The Brink of Madness
By G. W. Thomas
“Should the writer of the ghost story himself believe in ghosts?” asked Reverend Montague Summers in his introduction to The Supernatural Omnibus (the only other essay that is as brilliant an overview of Horror literature pre-1930 as HPL’s “The Supernatural Horror in Literature” (check both out at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/omniintr.htm and http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/superhor.htm). Summers, being a believer both in God and the supernatural, feels they do. He mentions M. R. James, a borderline case who does the job well without full belief, but for the most part, Summers feels writers like Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Conan Doyle are better ghost story writers because they are Spiritualists.
I have to disagree with the good Reverend. I find Algernon Blackwood’s belief in Spiritualism crippling in much of his work. As for Conan Doyle, his best horror tales are those without ghosties, such as “The Terror of Blue John Gap” or “The Brazilian Cat”, and even a few of the Sherlock stories, such as “The Speckled Band” or “The Creeping Man”.
And then there is H. P. Lovecraft. The materialistic. The unreligious. The antithesis of Summers’ great ghost story writer. And yet, HPL is acknowledged as the most important horror writer of the 20th Century. Summers’ attitude is a holdover from a long-gone age. In a world of gaslight, before two World Wars, before the urban sprawl and social upheaval, he might have been right. But in a more modern world, largely blasé about religion and spirits, Summers fails.
H. P. Lovecraft’s beliefs were completely material. The world is a hard place, after which we fade away into non-existence. Humankind is of no import whatever. He expressed this idea brilliantly through what some call “the Cthulhu Mythos”. Gigantic space creatures who live for thousands of millennia with powers beyond our imagining show us just how impressive we really are. This brand of horror writing has been called “cosmic horror”. This is an apt name, for the sheer size of the cosmos is truly frightening when you really think on it. Most of us choose not to. The characters in HPL’s stories (cardboard as they appear) are forced to examine these bitter realities. They either go mad or are destroyed by them. It is this massive concept that has made HPL famous long after his death, despite all the imperfections in his work (by the critical measuring stick of ordinary critics). HPL expressed how unimportant this was in “The Supernatural Horror in Literature”:
Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point. If the proper sensations are excited, such a “high spot” must be admitted on its own merits as weird literature, no matter how prosaically it is later dragged down. The one test of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.
As a writer of Mythos fiction, this feeling of cosmic terror should be your first goal. So many pastichers forget this by imitating endlessly the tracts of previous stories. This is a mistake. You can’t use the same trick as the previous magician. Imagine it in that light. If you went to a magic show and the guy before you did the “Amazing Bird Trick” and then you did it, no matter how well you executed it, what would the audience do? It is the same in writing. Think of your own tricks to get that cosmic feeling of ‘creepy’ over on the reader. Some tricks to consider using might include:
- Be original. Think of something that really scares you and use that rather than cribbing stuff from previous work. Old clunkers, like characters named ‘Marsh’ who we know will turn into Deep Ones, just don’t work any more. Maybe avoid all the usual Mythos giveaways like ancient tomes, family curses, diaries, etc. Try to catch the reader off-guard. Don’t let them know it’s a Mythos story until the very end.
- The point of all those old diaries and such in the classic tales was to try and give the story a feeling of “verisimilitude” – being real and mostly ordinary. Use a more modern version of this. Think of the most ordinary of daily details, use lots of them, then make them all seem evil. Stephen King did this so well in “The Mist”. We’ve all spent many hours in supermarkets. Few places could be more safe and unterrifying. Until all the rules change.
- Use modern fears. Old horror stories use current fears to heighten their work. Dracula is terrifying to an English reader in 1897, partly because he’s an undead blood-drinker, but also because he’s a foreign boy-toy that’s going to get all those English girls with his tall, dark and handsome. In HPL’s time it was immigrants coming to the USA and tainting the WASP bloodlines. Use the modern equivalent. Genetically altered food, computer viruses, nuclear terrorism, 9/11, whatever gets people today.
One more caveat: HPL’s words above might be seen as carte blanche to commit all kinds of blunders of poor writing. Ultimately, if it scares, all is forgiven. This is true, but try it. Try and find a reader in this day and age who will forgive stilted dialogue, dull characters and poor logic or lack of story, even if the ending is scary. Mythos writers must use all the writing tools they possess to make their work palatable. If the readers aren’t groaning over your purple prose, they’ll be getting that jolt of pure horror that is your ultimate goal.