Image by Lucius B. Truesdell, via Wikimedia Commons
Though the term “weird fiction” came into being in the 19th century---originally used by Irish gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu---it was picked up by H.P. Lovecraft in the 20th century as a way, primarily, of describing his own work. Lovecraft produced copious amounts of the stuff, as you can see from our post highlighting online collections of nearly his entire corpus. He also wrote in depth about writing itself. He did so in generally prescriptive ways, as in his 1920 essay “Literary Composition,” and in ways specific to his chosen mode---as in the 1927 “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” in which he defined weird fiction very differently than Le Fanu or modern authors like China Miéville. For Lovecraft,
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
Here we have, broadly, the template for a very Lovecraftian tale indeed. Ten years later, in a 1937 essay titled “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft would return to the theme and elaborate more fully on how to produce such an artifact.
Weird Fiction, wrote Lovecraft in that later essay, is “obviously a special and perhaps a narrow" kind of "story-writing," a form in which “horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected,” and one that “frequently emphasize[s] the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion.” Although Lovecraft self-deprecatingly calls himself an “insignificant amateur,” he nonetheless situates himself in the company of “great authors” who mastered horror writing of one kind or another: “[Lord] Dunsany, Poe, Arthur Machen, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare.” Even if you only know the name of Poe, it’s weighty company indeed.
But be not intimidated—Lovecraft wasn’t. As our traditional holiday celebration of fear approaches, perhaps you’d be so inclined to try your hand at a little weird fiction of your own. You should certainly, Lovecraft would stress, spend some time reading these writers’ works. But he goes further, and offers us a very concise, five point “set of rules” for writing a weird fiction story that he says might be “deduced… if the history of all my tales were analyzed.” See an abridged version below:
- Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurrence—not the order of their narrations.
This is a practice adhered to by writers from J.K. Rowling and William Faulkner to Norman Mailer. It seems a an excellent general piece of advice for any kind of fiction.
- Prepare a second synopsis or scenario of events—this one in order of narration (not actual occurrence), with ample fullness and detail, and with notes as to changing perspective, stresses, and climax.
- Write out the story—rapidly, fluently, and not too critically—following the second or narrative-order synopsis. Change incidents and plot whenever the developing process seems to suggest such change, never being bound by any previous design.
It may be that the second rule is made just to be broken, but it provides the weird fiction practitioner with a beginning. The third stage here brings us back to a process every writer on writing, such as Stephen King, will highlight as key—free, unfettered drafting, followed by…
- Revise the entire text, paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm of prose, proportioning of parts, niceties of tone, grace and convincingness of transitions...
- Prepare a neatly typed copy—not hesitating to add final revisory touches where they seem in order.
You will notice right away that these five “rules” tell us nothing about what to put in our weird fiction, and could apply to any sort of fiction at all, really. This part of the admirably comprehensive quality of the otherwise succinct essay. Lovecraft tells us why he writes, why he writes what he writes, and how he goes about it. The content of his fictional universe is entirely his own, a method of visualizing “vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions.” Your mileage, and your method, will indeed vary.
Lovecraft goes on to describe “four distinct types of weird story” that fit “into two rough categories—those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connection with a bizarre condition or phenonmenon.” If this doesn’t clear things up for you, then perhaps a careful reading of Lovecraft’s complete “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” will. Ultimately, however, “there is no one way” to write a story. But with some practice---and no small amount of imagination---you may find yourself joining the company of Poe, Lovecraft, and a host of contemporary writers who continue to push the boundaries of weird fiction past the sometimes parochial, often profoundly bigoted, limits that Lovecraft set out.
H.P. Lovecraft’s Classic Horror Stories Free Online: Download Audio Books, eBooks & More
Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (Free Documentary)
Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers
Writing Tips by Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
The fear of unknown from the abyss of the soul to cosmic chaos
Translation by Rossella Cirigliano
“Life and dreams are leaves of the same book:
reading them in order is living,
skimming through them is dreaming”.
When the master of the ghost story M.R. James reads Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, he does not make out the deep meaning of the term “cosmic” and naively ends up by ridiculing it to a friend of his. James makes a sensational mistake, for he does not realize that adjective is the access key to the core of the fantastic literature where man is often to face, with his own might only, an awfully chaotic world and, for this, unlikely to be understood by human rationality. As Roger Caillois justly writes in his essay “De la féerieà la science-fiction”, the fantastic «reveals a scandal, a laceration, an unusual, almost unbearable, invasion in the real world. […] With the fantastic a new bewilderment, an unknown panic appears.» In such a dramatic and psychologically decentralized condition, reality is unknown and untamable, for supernatural forces rule it to the prejudice of the cosmic or earthly system we believe structured and rational. Therefore, because of a foreign and adverse environment, a psychic “laceration” arises which, according to Edgar Allan Poe, comes out of an ill soul and, according to Lovecraft, of a crazy universe but, for both, such an inner gash is a passage to the horror, bound to come to death or psychological delirium. In such a context, it is easy to guess the deep nature of terror within the fantastic as a direct manifestation of a blind and cruel Nature that is called “cosmic terror”. It describes the terrible fear the unknown causes, where human condition is literally subject to indecipherable events. The link between fear and incomprehensible occurs when the characters are not the human beings but those supernatural events which devour the anthropocentric element in favor of colossal and anonymous occult agitations, coming from beyond. Lovecraft himself thinks it is important to give room to what we have left behind, if we want to express the nature of the fantastic. «The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background. Pleasure to me is wonder – the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability.» Thus it is a question of freeing and interpreting an inner and fantastic-inherent expression, which is firstly amplified to the detriment of the anthropocentric element and then changed into a horror sense under the influence of the unknown, which may have a metaphysical or materialistic direction, depending on the author’s cosmic philosophy.
Poe and Lovecraft, in their common passion for the noble science of astronomy, have both developed a cosmogony influenced by opposed philosophical currents: in fact Poe’s cosmic terror is metaphysical, while Lovecraft’s is merely materialistic. Yet, it is necessary to consider that Lovecraft’s scientific materialism recalls the figure of a “horror poet”, as it is so secret and impenetrable in its unreal dimension that barely touches and goes beyond metaphysics in an almost mimetic and assimilated way, through a mechanistic analysis.
Before shortly analyzing the differences, we must make the point that great writers such as Poe and Lovecraft never show, in their fiction, a well defined and easily identifiable trend within a given “philosophical system”, just because no reductive schematism falls within the natural and variegated existential expression of literature.
The two well-known American writers are great masters of “nightmare” with completely different, if not even opposed, cultural backgrounds; but sometimes, in spite of their obvious differences, they both have in common the same horror expression. They both share the idea of “life as a dream”, but they do not provide the same oneiric interpretation of the world, since Poe’s thought, unlike Lovecraft’s, partly inherits the philosophical development of the German romantic idealism, dating back to early 19th century, which tends to believe in the existence of a harmonious relationship between finite and infinite, that is an indissoluble link between Man and God. The idealist Schleiermacher (1768-1822)’s statement the world is not without God, God is not without the world is totally in tune with the theocentric cosmogony in “Eureka”, where Poe asserts that everything has been created by “God’s Will”. Obviously, asserting that everything is created by God does not absolutely mean that “everything is God”, but on the contrary it might mean that “everything is controlled by God”. Short stories such as “The colloquium of Monos and Una” and “Mesmeric Revelation” clearly show Poe’s spiritual aspect.
In romantic idealism the concept of the universe is totally transcendent, as nothing escapes God’s omniscience and nothing goes beyond God’s almightiness. In the world the most microscopic organism is structurally chained to the macroscopic material dimensions, with an infinite net of links which do not escape, even in the least part, God’s Will.
The new metaphysical myth of German romantic aesthetics is a unitary art that overtakes the dualism between finite and infinite. Poe’s fantastic assumes a basic metaphysical structure, as it is also connected to such principles. Metaphysics is that unknown sphere where horror often spreads out. Fear gains ground in a hallucinative dimension, in which the material and physic universe magically melts into the immaterial and metaphysical universe of the dream. «If matter is the last step of a spirit descending from high above in order to ascend again to its original place, then in a perspective like ours we can certainly talk about “metaphysical horror”, due to the exact influence of the spiritual world into matter, a sort of transfiguration of reality, that is the indissoluble pivot of any metaphysical concept.» Thanks to the concept of spiritual metaphysics as all the same with natural physics, the writer is able to create a harmony of fantastic effects, deeply connected to metaphysical horror.
To better understand the mystery relating Poe’s art to horror, in my opinion it is necessary to take partly into consideration Schelling (1775-1854), who considers God as an “irrational will” dictated by a negative, blind and obscure principle, in everlasting contrast with a positive and rational one.
Lovecraft’s cosmogony is a completely different thing: drawing inspiration partly from Schopenhauer (1788-1860), he considers the world as a dream devoid of a divine guidance, but rather at the mercy of blind and irrational forces, ready to unchain a crazy and imperturbable universe, which is not by nature against, but unaware, of man. Lovecraft goes deeper into cosmic philosophy, starting from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (1844-1900) and then outstripping them because of a concrete scientific materialism, concerning an inscrutable cosmos that appears mysterious, inflexible, oneiric, multiform, multicolored and, at the same time, indifferent and chaotic. This recalls, more or less, the Epicurean mechanistic materialism, where the universe is interpreted on the basis of an automatic and mixed combination of atoms according to a mechanistic system, which is not fortuitous but deterministic and causal and totally excludes any divine interference. «There is nothing to take real exception to in the statement that a given group of human tendencies springs from the natural collocation of material particles operating automatically without the intervention of an external consciousness. Such a statement does not imply in any way the action of chance (for a cosmos of mutually interacting parts is all law & no chance…) […] The whole cosmos is, always has been, and always will be a limitless field of force composed of alternately combining and dispersing electrons. They work in fixed ways, none of which need explanation by any hypothetical “spiritual” world apart from that whose laws they obey. […] Everything that exists or happens, exists or happens because the balance of forces in the cosmic pattern makes it inevitable.»
Although Lovecraft believes in materialism, his idea about the universe is not only limited to the ephemeral material contact of human senses with external objects, but in the cosmos is something much deeper and more obscure that common human knowledge cannot make out. For example, in the short story “The Silver Key” the possibility is described of the predisposed scatter-brained dreamer, Randolph Carter, to enter, in a less limited way, the sphere of dreams, thanks to a particular key; here it is possible to overpass “Maya’s veil” and access, without any metaphysical abstractions, physically to the true reality of a blind and unknown universe made up of huge space-time labyrinths, immersed in an infinitely repeatable interlacement. It is important to consider that Carter’s is not a personal supernatural experience but, on the contrary, the space-time world is depicted as a scientific fact of the universe: it is a materialist-mechanistic answer to the metaphysics of chaos. For Lovecraft the world of dreams is not the “magical” or “mystic” universe of some romantic fanatic, but it is exactly a possible cosmos’ revelation that allows man to live ultra mundane experiences.
«From my experience I cannot doubt but that man, when lost to terrestrial consciousness, is indeed sojourning in another and incorporeal life of far different nature from the life we know, and of which only the slightest and most indistinct memories linger after waking.»
Based on the dream revelation of a peculiarly unusual universe, these examples show that man is subject to an imperceptible dimension, able to overwhelm him whenever it wants to.
In the difficult exegesis of Lovecraft’s imagination there is no need to scientifically explain all that happens, because it would undermine the natural imaginative inclination of fantastic literature. Yet, we can try to play on human impossibility, although scientific knowledge and means are available, to dominate such a mechanistic and chaotic Nature, which becomes so dangerously unforeseeable to produce cosmic horror. «In reply, I would suggest that none of my narratives aims at scientific accuracy and inclusiveness, each being rather a mere transcript of an isolated mood or idea with its imaginative ramifications.» Lovecraft always tries to make fantastic credible; that is to pervade the scientific aspect with the ultra mundane one in order to make the narration more involving and impressive. In fact, human fear is fuelled by the fact that the monstrous event might happen if certain scientifically possible combinations are satisfied, whose results are unknown to us.
If for Schopenhauer man is at least a “metaphysical animal” continuously wondering about the meaning of existence, for Lovecraft instead man is a poor “entrapped animal”, lonely in the lost jungle of the universe, with no Providence to help him, since life is inexorably attacked by unknown cosmic overwhelming events, haunted by horrible dark creatures, without the victim hoping to be saved in an ultra mundane life. The only chance to be saved depends on the ability and resources of the victim.
In such a blind and chaotic universe where existence is engulfed in a cruelly uncontrolled and repetitive game, which does not distinguish life from death or justice from injustice, Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal return” slightly complies with Lovecraft’s indifferentism. «Nothing but a cycle is in any case conceivable—a cycle or an infinite rearrangement, if that be a tenable thought. Nietzsche saw this when he spoke of the ewigen wiederkunft. In absolute eternity there is neither starting-point nor destination.» When the German philosopher writes in the Gay Science: «what if a demon crept after thee into thy loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to thee: “This life, as thou livest it at present, and hast lived it, thou must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to thee again, and all in the same series and sequence and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and thou with it, thou speck of dust!”» he seems to clearly recall a paragraph of a short story of Lovecraft’s about the existential tragedy of man, overwhelmed by the infinite coil of chaotic and repetitive cosmic terror, prey in the eternal return of horrible and devilish beasts totally far from the least concept of mercy and repentance. Like the grotesque “The Rats in the Wall”, where the character is constantly and psychologically tortured by the eternal recurrence of an obsessive and «insidious scurrying» of rats hiding in the walls and scampering along black pits full «of sawed, picked bones and opened skulls!» An obvious example of eternal return is told in the horrifying short story “The Winged Death”, where the horrible blue-winged fly returns continuously to the doctor’s room to take revenge for a diabolic murder.
Mankind is exclusively a blind coil where ancient and new civilizations continuously sink and rise, without any possible external power being able to perpetually rule with its systems and values. In his famous story “The Call of Cthulhu”, Lovecraft gives an example and writes: «What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise.» Nothing can escape the disgraceful and unexpected evolution of cosmic matter, where the only ruler is chaos eternal return, fully master of the abysses with neither beginning nor end. In order to understand Lovecraft’s abyssal nightmare, we have to imagine a crazy world, which wanders aimlessly from nothingness to existence and from existence to nothingness, totally far and unaware of our desires and needs. Chaos eternal return imposes a cosmic horror hegemony on the planetary life, causing its consequent nihilism.
The eternal return is a universal and natural manifestation of “Nothing”. For Nietzsche man can get over such nihilistic condition if he actively accepts the eternal return as the consequent liberation of power will, immersed in the creative energy and in the joy of a Dionysian spirit. Lovecraft, on the contrary, considers the eternal return with horror, ending up with evolving human condition into an unplanned oneiric materialistic dimension; in the refuge of dreams and visions he can see human possibility to give birth to the «greatest creations of man» and to attain «something of the glory and contentment for which we yearn», without getting to “useless puppets” overwhelmed and destroyed by the furious waves of cosmic ocean. We can say that Nietzsche and Lovecraft are radically opposed, as far as the psychological relationship between man and eternal return is concerned: for the philosopher it is vital enjoyment, for the writer it is excruciating torment.
Nietzsche’s typical concepts, such as “Amor fati” or “Superman”, are considered “useless effort” by the materialistic-cosmocentric writer, according to whom such myths are totally far from the tragic actions of Lovecraft’s dreamer and lonely hero, who is busy not to be driven crazy and to understand the true nature of reality, trying to defend his own existence against those awful human creatures that sometimes belong to the same genetic legacy as the heroic main character’s. For example, I can mention the character in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” who finds out, to his surprise, he is not a different creature from those horrible monsters that have besieged him, almost to prove that there is no difference between men and beasts.
Beyond good and evil
With the German philosopher Lovecraft shares not only a pagan Anti-Christianity, but also the pointless inclination man has towards human existence, devoid of any “truth”, since it is forced to ceaselessly and inevitably fight for surviving beyond any moral limits of good and evil, as we cannot «sink or rise to any other “reality”, but just that of our own impulses»