An Idealisation of the Average

In fictional narration, verisimilitude is absolutely essential. A story must be consistent and must contain no event glaringly removed from the usual order of things, unless that event is the main incident, and is approached with the most careful preparation. In real life, odd and erratic things do occasionally happen; but they are out of place in an ordinary story, since fiction is a sort of idealisation of the average. Development should be as life-like as possible, and a weak, trickling conclusion should be assiduously avoided. The end of a story must be stronger rather than weaker than the beginning; since it is the end which contains the denouement or culmination, and which will leave the strongest impression upon the reader. It would not be amiss for the novice to write the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared—as it always should be. In this way he will be able to concentrate his freshest mental vigour upon the most important part of his narrative; and if any changes are later found needful, they can easily be made. In no part of a narrative should a grand or emphatic thought or passage be followed by one of tame or prosaic quality. This is anticlimax, and exposes a writer to much ridicule.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Literary Composition,” which Lovecraft wrote at the beginning of his career as a writer, he describes his approach to writing fiction.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Literary Composition.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 39-45.


Poe and Dunsany

About 1919 the discovery of Lord Dunsany—from whom I got the idea of the artificial pantheon and myth-background represented by “Cthulhu”, “Yog-Sothoth”, “Yuggoth”, etc.—gave a vast impetus to my weird writing; and I turned out material in greater volume than ever before or since. At that time I had no thought or hope of professional publication; but the founding of Weird Tales in 1923 opened up an outlet of considerable steadiness. My stories of the 1920 period reflect a good deal of my two chief models, Poe and Dunsany, and are in general too strongly inclined to extravagance and overcolouring to be of much serious literary value.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Some Notes on a Nonentity,” Lovecraft describes his early tales, which were heavily influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Dunsany, as too baroque “to be of much serious literary value.”

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Some Notes on a Nonentity.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006, pp. 207-11.

The Simple Speller’s Tale

(Translated into English)

When first among the amateurs I fell,
I blush’d in shame because I could not spell.
Tho’ skill’d in numbers, and at ease in prose,
My letters I could never well dispose.
Thoughts came abundant, language was the same;
Yet none the less I scarce could spell my name!
The kindly printer (with an eye for trade)
A clumsy care for all my work display’d:
Indiff’rent as I was, I us’d his art
Till critics cry’d, “My printer should be shot!”
Thus boldly censur’d, I began to seek
A means to thwart the rude reviewers’ clique:
My fever’d eye in rage I cast around,
When all at once the wish’d-for plan I found.
It happen’d on a summer’s holiday,
That past a madhouse gate I took my way.
Within that bedlam was a sage confin’d,
Who had from too much study lost his mind.
Now strolling out, in watchful keeper’s care,
With childish sounds the madman fill’d the air.
Still dreaming of his letter’s days of yore,
His ravings on remember’d subjects bore:
Dim came the thoughts of what he us’d to teach,
And he began to curse our English speech.
“Aha!” quoth he, “the men that made our tongue
Were arrant rogues, and I shall have them hung.
For long-establish’d customs what care we?
Come, let us tear down etymology.
Let spelling fly, and naught but sound remain;
The world is mad, and I alone am sane!”
Thus rav’d the sage; inventing, as he walk’d,
A hundred ways to spell our words as talk’d.
He simplify’d until his fancy bred
A system quite as simple as his head.
In scholarship disastrous change he wrought,
And alter’d, as he went, for want of thought.
But I, attentive, heard with joyful ear
The wild distortions, and perversions queer.
Why could not I defend my ill-spell’d page
In progress’ name, and with reformer’s rage?
With hope renew’d, I hasten’d home to write,
And passing wondrous was my work that night;
For classic purity I sought no more,
But strove to make worse blunders than before.
O fickle fortune! In a week my name
From scholars’ praise attain’d immortal fame,
Whilst other scribes with vague orthography
Siez’d on the clever ruse, and copy’d me.
Today in ev’ry Skateville Amateur
Amorphous letters pass as language pure,
And when some pompous pedant dares to raise
A voice remonstrant ‘gainst our foolish ways,
We never fail the apt retort to give,
But damn him as a blind CONSERVATIVE.

Yet why on us your angry hand or wrath use?
We do but ape Professor B———— M————!

DESCRIPTION: In his poem “The Simple Speller’s Tale,” which mentions literary critic Brander Matthews by name, Lovecraft uses eighteenth-century forms to mock advocates of simplified spelling.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Simple Speller’s Tale.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, pp. 214-5.

The Serious Writing of Fantasy

Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood. The moment it tries to be anything else it becomes cheap, puerile, and unconvincing. Prime emphasis should be given to subtle suggestion—imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal. Avoid bald catalogues of incredible happenings which can have no substance or meaning apart from a sustaining cloud of colour and symbolism.

These are the rules or standards which I have followed—consciously or unconsciously—ever since I first attempted the serious writing of fantasy. That my results are successful may well be disputed—but I feel at least sure that, had I ignored the considerations mentioned in the last few paragraphs, they would have been much worse than they are.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft describes the weird tale as a “vivid picture of a certain type of human mood” sustained by atmospheric writing and the subtle use of suggestion.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 175-8.