Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Thoughts on Lovecraftian Horror

Recently, in honor of the month of October and its upcoming spooky holiday, I decided that in my quest to become more well read in the genre of fantasy I would delve into the infamously creepy writings of H.P. Lovecraft. He of the Cthulhu Mythos fame. So I purchased a volume of his complete writings and decided to read through them chronologically.

Now, in general I'm a person who just doesn't do horror. For one, I get too easily frightened. (The Sixth Sense scared me. Seriously.) Also, I tend to dislike any art form that emphasizes darkness and ugliness over light and beauty. So I avoid horror like the plague, but I decided to make an exception for Lovecraft.

Lovecraft wrote in the 1920s and 30s, mostly short stories with a few novellas for variety. He was not, it seems, a very popular writer during his lifetime and was never really able to rise above poverty on his writing. But Lovecraft was hugely influential to other writers of "weird" fiction and fantasy and his legacy has lived on to the point that his most famous creation, the monster/deity Cthulhu, is now well know in popular culture. For this reason alone a person wanting to become well versed in the traditions and history of modern fantasy, as I do, must read Lovecraft.

Sketch of Cthulhu by Lovecraft

 (However, a word of warning, if you are like me in your feelings toward horror, DON'T try to read Lovecraft's entire works straight through, as I did. Take it in bits and pieces.)

My overwhelming impression of Lovecraft's writings is that they are works of incredible imagination. They are strange, wild and weird; constructing an unfathomably old universe of creatures and deities beyond the conception of human thought. But it is a dark and tainted universe where the truth does not set you free, it drives you mad and reduces you to a quivering wreck of former humanity. There is no hope or redemption in Lovecraft's world. There is only insanity and degradation.

Juxtaposed with these harsh realities, made manifest through the Cthulhu Mythos and other various stories that highlight the horror of the human condition, there is the Dream Cycle, a series of stories where the protagonists are able to make their way into the world of Dream which is full of just as many wonders of exquisite beauty as it is shadowed with ugliness. At first descriptions of "the marvelous city of Celephais" and other wonders seem like a breath of fresh air. At last! There is beauty in the world after all! But then in stories such as "The Silver Key" it becomes clear that the world dreams exists because there are those who are aware that the world of men is undermined with implacable horror and these need a place that they can flee from reality to. The man called Kuranes forsakes his earthly existence, dying in the real world, so that he can become the king of Celephais in the land of dreams.

I cannot help being awed by "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath", a novella about a man who takes an epic journey through the lands of dream to find the beautiful sunset city that he once dreamed of in the past but has lately been forbidden visions of. Partly I am blown away by this work because it is entirely "told" (rather than "shown") by an omniscient narrator. There is no dialogue, external or internal, until a final long speech from the deity Nyarlathotep near the climax of the tale. It is precisely the way in which we are warned these days NEVER to write. And yet, I was utterly hooked by the sheer wonder and imagination of what Lovecraft conjured in the land of dreams. I think it is a clear example that if you, as a writer, have a vision to convey in story, there is simply no way that it can't be told.

I am glad that I delved into the worlds of Lovecraft, but I know now that I should have taken it slower and in stages, reading other works in between. Because by the time I had gotten through to the point where began really exploring the Cthulhu Mythos, I was sick in my soul from the unceasing darkness and ugliness and hopelessness of the majority of his stories. I had to stop reading them and turn to something much lighter to break through the melancholy mood into which I had sunk.

I admire Lovecraft's powers of imagination, but I wish that he had tempered his horrors by providing some room for hope and dignity. I can't help wondering if he was a very unhappy man.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Vast and Lofty Fabric

Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.

 ~Saint Augustine

When you're a writer, everything you see and everything you read tends to have significance to your writing. Take the above quote from Saint Augustine. On the surface, it's a quote about humility. But to someone whose days are filled with ponderings about imaginary worlds, it suddenly struck me as brilliant advice about worldbuilding.

You see,  I do desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric. I want to create the kind of stories that will be remembered in a hundred years or more. I want to create whole worlds to tell those stories in. And the above quote reminds me is that every great thing, every lofty construction must begin with a deep and solid foundation.

But what exactly does that mean when you apply it to imaginary worlds? To put it simply, it means you need to think about your world's basic nature. Worldbuilding isn't just saying "this place is here and that place is there and this is what the societies in those places are like". Worldbuilding is also establishing how and why your world exists and what are the natural rules that govern it. In our world we have the laws of physics, but an imaginary world could operate on entirely different principles.

Don't settle for just explaining things away by saying "it's magic". Know the reasons that your imaginary world operates differently from our world. Don't get caught up in the thinking that science and magic don't mix. Science is just another word for knowledge and magic is really just an application of knowledge. (Albeit usually specialized or arcane knowledge that can only be used by some.)

So when doing your worldbuilding learn to think like a philosopher. Get metaphysical with your creation. It will make your imaginary world feel all the more real and genuine to your readers.