Walking a Tentacled Tightrope: My Challenging Relationship with HPL

The other day my friend, Clinton Cronk (talented cartographer and author of a really awesome, nuanced, and well-edited Forgotten Realms adventure that will be on sale very soon), posted a link to an article on my Facebook wall and asked for my thoughts, given my writerly inclinations and interest in matters Lovecraftian.

I started drafting a response and quickly realized this was a far deeper question than a mere FB reply could handle.

I can usually separate the artist from their art, and appreciate a creator’s work on its own merits in a detached manner, even if I find said creator to be a loathsome human being. I don’t know if this is a “normal” thing to do, but I can do this quite easily.  Maybe this is because in most cases said piece of art, unless it deeply moves me, is a thing—possibly even a lovely thing—that someone else created.  Or perhaps my being able to compartmentalise in this way is a product of having worked more than 20 years in government, where in order to succeed one must occasionally check one’s personal beliefs at the door in order to faithfully carry out the commands of our political masters.  Despite all this, Lovecraft and his views present a challenge to me.

It is generally accepted now that Lovecraft was bigoted even by the standards of his time (he was called out for it on several occasions)—we see evidence of this in his work, and accounts from his ex-wife and friends all paint a picture of a man who hated immigrants, despised (and feared) intermarriage, and held romanticised notions of a white colonial, Georgian America that never existed.  Sadly, many tendrils of these ideas are found in his works, which I won’t expand on because it’s done in many other places.  I didn’t notice these unsavoury aspects when I first picked up Lovecraft in my teens—he was the first horror author I ever read—and I was enthralled by his mythology surrounding the Great Old Ones, his portrayal of advanced science as fantasy to those who cannot comprehend it, and above all his “cosmic indifferentism.”(1)  By the time I finished high school I’d read all of his fiction, plus that of many of his circle of writerly friends from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and he became a yardstick.  More than that, it was Lovecraft’s Mythos and the deep history behind it that gave me a strong nudge on my writerly path.

As I got older and became more socially aware, and after I’d read annotated stories and critical essays about him, I came to see the other side of the author.  The more I saw, the less I liked, and as I read more by other horror authors I began to look at his writing more critically.  His florid prose, while evocative at times, was not masterful, and his reliance on portraying horrors as being “indescribable” increasingly came across as being lazy.  Lovecraft may have been kind to his friends, he may have offered encouragement and support to up-and-coming authors, and he may have ardently loved cats, but I doubt anyone would say he was a particularly “good” person in the sense we consider it to mean today.  After starting on the writerly path in my 30s I began attending conventions where Lovecraft and his racism were discussed, and on several occasions participated in panel discussions about it.  I met other authors on different creative paths who interacted with Lovecraft’s works very differently—or not at all.  How could I reconcile the truth of the man with the fact that I still enjoy his fiction (which was partly responsible for me becoming a writer today)?  I also knew I had to take a stand because, rightly or wrongly, some in the writing community see me as a “go-to” person about Lovecraft and his work, and if I am to fulfill that role honestly I have to view it objectively.

I looked inside, and knew that I couldn’t compartmentalise this so easily.  I had been inspired by the Mythos, and it’s a fountain I return to on occasion.  It’s helped me write published fiction and gaming products that I know people out in the world enjoy.(2)  In some way, it’s part of my creative self.  And that’s when I decided how I would address the shambling cephalopod in the room:  I made the conscious choice to dislike the author for his politics, to acknowledge the presence of his unsavoury ideas in many of his works, and, should I create something in a Lovecraftian vein, to do so consciously.  My Mythos works may be inspired by Lovecraft’s creations, but I tell my stories from my own perspective that is informed by our time.  Where possible, I try to build my own additions to the Mythos.

This makes writing harder, but I hope doing so produces stories that carry far less baggage.

(1) That the universe is basically a great, unfeeling, unknowing machine and humanity is ultimately insignificant within it.  This notion resonated with me greatly at an impressionable age.

(2) Which is interesting because Lovecraft despised games—which would probably be a shock to many Call of Cthulhu fans.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

The quote above is the most popular translation of that famous line by the Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu (604-531 BC), but it applies to many aspects of life – including writing.

About a month ago I made a pact with a fellow member of my writing group, to write 300 words per day (he committed to 350), no matter what. I can do it first thing in the morning, over lunch, or just before going to bed. But they get written, no matter what – despite the day job, family commitments, household work, etc. This is a great motivational tool, because I can easily write 300 words in under an hour, and most days I exceed that target. Either way I win.

The added benefit is being able to see the progress of my work. Day by day, I see my manuscript get longer and I get that much closer to having a finished first draft that I can refine, submit to my group for critiquing, refine some more, and submit. Assuming I meet a daily commitment of 300 words, I will be writing 2,100 words per week, or rougly 9,000 words per month. That’s two decent-sized short stories per month – or, at up to 108,000 words per year, a novel.

All doable, at only 300 words per day. It’s such a small step when you look at it, but over time I can travel far.

Show, Don’t Tell

A mentor of mine once told me that when writing a story, it’s essential to show, and not tell. This means presenting the information or action in a story such that the reader sees what you mean, rather than describing what happens in a detached manner. This brings the reader deeper into the story.

A straightforward concept, but sometimes easier said than done. While doing an edit of the first chapter of my fantasy novel, I noticed that I used a flashback to describe an event that, while minor at the time of drafting, has proved to be more important in terms of character development. I took the handful of sentences and expanded them into a full mini-scene, while at the same time using the opportunity to craft some fun dialogue. I’ll share it below:

“So you want out, after only one night?” Raimonds leaned back in his chair, studying Andrejs over steepled fingers.

Andrejs swallowed, but his throat remained dry. “I…I don’t think this kind of work is right for me.”

Raimonds smiled tightly. “You leave me in a bit of a tight spot, Andrejs. Daina spoke so highly of you, and I expected much. Keeping the neighbourhood safe is dangerous work, and I can use all the help I can get. You’re from the country; you ought to know all about community spirit. But now,” he paused with loud sigh, “I may have to move Daina back to lookout duty,” he turned to Daina, who was glaring at Andrejs in disgust, “I know how much you hated that job, especially since your little incident, but as you can see our friend Andrejs leaves me with little choice.”

He turned back to Andrejs and narrowed his eyes. “You know, boy, you’re quite lucky that I like Daina. If you had been recommended by anyone else, there’s a good chance your body would be floating in the river about now. But I trust her, and if she says someone is worthwhile then they must be good for something.

“So here’s what I’m going to do. I’ll let you walk out of here with your life, your night’s wages, and the memory of the great opportunity you refused. Keep that in mind as you toil away for nothing, or more likely return to your hovel in despair.” Raimonds snickered loudly, and was joined by the other people in the room.

Andrejs wrestled with fear and anger. They’re making a big show of letting me live and they’re rubbing my face in it, he thought. “Keep your money,” he growled through gritted teeth, “I’ll make my own way!”

“Don’t think so, kid,” said Guntis, lounging by the fireplace. “I think you’ll come crawling back here in a week, begging Raimonds to take you back. I know your kind.”

“You don’t know anything about me or where I’m from. I’ll never walk or crawl back here. Never.”

Guntis smirked and folded his arms across his broad chest. “I’ve pounded people bigger than you into the dirt for much less, kid, but you’ve got guts to say that here. Either you’re real mad, real crazy, or brave. Whatever you are, you’re funny, so instead of beating you up I’ll play a game with you,” he pulled a shiny gold coin out of his pouch and flipped it into the air. His hand darted out and caught it, and he held it out for Andrejs to see. “I’ll bet you a gold lats – you know what gold is, don’t you? – that you’ll be back here in less than a month. I’ll even stake your wager, if you want.” He snickered and wiped his nose with the back of a meaty hand.

Andrejs stared at the gold coin. He’d never seen a lats before – none of the regular folk in Paraskas had that kind of money, or if they did they were really quiet about it. He should walk away, forget this day ever happened, and start over tomorrow. He turned towards the door to leave, but was startled by a chorus of loud giggling. Raimonds was laughing, as was Guntis and a handful of other men. Andrejs hurried towards the door, and Guntis called out to him. “Afraid? Go back home – maybe your father can teach you how to be a real man.”

Andrejs bristled at the mention of his father and glared at Guntis through narrowed eyes. “You take that back.”

“Make me.”

“Alright. I accept your wager. I won’t come back, and I won’t need anyone’s help. Come see me in a month, and then I’ll take that gold from you!” Andrejs held out his hand, which Guntis sauntered over and shook. His grip was like iron.

“It’s a deal. See you in a month. You’d better be living well.”

So, after an hour’s work, I’ve not only provided a clear reason for Andrejs’ anxiety in chapter 2; I’ve also deepened the antagonism between Andrejs and Raimonds and his cronies, and given Andrejs a character flaw (overcompensation for the loss of his father, which forced him to be a surrogate father to his siblings at a relatively young age). This will clarify some aspects of the conflicts in future chapters, as well.

Variety is the Spice of Life

If you constantly work at only one thing, there is a risk that you will become bored with it, which could lead to a bad final product because your enthusiasm will be, well, almost nonexistent.  This has been my experience, at any rate, which is why I always try to add some variety to what I’m doing – whether it’s housework, office work, or writing.

So, while my novel is an ever-present medium-term goal, I don’t spend all my writing time on it.  I need to switch gears and do other things to maintain my interest.  This is why I also write short stories (often in different genres, too), roleplaying game adventures, and more recently modules for a video game.  This last bit represents a real departure from what I normally do, and that’s a good thing.

The video game module, which is basically a storyline that players can select and play through like a mission, has a plot much like a standard story, but the nature of the platform requires a much different structure.  In addition to descriptions of events, I have to allow for player choice, as this is an interactive story.  So, at every decision point I need to work out the options, and what happens if the player chooses action “X” or “Y”.  Also, because this is a game in which the player has attributes and skills (much like a classic roleplaying game), I have to work out the consequences of success and failure.  As a result, instead of the (more or less) straight line of a linear plot, we instead have a gnarled tree, with a single starting point (the trunk) leading to numerous possible outcomes.

Is it challenging?  Yes.  But it’s also fun, and it keeps me interested.

The Importance of Being Well Read

Before anyone starts jumping down my throat, and accusing me of intellectual snobbery, let me clarify what I mean by being “well read”.  To me, a person is well read if they have sampled as many literary genres as possible – action, sci-fi, fantasy, romance (and possibly its own sub-genres), erotica, the classics, western, mystery, horror, and so on.  Bonus points would be awarded to those who go beyond dead trees to try other forms of “book”, including e-books, hypertext books, and even interactive fiction.

“But,” you might ask, “Why read unfamiliar genres?  I’m happy with my favourite authors.”  A valid point, but here’s something to think about:  What happens if you always eat the same foods, every day?  Well, lots of things can happen.  For example, your body might become intolerant towards one or more of your staple foods.  Or if your regular diet is incomplete, you could be depriving yourself of essential nutrients to maintain optimum health, which could compromise your immune system over time.  You might also, by not trying new foods, never experience new taste combinations that you might have loved.

The same thing applies to reading, in my view.  If you read the same sort of thing, day in, day out, your horizons will remain static.  You will probably never experience the world through a different narrative voice.  You might never be exposed to new storylines.  Plus, you might even become bored with it, given enough time. 

However, if you try a new genre – even just once – your literary world will immediately broaden.  Explore that story like an undiscovered country, and try to be as open as possible.  You don’t have to like it, but at least you will be able to say you tried it. 

So do yourself a favour.  The next time you’re in the library or a bookstore, go to another fiction section and pick up the first title that catches your eye, and read it.  You might discover a new favourite author…

Why I’m writing Low Fantasy

As some people may know, I’m writing a novel.  Specifically, it’s a fantasy novel for children in the 10-14 age range.  When I set out to do this, I gave a lot of thought to the overall tone of the book, which spawned a number of questions:

Was it going to be dark, or light-hearted?

What sort of humour would I try to insert? (more on this in a later post)

What sort of family life and socioeconomic background would the characters have?

And very importantly (to me), would this story be high or low fantasy?

This last question is very important to me, because the “fantasy level” of a story affects the degree to which the reader can suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the plot.  Before I go on, though, I should explain what I mean by these terms:

High fantasy stories are those in which fantastic monsters like dragons, griffons, and the like wander the land, wizards are common (and in some cases a public institution unto themselves), and magic itself is pervasive.  Some could argue that high fantasy worlds, taken to an extreme, can be stand-ins for our own world if you simply replace our technology with magic.

Low fantasy stories are those where magic and monsters exist, but they are largely unknown to the average person.  Wizards are rare and secretive, and the discovery of a magic item (even an enchanted bottle opener) is something experienced by very few people.  Such a world can very closely resemble one of our own historical periods.

In my view both sub-genres are great in their own right; however, high fantasy backdrops can become a crutch to a writer.  How did the heroes manage to survive that terrible fall?  Easy, one of them had flying boots and held his friends’ hands so they could fly, too.  How did they sneak by that army?  The scout was silenced by magic.  I could go on, but I think you can see that almost any potential problem could have a convenient, magical solution.  And this works, provided that the reader is prepared to accept a highly magical world.

Not so with low fantasy worlds.  With no easy magical explanation available, the writer has to come up with creative ways to help his or her characters get past whatever obstacles they face, and reserve magic only for the critical points.  The reader doesn’t have to suspend their disbelief to as great a degree, and the writer can inject just enough wonder into the story to make the fantasy world more compelling than the real thing.

Which is, in the end, the whole point of writing a story.