Welcome back after the break for all of the Hallowe’en madness. I have one more guest blogger for you, Stewart Sternberg. When I set out the call for guest bloggers Stewart was the one person I did not know already. I looked over his blog and immediately decided I had to have an article from him. He asked me what I would like to see and based on his recent blog entires I said something on Lovecraft or making a mythos would be great. This is it and I won’t hold you up any more.
Urban fantasy and horror work because the setting is constructed in such a way that the reader is able to suspend his or her disbelief. This casual concept sounds easy, but is difficult for any writer to pull off and to sustain over a longer form such as the novel. And for the setting to work this way, it has to be grounded in reality. Or it has to have elements that are immediately recognizable to the reader and be easily accessible.
Without this grounding, horror and fantasy are a vain exercise, with the author nodding and winking to the reader. With the grounding, the reader forms a connection with the author and with the characters. This is the key to the works of modern writers Butcher (Harry Dresden series), Harris (Sookie Stackhouse series), and Hamilton (Anita Blake series). It’s equally important to such touchstones in genre as Tolkien’s "Lord of the Rings" and Frank Herbert’s "Dune".
But what are we to make of H.P. Lovecraft? His world building is inconsistent, his character development is non-existent, and his dialogue skills are without merit. How do we explain its lasting appeal despite a writing style many modern readers find tiresome? Why is he so respected by the Europeans that he is often required reading in their school systems?
For those unfamiliar with his work, Lovecraft wrote around the early part of the twentieth century, his short fiction igniting a fuse that ran through the world of horror through to today. Authors from the likes of King, Gaiman, Bradbury, and Barker nod their heads his way and acknowledge the influence of Lovecraft on their writing.
Throughout popular culture we feel his presence. “Hellboy”, with its summoning of a tentacled monster and its eerie supernatural presence was decidedly Lovecraftian. Carpenter’s “In The Mouth of Madness” was definitely influenced by the author. And even in the world of Batman, the dark Arkham Asylum is a reference to Lovecraft, Arkham being a fictional town in Lovecraft’s literature. The book known as "The Necronomicon", featured in Raimi’s “Evil Dead” and believed by many individuals to be a real tome was entirely a Lovecraft invention.
Most people will point to the Cthulhu Mythos as the anchor that hooks us today to Lovecraft. The Cthulhu Mythos (a term coined by August Derleth) is a hodgepodge of ideas from other fantasy writers and pagan mythologies, liberally stirred together with Lovecraft’s own unique inventions. The idea that coalesces through such stories as “The Call Of Cthulhu” and “At The Mountains Of Madness” is that at one time a group of beings, whose motivations are beyond our ability to understand, traveled the stars and perhaps engaged in war with one another. Some cataclysm or battle occurred and so these “gods” lost their foothold. However, when the time is right, when the stars are exactly aligned, they will return and in doing so, inadvertently destroy the insignificant humans who have no real place in their universe.
What the casual fan or Lovecraftian horror calls the Cthulhu Mythos today, and by casual I mean the fan who has read little if any Lovecraft, is more the work of Derleth, founder of Arkham House and friend to Lovecraft. Derleth took the loose elements of the Cthulhu Mythos and codified them into a myth with strong Christian-Judaic overtones where good and evil entities do battle and mankind works to keep the darkness at bay. Lovecraftian purists despise Derleth for this, arguing that he has entirely missed the thing that has kept Lovecraft’s writing alive and helped him to influence modern horror.
So with the Lovecraftian mythos lacking the depth and detail that we often ask of world building, and with so many other story elements lacking, what is Lovecraft’s secret?
He has two. First, he has an amazing ability to create setting that captures mood. But perhaps more important is his ability to tap into a nihilistic fear that haunts us when the shadows stretch across the walls and when the night seems unending—the idea that we are insignificant, that we have no understanding of what is real and unreal, that our lives are meaningless when pressed against the universe. Worse, he takes our understanding of morality, of good and evil, of faith and God, and blasts it away. Only he doesn’t do this intellectually, but emotionally. He creates stories with this theme lurking in the background and the uneasiness of that theme is what tugs at the reader. The anchor in Lovecraftian fiction, the thing that is able to grab the reader, isn’t a literary device, but rather an idea that is so primal that even the most pious individual has to respond at a subconscious level.
Stewart’s blog is http://house-of-sternberg.blogspot.com and from there other destinations into his mind.
Music: Belly of the Beast by Anthrax.