According to Lovecraft
An overview of Lovecraftian philosophy in Lovecraft's own words.
The Fundamental Premise
From a 5 July 1927 letter to Farnsworth Wright:
- Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form - and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown - the shadow-haunted Outside - we must remember to leave our humanity - and terrestrialism at the threshold.
The Farnese Letter
From a September 22, 1932 letter from H.P. Lovecraft to Harold Farnese in response to a query from Farnese about black magic, which is believed to have been distorted into the infamous August Derleth "Black Magic Quote":
- In my own efforts to crystallise this spaceward outreaching, I try to utilise as many as possible of the elements which have, under earlier mental and emotional conditions, given man a symbolic feeling of the unreal, the ethereal, & the mystical - choosing those least attacked by the realistic mental and emotional conditions of the present. Darkness - sunset - dreams - mists - fever - madness - the tomb - the hills - the sea - the sky - the wind - all these, and many other things have seemed to me to retain a certain imaginative potency despite our actual scientific analyses of them. Accordingly I have tried to weave them into a kind of shadowy phantasmagoria which may have the same sort of vague coherence as a cycle of traditional myth or legend - with nebulous backgrounds of Elder Forces & transgalactic entities which lurk about this infinitesimal planet, (& of course about others as well), establishing outposts thereon, & occasionally brushing aside other accidental forces of life (like human beings) in order to take up full habitation... Having formed a cosmic pantheon, it remains for the fantaisiste to link this "outside" element to the earth in a suitably dramatic & convincing fashion. This, I have thought, is best done through glancing allusions to immemorially ancient cults & idols & documents attesting the recognition of the "outside" forces by men - or by those terrestrial entities which preceded man. The actual climaxes of tales based on such elements naturally have to do with sudden latter-day intrusions of forgotten elder forces on the placid surface of the known - either active intrusions, or revelations caused by the feverish & presumptuous probing of men into the unknown.
Notes on Writing Supernatural Fiction
Written by H.P. Lovecraft as early as 1933 and revised and published May–June 1937:
My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. 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. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or "outsideness" without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.
While my chosen form of story-writing is obviously a special and perhaps a narrow one, it is none the less a persistent and permanent type of expression, as old as literature itself. There will always be a small percentage of persons who feel a burning curiosity about unknown outer space, and a burning desire to escape from the prison-house of the known and the real into those enchanted lands of incredible adventure and infinite possibilities which dreams open up to us, and which things like deep woods, fantastic urban towers, and flaming sunsets momentarily suggest. These persons include great authors as well as insignificant amateurs like myself - Dunsany, Poe, Arthur Machen, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare being typical masters in this field.
As to how I write a story - there is no one way. Each one of my tales has a different history. Once or twice I have literally written out a dream; but 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.
The actual process of writing is of course as varied as the choice of theme and initial conception; but if the history of all my tales were analysed, it is just possible that the following set of rules might be deduced from the average procedure:
- Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurrence - not the order of their narration. Describe with enough fulness to cover all vital points and motivate all incidents planned. Details, comments, and estimates of consequences are sometimes desirable in this temporary framework.
- Prepare a second synopsis or scenario of events - this one in order of narration (not actual occurrence), with ample fulness and detail, and with notes as to changing perspective, stresses, and climax. Change the original synopsis to fit if such a change will increase the dramatic force or general effectiveness of the story. Interpolate or delete incidents at will - never being bound by the original conception even if the ultimate result be a tale wholly different from that first planned. Let additions and alterations be made whenever suggested by anything in the formulating process.
- Write out the story - rapidly, fluently, and not too critically - following the second or narrative-order synopsis. Change incidents and plot whenever the developing process seems to suggest such change, never being bound by any previous design. If the development suddenly reveals new opportunities for dramatic effect or vivid storytelling, add whatever is thought advantageous - going back and reconciling the early parts to the new plan. Insert and delete whole sections if necessary or desirable, trying different beginnings and endings until the best arrangement is found. But be sure that all references throughout the story are thoroughly reconciled with the final design. Remove all possible superfluities - words, sentences, paragraphs, or whole episodes or elements - observing the usual precautions about the reconciling of all references.
- 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.
- Prepare a neatly typed copy - not hesitating to add final revisory touches where they seem in order.
The first of these stages is often purely a mental one - a set of conditions and happenings being worked out in my head, and never set down until I am ready to prepare a detailed synopsis of events in order of narration. Then, too, I sometimes begin even the actual writing before I know how I shall develop the idea - this beginning forming a problem to be motivated and exploited.
There are, I think, four distinct types of weird story; one expressing a mood or feeling, another expressing a pictorial conception, a third expressing a general situation, condition, legend, or intellectual conception, and a fourth explaining a definite tableau or specific dramatic situation or climax. In another way, weird tales may be grouped into two rough categories - those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connexion with a bizarre condition or phenomenon.
Each weird story - to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality - condition, entity, etc. - , (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation - object embodying the horror and phenomena observed - , (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.
In writing a weird story I always try very carefully to achieve the right mood and atmosphere, and place the emphasis where it belongs. One cannot, except in immature pulp charlatan–fiction, present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately - with a careful emotional "build-up" - else it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel. In relation to the central wonder, the characters should shew the same overwhelming emotion which similar characters would shew toward such a wonder in real life. Never have a wonder taken for granted. Even when the characters are supposed to be accustomed to the wonder I try to weave an air of awe and impressiveness corresponding to what the reader should feel. A casual style ruins any serious fantasy.
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. Avoid bald catalogues of incredible happenings which can have no substance or meaning apart from a sustaining cloud of colour and symbolism.
These are the rules or standards which I have followed - consciously or unconsciously - ever since I first attempted the serious writing of fantasy. That my results are successful may well be disputed - but I feel at least sure that, had I ignored the considerations mentioned in the last few paragraphs, they would have been much worse than they are.
Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction
Written by H.P. Lovecraft in 1935?
Despite the current flood of stories dealing with other worlds and universes, and with intrepid flights to and from them through cosmic space, it is probably no exaggeration to say that not more than a half-dozen of these things, including the novels of H.G. Wells, have even the slightest shadow of a claim to artistic seriousness or literary rank. Insincerity, conventionality, triteness, artificiality, false emotion, and puerile extravagance reign triumphant throughout this overcrowded genre, so that none but its rarest products can possibly claim a truly adult status. And the spectacle of such persistent hollowness had led many to ask whether, indeed, any fabric of real literature can ever grow out of the given subject-matter.
The present commentator does not believe that the idea of space-travel and other worlds is inherently unsuited to literary use. It is, rather, his opinion that the omnipresent cheapening and misuse of that idea is the result of a widespread misconception; a misconception which extends to other departments of weird and science fiction as well. This fallacy is the notion that any account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena can be successfully presented as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions in the ordinary tone and manner of popular romance. Such a presentation will often "get by" with immature readers, but it will never approach even remotely the field of aesthetic merit.
Inconceivable events and conditions form a class apart from all other story elements, and cannot be made convincing by any mere process of casual narration. They have the handicap of incredibility to overcome; and this can be accomplished only through a careful realism in every other phase of the story, plus a gradual atmospheric or emotional building-up of the utmost subtlety. The emphasis, too, must be kept right -- hovering always over the wonder of the central abnormality itself. It must be remembered that any violation of what we know as natural law is in itself a far more tremendous thing than any other event or feeling which could possibly affect a human being. Therefore in a story dealing with such a thing we cannot expect to create any sense of life or illusion of reality if we treat the wonder casually and have the characters moving about under ordinary motivations. The characters, though they must be natural, should be subordinated to the central marvel around which they are grouped. The true "hero" of a marvel tale is not any human being, but simply a set of phenomena.
Over and above everything else should tower the stark, outrageous monstrousness of the one chosen departure from Nature. The characters should react to it as real people would react to such a thing if it were suddenly to confront them in daily life; displaying the almost soul-shattering amazement which anyone would naturally display instead of the mild, tame, quickly-passed-over emotions prescribed by cheap popular convention. Even when the wonder is one to which the characters are assumed to be used, the sense of awe, marvel, and strangeness which the reader would feel in the presence of such a thing must somehow be suggested by the author. When an account of a marvellous trip is presented without the colouring of appropriate emotion, we never feel the least degree of vividness in it. We do not get the spine-tickling illusion that such a thing might possibly have happened, but merely feel that somebody has uttered some extravagant words. In general, we should forget all about the popular hack conventions of cheap writing and try to make our story a perfect slice of actual life except where the one chosen marvel is concerned. We should work as if we were staging a hoax and trying to get our extravagant lie accepted as literal truth.
Atmosphere, not action, is the thing to cultivate in the wonder story. We cannot put stress on the bare events, since the unnatural extravagance of these events makes them sound hollow and absurd when thrown into too high relief. Such events, even when theoretically possible or conceivable in the future, have no counterpart or basis in existing life and human experience, hence can never form the groundwork of an adult tale. All that a marvel story can ever be, in a serious way, 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. Therefore a fantastic author should see that his prime emphasis goes into subtle suggestion -- the imperceptible hints and touches of selective and associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal -- instead of into bald catalogues of incredible happenings which can have no substance or meaning apart from a sustaining cloud of colour and mood-symbolism. A serious adult story must be true to something in life. Since marvel tales cannot be true to the events of life, they must shift their emphasis toward something to which they can be true; namely, certain wistful or restless moods of the human spirit, wherein it seeks to weave gossamer ladders of escape from the galling tyranny of time, space, and natural laws.
And how are these general principles of adult wonder fiction to be applied to the interplanetary tale in particular? That they can be applied, we have no reason to doubt; the important factors being here, as elsewhere, an adequate sense of wonder, adequate emotions in the characters, realism in the setting and supplementary incidents, care in the choice of significant detail, and a studious avoidance of the hackneyed artificial characters and stupid conventional events and situations which at once destroy a story's vitality by proclaiming it a product of weary mass mechanics. It is an ironic truth that no artistic story of this kind, honestly, sincerely, and unconventionally written, would be likely to have any chance of acceptance among professional editors of the common pulp school. This, however, will not influence the really determined artist bent on creating something of mature worth. Better to write honestly for a nonremunerative magazine than to concoct worthless tinsel and be paid for it. Some day, perhaps, the conventions of cheap editors will be less flagrantly absurd in their anti-artistic rigidity.
The events of an interplanetary story -- aside from such tales as involve sheer poetic fantasy -- are best laid in the present, or represented as having occurred secretly or prehistorically in the past. The future is a ticklish period to deal with; since it is virtually impossible to escape grotesqueness and absurdity in depicting its mode of life, while there is always an immense emotional loss in representing characters as familiar with the marvels depicted. The characters of a story are essentially projections of ourselves; and unless they can share our own ignorance and wonder concerning what occurs, there is an inevitable handicap. This is not to say that tales of the future cannot be artistic, but merely that it is harder to make them so.
A good interplanetary story must have realistic human characters; not the stock scientists, villainous assistants, invincible heroes, and lovely scientist's-daughter heroines of the usual trash of this sort. Indeed, there is no reason why there should be any "villain", "hero", or "heroine" at all. These artificial character-types belong wholly to artificial plot-forms, and have no place in serious fiction of any kind. The function of the story is to express a certain human mood of wonder and liberation, and any tawdry dragging-in of dime-novel theatricalism is both out of place and injurious. No stock romance is wanted. We must select only such characters (not necessarily stalwart or dashing or youthful or beautiful or picturesque characters) as would naturally be involved in the events to be depicted, and they must behave exactly as real persons would behave if confronted with the given marvels. The tone of the whole thing must be realism, not romance. The crucial and delicate matter of getting the characters off the earth must be very carefully managed. Indeed, it probably forms the greatest single problem of the story. The departure must be plausibly accounted for and impressively described. If the period is not prehistoric, it is better to have the means of departure a secret invention. The characters must react to this invention with a proper sense of utter, almost paralysing wonder, avoiding the cheap fictional tendency of having such things half taken for granted. To avoid errors in complex problems of physics, it is well not to attempt too much detail in describing the invention.
Scarcely less delicate is the problem of describing the voyage through space and the landing on another world. Here we must lay primary stress on the stupendous emotions -- the unconquerable sense of astonishment -- felt by the voyagers as they realise they are actually off their native earth, in cosmic gulfs or on an alien world. Needless to say, a strict following of scientific fact in representing the mechanical, astronomical, and other aspects of the trip is absolutely essential. Not all readers are ignorant of the sciences, and a flagrant contravention of truth ruins a tale for anyone able to detect it.
Equal scientific care must be given to our representation of events on the alien planet. Everything must be in strict accord with the known or assumed nature of the orb in question -- surface gravity, axial inclination, length of day and year, aspect of sky, etc. -- and the atmosphere must be built up with significant details conducing to verisimilitude and realism. Hoary stock devices connected with the reception of the voyagers by the planet's inhabitants ought to be ruled rigidly out. Thus we should have no overfacile language-learning; no telepathic communication; no worship of the travellers as deities; no participation in the affairs of pseudohuman kingdoms, or in conventional wars between factions of inhabitants; no weddings with beautiful anthropomorphic princesses; no stereotyped Armageddons with ray-guns and space-ships; no court intrigues and jealous magicians; no peril from hairy ape-men of the polar caps; and so on, and so on. Social and political satire are always undesirable, since such intellectual and ulterior objects detract from the story's power as a crystallisation of a mood. What must always be present in superlative degree is a deep, pervasive sense of strangeness -- the utter, incomprehensible strangeness of a world holding nothing in common with ours.
It is not necessary that the alien planet be inhabited -- or inhabited at the period of the voyage -- at all. If it is, the denizens must be definitely non-human in aspect, mentality, emotions, and nomenclature, unless they are assumed to be descendants of a prehistoric colonising expedition from our earth. The human-like aspect, psychology, and proper names commonly attributed to other-planetarians by the bulk of cheap authors is at once hilarious and pathetic. Another absurd habit of conventional hacks is having the major denizens of other planets always more advanced scientifically and mechanically than ourselves; always indulging in spectacular rites against a background of cubistic temples and palaces, and always menaced by some monstrous and dramatic peril. This kind of pap should be replaced by an adult realism, with the races of other-planetarians represented, according to the artistic demands of each separate case, as in every stage of development -- sometimes high, sometimes low, and sometimes unpicturesquely middling. Royal and religious pageantry should not be conventionally overemphasised; indeed, it is not at all likely that more than a fraction of the exotic races would have lit upon the especial folk-customs of royalty and religion. It must be remembered that non-human beings would be wholly apart from human motives and perspectives.
But the real nucleus of the story ought to be something far removed from the specific aspect and customs of any hypothetical outside race -- ought, indeed, to be nothing less than the simple sensation of wonder at being off the earth. Interest had better be sustained through accounts of bizarre and un-terrestrial natural conditions, rather than through any artificially dramatic actions of the characters, either human or exotic. Adventures may well be introduced, but they should be properly subordinated to realism -- made inevitable outgrowths of the conditions instead of synthetic thrills concocted for their own sake.
The climax and ending must be managed very carefully to avoid extravagance or artificiality. It is preferable, in the interest of convincingness, to represent the fact of the voyage as remaining hidden from the public -- or to have the voyage a prehistoric affair, forgotten by mankind and with its rediscovery remaining a secret. The idea of any general revelation implying a widespread change in human thoughts, history, or orientation tends to contradict surrounding events and clash with actual future probabilities too radically to give the reader a sense of naturalness. It is far more potent not to make the truth of the story dependent on any condition visibly contradicting what we know -- for the reader may pleasantly toy with the notion that perhaps these marvels may have happened after all!
Meanwhile the deluge of inept interplanetary tosh continues. Whether a qualitative upturn will ever occur on anything like a large scale, this commentator cannot venture to prophesy; but at any rate, he has had his say regarding what he deems the main aspects of the problem. There are, without doubt, great possibilities in the serious exploitation of the astronomical tale; as a few semiclassics like "The War of the Worlds", "The Last and First Men", "Station X", "The Red Brain", and Clark Ashton Smith's best work prove. But the pioneers must be prepared to labour without financial return, professional recognition, or the encouragement of a reading majority whose taste has been seriously warped by the rubbish it has devoured. Fortunately sincere artistic creation is its own incentive and reward, so that despite all obstacles we need not despair of the future of a fresh literary form whose present lack of development leaves all the more room for brilliant and fruitful experimentation.
Stereotypically "Lovecraftian" narratives derived from non-Lovecraftian sources, presented here for the contrast to both the above, and to Lovecraft's own stories.
The Evil Book Narrative
The stereotypical "Lovecraftian" narrative that every unskilled pastiche turns to at least in part:
- A guy in a spooky New England town obtains a Creepy Old Book from a mysterious book-seller or secret room, studies the tome, while Weird Supernatural Things happen in the background. The guy becomes obsessed with the tome, perhaps joins a Robed and Hooded Chanting Cult and perhaps visits some mysterious ruins in the woods, and then reads the book out loud and accidentally-on-purpose summons a Tentacle Monster, which then tries to eat his face, while hilarity ensues....
For many casual fans with at least a passing familiarity with Lovecraftian pastiche over the original stories, this IS Lovecraft, and most - if not all - of these elements should be present in some form to tell a story in essentially that format for something to be considered "Lovecraftian". These elements are flexible; for example, you can substitute a wide variety of elements for that creepy old book, such as videotapes (Ringu (1998 franchise)), computer discs, record albums (The Gate (1987 franchise)), a machine (From Beyond (1986 film)), a puzzle-box (Hellraiser (1987 franchise)), etc. The spooky New England town could easily be substituted for a creepy house or cabin in the woods (Evil Dead (1981 franchise)) or even a space ship (Event Horizon (1997 film)), the standard tentacle monster is expected but can be substituted for "Deadite" zombies or evil little monsters ("Ghoulies (1984 franchise)").
The Black Magic Quote
August Derleth repeatedly misquoted Lovecraft, apparently based on the Farnese letter quoted above; an example of Derleth's version of the quote, which would appear in numerous Arkham House collections and other commentaries by Derleth on Lovecraft, is:
- The pattern of the Mythos is a pattern that is basic in the history of mankind, representing as it does the primal struggle between good and evil; in this, it is essentially similar to the Christian Mythos, especially relating to the expulsion of Satan from Eden and Satan’s lasting power of evil. "All my stories, unconnected as they may be," wrote Lovecraft, "are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practising black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again."
The Derleth Standard Narrative
A paraphrase of the Standard Narrative of Derleth's formulaic Lovecraft pastiche/forgeries, as identified and summarized in a blog entry by Arthur B.:
- Some guy, probably a sensitive and well-meaning all-American pulp writer, painter, historian (or presumably small-press publisher), - usually, but not always the narrator - inherits a creepy old house from a disreputable benefactor. The guy moves in, while superstitious locals grumble and whisper from a safe distance, and begins to spend more and more time in the house, figuratively sifting through the papers of the estate and uncovering spooky tomes and info-dumps on Derleth's idiosyncratic take on the Mythos, while vague manifestations of the supernatural begin to materialize in the background. Before long, through the power of suggestion, hypnosis, or supernatural possession, the guy graduates from half-baked student of his occult predecessor, to full-blown dazed puppet of the powers of the Cthulhu Mythos, abandoning his old life to carry on his predecessor's work as if it were his own....
(One might charitably characterize this as a self-justifying, autobiographical wish-fulfillment fantasy version of Derleth's own relationship to Lovecraft, in which Derleth sees his composition and publication of his "Posthumous Collaborations" as being guided by the undying supernatural hand of Lovecraft himself, to continue his work from beyond the grave as Lovecraft's chosen disciple....)