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First of all, sorry about missing the Monday post.  I have no excuses.  But I’m back now!  And I’m here to whine about stuff again!

Specifically, I’m here to kick off my new series: Problems in Lovecraftian fiction!  (Or, more informally, Things in mythos fiction that drive me up the fucking wall, and what can be done about them.)

I’m not trying to be a total jerk about it. World-building in fantasy and sci-fi is hard, but on some level, I think that utilizing the world and characters of another writer can be harder. Creating something new within pre-established boundaries results in numerous pitfalls that can (and do) trap even the best writers. So, in this series, I’ll be discussing a handful of what I think are the most common issues that reduce the appeal of modern Lovecraftian fiction—by highlighting both stories that fall prey to these problems as well as stories that blaze new paths to avoid them, my goal is to ultimately come to a better understanding of what makes good horror.

At this point, I think it’s fair to say that I am highly specialized in modern weird fiction.  And, to be sure, specialization has many rewards, but I’ve found that with the rewards come unexpected trade-offs. As I read more and more Lovecraft/Lovecraft-inspired anthologies, I began to realize that stories that I would have loved unreservedly in the past were now inspiring a kind of dull frustration. To highlight what I mean, I ask you to examine the following phrases:

Bug-eyed. Pop-eyed. Fish-eyed. Something about him reminded me of Peter Lorre. Glassy stare. Her face was reminiscent of Betty Davis. Squat. Recessed jaw. Protuberant eyes. I didn’t like the way they never seemed to blink. Frog-like. Clammy hands.

Bug-eyed. Pop-eyed. Fish-eyed. Something about him reminded me of Peter Lorre. Glassy stare. Her face was reminiscent of Betty Davis. Squat. Recessed jaw. Protuberant eyes. I didn’t like the way they never seemed to blink. Frog-like. Clammy hands.

If you haven’t read much Lovecraft, you’ve probably sussed out that these traits are all describing a very specific, probably somewhat moist and amphibious character, but you don’t really see a problem beyond that (and thus you think I’m a huge snob). If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s works but don’t’ read a lot of mythos fiction, you’ve probably recognized these qualifiers as a way of characterizing an inhabitant of Innsmouth, but again, you don’t see what the big deal is (but here I am making a fuss, and therefore I am a huge snob). So, to be completely fair, I should clarify—I don’t mind these descriptors in and of themselves, but they can be easily problematic.

I feel a little guilty pointing this out, because the stories themselves are often fantastic and beautifully written—and it is truly a problem on the part of a very specific class of reader who knows too much through experience.  For example, take a few of the stories from The Book of Cthulhu. Here’s a line from the beginning of “Bad Sushi”, by Cherie Priest, as a chef catches a glimpse of the new delivery boy bringing a shipment of fish from a mysterious new seafood company:

He walked like a sea lion, with a gently lumbering gait—as if he might be more comfortable swimming than walking. His big, round eyes stared straight ahead as he made his deliveries.

So, while we’re surely intended to recognize the delivery boy as weird or off, he’s juuuust a little too familiar to the experienced mythos reader. And sometimes that’s okay, depending on where the story will go.  For example, if it takes place in Innsmouth, I think all bets are off, and it’s okay to describe the inhabitants as they are.  But if the story relies on surprise, like in the case of “Bad Sushi” (just who is behind this mysterious seafood company, anyway?), the punch is completely gone, and the dramatic buildup suffers terribly.

IMG_7018Innsmouth Bus Driver, by Casey Love

But herein lies one of the catch-22s of Lovecraft mythos fiction. Here I am whining about a rather blatant application of dramatic irony (*I* know these people aren’t fully human, but our fearless protagonist hasn’t got a clue! WHOA!) and, at worst, a complete spoiling of a surprise.

But can you really write mythos stories about Innsmouth that don’t involve a few of these qualifiers?  I can only imagine the tone my complaints would take then.  WTF, you know, this is Innsmouth, why is everyone just trotting around like everything is normal.  How were we supposed to know those were Deep Ones?  You can’t just spring that shit on us.   To be fair, this is a problem with short fiction in general, summarized neatly by Chekov’s gun, which I will write more about later: if you don’t drop enough hints at the beginning, the ending will be surprising in the most unsatisfying way possible. A crappy deus ex machina.

A prime example of Chekhov’s gun.  Except for not really.  Mostly I just love this sketch and was waiting for an opportunity to post it.

So, what can be done?  How can Innsmouth mythos fiction be written in a way that it’s approachable for the newcomer and yet still surprising and frightening to someone familiar with Lovecraft’s universe?  It is difficult, but by no means impossible.  And, more importantly, it’s unbelievably fantastic when the subject is handled well.  A handful of weird fiction authors have succeeded masterfully, and I’ll write about a few of my favorite examples on Friday.  Stay tuned!  (And if you have any personal favorites, feel free to add them to the comments!)

The Cultist

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