are coming to it from this other place. So it… I was going somewhere with that. I swear to God. It’s been a long week already.
[Brandon] Let me ask the why’s.
[Cherie] Please redirect me.
[Brandon] Let’s ask why is this so persistent? What about it is so great?
[Dan] Okay. So for example, Cherie mentioned The Colour Out Of Space, which is one of my favorite of his stories. It’s a small farm, and the family who lives there, who are menaced and eventually destroyed, like physically warped and destroyed, by a color. Now, as she said, this is a man incredibly afraid of everything. You have to be…
[Brandon] Of colors?
[Dan] Very terrified in order to be afraid of a color. But what makes it effective, and what I think makes him as an author so effective, is that he was able to take something as ridiculous as a color and make it terrifying.
[Brandon] How did he do that, Dan?
[Dan] Calling out… Okay. The hard question. Fine.
[Dan] Really emphasizing the unknowability of something. Using the description. It’s very easy to make a werewolf sound scary. But when you’re trying to make a color sound scary, you have to be very careful with your word choices. You have to be very vivid in your description. You have to establish what is this family really like, and then he subtly changes them, page by page. You watch them kind of disintegrate.
[Brandon] I think that’s a big part of it. Lovecraft is dealing with the fear of the unknown. In a lot of horror, eventually you come face-to-face with the unknown and it destroys you. Well, in Lovecraft, the unknown is kind of reaching out of the darkness, grabbing you by the toes, and pulling you into it. Many of his stories are about the person finding out that they are the Other. That, all along, they have been the Other, or they are being pulled into the Other. So the story of Shadow over Innsmouth, this is the story of… So many of them, Rats in the Walls, is this. I am the Other, I didn’t realize that. I can’t know myself anymore. The horror of being… Of the unknown seeping inside of you.
[Cherie] Well, he does it with very, very simple… For all that everybody talks about Lovecraftian language, and it can be that. But I think when he’s at his best… Well, I would compare it to something. Dave Barry, who writes humor, was talking about writing something that’s funny, and the way you surprised people is you don’t compare… Like if you have something small that you’re trying to exaggerate, you don’t compare it… Like, say a can of Sprite. A while back, I made a joke about opening up a can of whoopass the size of a German Shepherd.
[Cherie] Because that’s… Well, it’s a little surprising because if I’d said like the size of a minivan! Well, that’s not as interesting a comparison.
[Mary] It’s a [inaudible] object.
[Cherie] It’s not an interesting enough comparison. You can compare it to something that is a small version of a large thing or… Anyway, I’m saying this poorly, but…
[Brandon] No, I think this is good. This makes sense.
[Cherie] But he kind of comes at it from the same way. Too… He uses the word too a lot. The trees were too stark. The night was too dark. Like this is what it is, and you recognize this, but there’s something just half a click in one direction that’s not quite right about it. He doesn’t compare everything to like it was as terrifying as the Dark Lords of Hell. No, it was just a little too something. It was just a little… Sorry.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Cherie, you wanted to pitch one of your books to us.
[Cherie] I did. My most recent book is called Love… Maplecroft. See how tired I am. I’m sorry. It’s called Maplecroft. There are two pitches for it. The high pitch is that it’s a 14th century Gothic epistolary. It’s a love letter to Dracula via Lovecraft. The low pitch is that it’s Lizzie Borden fighting Cthulhu with an ax.
[Cherie] So, whichever one you like best.
[Mary] I have to say that I just finished reading it. It is all things awesome, because it is both of those things at the same time.
[Mary] And Lizzie Borden with an ax and Cthulhu… It kind of rocks.
[Cherie] Yeah. Why not?
[Howard] I’m in.
[Cherie] I thought what the heck. It was fun to do. I came across some old trial transcripts online a while back and weirdly it tangled up with the Michael Jackson case which was also kind of in the consciousness at the time. It kind of came at them both in the same way. Like this is very difficult for me because I have to hope that you didn’t do these things, because if you did it, well, you had it coming and all the fallout, but you got away with it. But if you didn’t do it, then you really didn’t deserve all this. This shouldn’t have followed you for the rest of your life. So you come out of these cases not having a clear way to feel about either one. So I thought, “Well, what if she had a really good reason? What if, say, they were turning into like Lovecraftian fish people and trying to eat her? You could kill somebody with an accident, right? That would be fair.”
[Mary] It’s really wonderful and our listeners should go pick it up. It is being read by Johanna Parker and Roger Wayne. Our listeners can get it at audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can start a 30-day free trial membership and listen to this delectable bit of terror.
[Cherie] Why, thank you.
[Brandon] Excellent. So. Our listeners, they want to write Lovecraftian horror, just like Cherie has. Where do we steer them, how do they approach it, and what are things that you can do with Lovecraftian horror you can’t do with other stories, and what are things that may be part of the genre that you don’t need but you could have?
[Mary] Well, one thing that I want to say, when you’re looking at Lovecraftian horror and starting to edge into it, is that Lovecraft is not the only person who wrote Lovecraftian horror. He actually sanctioned other writers to write in his universe. So when you’re looking at doing this, any time you’re starting to explore a new genre, it’s useful to pick up and read people who write in that genre. You can read Lovecraft and then you can also read other people whose names have just left my head.
[Dan] August Derleth…
[Dan] Is a famous one.
[Mary] Thank you.
[Dan] I’d like to point out also that there is a difference in my mind between Lovecraftian horror and the mythos itself.
[Brandon] Good point.
[Howard] Robert E Howard with the Conan novels was writing within the mythos.
[Dan] Robert E Howard was not demented. He was a friend of Lovecraft, at least by letter, they would write to each other. The Conan stories are not Cthulhu, they are not mythos stories. But they are so deeply steeped in this concept of unknowable horror and a world that doesn’t care about you. The difference is Lovecraft’s heroes were all these kind of upper-class researchers and scientists who were trying to understand it. Howard’s hero tended to be a big scary barbarian who was trying to kill it with a sword.
[Mary] And his mighty thews!
[Dan] [chuckling] And his mighty thews.
[Cherie] One of the things that’s always… Lovecraft likes to do kind of a Russian nested doll of isolation. Like you think you’re alone… Like you personally are alone and maybe you work in a department that is frowned upon and looked down upon and you’re alone in your department at your university and maybe you live in a bad part of town. So you’re also isolated that way. And maybe… But then it gets to the point where you’re also isolated in the entire cosmic whole. Like… It’s something that was really interesting to me, and I wanted to do that in Maplecroft, like these women are isolated for this reason and this reason and this reason and this reason…
[Brandon] That’s a really fascinating observation.
[Dan] One of my other favorites of his is The Whisperer in Darkness, which is one of those cosmic ones that Cherie mentioned. It’s about aliens and technology and the guy ends the story trapped alone in a cabin in the woods. But long before that, he’s already being isolated by his fellow professors who no longer trust him, by the other people in his town who think he’s weird. It starts off with these different layers. I think that’s a great observation.
[Cherie] He’s really the master of kind of doing that trick. For just when you think it’s as bad as it can possibly get, you’re only halfway there. Like, “Oh, you thought we were done? No.”
[Brandon] Howard. You write Lovecraftian fiction.
[Howard] Yeah. I was invited to participate in an anthology called Space Eldritch. My approach to it was… Honestly, it was very shallow and superficial at first, which is, okay, giant tentacle monster in space that eats planets will be one of my reveals, and a descent into madness will be the character path. The idea that I blended with that was the thought that you know how they… Well, it’s changed now, but you can’t take your Kindle and read it on an airplane? I thought, “Well, what if books, when you close a book, the ink of the letters touching each other forms symbols that we don’t know what they mean?” Since this spaceship is powered by Rune magic, you just can’t have books because we might crash. So from there, I have a character who’s got Rune magic and it gets into his brain and he hijacks the ship that he’s stowed away on. And we have the big monster, and it was a lot of fun. My favorite part of writing that was that my brother read it and got to the ending and said, “Well, but couldn’t he have… No, no, he really couldn’t have. But what if… No. No. I’m sorry.” He hated the fact that it was… That he was up against, our hero was up against something that was so big that…
[Brandon] Yeah. There’s a futility to a Lovecraftian story, there’s a… But it’s a fascinating futility. You’re struggling so hard and failing.
[Cherie] It’s because that’s what you would do. When the girl goes down in the basement in her nightie with a candelabra, you kind of want something bad to happen to her. I mean, come on. But when someone is doing all of the sane and logical stuff that… But if I were in that situation, it would totally work out better and different. No. Not when… Still going to get eaten by the tentacle monsters.
[Dan] Yeah. There’s one of his stories, and I forget the name. Maybe Cherie knows it. Where there is a guy who wants to investigate this very deep tomb that he has found. So rather than go down there alone, he assembles a whole team.
[Cherie] Like you do.
[Dan] He takes a telephone with him so that they can communicate back up to the top and give regular reports. “We found this, but we’re still okay.” So they’ve done everything they can to keep themselves safe. But then that telephone becomes the method of horror.
[Dan] When the next call does not come from a person. He takes you be as cautious as you want. I’m going to turn that around and ruin you anyway.
[Brandon] We are unfortunately out of time. I think we could talk forever on this topic. It is so fascinating. Particularly for me, writing epic fantasy. Where epic fantasy is based on this idea of this small guy finding out the world is bigger than himself and then taking it over. Which is the opposite twist and… Anyway. But…
[Brandon] We’re going to go ahead and have a writing prompt. Unlike the exercise we gave last week, on these wildcard weeks, we’re going to go back to just giving you a regular old writing prompt for those of you that love those. Howard is going to give us…
[Mary] For those of you coming in fresh and new, what we mean by a writing prompt is that you get to do basically some free writing based on the prompt that Howard gives you.
[Howard] Okay. Take a character and from that character’s point of view, described their reaction to something horrific and indescribable and awful, but don’t describe the thing.
[Brandon] Excellent. Another thank you to Cherie and to our Writing Excuses retreat members.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.