Lovecraft Week: Trust Yourself

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Santa Claus isn’t real.

Superman’s dead.

H.P. Lovecraft is a lousy writer.

It makes me that sad, dammit. To read this stuff at the age of 27, and recognize everything I loved at 14, 19. The worlds I used to conquer in Rifts, X-Com and Eternal Darkness. The occultist winks in Sandman and The Dark Half and Spawn. The Thing That Should Not Be! The entire career of Stephen King.

The man changed the world of fiction, while writing like a freshman drama student.

This manifests itself in two ways: pacing and tone. For the second, single Lovecraft sentences are great.

All this flashed in unison through the thoughts of Danforth and me as we looked from those headless, slime-coated shapes to the loathsome palimpsest sculptures and the diabolical dot groups of fresh slime on the wall beside them – looked and understood what must have triumphed and survived down there in the Cyclopean water city of that nighted, penguin-fringed abyss, whence even now a sinister curling mist had begun to belch pallidly as if in answer to Danforth’s hysterical scream.

Get someone alone in a room and say all of that. It’s a perfect urine machine. I’m afraid of penguins now. Awesome.

But by the time you get to those sections, you have read the thirty pages in front of them. Which describe buildings, boats, shoes, clouds and cookies, with the same level of menace. You end up skimming in a horror story, which is never good. But it’s that or end up under a pile of adjectives.

…for was not his very act of plunging into the polyglot abyss of New York’s underworld beyond sensible explanation? What could he tell the prosaic of the antique witcheries and grotesque marvels discernible to sensitive eyes amidst the poison cauldron where all the varied dregs of unwholesome ages mix their venom and perpetuate their obscene terrors?

That describes a policeman, who does not feel well.

…it nevertheless made me shiver to recognize certain ideographs which study had taught me to link with the most blood-curdling and blasphemous whispers of things that had had a kind of mad half-existence before the earth and the other inner worlds of the solar system were made.

That’s a guy in his living room. Looking at a photograph. Of a rock.

For reasons I’ll get into next entry, this hurts his short pieces more than his long. In the long works, you get Lovecraft’s world-building. The short lean on language. Some are so bad you don’t even know what happened. Just that something, somewhere was really, really, really, really scary. Like super horrible mean bad. The end.

It’s strange Lovecraft’s career spanned twenty years. Because this never changes. He writes about very different subjects and locations, at very different lengths, but there’s no sense he thinks any story should sound different. He has one tone.

The damage his monotony does to atmosphere is small compared to the damage done to individual words. Especially good ones. Remember those Cyclopean ruins? "Cyclopean" is evocative. It gives you a sense of age, of size, and alienation. It hits that note Lovecraft needs: that something is threatening because it is too big for any human use.

You know what’s not Cyclopean? Talc. You know who’s not Cyclopean? Henry Kissinger. Also, a less than Cyclopean scissors couldn’t trim a Cyclopean sweater, even wielded with Cyclopean skill by a Cyclops in a Cyclone.

You know what’s not an evocative word any more? Because I spared you twenty pages of that. Take the point before I grind "alien," "ancient" and "unspeakable" into mush.

The purpose of terror is to situate someone in their comfortable human world, then pull them out of it. To make them a child. To so disorient them that they’re not sure any more what a bed is and how much space is under there for monsters.

If you use the same words to describe the normal stuff and the transformed stuff, and I mean the exact same words, you are sabotaged. If a hell-cavern is the same size as an apartment building from chapter one, that is weirdly comforting. If a monster and a book you remember and a track in the snow are all "unspeakable," then either the monster is a book that has been thrown in the snow or you are a mute. None of this is scary.

The other problem, the one that sounds like Fiction 101, is Lovecraft’s terrible pacing.

Reading a Lovecraft story is like driving with a man who stops every ten minutes to check his map. Sometimes he pulls off the road and kills the engine, so he can remind you that you are, in fact, going to Kent. You get the sense he is very insecure about being the driver, and you’re sick of Kent before you get there.

Your driver is often the protagonist.

… the sun poured its hazy reddish rays over the white snow, bluish ice and water lanes, and black bits of exposed granite slope … Something about the scene reminded me of the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and of the still stranger and more disturbing descriptions of the evilly fabled plateau of Leng which occur in the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. I was rather sorry, later on, that I had ever looked into that monstrous book at the college library.

Small world! Glad you boned up on all that before you went out to measure ice floes.

This is classic lazy fiction. As I said to Dutch: 

 

               Bizzo: It’s like John Agar movies.
               Everyone is some kind of paleoethnoarcitectupsycogeologist.
               Dutch: …what?
               Bizzo: The middle-aged white adventurer. Expert in Everything.
               Hands-on-hips-explainer-of-the-universe.
               Velma, in the last minute of Scooby-Doo.
               Except under the mask is something even worse, and it eats Velma’s face.
               Dutch: best way to describe it ever
               Bizzo: I’m saving this for the post

 

When he neglects to Dan Brown the hero, Lovecraft makes other characters do the exposition. A Shadow Over Innsmouth is the story of a young man discovering things he has already been told. By the time someone is trying to get in his hotel room, we know who it is. When he catches a glimpse of something in a church door, we have been shown that object under glass, and told exactly why it is unnerving. Just in case the old man at the bus station and the old lady at the library didn’t explain enough before he goes to Innsmouth, when he gets to Innsmouth, the story slams on the brakes to let an all-knowing person explain everything.

Toward the end of the second hour I feared my quart of whiskey would not be enough to produce results, and was wondering whether I had better leave old Zadok and go back for more. Just then, however, chance made the opening which my questions had been unable to make; and the wheezing ancient’s rambling took a turn that caused me to lean forward and listen alertly … 

John Galt went to shit in his later years.

So there are several levels of madness in that story: The transformation of the town elders. The horror of the young narrator. Bizzo alone in his room, barking at a stack of paper. Crossing out paragraphs and screaming "DO NOT TELL ME THIS! I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW!"

Actually … that’s a pretty Lovecraftian scene. We had thick fog last week, and a month before that my roommate came in through the window at 3AM and ran off claiming to be a devil. So with a little time travel and a little more BC bud, we could put something together here.

Where were we.

I’m baffled by The Nameless City, where the hero’s an archeologist and the big reveal is he’s digging up a city built by monsters a million years ago, instead of one built by humans 10,000 years ago. The entire action of the plot is the hero uncovering this, until he finally sees proof and loses his mind over the existence of monsters and the unseating of our place in the cosmos.

That happens at word 4,717.

Here are words  534-566:

I longed to encounter some sign or device to prove that the city was indeed fashioned by mankind. There were certain proportions and dimensions in the ruins which I did not like.

Say you’re telling a campfire story. At around "his car broke down" you click the flashlight off to say "by the way, the ghost is going to be his wife." Then babble on for ten minutes until "on her hand … was his birthday bracelet!" Then you are punched in the throat by a cub scout. Because you fail.

A writer needs to trust himself. If a mountain is already foreboding, no one needs it to be ominous. Both author and audience have seen mountains and if not, they have seen the sky and something big in between themself and the sky. If their attention is drawn to it, the sense of being alone and small will grow. On its own.

Lovecraft trusts no one. He interrupts your imagination when it’s trying to scare you. He interrupts himself when he’s trying to tell a story.

… yet Lovecraft’s defined horror for 90 years.