By G.W. Thomas
It would be ridiculous to suggest that all Mythos stories have the same plot. As more and more tales are spun, this becomes less and less likely as writers experiment with the Lovecraft’s vision of Elder Gods. Still, there are many – I would say most – stories that seem to follow a standard plot type. At least, a traditional Mythos tale, anyway. That plot involves an oblivious individual falling into or dabbling with things better left alone. The classic ending features the main character meeting his end at the tentacles of a monster (Writing it down in a journal, as it happens, is optional.)
I recently realized where this plot type came from. This Christmas, I chose to re-read The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James. And it was here in this book that I saw where H.P. Lovecraft chose the plot. HPL was well-acquainted with M.R. James and other ghost story writers, as his The Supernatural Horror in Literature proves. Of James, he wrote:
“At the opposite pole of genius from Lord Dunsany, and gifted with an almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life, is the scholarly Montague Rhodes James, Provost of Eton College, antiquary of note, and recognized authority on mediæval manuscripts and cathedral history. Dr. James, long fond of telling spectral tales at Christmastide, has become by slow degrees a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank; and has developed a distinctive style and method likely to serve as models for an enduring line of disciples.”
And, in truth, HPL could be said to be one of them. For the typical Mythos story structure is taken (with a few modern innovations and ideas from other writers) from James. I have chosen the one story I think best demonstrates this plot shape: “Count Magnus” from James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904). Lovecraft said of it, “‘Count Magnus’ is assuredly one of the best, forming as it does a veritable Golconda of suspense and suggestion.” While it’s not my favourite by a long shot, it does show well the formula:
The Mr. James Ghost Story Formula (Based on “Count Magnus”)
- Begin by explaining how the narrator (not the main character) got the story, usually second-or-third-hand.
- Introduce the main character, usually a scholar, with antiquarian interests, on holiday abroad (France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany) or on assignment to do scholarly work.
- Introduce an old local family and their home, the buildings in that far country (Give the first vague hints of supernatural dealings in the descriptions).
- The antiquary finds the location of evil (The author doesn’t do more than hint this at this time, but will return to it later).
- Describes an old family member of evil reputation (again, only hints) and gives the first details of their evil history. This spurs the antiquary on to dig further.
- The antiquary finds out more, a vital clue to the evil events (though not explained at this time), asks a local about it and gets the cold shoulder or avoidance.
- Antiquary gets on with mundane assignment, but finds more clues (a diary, spell book, or other evidence of sorcery) .
- Antiquary makes first deadly mistake by accidentally or flippantly invoking the evil. He ignores the first sign that the evil is coming in reply.
- Antiquary confronts the local for more information. Local tells of events that took place after the evil ones were gone (hinting of supernatural survival as well as more hints and details about the supernatural familiar or assistant connected to the old villain.)
- Antiquary returns to site of evil and finds further details in the surroundings (engravings, paintings, carvings, etc.) and, for a second time, transgresses against the evil and ignores the signs.
- Time to leave and return to England. The antiquary returns to the site of evil one last time to say goodbye to the spirit of the villain. A third and final transgression, and the evil is released and the antiquary flees.
- The narrator now has to admit details become scanty. Journals become cryptic or sketchy. These only hint at the antiquary fleeing back home but under pursuit by two figures, the evil villain and his familiar. (The narrator’s tone can be oblivious, but details hint at the truth.)
- Antiquary makes a final, useless attempt to escape before being mysteriously found dead, which no one can explain.
- Variations: a) antiquary is rescued at the last second, b) confronts evil with a party of others and survives to find some mysterious object that explains or hints at why the evil existed.
Some classic Mythos tales featuring this plot type include “The Haunter of the Dark” by HPL, “The Shambler From the Stars” by Robert Bloch, “The Black Stone” by Robert E. Howard, “The Hounds of Tindalos” by Frank Belknap Long, numerous posthumous tales by August Derleth, and a host of other imitators since 1940. The Mythos tales descended from this structure are not slavish imitations (as were many of the English ghost stories that came after James from writers like E.G. Swain and W.J. Wintle), but the main elements are there: a scholar who digs when he should leave well-enough alone, a growing sense of evil, an evil heritage, and a final climactic appearance. One of the innovations later writers would bring is to show this last scene rather than hint it as James does. You can argue either way if it is scarier to show it or not, but modern tastes like a little carnage, as Robert Bloch proves by having his scholar cracked in half and drained of blood by an invisible star vampire in “The Shambler From the Stars” (Weird Tales, September 1935).
Perhaps my favourite of all stories with this structure is Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness (1977), a novel that features Clark Ashton Smith as part of the background of the story, as it is set in San Francisco. You can really see the M.R. James influence in the final monster, a ghost that appears as a “pale brown thing” and then as a specter made of bedding, just as the ghost appeared in James’ “Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (1904). The resulting tale is an homage to Smith, Lovecraft and James. For more information, consult: http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pardos/ArchiveOurlady.html.
Now that you see the structure, as a writer, you have two choices: you can embrace it and write within its bounds, or you can reject it and try to make your Mythos stories something else, to use some other structure to scare your readers or lead them to strange, new vistas. It can be done. The Mythos tales of Willum Pugmire come immediately to mind, as do novels like Dagon (1968) by Fred Chappell or Neil Gaiman’s tongue-in-cheek “I Cthulhu”. My own Book Collector stories take their structure from Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich, as they are suspense/mysteries in shape with a Mythos background. I’m not saying you can’t use the old structure, for Fritz Leiber did (Our Lady of Darkness won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel), Karl Edward Wagner did in “Sticks” (He won the British Fantasy Award), but it is harder to find new things to say with it. Ask yourself, when you start that new story, What form will work best? And go from there.