Why I love Lovecraftian horror

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…

http://abigaillarson.deviantart.com/art/H-P-Lovecraft-135038700

HP Lovecraft by Abigail Larson

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.

Find more of Abigail Larson’s art at http://abigaillarson.deviantart.com/

In defence of Genre Fiction

When it comes to reading, I like all sorts of genres. I’ve read historical books, romantic books, crime books, thrillers, literary fiction. There are good and bad samples in all of these, but I like to think that that is always down to the writer, not the genre. My personally favourite genre is Fantasy; from the high fantasy world of Tolkien, to grittier realistic styles of George R.R. Martin. Leaving the real world and going into one of pure imagination is far more satisfying to me than simply and story from the real world. But when you are a fan of this genre, when you visit bookstores you notice that it is so often relegated to a single, out of the way bookshelf. It’s the same with others, such as Sci-Fi or Crime. For some reason people decided that the shelves labeled as simply “Fiction” were too good, and the genres had to be kept away.

When you compare the concepts of “Genre Fiction” and “Literary Fiction”, it seems to me that ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Literary’ sit at the very opposite ends of the spectrum. Where most Literary Fiction is about the poetry of the writing and depth of character, Genre fiction often require far more world building and plot development. Fantasy often has this more than others, as it requires a whole other world to be created and made believable before you can invest in the characters and plot.

But that doesn’t mean that it does not require the same skill in writing. In my opinion, an excellent Fantasy novel would be a lot harder to write than an excellent Literary novel, for as well as the prose style and the insights into the psychology of the characters the author needs to also have created an interesting world and plot to support them.

Personally, I feel that Literary fiction often has a lot of very snobby champions. It seems to me that the definition simply came about to cover novels that could not be put into a ‘simple’ genre. It is often these unique, wonderful books that gain much literary acclaim, but then other writers create work with no obvious genre and so get bundled into the same group despite their lack of notable attributes. And then for some reason genre fiction is seen as ‘lesser’ writing.

And this often leads people to pigeonhole genre fiction, refusing to believe it can offer anything original and interesting. It amazes me, but there really does seem to be a mindset of people out there who believe that if you can put something into a ‘genre’ it means that it cannot offer anything new.

I am a member of the online writing community YouWriteOn.com. The site allows to you upload your work for other members to review and comment on. Most people are free and open minded in their opinions of my work, but occasionally I will get comments such as these:

“This is not the sort of book I will usually read…”

“This follows the Tolkien pattern of dwarves and elves. Nothing new here.”

The first of those is an honest opinion. Everybody has their own tastes. I dislike certain genres, but recognise that there are excellent works within them. It’s the second really makes me angry. These people are not judging the work on its own merits, but on the tropes of the genre. If they wanted to comment on how I had used those tropes in my work then that would be fully justified and I would accept that, but this is simply a judgement of their inclusion.

While a writer always has to be careful of being derivative of others work, that’s the skill of the author we are questioning. Katherine Kerr, Raymond E. Feist, and J.R.R. Tolkien have all written long running Fantasy series’ including elves. Their works are completely different. It is as if someone read the first chapters of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy and thought “Ah, this book has spies. It’s just a James Bond rip off.”

Now I’m not trying to say there isn’t derivative Genre Fiction out there. I’ve read plenty of it. Every genre will have a mix of the excellent, the so so, and the terrible. Believe me, I could list a number of Fantasy authors who I cannot believe ever managed to get published. And I am sure that I could do the same from every other genre. But that just means there are terrible authors who can get published. It’s a shame, but we all have to put up with it. But some people need to remember that Literary Fiction is just another genre, not somehow separate and a step above.