Wednesday, August 20, 2014

H.P. Lovecraft on Writing

Something in the Atmosphere

H.P. Lovecraft is not as well-known as the other writers I've covered this year. Go ahead, ask a few people around you if they've heard of him. But within his genre he's a central figure, in company with Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King—he emulated the former and inspired the latter. Stephen King called Lovecraft "the twentieth-century horror story's dark and baroque prince."
Lovecraft...opened the way for me...the reader would do well to remember that it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.
Stephen King, Danse Macabre
Joyce Carol Oates wrote:
...both writers [Poe and Lovecraft] have had an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction.

Lovecraft tried to capture a particular mood, keeping plot and action secondary to the overall feeling.
Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood. The moment it tries to be anything else it becomes cheap, puerile, and unconvincing. Prime emphasis should be given to subtle suggestion—imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal.
H. P. Lovecraft, Notes on Writing Weird Fiction

The degree of his success is conveyed by these words from Joyce Carol Oates: "One is drawn into Lovecraft by the very air of plausibility and characteristic understatement of the prose, the question being When will weirdness strike?"

His haunted stories of tentacled monsters and evil on a cosmic scale have inspired generations of writers in horror, fantasy, and science fiction.*

Now, I can hear some of you saying, "But I don't like horror, I don't read it and I don't write it." But don't run away yet. 

What Can We Learn from Studying Lovecraft?

Even if horror is not your genre, you can still learn from him.

In addition to his stories, he wrote... a lot. Poetry, 5 volumes of collected essays on amateur journalism, literary criticism (check out this 28,000+ word treatise titled Supernatural Horror in Literature, science, travel, philosophy, and autobiography, and at least 19 volumes of collected letters. He wrote between an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 letters. Lovecraft was old-fashioned that way and felt obligated to reply to everyone who wrote him. He may have written more stories if he hadn't written so many letters.

But let's say you do want to write something scary, how do you go about it? Remember, it's what you don't know that really scares you.
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, Supernatural Horror in Literature
Lovecraft...understood that to open the door, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, is to destroy the unified, dreamlike effect of the best horror.
Stephen King, Danse Macabre

The following is taken from his essay, Notes on Writing Weird Fiction. Although every story is different, these are generally the steps he took (I'm paraphrasing):

1. Make a chronological timeline

A synopsis of events as they occur. Whether you write it all down or mull it over in your head, you have to have a clear conception of the order in which events happen.

2. Make a narrative timeline

Once the chronological synopsis is clear decide the best narrative approach for your story. This is like playing with blocks and experimenting with different structures and approaches. Don't hesitate to change your original idea—even if it turns it into a different story.
...Usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I wish to express, and revolve it in my mind until I can think of a good way of embodying it in some chain of dramatic occurrences capable of being recorded in concrete terms. I tend to run through a mental list of the basic conditions or situations best adapted to such a mood or idea or image, and then begin to speculate on logical and naturally motivated explanations of the given mood or idea or image in terms of the basic condition or situation chosen.

3. Write the story quickly

Now, put it on paper. Once it's down, compare it with your narrative synopsis and make sure you didn't miss anything.

4. Revise the story

I can't paraphrase this one.
Revise the entire text, paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm of prose, proportioning of parts, niceties of tone, grace and convincingness or transitions (scene to scene, slow and detailed action to rapid and sketchy time-covering action and vice versa. . . . etc., etc., etc.), effectiveness of beginning, ending, climaxes, etc., dramatic suspense and interest, plausibility and atmosphere, and various other elements.

5. Type it up so it looks nice.

Revise more as needed. Never hesitate to change things if it will help convey the mood you're aiming for.

Write What You Know

Lovecraft wasn't very social and didn't write about normal characters.
I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relations to the cosmos—to the unknown—which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.
(from a letter, 1921)
I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.
H. P. Lovecraft, Notes on Writing Weird Fiction

I know the horror genre isn't for everyone, but we all feel fear. The characters we write about feel fear. I hope I've shared some things from Lovecraft that will help you consider your character's fears and help your readers feel a stronger sense of atmosphere in your writing.

And finally, here is a poster of H. P. Lovecraft with an inspirational quote on writing.

*If you haven't read his stories, you'll probably still recognize the titles The Dunwich Horror, At the Mountains of Madness, and The Call of Cthulhu. Here is a list of the most famous ones.

Over 1,000 visitors to were polled and asked what their favorite stories were, and which stories they would recommend to first-time readers of his work. Out of nearly 70 stories, seven are mentioned on both lists, so you can't go wrong if you're looking for a sampling.