H.P. Lovecraft is Popular Culture’s Racist Grandpa
By Betsy Phillips, Guest Blogger on Jan 17, 2013 at 11:03 am
… I realized that I knew a ton of women who were huge Lovecraft fans. And this struck me as so strange that I had to see for myself what all of the fuss was about.
… he is a skilled writer. He can take things that just are not objectively that scary—a giant elbow, an alien shaped like a pyramid—and creep you right out with them.
While I was trying to figure out what made my friends swoon over Lovecraft, I came across his story “The Shunned House,” which is, as far as I’m concerned, just about as perfect a haunted house story as you can get (with one massive exception—the stupid giant elbow at the end).
So, I got this idea to retell “The Shunned House,” but set it near where I live, and post the story at my blog. I thought this would give me a chance to really understand Lovecraft’s technique, to see how he does what he does.
Lovecraft is so confident in his storytelling ability that he can tell you what happens—in this case that the narrator’s uncle dies—right up front. Most storytellers build suspense by keeping from you what happens until the last minute, but Lovecraft builds suspense by withholding how it happens. I don’t think this is a good strategy for most writers. To me, a horror story is a kind of tragedy. Letting your reader know that almost everyone has a happy ending ahead of time seems like you’re backing away from the tragedy of it.
I also think that it’s really genius how Lovecraft lets things build up without immediate resolution. He brings things up early on—not just the uncle’s death, but the other deaths in the house, and then drops them for a while. He just leaves their unresolved nature hanging over the story. So, even though the story starts out without anything particularly scary happening at the moment, and the only weird thing Lovecraft’s narrator brings up is a strange moldy spot, the deaths the reader doesn’t know enough about set a tone. This is a trick utilized by “Ghost Adventures” every week. They tell you the story of the place upfront, and it’s not particularly scary, but the weird stories you’re told in the first half set the tone for the things that happen (or don’t) in the second half.
Lovecraft’s politics are right at the heart of his stories. You take the heart out, and I’m not sure how Lovecraftian what’s left is. But I’m also not sure that’s all that terrible. We seem to be doing all right with reanimating the heartless corpses of his work and putting them work to our own ends. That seems fitting.
Yeah, that’s about all that me, a skeptical bourgeois liberal social democrat can do with HPL.
Now for the storytelling techniques:
- “[be] confident in … storytelling ability … tell … what happens … right up front”
- “[build] suspense by withholding how it happens” (the mystery of the HOW)
- “[start] out without anything particularly scary happening at the moment”
- “[let] things build up without immediate resolution”
- “take things that just are not objectively that scary … and creep you right out with them”
- "[introduce a] weird thing [in the context of the known conclusion that sets “a tone”] … [like] a strange moldy spot"
- “[bring] things up early on … [drop] them for a while … [leave] their unresolved nature hanging over the story”
- “the weird stories you’re told in the first half set the tone for the things that happen (or don’t) in the second half”