Column: Writing the Mythos: The Lovecraftian Alphabet: Adjectives in Mythos Fiction

By G.W. Thomas

I think there can be little doubt anymore that Lovecraft’s reputation as the greatest horror writer of the 20th century is set. The academics have finally caught up with the readers of Weird Tales. HPL’s cosmic vision sets him apart from all those who “in the day” were more popular. I am thinking of writers like Seabury Quinn who have fallen to mere footnotes in Pulp history.

Despite this well-deserved fame, Lovecraft was never a stylist who inspired a 20th century following. HPL wrote in the manner of the century before him, taking his word choices from Poe. While writers like Hemingway in the mainstream, and Hammett and Chandler in the Pulps, were driving fiction towards terse, modern prose, Lovecraft was heading in the other direction.

Which only goes to prove how good he was. Belabored with an out-of-date style, he still managed to become the most influential horror writer of the century. I suspect this is because, though his diction is from the 19th century, his vision was not. Where Pulpsters like Seabury Quinn and the rest may have had more modern prose, their vision was trite, recycled Hollywood or from the books of the 19th century. The universes they proposed were staid, often Christian-based, and uninspired.

This weird paradox of old-fashioned prose/new-fashioned vision is best seen in the early Lovecraft, which has been parodied many times for its colorful and hyperbolical adjectives. I myself have poked fun in this manner in my Sword & Sorcery parody, “The Really Ugly, Nasty Thing From Hell” (under the by-line L. Sprague de Carter). In the final confrontation with the monster:

… the beast was horrible and so difficult to describe only an alphabet of adjective could suffice; it was: antediluvian, bilious, cadaverous, discordant, effusive, fetid, glutinous, hybridous, ichorous, jaundiced, kleptomanical, leprous, muscoid, nameless, obscene, palpitating, quavering, rugose, squamous, tittering, unspeakable, vomitous, wailing, xenophobic, yammering and zymotic ….

Though the story mostly poked fun at Conan the Barbarian, all the adjectives were taken from HPL. This Lovecraftian alphabet is limited to just one word per letter, but many more exist. Some of my favorites, like “Batrachian,” “Gibbous” and “Non-Euclidean” had to be left out.

I have spoken to the difficulty of describing the indescribable in a previous article (“The Unnameable“). This is part of why the young Lovecraft used so many adjectives. He was working his way through his methods to be able to describe his many unearthly creatures. I think, as he progressed as a writer, he learned that applying adjectives with a palate knife did not work as well as a fine brush, that the character’s reactions and the actions of the monsters were more important than long, eye-witness reports.

In other words, the most famous of all writing advice: Show; don’t tell. Let’s take the adjective “insidious,” for instance. My evil Mi-Go schoolmarm can just show up and I can tell you she is “insidious,” but that has far less impact than slowly realizing she and her kind have taken over the education system, and are teaching children the necessary skills for when the Yuggothians invade and enslave everyone.

So, is there a Mythos style? A Lovecraftian one, perhaps, but a Mythos one, I think not. Mythos is not a style so much as an idea, a cosmic idea that can be expressed in any style of writing. The point I am slowly winding my way to is that the Mythos writer has to make some careful decisions about style. Style is also connected to setting and narrative voice. For example, if your story is taking place on a whaling ship in 1840, perhaps using the diary of the First Mate, then the language will be different than if you are writing about the year 2020, when Nyarlathotep has taken over the Internet devices implanted in our skulls. Once you’ve chosen the setting, then you can address the appropriate style and, in turn, adjectives. Let’s take that Mi-Go schoolmarm, for instance. Which works better?

Miss Matilda extended her bilious green, multi-jointed appendage towards the diminutive child with insectoid zeal.

Miss Matilda reached over to Roland and stroked his white cheek with a finger bristled like a fly’s leg.

Msx Matild touched the infant with her cyber extension lovingly before zoning his ka-beam into her intake port.

The first sentence creaks under the weight of the adjectives but might be appropriate to a Victorian tale. The second is pretty straight forward, saving the inhuman punch for the end. The third sentence is filled with terminology that would have to be explained in the story, since it is set in a future where things have changed. Each could be correct, depending on who is telling the story and where it is set.

Making the right call on style is important. If your Victorian whaler is going to speak like a rapper – “bitchin’, y’all” – or your futuristic cyber-citizen is going to use words like “eldritch” or “countenance,” the reader will instantly be thrown from the fabric of the tale and say, “I don’t believe it.” And for a storyteller, that’s a death that you will not rise from like Great Cthulhu.