My First Word of the Discovery

When Lake had satisfied the first keen edge of his curiosity he scribbled a message in his notebook and had young Moulton run back to the camp to dispatch it by wireless. This was my first word of the discovery, and it told of the identification of early shells, bones of ganoids and placoderms, remnants of labyrinthodonts and thecodonts, great mososaur skull fragments, dinosaur vertebrae and armour-plates, pterodactyl teeth and wing-bones, archaeopteryx debris, Miocene sharks’ teeth, primitive bird-skulls, and skulls, vertebrae, and other bones of archaic mammals such as palaeotheres, xiphodons, dinocerases, eohippi, oreodons, and titanotheres. There was nothing as recent as a mastodon, elephant, true camel, deer, or bovine animal; hence Lake concluded that the last deposits had occurred during the Oligocene age, and that the hollowed stratum had lain in its present dried, dead, and inaccessible state for at least thirty million years.

DESCRIPTION: In a passage from the novella At the Mountains of Madness (1931), Lovecraft describes, using scientific terminology, Lake’s discoveries in Antarctica.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “At the Mountains of Madness.” The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 2001, pp. 246-340.

The Family Library

In 1898 I commenced a school career, much interrupted by ill health, and supplemented by home reading and private instruction. It was my favourite diversion to spend hours in the midst of the family library, browsing chiefly over books over a century old, and insensibly forming a taste for eighteenth-century style and thought which will never leave me.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “The Brief Autobiography of an Inconsequential Scribbler,” Lovecraft describes the beginnings of his lifelong interest in the eighteenth century.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Brief Autobiography of an Inconsequential Scribbler.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006, pp. 143-4.

The Hoax-Weaver

The more I consider weird fiction, the more I am convinced that a solidly realistic framework is needed in order to build up a preparation for the unreal element. The one supreme defect of cheap weird fiction is an absurd taking-for-granted of fantastic prodigies, and a sketchy delineation of such things before any background of convincingness is laid down. When a story fails to emphasise, by contrast with reality, the utter strangeness and abnormality of the wonder it depicts, it likewise fails to make those wonders seem like anything more than aimless puerility. Only normal things can be convincingly related in a casual way. Whatever an abnormal thing may be, its foremost quality must always be that of abnormality itself; so that in delineating it one must put prime stress on its departure from the natural order, and see that the characters of the narrative react to it with adequate emotions. My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax. The author must forget all about “short story technique”, and build up a stark, simple account, full of homely corroborative details, just as if he were actually trying to “put across” a deception in real life—a deception clever enough to make adults believe it. My own attitude in writing is always that of the hoax-weaver. One part of my mind tries to concoct something realistic and coherent enough to fool the rest of my mind and make me swallow the marvel as the late Camille Flammarion used to swallow the ghost and revenant yarns unloaded on him by fakers and neurotics. For the time being I try to forget formal literature, and simply devise a lie as carefully as a crooked witness prepares a line of testimony with cross-examining lawyers in his mind. I take the place of the lawyers now and then—finding motivations with a greater care for probability. Not that I succeed especially well, but that I think I have the basic method calculated to give maximum results if expertly used. This ideal became a conscious one with me about the “Cthulhu” period, and is perhaps best exemplified in “The Colour Out of Space”.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith, Lovecraft claims that, in order to be convincing, a weird tale must be as carefully constructed as a hoax.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 17 Oct. 1930. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 210-13.

Imitating Poe

Others—including editor Wright—agree with you in liking The Outsider, but I can’t say that I share this opinion. To my mind this tale … is too glibly mechanical in its climatic effect, & almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language. As I re-read it, I can hardly understand how I could have let myself by tangled up in such baroque & windy rhetoric as recently as ten years ago. It represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe as its very height.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend J. Vernon Shea, Lovecraft dismisses “The Outsider” as “almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language.”

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To J. Vernon Shea.” 19 June 1931. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 378-80.

Minutely Typical of Old New England

You’ll notice that although my yarns reach out into the nameless abyss, they always take off from the springboard of a realistic setting. Poe has his haunted regions nameless, and peopled by mysterious beings with unknown pasts—but I make mine minutely typical of old New England, and give my characters (by implication and sometimes in detail) characteristic New England genealogies. I don’t weave dreams absolutely out of nothing, (i.e., out of material wholly in the subconscious) but need the spur of some actual scene or object or incident to set me off.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe, Lovecraft explains why, despite the example of his idol Poe, he prefers to use a realistic setting in all of his weird stories.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Maurice W. Moe.” 26 Mar. 1932. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner, vol. 4, Arkham House, 1976, pp. 31-3.

Never Have a Wonder Taken for Granted

In writing a weird story I always try very carefully to achieve the right mood and atmosphere, and place the emphasis where it belongs. One cannot, except in immature pulp charlatan–fiction, present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately—with a careful emotional “build-up”—else it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel. In relation to the central wonder, the characters should shew the same overwhelming emotion which similar characters would shew toward such a wonder in real life. Never have a wonder taken for granted. Even when the characters are supposed to be accustomed to the wonder I try to weave an air of awe and impressiveness corresponding to what the reader should feel. A casual style ruins any serious fantasy.

DEFINITION: In his essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft describes how to convincingly incorporate supernatural phenomenon into a weird story.

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

Dunsany’s Influence

Truly, Dunsany has influenced me more than anyone else except Poe—his rich language, his cosmic point of view, his remote dream-world, & his exquisite sense of the fantastic, all appeal to me more than anything else in modern literature. My first encounter with him—in the autumn of 1919—gave an immense impetus to my writing; perhaps the greatest it has ever had.…

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend and fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith, Lovecraft describes the influence Lord Dunsany had on his writing.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 30 July 1923. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 242-3.

The Romantic, Semi-Gothic Tradition

The romantic, semi-Gothic, quasi-moral tradition here represented was carried far down the nineteenth century by such authors as Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Thomas Preskett Prest with his famous Varney, the Vampyre (1847), Wilkie Collins, the late Sir H. Rider Haggard (whose She is really remarkably good), Sir A. Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson—the latter of whom, despite an atrocious tendency toward jaunty mannerisms, created permanent classics in “Markheim”, “The Body-Snatcher”, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Indeed, we may say that this school still survives; for to it clearly belong such of our contemporary horror-tales as specialise in events rather than atmospheric details, address the intellect rather than the impressionistic imagination, cultivate a luminous glamour rather than a malign tensity or psychological verisimilitude, and take a definite stand in sympathy with mankind and its welfare. It has its undeniable strength, and because of its “human element” commands a wider audience than does the sheer artistic nightmare. If not quite so potent as the latter, it is because a diluted product can never achieve the intensity of a concentrated essence.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft praises Robert Louis Stevenson’s contributions to weird fiction while simultaneously denigrating them for their “jaunty” style.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2000.

How to Write a Weird Tale

Weird stories are of two kinds—those in which the horror or marvel concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connexion with a bizarre condition or phenomenon.

Having decided on a mood, picture, situation, legend, tableau, or climax to express, it is often advisable for the author to explore the list of basic horrors quite thoroughly in order to find one especially adapted to the given framework. This done, all possible ingenuity must be used in order to develop a logical and naturally motivated explanation for the given effect in terms of the basic horror adopted.

Record all bizarre ideas, moods, images, dreams, conceptions, etc. for future use. Do not despair if they seem to have no logical development. Each one may be worked over gradually—surrounded with notes and synopses, and finally built into a coherent explanatory structure capable of fictional use. Never hurry. The best stories sometimes grow very slowly—over long periods, and with intervals in their formation.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Notes on Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft describes the method he uses to write weird fiction in an attempt to encourage and instruct others.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Notes on Weird Fiction.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 169-74.

An Excellent Habit to Cultivate

It is also important that cheaper types of reading, if hitherto followed, be dropped. Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style. If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible. An excellent habit to cultivate is the analytical study of the King James Bible. For simple yet rich and forceful English, this masterly production is hard to equal; and even though its Saxon vocabulary and poetic rhythm be unsuited to general composition, it is an invaluable model for writers on quaint or imaginative themes. Lord Dunsany, perhaps the greatest living prose artist, derived nearly all of his stylistic tendencies from the Scriptures; ad the contemporary critic Boyd points out very acutely the loss sustained by most Catholic Irish writers through their unfamiliarity with the historic volume and its traditions.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Literary Composition,” Lovecraft recommends that aspiring writers, who wish to improve their style, avoid pulp magazines and study the King James Bible instead.

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