Thursday, January 07, 2010

5 Writing Lessons from H.P. Lovecraft

Another reprint, a bit more tongue-in-cheek than the previous.

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Howard Phillips Lovecraft is now regarded as one of the pre-eminent figures of twentieth century horror literature. Born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, he wrote some of the genre’s most influential stories and novellas, including “The Call of Cthulhu,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dunwich Horror.” His vision of a hostile universe, in which humanity survives at the whim of terrible Elder Gods, still holds considerable power 70 years after his death from intestinal cancer.

Here are five writing lessons I’ve learned from H.P. Lovecraft:

1. Be polite to editors.

In March, 1923, Chicago publisher J.C. Henneberger and editor Edwin F. Baird inaugurated “Weird Tales,” a pulp magazine devoted to horror fiction. Lovecraft submitted a stack of material with a cover letter almost guaranteed to alienate its recipient:

“If the tale cannot be printed as it is written, down to the very last semicolon and comma, it must gracefully accept rejection. Excision by editors is probably the one reason why no living American author has any real prose style…”

To his credit, Baird didn’t tell Lovecraft to take a flying leap. Despite his bizarre sense of salesmanship, Lovecraft sold five stories to “Weird Tales” with that submission.

Kids, don’t try this at home…

2. Sometimes tone and mood are the most important elements of a story.

I defy anyone to read “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” my favorite Lovecraft tale, and not be creeped out by it. The prose is clunky, the characters stereotypical, the premise queasily racist. But Lovecraft puts you right in the middle of that haunted, decaying seaport and makes you believe that hideously devolved fish-men are going to rise up from the depths if you don’t watch out.

Although frequently overwritten and often repetitive, Lovecraft’s stories are unique in their ability to convey a sense of cosmic horror, that the universe is inhabited by beings whose enormity could crush the human mind. And that’s a good thing.

3. You really ought to learn how to write realistic dialogue.

Lovecraft’s attempts at dialogue are sometimes laughable. It’s almost certain that no one has ever spoken like Zadok Allen, “the half-crazed liquorish nonagenarian” who tells tales of old Innsmouth. A tiny sample:

“Them things liked human sacrifices. Had had ‘em ages afore, but lost track o’ the upper world arter a time. What they done to the victims it ain’t fer me to say, an’ I guess Obed wan’t none too sharp abaout askin.”

Lovecraft admitted that he didn’t much like people below his perceived social class. As he wrote in a letter, “I could not write about ‘ordinary people’ because I am not in the least interested in them.” In addition to being morally repugnant, this attitude prevented him from creating dialogue with any kind of verisimilitude to actual human speech.

4. A solid social network is crucial.

Although reclusive by nature, Lovecraft maintained elaborate correspondences with mentors and protégés alike, including Robert E. “Conan the Barbarian” Howard, Robert “Psycho” Bloch and Fritz “Fafhrd and Gray Mouser” Leiber. During his career, Lovecraft wrote more than 100,000 letters. Think of what he might have accomplished with Twitter.

5. You never know how you’ll be viewed by posterity.

It’s likely that Lovecraft held no hope at the time of his death that his work would be remembered by a general readership. But his friends August Derleth and Donald Wandrei formed Arkham House and published “The Outsider and Others” in hardcover in 1939. Other editions followed, and eventually Lovecraft’s work was reprinted in paperback and circulated around the globe. Many of the modern masters of horror, from Stephen King and Peter Straub to Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell, have paid homage to him, and the Cthulhu Mythos continues to inspire novels, comics, movies and plush figures.

3 comments:

Cheryl said...

While your general points about good dialog and Lovecraft's dislike of the common man are spot on, the piece of dialog that you quote - reference to human sacrifice aside - is scarily accurate if you happen to live in certain country areas of England.

Michael Berry said...

OK, that may be true. But old Zadok doesn't sound like anybody from NEW England, no matter how "liquorish."

subbu raj said...

Thanks to hp for writing lessons.

HP Dialogue