LOVECRAFT’S FIVE DEFINITE ELEMENTS, PART 2: WHY IT’S HERE

This is the second part of a five-part series inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” in which one paragraph stood out for me as the beginnings of a horror/weird fantasy manifesto:

Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

If you haven’t read part one yet, here’s the link. This week we’ll dig deeper into the second point:

(b) the general effects or bearings of the horror

Some of this, written in Lovecraft’s often inimical style, can be a bit difficult to sort out. At first I thought this was meant to answer the question: What does this thing actually do? But then that also seems to be what he’s getting at with the final element: “(e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.” Admitting that I might just be forcing Lovecraft’s words into my own sense of how to write fantasy and horror, I’ll offer that what he’s getting at here is less what does the thing do—what physical or magical abilities does the monster or artifact or etc. possess—but what does it represent? In other words, not so much what “general effects” does it have on a character’s body—clawing, biting, or setting him on fire—but what “general effects” it has on the story itself, and the unique world (or version of the real world) in which it appears.

Writing Monsters Cover

In my book Writing Monsters, I devoted a whole section, seven chapters in all, to asking Why They’re Here. In the book I concentrated on six different things a monster can bring to a story, what they represent:

  • Monsters as Metaphor
  • Monsters as Obstacles
  • Monsters as Agents
  • Monsters as Sources of Pity
  • Monsters as Sources of Magic or Technology
  • Bringing Out the Good and Evil in People

I’m not going to try to rewrite the whole book here, but rather let’s think about this separate from the specific idea of creating a monster, or introducing into the world some living (or undead) creature. After all, not all of Lovecraft’s own stories were, necessarily, monster tales, and I don’t think he’s saying in this essay that “the horror” has to be defined in that way.

So if we replace that list of Monsters as . . . with some other “horror,” what sort of chapter titles do we get?

  • Black Magic as Metaphor
  • Aberrant Behavior as Obstacles
  • Nightmares as Agents
  • Artifacts as Sources of Pity
  • Fear of the Unknown as a Source of Magic or Technology

Feel free to use that list as writing prompts, by the way. But anyway, the one common factor actually ends up being:

Bringing Out the Good and Evil in People

I’ve belabored the point that no shortage of monster stories put human characters in a position of having to make certain judgment calls. In zombie stories from Night of the Living Dead onward the zombies themselves are the disruptive thing—the one weird thing that shifts the reality of the characters trying to survive the effects of this one weird thing not just on the characters physically, but the larger-scale damage the zombies do to society, government, law . . . all of our set of expectations, our normal world.

Some characters find their inner heroes, others allow fear and desperation, or other issues, to lead them to do the wrong thing. Does the zombie apocalypse turn you into a violent, power-mad biker like, let’s just say it out loud, almost everyone in The Walking Dead, or a heroic if obsessed and psychologically damaged scientist desperately in search of a cure like Will Smith’s interpretation of Robert Neville in the 2007 film version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend?

Okay, I’ve been officially “zombied out” for a while now, but let’s stick with that example, since the Romeroesque zombie horde can so easily be replaced with the rogue AI genocide, the alien invasion, the demon plague, the runaway technology, rapid climate change—all sorts of weirdness.

Principally, in every zombie story I’ve ever read or seen—and I’ve seen a lot—that one thread of bringing out the good or evil in people holds true. There are human villains and human heroes in the George Romero originals, in The Walking Dead, in Resident Evil, in World War Z, and so on. In fact, whatever the one weird thing is, it will tend to have that effect.

This seems to hold true across the board.

If the one weird thing is coveted by more than one person, sides are drawn, conflict ensues, and in order to get it one might choose methods we find distasteful and become the villain while the other adopts methods we find inspirational to take on the role of hero. Case in point: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Some stories even make villains of the people who refuse to believe in the one weird thing based on villainous qualities like greed—the mayor in Jaws, for instance, while the reluctant hydrophobe Chief Brody rises to the occasion by going out to kill the shark.

Honestly, I could sit here all day and list one example after another, but I think we can all agree that what the one weird thing represents is change, and change can be either the most exciting or the most terrifying thing. Anatole France wrote, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

Your one weird thing changes the world for the characters that encounter it. That’s actually what it’s there for—to change the world in a way that allows you to say what you want to say about the human condition. And I know that you have something to say about the human condition because every work of fiction is the product of an author who, overtly or covertly, even consciously or unconsciously, has something to say about the human condition. If you’re the creators of The Walking Dead that might come down to some version of “the Biker Shall Inherit the Earth.” I Am Legend, at least to me, says “only science can fix science’s mistakes.” And both convey those messages by concentrating on one weird thing activating change in society to bring out the good or evil in people.

And when I said “society” there, you’ll see in just a quick overview of weird fiction that a society can come in all shapes and sizes, whether it’s introducing dragons to the world of Game of Thrones or zombies to the real world, an acid-blooded super-predator to a small starship or a shape-changing alien to a remote arctic research station. Your society might be just a handful of characters or the whole world—even the whole universe.

So then, “the general effects or bearings of the horror” is to bring out the good or evil in people by affecting some radical change in their society, every single time.

I get supremely nervous making sweeping statements like that.

But am I right?

 

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to LOVECRAFT’S FIVE DEFINITE ELEMENTS, PART 2: WHY IT’S HERE

  1. Pingback: LOVECRAFT’S FIVE DEFINITE ELEMENTS, PART 1: THE ONE WEIRD THING | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  2. Adam says:

    I think one of the most central components of good horror is how it disrupts the order that humans have constructed through their community and technology. We have a lifetime of experiences that tell us how to interpret various things in the world, and the monster forces us to abandon that knowledge, and instead confront the unpleasant possibility that we don’t know what to do. Gradually order is reasserted as the characters learn about the monster, its abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, but in the beginning it’s a mystery that forces us out of our comfortable position as top of the food chain/power pyramid.

  3. Pingback: ISOLATE YOUR CHARACTERS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  4. Pingback: LOVECRAFT’S FIVE DEFINITE ELEMENTS, PART 3: WHAT IT ACTUALLY DOES | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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