How To Write Lovecraftian Horror
How To Write Lovecraftian Horror
By Claire Fitzpatrick
Though the term “weird fiction” was originally coined by Irish gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873), Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft (1890-1937) transformed the subgenre into something wholly original – cosmic horror. While many aspects of the weird tale are present in cosmic horror, cosmicism encompasses more than the weird tale does. So how do we write Lovecraftian fiction? And what key elements does a story need to be considered Lovecraftian?
When it comes to writing Lovecraftian horror, Lovecraft himself outlined the necessary five key elements for cosmic horror:
- Abasic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.
- The general effects or bearings of the horror
- The mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed
- The types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror
- The specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.
Furthermore, the most convincing Lovecraftian stories are often told from second or even third-hand sources, such as letters and accounts, and rely on atmosphere instead of action. The protagonists are often deeply flawed, helpless, and have no way of escaping the horror they have found themselves in. They either make mistakes, or their curiosity gets the better of them, and despite their preparedness and high intelligence, they are unable to resist the pull of the cosmic event central to the narrative. Regardless of the knowledge or abilities gained from this event, the protagonist has little hope of affecting the course of events or understanding anything. Any impact the protagonist does have is usually temporary in nature or has unforeseen and catastrophic impacts on those around them.
Lovecraftian horror differs materially from traditional horror stories, such as Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ or Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, in that the focus is not necessarily on how terrifying the monster itself is, but on what the existence of this monster means. This is where, unlike in other gothic horror of the time, most of Lovecraft’s characters end up going mad. Much of Lovecraft’s horror draws upon what leading Lovecraftian scholar Donald Burleson terms ‘denied primacy’, an awareness that civilizations and intelligence preceded our own, a theme which can be traced back to the literary influence of Welsh author Arthur Machen (1863-1947). As such, a Lovecraftian story must explore the vastness of the universe, the relative fragility of humanity, and most importantly, cognitive dissonance, and our ability to cope with knowledge we were never supposed to learn. It must explore existential dread, dangerous knowledge, and fear of the unknown and unknowable.
Where to from here?
The most important thing to remember is Lovecraft’s stories don’t wrap up neatly. Indeed, they often leave loose threads or even expand into other works. To begin, start with the five key elements and focus on the questions, not the answers. Lovecraftian fiction is rooted in the fear of the unknown. Explore the unknown. Most importantly, read, interpret, and understand his work. How can you explore his creations in new settings with new characters? Lovecraft himself encouraged a shared fictional universe where other writers could expand upon his creations. What can you bring to the table?
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