… or how I learned to stop worrying and Love-craft.
First things first, just let me apologise for that terrible pun. I tried to fight it. I really did. But that line has been echoing around my brain since I came up with the idea for this post and the only way to get it out of my head is to commit it to the page. Now it’s here and I’m afraid we just have to live with it.
So moving on…
My preferred style of horror – as revealed in my opening pun – is the style known as Lovecraftian. Named for the author H.P. Lovecraft, it is the horror of atmosphere, texture and hopelessness. Rather than gore or slasher stories, where the fear comes from an immediate danger, Lovecraftian horror is rather the terror that comes from the detachment and hopelessness of the unknown and the unknowable.
What Lovecraftian horror avoids, to a greater or lesser extent, is the idea of a enemy that can be defeated. I’m not saying these stories never involve some kind of monster – they often do – but the difference is that whatever victories might be won there will always be the overt or implied knowledge that the victory is temporary at best.
One of the aspects of the mythos H.P. Lovecraft created is the idea of a protagonist who is somehow detached from the world. Outside of the everyday. This detachment gives them the ability to recognise – or be noticed by – those parts of the universe that are beyond our understanding. This in turn ends with them being forced to accept not only that there are things in the world that have been in existence for eons longer than humanity, but that it is impossible for the human mind to even begin to understand them. That as much as we can struggle and fight, any victory will be temporary. We can never truly win. That there is something else in the world, something cosmic, otherworldly or ungodly that we know, deep down, will always return.
I don’t want to disparage other styles of horror. There’s nothing wrong with slashers, or monster stories, or splatter gore. If that’s your thing, that’s fine. I just personally believe that these are more immediate styles of writing, and therefore – again, I’m trying not to sound disparaging where I don’t mean to be – the easy route to scare someone. It is far easier to make someone afraid or uneasy with gore or cheap scares. Even the worst horror film can make you flinch with a well placed sound cue and jump cut. This is the opposite end of the scales of scares.* The immediate danger. The fear of the moment.
Lovecraftian horror taps into something greater. A more primal, ongoing fear that grows from the part of humanity that sees an unknown that we cannot comprehend. By their detachment from society the protagonist is cut off from the structures and beliefs that mankind has developed to protect itself from facing the age old fears of a universe that we cannot hope to comprehend. That the best we can do is struggle day to day for survival. That our time in finite and our fates are beyond our own management.
In the end, these are stories about the loss of hope. This is what causes true fear. All horror has this to a degree, but Lovecraftian horror sits at its heart.
This is especially vital in books, where cheap jumps scares are not available to ramp up the audiences fear. The reader need to be brought into a sense of disquiet. They need to feel that despite the plot being resolved there is still something more lingering in place. Something that gives them the unnerving feeling that that could not understand. They need to be left with the feeling that they could investigate further, but the instinct that doing so would only lead to greater and more terrible things.
The nagging feeling that the things we thought of of certain may not, in fact, be as concrete as we desperately need to believe.
Not everyone agrees with me on there. I have had notes back from editors on some of my short stories telling me the writing was fine but I should add a monster or physical antagonist for the main character to be able to fight. But while somethings that is an important part of the story – in one instance I had to agree that the editor was correct and I added something in – that is not always the atmosphere I am trying to get across.
I think sometimes, if the writer can do it well, fear itself is the monster.
Because sometimes, all we have to fear is fear itself.
* “Scale of Scares” is a 1950s B-Movie title if ever there was one.
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