Last week I read some HP Lovecraft on vacation. The Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror. I couldn’t help but reflect on just how many people this writer has influenced. Some of the stories were so overwritten as to be almost unreadable. Imprisoned With the Pharoahs struck me as particularly punishing. He ghost-wrote this one for none other than Harry Houdini who seems to have successfully pulled off the “I have an idea, you just write it for me” maneuver that is so popular. Here is an excerpt, the last paragraph of the first part:
“Then the mental cataclysm came. It was horrible — hideous beyond all articulate description because it was all of the soul, with nothing of detail to describe. It was the ecstasy of nightmare and the summation of the fiendish. The suddenness of it was apocalyptic and demoniac – one moment I was plunging agonizingly down that narrow well of million-toothed torture, yet the next moment I was soaring on batwings in the gulfs of hell; swinging free and swoopingly through illimitable miles of boundless, musty space; rising dizzily to measureless pinnacles of chilling ether, then diving gaspingly to sucking nadirs of ravenous, nauseous lower vacua…Thank God for the mercy that shut out in oblivion those clawing Furies of conscioussness which half unhinged my faculties, and tore harpylike at my spirit! That one respite, short as it was, gave me the strength and sanity to endure those still greater sublimations of cosmic panic that lurked and gibbered on the road ahead.”
Then there are stories like The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow over Innsmouth, and The Festival. Those three grabbed me like a rigored grave fist and drew me along each chilling event and dread discovery. There are times when the prose gets so purple it makes Barney look like the Kool-Aid Man, but the narrative hooks so strongly, the stories so effectively creep you out and make you wonder that instead of being a detriment, like most of Imprisoned with the Pharoahs, it lends to the mounting stress in the atmosphere. In fact in some it works brilliantly. Feast on this quote at the end of The Festival lifted as it were from the Necronomicon:
“Wisely did Ibn Schacabao say, that happy is the the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy is the town at night whose wizards are all ashes. For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnal clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of the corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.”
Stephen King has often remarked on what a great influence HP Lovecraft was on him. Gene Wolfe’s last novel, An Evil Guest strikes a remarkable amount of resonances with The Shadow Over Innsmouth – Deep Ones, Gold in the sea, Walakea. Some of the most influential SF for us children of the eighties – GI Joe Episodes: Season One’s “Skeletons in the Closet” and season two’s “Sins of Our Fathers” deal with a very Lovecraftian monster that Destro’s family has worshipped/sacrificed to for generations at their ancestral castle in Scotland.
But you’ve read On Writing by Stephen King. You know that adverbs should be assassinated no matter how useful. (By the way I am being facetious here. I think some adverbs add powerfully.) So what was it about Lovecraft that was so great? Huh? I mean, let’s face it, you may be a great writer capable of amazing works. But will something you write inspire people like Stephen King, Gene Wolfe and Saturday morning children’s television? Because “diving gaspingly to sucking nadirs of ravenous, nauseous lower vacua” did. Well, maybe not that particular phrase.
One technique that I think works for him is one that Dave Gerrold pointed out in his book Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Dave noted that you can create a mood by thinking of all the strong words you know of that evoke that mood and peppering them through your narrative. Now these days this is better the more subtle it is, but obvious or not, Lovecraft nailed this one.
Another is that his stories often begin with a very detailed real world setting and description. You feel like you can see Innsmouth, the failed town, and you could point to it on a map of New England even though it’s not there. When the weird stuff starts intruding you accept it because the setup was realistic.
Don’t make me do all the heavy lifting here. Part of learning and growing as a writer is recognizing what makes the good stuff good. What else about Lovecraft do you think put him in the books as an inspiration to those of us who walk behind?
I just thought of some more influences. One of the best video games I ever played was Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for the Nintendo Gamecube, man was that pure Lovecraft! Also the movie, In the Mouth of Madness.