A Writer’s Reflections: Lovecraft and Describing the Indescribable

I read Lovecraft quite late in my journey through fantasy and I’ve been thinking about him more and more these days because I believe Lovecraft is a very interesting case of an author finding his voice and maturing his style.

To take a can opener to Lovecraft’s work and general strangeness you need to look quite deeply at the man’s childhood, his upbringing, literary influences and many other factors. And while that is of some importance to what I’m talking about here, that would take a good amount of time to unpack. So to keep this post manageable and concise I just want to talk about two main aspects I find interesting in his evolution as a writer, those being empathy and description.

This first point, empathy, is probably the most related to his personal circumstances and life. Suffice to say while the ‘shut-in racist’ is a crass way to sum him up, it does have some truths to it. That being that he was awfully suspicious of the ‘other’ and due to his own literary preferences and a longing for an old aristocracy. He was in many ways, trying to live the life of a ‘gentleman’ but in our words would have been called something far less glorious – unemployed.

Much of his woeful, close to penniless existence, can be blamed on his own choices, and his choices being a product of his childhood/upbringing… you get the idea.

Due to this we see from his earliest works to around the middle of his career very few characters who have many meaningful relationships with other characters, and God forbid, relationships with members of the opposite sex.

In the Shunned House there is a slight shift here, where the main character has great affection for, and also a on the page interaction with, his dear uncle. Obviously things don’t end well in the story for either, but we can see a shift in Lovecraft’s writing.

Let’s move on to one of his later works. At the Mountains of Madness is one of his more well known pieces, and also it’s my favorite Lovecraft story. I feel that this is the work in which he really came into his own. In this novella we see more emphasis on human relationship. We see the companionship of Dyer and Danforth along with the trademark stress and horror of classic Lovecraft.

But I bring up At the Mountains of Madness for another reason. The monsters in Lovecraft are probably one of the more memorable aspects of his work. Who can forget Cthulhu, the enigmatic elder god, whose face often pops up come election time?

Fun fact: if you think that name is unpronounceable, then you’d be right. Lovecraft wanted a name that mere mortals would struggle with.

Lovecraft’s monsters are terrifying, beyond human comprehension and decidedly frightening. But here in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic the archaeologists stumble upon something at first frightening and deadly but also as the story goes on something that is described in a humane way. This once frightening monster becomes this creature we can empathize with.

Lovecraft expounds on this in the following excerpt from At the Mountains of Madness:

Poor devils! After all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them—as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter drag up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste—and this was their tragic homecoming.
They had not been even savages—for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch—perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defence against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia . . . poor Lake, poor Gedney . . . and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!

It’s a great look into how his stories evolved. It’s a captivating piece of writing even if one might find the text too dense and the prose too convoluted. Toward the end of his writing Lovecraft managed to empathize with his humans, and his monsters.

The second thing to show this apparent evolution is the way Lovecraft changed or modified the ways he would describe things. His early works contain a near endless stream of vagaries in his descriptions. Eldritch, unnameable, abomination, etc.

Lovecraft would often create an image where one might glimpse a scaled limb, elbow or eyebrow but he would refrain from most descriptions that would, in any way, be helpful for the reader to understand what that particular anatomical feature looked like.

Take this example from Dagon:

Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.

However his later works spend a lot more time expounding on these monstrosities and I think the stories fare much better for it and lose none of their tension.

Original cover for At the Mountains of Madness in Astounding Stories

This is the final ‘monster reveal’ near the end of At the Mountains of Madness:

But we were not on a station platform. We were on the track ahead as the nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence oozed tightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus; gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, re-thickening cloud of the pallid abyss-vapour. It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter. 

While it might seem a small difference, we’re given some dimensions of the terrifying shoggoth, a creature as horrifying as any Lovecraft had created before it. But instead of passing it off as a ‘mass of indescribable eldritch terror and hideousness’ we get more specifics. The bubbly mass, the multiple eyes that appear and disappear and size comparison to a subway train. It’s great stuff and is a clear showing of how Lovecraft improved on his craft.

Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror all owe Lovecraft a great deal. It is a shame that he died at the age of 46, just as he was coming into his own as a great writer.

There are lessons to be learned from his writing and I hope that this post has been helpful, shedding a dim light on some aspects of his work and maturation as an author.

 

If you want more Lovecraft in your life you can find much of his work here – http://www.hplovecraft.com/

 

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