Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What I learned from reading H.P. Lovecraft

I'm trying something new here. Most blogs on writing handle writing almost exclusively. I read more about writing advice and theories behind writing, while at the same time I don't see reading mentioned anywhere.

Isn't one of the main advices to read and try to learn about fiction, about what can be done and what is best avoided through someone's already published work? I know that another rule says that you should never try to copy, but still as a writer you read to grow. It's why I'm starting the semi-regular feature [the feature with no schedule] Learn from the Great Ones. Whenever I pick a book written by a household name or a name that rings all the right bells given a genre or movement, I will list in short the lessons I learned during my reading.

Last week, I focused on Lovecraft as part of my research for a Lovecraftian horror short. I went to the source to test the waters. Here are the things I learned from this master of the horror genre.

The Good:

~ Lovecraft understands the psychology of human fear, possibly because he had felt afraid most of his time. It all bowls down to the unknown. Not knowing can mean that whatever is threatening you be it human, animal or something organic, yet not from our world can be anything. Not knowing means that you can't figure out an exit strategy. Not knowing is translated to being helpless, a victim, prey. This is useful in times, when I want to recreate genuine fear.

~ Lovecraft knows how to enhance the unknown by smearing out all details except those he deems essential. In "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" Lovecraft is focused on the evil that is the character James Curwin, so he simply states how horrific the chimeras he built are rather than giving descriptions. In "Shadow over Innsmouth" he gives descriptions of the unnatural Innsmouth look as well as the depth-dwellers, because this race is central to the story's development. This is a technique to use in combination with the previous lesson.

The Bad:

~ Lovecraft can't write dialog and that's it. Period. In "The Colour out of Space" a dying farmer spends an entire paragraph in chaining senseless words separated with ellipses. I've yet to read someone's death bed speech delivered in this manner. The closest Lovecraft has come to writing direct speech is in "Shadow over Innsmouth", where the drunkard of Innsmouth engages in a drunken monologue.

~ Lovecraft's paragraphs are monolithic. He places blocks of text atop other blocks and I made miserable progress. It's a lesson in how to structure my work so that it is engaging and not a chore to read, because the less there is on a page, the less clogged the mind is during the act of reading. King said that, I think I can trust Stephen King on that, especially when I tried and tested it.

What are the lessons you learned from the big names in your genre?


T.S. Bazelli said...

Haven't read Lovecraft, so I found this very interesting. After every book I read (good, bad, ugly) I always make notes about what I found worked, or didn't, or what resonated with me as a reader.

I hope you post more of these ;)

Anonymous said...

Re-posted: My big difficulty with Lovecraft is that anything that looks gribbly is always just as nasty as it seems, if not more so. He writes horror well, but after a few stories one realises that, although it may tell of things beyond one's darkest nightmares, there's unlikely to be an emotional surprise. I guess mixing it up a little every now and then is a good lesson to learn from that.

[Tried to post with Google and ended up posting with an account that I wish to remain inactive - dunno if there's any way you can properly remove the 'Ro' post? Anyway, let's see if this works...]

Harry Markov said...

@TS: Sure, you git it. I'm not sure whether I will be very regular, for I don't want to end up writing posts for every book I read, because I do learn things from every novel.

Harry Markov said...

@serenity: Yeah, he seems to follow a very strict pattern as to how his stories are structured and you can almost anticipate the ending.

I think it has to do a lot with the fact that he almost always relates events in a sort of "hey, Joe, guess what I heard... and then this happened and then I said this and then he explained that". There is a distance between the reader and the events, so an emotional connection is hard to establish.

Charles Gramlich said...

I enjoy Lovecraft's language. He had an impressive vocabulary. Indeed, his dialogue isn't that great, however. BTW, have you read his supernatural horror in literature essay? It's pretty interesting. Email me if you haven't and I can send it to you.

Harry Markov said...

I have not read that essay. I will enjoy reading it. Will definitely e-mail. Yes, Lovecraft has an impressive vocabulary, but I thought that such was the way people used the language back then.

T.N. Tobias said...

China Mieville talked about his reflections on Lovecraft as well.

Harry Markov said...

It's a must see. Thanks for the link. :) Mine are surely not that detailed as his. I will be sure to speak with more confidence once I've read the bulk of his work.

Anonymous said...

"Hey, Joe, guess what I heard" is one of my biggest complaints at Innsmouth Free Press. Done well, it can work. But most of the time it's not, and it comes off as a cheap pastiche of Lovecraft. Find your own voice and techniques, my squidlings.

- Silvia Moreno-Garcia