H.P. Lovecraft was an American writer publishing in the 1920s and 1930s. His genre was, as he himself termed it, ‘Weird Fiction’ – a kind of fusion of scifi and horror. He died young, relatively unknown. Eighty years later, in an age in which genre markets are more mainstream than niche and hugely profitable, Lovecraft is identified by many as an inspiration.
I picked up a new edition of ‘At the Mountains of Madness”, which Lovecraft wrote in 1931. This was one of his few long pieces. Generally, he wrote short fiction. I thought it would be fun to consult this pioneer in genre writing about story-telling.
(No spoilers here.) The tale is narrated rather breathlessly by the head of an Antarctic expedition who has uncovered horrifying things in the uncharted territories of the frozen continent. The narrator neglects no opportunity to pronounce his horror. In fact, pronouncements of horror are as regular as the tell-tale heart. I take this as Lesson #1: Don’t let the reader wonder why he or she is there. There’s no need for subtlety. The most distracted reader of this novella would have a hard time forgetting this was a horror tale. Even if the monsters become momentarily sympathetic, the narrator is adamant: be afraid. There’s power to being told how to feel. The artist must deliver, surely, but most of us are content being led. That is one appeal of genre lit.
Lovecraft Lesson #2: be bold with your language. Lovecraft’s language is superlatively florid. He is elaborate with description, and he dearly loves wonderstruck narration by adjective. Again, we like being led. Grandiloquent language goes far in signalling grandeur. We want to have fun reading the book. So we’re going to take the narrator’s word that those sights were the most dramatic ever.
Lovecraft Lesson #3: Don’t hesitate; don’t stop. Once the train leaves the station, don’t take your hand off the lever. Keep ‘er moving. Even on the occasion that the reader makes it through only two pages in an evening, there should be incentive for more. There is a physical progress room to room in the second half of the book that graphically illustrates the point.
And don’t hold back. If they are monsters, make them monsters. Lovecraft favoured tentacles. There was nothing that made a monster more monstrous. So be it: this one has several sets of them top and bottom. Why hold back? It’s not a ghost story. It’s not suspense. It’s not “Alien”, a film selling shadow more than monster. It’s Weird Fiction. It’s good fun, and a good workshop in story-telling.