Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘H.P. Lovecraft

Quote of the Day

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To say that we actually believed in vampires or werewolves would be a carelessly inclusive statement. Rather must it be said that we were not prepared to deny the possibility of certain unfamiliar and unclassified modifications of vital force and attenuated matter; existing very infrequently in three-dimensional space because of its more intimate connexion with other spatial units, yet close enough to the boundary of our own to furnish us occasional manifestations which we, for lack of a proper vantage point, may never hope to understand.

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Shunned House”

Written by nevalalee

March 7, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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H.P. Lovecraft

As to how I write a story—there is no one way. Each one of my tales has a different history. Once or twice I have literally written out a dream; but usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I wish to express, and revolve it in my mind until I can think of a good way of embodying it in some chain of dramatic occurrences capable of being recorded in concrete terms. I tend to run through a mental list of the basic conditions or situations best adapted to such a mood or idea or image, and then begin to speculate on logical and naturally motivated explanations of the given mood or idea or image in terms of the basic condition or situation chosen…That my results are successful may well be disputed—but I feel at least sure that, had I ignored [these] considerations…they would have been much worse than they are.

H.P. Lovecraft, “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2016 at 7:30 am

The lost library

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Google Book Search

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents,” H.P. Lovecraft writes in “The Call of Cthulhu.” He continues:

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in is own direction, have hitherto harmed us little, but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Lovecraft’s narrator would be relieved, I think, by the recent blog post by Tim Wu of The New Yorker on the sorry state of Google Books. As originally conceived, this was a project that could have had the most lasting impact of any development of the information revolution—an accurate, instantaneous search of all the books ever published, transforming every page into metadata. Instead, it became mired in a string of lawsuits, failed settlements, and legislative inaction, and it limps on as a shadow of what it might have been.

And while the result might have saved us from going mad in the Lovecraftian sense, it’s an incalculable loss to those of us who believe that we’d profit more than we’d suffer from that kind of universal interconnectedness. I don’t mean to minimize what Google has done: even in its stunted, incomplete form, this is still an amazing tool for scholars and curious characters of all kinds, and we shouldn’t take it for granted. I graduated from college a few years before comprehensive book search—initially developed by Amazon—was widely available, and when I contemplate the difference between the way I wrote my senior thesis and what would be possible now, it feels like an incomprehensible divide. It’s true that easy access to search results can be a mixed blessing: there’s a sense in which the process of digging in libraries and leafing through physical books for a clue purifies the researcher’s brain, preparing it to recognize and act upon that information when it sees it. This isn’t always the case when a search result is just one click away. But for those who have the patience to use a search as a starting point, or as a map of the territory, it’s precious beyond reckoning. Making it fully accessible should be the central intellectual project of our time. Instead, it has stalled, perhaps forever, as publishers and authors dicker over rights issues that pale in comparison to the benefits to be gained from global access to ideas.

Google Book Search

I’m not trying to dismiss the fears of authors who are worried about the financial consequences of their work being available for free: these are valid concerns, and a solution that would wipe out any prospect of making a living from writing books—as it already threatens to do with journalism and criticism—would outweigh any possible gain. But if we just focus on books that are out of print and no longer profit any author or publisher in their present form, we’re talking about an enormous step forward. There’s no earthly reason why books that are currently impossible to buy should remain that way. Once something goes out of print, it should be fair game, at least until the copyright holder decides to do something about it. Inhibiting free access to books that can’t possibly do any good to their rights holders now, with an eye to some undefined future time when those rights might have value again, doesn’t help anybody. (If anything, a book that exists in searchable form is of greater potential value than a copy moldering unread on a library shelf.) Any solution to the problem of authors’ rights is inevitably going to be built out of countless compromises and workarounds, so we may as well approach it from a baseline of making everything accessible until we can figure out a way forward, rather than keeping these books out of sight until somebody legislates a solution. If nothing else, opening up those archives more fully would create real pressure to come up with a workable arrangement with authors. As it stands, it’s easier to do nothing.

And the fact that we’ve been waiting so long for an answer, even as Google, Amazon, and others devote their considerable resources to other forms of search, suggests that our priorities are fundamentally out of whack. Enabling a search of libraries is qualitatively different from doing the same for online content: instead of focusing solely on material that has been generated over the last few decades, and in which recent content outweighs the old by orders of magnitude, we’d be opening up the accumulated work of centuries. Not all of it is worth reading, any more than the vast majority of content produced every day deserves our time and attention, but ignoring that huge trove of information—thirty million books or more, with all their potential connections—is an act of appalling shortsightedness. A comprehensive search of books that were otherwise inaccessible, and which didn’t relegate most of the results to a snippet view for no discernible reason, would have a far greater impact on how we think, feel, and innovate than most of the technological projects that suck up money and regulatory attention. It might only appeal to a small slice of readers and researchers, but it happens to be a slice that is disproportionately likely to come up with works and ideas that affect the rest of us. But it requires a voice in its favor as loud as, or louder than, the writers and publishers who object to it. The books are there. They need to be searchable and readable. Anything else just doesn’t scan.

Written by nevalalee

September 15, 2015 at 9:04 am

“A freezing horror took hold of him…”

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"The copilot shook his head..."

Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 44. You can read the earlier installments here

I’ve always been fascinated by horror fiction, but I’ve rarely drawn on its conventions for my own work. A few of my short stories—notably “The Boneless One” and “Cryptids”—employ horror tropes, and “Kawataro” is essentially an extended homage to the genre. In my novels, though, there’s little if any trace of it. Part of this is due to the fact that I’ve ended up working in a category that doesn’t accommodate itself easily to that style: suspense fiction, at least of the international kind that I write, operates within a narrow tonal range, with heightened events and purposeful violence described with clinical precision. This air of constraint is both the genre’s limitation and its greatest strength, but it also means that horror sits within it uncomfortably. At its best, horror fiction comes down to variations of tone, with everyday mundanity disrupted by unknown terrors, and a writer like Stephen King is so good at conveying the ordinary that the horror itself can seem less interesting by comparison. (Writers in whom the tone is steeped in dread from the beginning have trouble playing these changes: I love H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, but I can’t say that he scares me.)

The big exception is Chapter 44 of City of Exiles, in which horror comes to the forefront of the narrative to a degree that doesn’t have a parallel in the rest of the series. City of Exiles isn’t a perfect novel, and I’ve been hard on it elsewhere in this commentary, but I still think that the last ten chapters or so represent some of the strongest writing I’ve published, and the sequence kicks off here, as a neurotoxin is released inside a private plane with horrifying results. If the scene works, and I believe it does, it’s largely because of the kind of tonal shift that I describe above. It opens with Powell and Chigorin discovering that there may be a lethal device on board the plane, and for several pages, the action unfolds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, complete with detailed specs on the ventilation system. (The couple of paragraphs spent discussing the ram system and the mix manifold were the product of a lot of tedious hours paging through aircraft manuals online.) But once the poison is released, the tone shifts abruptly into nightmare, and the result is a page or two like nothing else in these novels.

"A freezing horror took hold of him..."

In describing what Powell sees, I consciously turned back to the likes of King and Lovecraft, and there’s also a sentence or two of deliberate homage to “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” a Sherlock Holmes short story that turns on a similar device. (“The Devil’s Foot” also provides the epigraph to Part III, and there are subtle allusions to it throughout the novel. Justice Roundhay, who sends Ilya to Belmarsh Prison, is named after one of Conan Doyle’s characters, and the two aliases that Karvonen uses—Dale Stern and Trevor Guinness—are nods to the names Sterndale and Tregennis.) The notion that Powell would see a monstrous version of one of the cherubim from Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah is one of those ideas that seem obvious in retrospect, although it didn’t occur to me until fairly late in the process. It also involves a small cheat, since Powell is never directly privy to Wolfe’s conversations on the subject with Ilya, so I had to insert a short line in a previous chapter to explain why he’d have Ezekiel on his mind.

And although the result works well, at least to my eyes, I’m glad that it’s restricted to this chapter and nowhere else. Horror, as we all know well, is more effective the less it’s described, and as it stands, the description of Powell’s hallucination goes on just as long as necessary. It doesn’t feel like anything else in these books, which is part of the point: it’s a momentary disruption of the evenhanded tone I try to maintain even in scenes of great violence or intensity, and it casts a shadow over the more conventionally suspenseful scenes that follow. I’d love to write a real horror novel someday, mostly for the challenge of sustaining that kind of mood over a longer stretch of narrative: the number of novels that really pull it off would fill maybe a single shelf, and it’s no accident that King’s short stories are often so much scarier than his books. Still, I suspect that this scene works as well as it does because it’s embedded within a novel that otherwise seems so removed from the emotions that true horror evokes. And as with the poison that triggers these visions, a small dose is usually more than enough…

The lure of the scary story

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Edgar Allan Poe

With the death of the neighborhood video store, we’re also witnessing the end of a childhood rite of passage that I suspect a lot of people my age can remember: the trip through the dreaded horror aisle. It always stood in its own section of the store, just a few steps away from the comedy or drama shelves, and it had a terrifying fascination of its own. If you were eight or nine years old, you had to work up your courage just to walk past it, even as you couldn’t resist stealing a look. Back in the day, I definitely spent a few scary minutes staring at those video boxes, and I can still recall being freaked out by the covers of the likes of Pumpkinhead or The Unnameable. I don’t think kids these days will ever have quite the same experience—maybe browsing through the horror titles on Netflix gives them a similar illicit thrill—but I have no doubt that they’ll still find their own ways of scaring themselves. Having just finished judging the third, fourth, and fifth grade entries in the annual scary story contest held by the Chicago Sun-Times, I’m impressed all over again by how shrewd a child’s sense of horror can be: dark, gruesome, and often surprisingly funny.

In fact, the best horror stories often have unexpected affinities with jokes. Both a joke and a scary short story are written expressions of an oral tradition, possibly the oldest ones we have. They tend to be brief, punchy, composed with an eye to economy, and every word counts, especially near the end. Both are marked by an escalation of tension that reaches a cathartic punchline, but their resolutions are very different: the joke surprises us, casting the previous situation in an unexpected light, while the horror story offers us the realization of all our darkest fears, which turn out to be even worse than we expected. Both have an uneasy relationship with the first-person point of view: few if any good jokes are told in the first person, and it’s a problematic choice for all but the greatest horror stories. And neither are particularly amenable to being analyzed in the way I’ve been doing here. To take apart a joke is to kill it, and to attempt to explain away the dread a scary story evokes destroys its magic, although not always its elemental power.

Stephen King

This may be why horror, like humor, is so subjective. Either you find something funny or scary, or you don’t. One reader may be terrified by a story that another dismisses with a shrug, and good luck convincing either of them otherwise: it’s a reaction that has little to do with aesthetic merit and everything to do with the sparks the story sets off in the reader’s imagination. That may be why the best horror stories leave so much to implication. Like a painting, or a haiku, that seems all the more vivid because it captures only the evocative core of its subject, a good horror story is as notable for what leaves out as what it includes. This takes skill and experience, and one of the hardest things to master is knowing when and how to end it, ideally at a moment that leaves us with the maximum of dread. Poe was a master of this: his stories open in a leisurely fashion that has dated badly—I dare anyone to read the opening pages of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” without skipping ahead—but his endings are crisp, brutal, and utterly modern, which goes a long way toward explaining why his stories have lasted.

My own favorite scary short story is H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” which I’ve revisited on an annual basis without ever getting tired of it: it’s one of the rare Lovecraft stories in which the baroque language fits the characters and themes, and it remains wonderfully atmospheric and horrifying. Next would be the best tales from Stephen King’s two great early collections, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, especially “The Boogeyman,” “Strawberry Spring,” “Gramma,” and “The Jaunt,” and his late masterpieces “Dolan’s Cadillac” and “The Ten O’Clock People.” A few more random favorites: Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” Donald A. Wollheim’s “Mimic,” Michael Bishop’s “Within the Walls of Tyre.” These are all very different stories, with some skewing toward fantasy or science fiction, but all manage the difficult trick of ending at just the right moment, leaving us with an impression of dread that’s impossible to shake. (This is one reason why my own stories don’t qualify as horror, even if some of them, like “The Boneless One” or “Kawataro,” are clearly indebted to the genre: Analog generally doesn’t go for dark endings.) If you’ve never read them before, you might want to seek them out now. There’s no better time than tonight.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2013 at 9:41 am

H.P. Lovecraft on the weird art of outlining

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H.P. Lovecraft

1. Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurrence—not the order of their narration. Describe with enough fulness to cover all vital points and motivate all incidents planned. Details, comments, and estimates of consequences are sometimes desirable in this temporary framework.

2. Prepare a second synopsis or scenario of events—this one in order of narration (not actual occurrence), with ample fulness and detail, and with notes as to changing perspective, stresses, and climax. Change the original synopsis to fit if such a change will increase the dramatic force or general effectiveness of the story. Interpolate or delete incidents at will—never being bound by the original conception even if the ultimate result be a tale wholly different from that first planned. Let additions and alterations be made whenever suggested by anything in the formulating process.

3. Write out the story—rapidly, fluently, and not too critically—following the second or narrative-order synopsis. Change incidents and plot whenever the developing process seems to suggest such change, never being bound by any previous design. If the development suddenly reveals new opportunities for dramatic effect or vivid storytelling, add whatever is thought advantageous—going back and reconciling the early parts to the new plan. Insert and delete whole sections if necessary or desirable, trying different beginnings and endings until the best arrangement is found…

4. Revise the entire text, paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm of prose, proportioning of parts, niceties of tone, grace and convincingness or transitions (scene to scene, slow and detailed action to rapid and sketchy time-covering action and vice versa…etc., etc., etc.), effectiveness of beginning, ending, climaxes, etc., dramatic suspense and interest, plausibility and atmosphere, and various other elements.

5. Prepare a neatly typed copy—not hesitating to add final revisory touches where they seem in order.

H.P. Lovecraft, “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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Listening to “The Voices,” part 1

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Writers love to talk about how certain ideas seize their attention and won’t let go, but in my case, almost invariably, the desire to write a story comes long before the initial idea, not the other way around. In other words, I start by deciding to write something, then look for something to write about. This peculiar urge, which seems to exist independently of any particular subject, can arise when I happen to have a few weeks free to work on a writing project; when I have the itch to see something of mine in print, and hopefully to get paid for it; or, most of all, when I miss the experience of starting with a blank page and empty mind and turning it into something with suspense, structure, and emotion. In particular, in July of last year, I found myself motivated by a number of such factors. I’d just finished the first draft of the novel that would eventually become City of Exiles, an exhausting experience that had left me feeling a little burnt out and anxious to try something fun. I wanted to take two weeks off before plunging into the rewrite. And I hadn’t written any short fiction in a long time.

With this in mind, I began looking around for an appropriate subject for a short story, which would eventually become my novelette “The Voices,” which finally appeared last month in the September issue of Analog. As I’ve said before, whenever I find myself stuck for ideas, I go to the library and start browsing, usually among the science magazines. I’m not looking for anything in particular, just something that will start a chain of associations or trigger the jolt of curiosity that I’ve long since come to associate with a promising project. More specifically, I’m looking for two or more articles that collide in interesting ways, since I’ve found that much of what we call creativity arises from unexpected combinations. I’ve explained in earlier posts how a similar process led to my stories “Kawataro,” “The Boneless One,” and “Ernesto,” and in this case, after a few hours of browsing at the Sulzer Regional branch of the Chicago Public Library, I found a couple of articles in back issues of Discover that seemed very promising: one by Adam Piore about the attempt to create a kind of synthetic telepathy that could read soldiers’ thoughts, and one by Karen Wright about the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation to treat symptoms of schizophrenia, including auditory hallucinations.

These two articles fell together very neatly, and almost at once, I began to envision a character who suffered from auditory hallucinations, like disembodied voices, and sought treatment from a therapy that could “read” the voices in her head. It was a good beginning, but like all stories, it needed something more, which in this case came from an unexpected source. At the time, I was reading the sprawling fantasy novel Little, Big by John Crowley, and although I had some reservations about its structure and pacing, I was, and remain, haunted by its atmosphere, which creates a genuine air of mystery and romance around a big rambling house in New England and the spirits of nature nearby. On a more sinister note, this is also Lovecraft country, a place where the woods have many secrets, which made it the perfect location for the story I had in mind. When we’re presented with a woman who hears voices, we might reasonably conclude that she’s suffering from schizophrenia, but if she’s from a certain part of the New England countryside, with its rumors of elves and fairies—well, we might slowly start to wonder, if we aren’t sure what kind of story we’re reading, whether the voices might in fact be real.

What that, I had my story. If Joan of Arc were alive today, I reasoned, she might well end up in psychiatric treatment, even as she continued to wonder if the messages she was receiving were coming from somewhere outside her own mind. My main character would be a sort of Joan figure—I ended up calling her January, for reasons I’ll explain later—who was smart, skeptical of the voices she was hearing in the woods, and willing to do whatever it took to discover if they were real or not. I’d stay in her head for the entire story, presenting everything from her point of view, including the voices, which would speak to her as reasonably as any other character, with no sense that they might be imaginary. The resulting story would skirt the edges of fantasy, while remaining firmly grounded in science fiction, although the reader wouldn’t necessarily know this. Indeed, if I did my job correctly, I could keep readers in a state of suspense over how much of the narrative to believe, to the point where they might even forget that the main character, by definition, was far from a reliable narrator. And as I’ll explain tomorrow, in the finished story, it may have worked a little too well.

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2012 at 10:03 am

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