Calamari a la Mode
November 12, 2013 3:28 PM   Subscribe

On the Lovecraftian Mode - Gord Sellar on why he writes lovecraftian fiction. Elizabeth Bear on the same question. I. N. J. Culbard on adapting Lovecraft.
posted by Artw (22 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The first thing I thought of when I saw "Lovecraftian Mode" is one of my favorite Onion articles: "What Kind Of Powdered Chocolate Drink Mix Have We Unleashed Upon The World?" Gets funnier every time I read it.
posted by zardoz at 3:56 PM on November 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm a little puzzled about what Sellar's Lovecraft-as-jazz-standards argument actually is. Is he really saying that we should call this mini-genre "Lovecraftian" rather than "cosmic horror" (or "new weird" or whatever else) because it's impossible to write in a Lovecraftian mode without writing in Lovecraft's literal setting/mythos? He can't really mean that you can't do any kind of cosmic horror without literally talking about Yog-Sothoth. Seems like a strange set of claims, anyhow; what's typically meant by "mode" would be something both broader than that, and more to do with the form and nature of the story than its literal content. And in the comments on the post, he seems to say he's just uninterested in drawing a distinction between "the Lovecraftian" and "cosmic horror," but it seems to me there should be a big difference between direct, overt imitation and generic similarity or inspiration.
posted by RogerB at 3:57 PM on November 12, 2013

Regarding the jazz comparison: The trouble with Lovecraft's "setting" is that it isn't, formally. Lovecraft didn't intend for every story to belong to a canonical universe. Recurring references (e.g. to the Necronomicon) were initially a way to introduce verisimilitude, since it implied that even though the stories were fiction they were making reference to a genuine occult work, rather than acting as bridges between stories that shared their own alternate universe. This is not to say that *no* works connect, but the genre's assumptions make it trivial for *all* of its works to connect, regardless of authorship.

Because of this, the "mythos" effortlessly swallows any story within arm's reach. If you write a story in that general style, it can be slotted into the Mythos without difficulty (the entirety of the Conan oeuvre, for example, has effectively been appropriated by the Mythos). An author might protest and insist that their story is explicitly *not* in the Mythos, but to do so goes against the fundamental cosmic unknowability that underpins the genre.
posted by belarius at 4:10 PM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

There's a very strong sense of free-form play in weird fiction, of kind of not necessarily needing to arrive anywhere, but just enjoying the strange, beautiful scenery along the way. And Lovecraft explicitly invited others to play with his ideas; the Derlethean Mythos which for better or worse became the pop culture version everyone knows, where you have this whole consistent, coherent fantasy universe loosely adapted from some of Lovecraft's work, is just one style of play. But there are so many brilliant ideas there, and so many things one can do with them. Take a look at his commonplace book; it's overflowing with wonderful sparks of ideas and fragmented philosophy.
Death—its desolation and horror—bleak spaces—sea-bottom—dead cities. But Life—the greater horror! Vast unheard-of reptiles and leviathans—hideous beasts of prehistoric jungle—rank slimy vegetation—evil instincts of primal man—Life is more horrible than death.
What makes Lovecraft so appealing, though, is that underneath the bleak cosmicism is plain romanticism, and a sense of existential tragedy that a sober examination of the world so brutally shatters our dreams, but for the faintest glimmer.
My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty and adventurous expectancy… weave gossamer ladders of escape from the galling tyranny of time, space and natural law.
In a lot of ways, the entities populating his work are sort of a reconciliation between Lovecraft the Dreamer and Lovecraft the Rationalist; because it's a universe in which mankind is not special, not the crown of linear evolution, but in which everything is alive and vibrant and endlessly inventive and beautiful, anyway.
posted by byanyothername at 4:33 PM on November 12, 2013 [11 favorites]

And in the comments on the post, he seems to say he's just uninterested in drawing a distinction between "the Lovecraftian" and "cosmic horror," but it seems to me there should be a big difference between direct, overt imitation and generic similarity or inspiration.

Bear, in her remarks, does the same: note that her favorite "Lovecraftian" story is not explicitly set in Lovecraft's world at all, but descends, instead, from The King In Yellow, a source predating Lovecraft's own work. (And, while others have written bridging stories before, I can't recall where Lovecraft himself ever did.) So, yes, I think they very much are using it to mean anything which fits comfortably snuggled in beside a copy of Lovecraft. I think anything from William Hope Hodgson to The Secret World would qualify under their working definition.
posted by tyllwin at 4:56 PM on November 12, 2013

Rather than jazz standard, I think Lovecraft is more like a literary version of McDonald's There's no substance to it, it has no nutritional value, it's generic and has a bland flavor like that of a Big Mac. But it's easy and uncomplicated; any hack can stitch together some vague allusions to cosmic horror, misuse the word "squamous", and bang, there you have your Lovecraft story. You can even merge other genres with Lovecraft, the same way McDonald's takes on the national cuisine of other countries. Got a romance, detective or office comedy story? Give it the Lovecraft treatment, and it'll be fit for mass market. Of course then it will be a Lovecraft story, the same way even a Cordon Bleu chef working at McDonald's will only churn out McD style grub. But hey, there'll always be customers for McRibs.
posted by happyroach at 5:08 PM on November 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Oh, my, there's quite a bit more to Lovecraft than a literary McDonald's. For one thing, he's kind of the anti-pulp pulp writer. Like Hemingway, he's constantly leaving something out. In "The Music of Erich Zann," the horror happens to the narrator's neighbor. In "The Dunwich Horror," the world is saved twice, both times off-camera, once by a dog and once narrated by a gang of ignorant rustics. Just the constant undercutting of pulp tropes makes him interesting. That most of his "descendants" only pick up on the lurid shenanigans isn't Lovecraft's fault.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:26 PM on November 12, 2013 [14 favorites]

Don't know about that comparison of pastiching Lovecraft to riffing on a jazz standard. Wikipedia's list of standards comprises something like a thousand songs by hundreds of musicians. It'd be a sorry art indeed if a vast swathe of the jazz world ignored 99.9% of that inheritance and just labored over covers of "I Got Rhythm."
posted by Iridic at 5:36 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

happyroach, I think you're confusing Derleth's "Cthulhu Mythos" (tentacles and "eldritch," "gibbering," "cyclopean" ick and ooze) with Lovecraft (despair over universal indifference, the fleeting nature of beauty, the hard limits of human knowledge/perception, the wonder of natural diversity marred by the horror of the incompatibility of life forms, etc. etc.), who originated a lot of the vocabulary and ideas used in Mythos stories, but who always had sort of a higher aim in mind than monster horror, and who can never really be reduced to the tentacles-and-consonant-abuse of the Mythos. I'm a little hard on Derleth, and on the whole idea of the Cthulhu Mythos, even though I really enjoy that world, and we probably wouldn't be talking about Lovecraft at all anymore if it weren't for Derleth's efforts to preserve his writing, because the confusion between Lovecraft--who wrote such strange things that waver between romanticism and cosmicism like, "Celephais" and "The Colour Out of Space"--and Pop Cthulhu is fairly common. It's sort of what happens, I guess, when you have a fairly interesting, undeniably unique artist represented entirely by basically fan culture for decades and decades.

It's an understandable confusion, too; things which include lots of references to Lovecraftian entities, locales or concepts are usually a totally separate thing with totally different intentions and styles than a Lovecraftian story which takes inspiration from or builds on themes in his stories. But the former self-identifies as "Lovecraftian," and the latter doesn't.
posted by byanyothername at 6:32 PM on November 12, 2013 [11 favorites]

byanyothername, I think we're well past the point of being concerned about what Lovecraft actually intended, just as the products that McDonald's serves now has major differences to the original McDonald's menu. Lovecraft the product is now all about undefeatable alien gods, the hopeless plight of man in an uncaring universe, trying to understand and confront the truth of existence leads to insanity, yadda yadda yadda. It's pretty much getting into everything; even the popular version of D&D Pathfinder has decided they need to put Lovecratian alien menaces into their game. Because well, being a franchise is easy and popular.
posted by happyroach at 7:48 PM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you read contemporary science journals of the time (National Geographic in particular), you see the zeitgeist of adventure / exploration in the United States, where just about anything could be around the corner, ancient cities, unexplored rivers, astronomical events. Much of Lovecraft's settings work with a nascent scientific method that is only starting to get to the bottom of things.

Sadly we end up finding universal laws, cell phones, and quarks, instead of undying madness and floating orbs of goo.
posted by nickggully at 7:50 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pathfinder isn't the first introduction of Lovecraftian things to D&D. AD&D and 3rd edition have the Far Realm, and Gary Gygax was a fan in 1979.

I'm not convinced cynically slapping some cosmic horror in is a good sales strategy. If it were we would be swamped with television shows and books, but instead we have sexy vampires.
posted by squinty at 10:22 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Of course the earlier introduction of Cthulhu into D&D with Deities and Demigods was pretty much as "Here's something else to kill!". It was Pathfinder that suddenly plopped them into the game background as an irresistible force.

There does seem to be an interesting disconnect between tabletop rpgs and books vs. say, television and movies. There's something about the gaming mindset that seems to like "Anything you do is absolutely futile and worthless", which is followed to a lessor extent with literature. Yet it hasn't been successful in TV and moves. I wonder why?
posted by happyroach at 11:47 PM on November 12, 2013

Because "anything you do is absolutely futile and worthless" is a niche experience, and tabletop games and literature are both mediums that can be produced cheaply and can thus appeal to niche audiences. TV and movies cost absurd amounts of money to produce (or at least to do a job of it which is up to modern standards) and thus are almost always aimed away from the niches. There are exceptions- John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness is a strong example- but by and large mass audiences won't accept "but it was all for naught and we are inescapably doomed".

Those who like Lovecraft but want something different might do well to seek out Lovecraft Unbound, an anthology that focuses on Lovecraft's nihilism rather than on the tentacles and cults. I also highly recommend the story "The Sothis Radiant", by Will Murray, in the otherwise mostly unremarkable Miskatonic University anthology. It captures the cosmic horror of Lovecraft with only distant involvement with any of the Mythos itself. It's a shame that it's stuck in the back half of a substandard anthology like that- I wrote Mr. Murray and asked him if it had been reprinted anywhere, and he said it hasn't.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:11 AM on November 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Because "anything you do is absolutely futile and worthless" is a niche experience, ...

Sure, but if you are one of the few people out there with a deeply meaningful life, you really need this bleak nihilistic stuff as an escape outlet.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:52 AM on November 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Modern Hollywood is not particularly interested in bleak tales of existential woe (unless you count the meta narrative of the blanding down and hollowing out of film making into product in the hunt for more money)

There have been exceptions in the past... I've always claimed Alien (and to an extent Aliens) as a Lovecraftian influenced film.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:22 AM on November 13, 2013

Sure, but if you are one of the few people out there with a deeply meaningful life, you really need this bleak nihilistic stuff as an escape outlet.

You laugh, but another contribution Lovecraft made was to revitalize the horror genre by making it meaningful to the 20th C. Much as he didn't like the Modernists (he notably penned an Eliot parody called "The Waste Paper"), elements of the Modernist agenda are deeply rooted in his work, always at war with his classicist (and classist) and romantic urges. From his deeply overwrought early works ("The Tomb" and "The Outsider" come to mind) his writing does become more spare (although never very spare according to current tastes) and, more importantly, the idea of revolting against traditional laws and mores gets subsumed into violations of the laws of nature. The horror comes less from the shock of ghouls and monsters and more from the uneasy realization of insignificance in a vast universe that doesn't really care about your transgressions.

This is worlds away from the Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories which, although sometimes still effective, are rooted in ideas of god and conventional life that become increasingly absent in Lovecraft (and in the fears and aspirations of the 20th C reader). All 20th C horror, to a greater or lesser degree, is still soaking in Lovecraft's bath water, much like Neuromancer and Blade Runner still define our views of the future. Perhaps we need a 21st C horror (and SF) paradigm, but Lovecraft is what we currently have.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:03 AM on November 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

What do you think of Transmetropolitan, GenjiandProust?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:18 AM on November 13, 2013

I think Transmetropolitan is an updating of Gibson's Sprawl, with a more satirical tone. Which doesn't mean that I don't like it, but that it does not really challenge the paradigm. Much the way that most of Lovecraft's descendants don't really challenge his paradigm although they do many interesting things with setting (e.g. Ramsey Campbell's setting stories in the decaying industrial cities of the UK with the attendant changes in theme).
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:38 AM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

(he notably penned an Eliot parody called "The Waste Paper")

Given this, isn't it remarkable how similar to each other he and Eliot were? Both of them overly sensitive to intimations of a cosmic nothingness, yearning for the stability of earlier ages, fearful of intimacy, madness, and foreigners. Eliot turning himself into a English royalist while Lovecraft affected the role of a colonial Yankee gentleman.

(Also, in the six-degrees-of-Modernism: Lovecraft and Hart Crane both shared a bestie in the poet Samuel Loveman.)
posted by octobersurprise at 8:48 AM on November 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Transmet is Neuromancer where Case is allowed to understand and influence the world around him. Very much "What if Gibson wrote a superhero wish-fulfillment comic."

It's great on its own merits, but it's a loud echo of its source material. Ellis is a collagist... his magpie eye allowed him to collect and curate the wonders of the world around him in Transmetropolitan.

Another comic book, Sandman, probably did a little more to move SF/F/H forward past the Lovecraft mode - mythic post-structuralism is definitely a direction we want to go. Ironically, I think Gaiman took a big step backward when he moved to prose - lots more happy endings and neatly tied up plots with loudly and clearly broadcast themes in his stuff these days. He seemed to move more freely and with greater depth in his comics work.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:02 AM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wish my name was Gord. Thanks for nothing, dad.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:38 PM on November 13, 2013

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