So you wanna write a horror story? Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling: What do they have in common? They and countless writers of the horror genre cite 20th-century author H.P. Lovecraft as an influence. Learning to write like Lovecraft can make you frighteningly good at crafting a tale of terror. But there are blood-curdling drawbacks to Lovecraft’s style.
Do you dare gaze upon the art and abomination that is the writing of H.P. Lovecraft?
Who is H.P. Lovecraft?
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (a.k.a. H.P. Lovecraft, Lewis Theobald, Humphrey Littlewit, Ward Phillips, Edward Softly, and Percy Simple) was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island.
When Lovecraft was 2 years old, his father was committed to an insane asylum, where he later died. He and his mother went to live with his wealthy grandparents and aunts. Lovecraft’s school days were marked by absences caused by health problems, possibly mental in nature. Just before Lovecraft started high school, his family made a swift decent from affluent to impoverished due to the death of his grandfather. He eventually dropped out of school in 1908 without graduating.
Lovecraft and his mother maintained a hermetic Norman Bates-Mother Bates lifestyle from 1908 to 1913, when Lovecraft was a young adult aged 18 to 23. He began dabbling in poetry during this period, publishing his first poem in 1912. He also began dabbling in racism, writing another poem titled “On the Creation of Niggers,” and publicly critiquing a pulp magazine writer’s characters as exhibiting the “delicate passions and emotions proper to negroes and anthropoid apes.”
The latter netted him a gig as an amateur journalist. As Lovecraft explained it, “In 1914, when the kindly hand of amateurdom was first extended to me, I was as close to the state of vegetation as any animal well can be. … I obtained a renewal to live; a renewed sense of existence as other than a superfluous weight; and found a sphere in which I could feel that my efforts were not wholly futile.”
In 1916 he began writing and publishing fiction, launching his Cthulhu Mythos stories in 1920. During this phase of his career, his mother was committed to the same mental asylum his father died in. She, too, died there in 1921.
Lovecraft married a widow seven years his senior, pulp fiction writer and amateur publisher Sonia Greene, in 1924. He began publishing short stories in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, frequently writing for no pay and making ends meet with money from an inheritance — especially after his wife left him in 1933. He died in 1937 when he was just 46 in his hometown of Providence.
The uncanny peril of writing like Lovecraft
Leaving aside the racism for a moment, let’s take a look at Lovecraft’s idiosyncrasies as a writer and consider whether they serve as features or bugs in his stories.
Lovecraft’s writing style has been dismissed as little more than “amorphous description by horrified though passive narrators.” And not without reason.
My method when writing these how-tos is to read as much of a particular author’s work as possible, then perform an analysis of text samples to identify trends in grammar, diction, recurring tropes, and so on. After plowing my way through hundreds of pages of Lovecraft’s work, and prior to reading a word about his background, I developed a theory that his writing style was a deliberate but woefully clumsy attempt at imitating the high-flown formality of early- to mid-19th-century American and British writers. Once I dug into his biography, my speculation appeared to ring true.
During his time as an amateur journalist, Lovecraft publicly promoted an archaic style of writing that eschewed slang and modern usages. In 1920, in one of the most maddeningly pompous and condescending treatises on how to write that I’ve ever encountered, Lovecraft, a high school drop-out and self-professed nonprofessional in the writing trade, opined:
“Most minds harbour [sic] a considerable number of slight linguistic faults and inelegancies picked up from random discourse or from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and popular modern books. … He [the writer] must take no popular usage for granted, nor must he ever hesitate, in case of doubt, to fall back on the authority of his books. … An excellent habit to cultivate is the analytical study of the King James Bible.”
In fewer and clearer words, Lovecraft, a 20th-century writer, advocated that authors discard natural speech and realistic dialogue, avoid reading contemporary books, reject popular styles that had proved to be both sellable and appealing to readers, and imitate the grammar and diction of a document that was published in 1611.
This is not good advice. This is not the advice of a fully developed writer. This is the advice of a self-satisfied dilettante, with a slew of highly creative ideas, whose confidence in his talent outstripped his writing ability and who, fatally, wasn’t open to learning from others who had different ways of approaching the craft.
Keeping this in mind, and circling back to the racism, let’s consider seven simple ways you can make any piece of prose sound like Lovecraft wrote it.
How to write like H.P. Lovecraft
1. Get scared of the things that scared H.P.
Lovecraft himself explained his style as “a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood,” adding:
“One of my strongest and most persistent wishes [is] to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.”
That “certain type of human mood” he was going for is today known as eldritch or cosmic horror. As TV Tropes puts it, “This type of fiction doesn’t just scare you with big, ugly monsters — though it can certainly have them — it depresses you with the fatalistic implication of being insignificantly powerless before such vast, unknowable and fundamentally alien entities.”
The apogee of cosmic horror is the Cthulhu Mythos. In a certain sense, these stories are best described as a sort of loose literary “franchise” created by Lovecraft, with each story featuring the same general settings, character types, and eldritch abominations (such as Cthulhu himself). The foremost story in the mythos, “The Call of Cthulhu,” was first published in 1928 in Weird Tales.
By accessing a pessimistic sense of the futility of any action in the face of an inhuman, incomprehensible force — and letting yourself feel the overwhelming terror of such futility of action — you’re one step closer to writing like Lovecraft.
2. Tell, don’t show
This tip is a bit dicey because it goes against all modern writing advice. As Mignon Fogarty puts it, “Good writing tends to draw an image in the reader’s mind instead of just telling the reader what to think or believe.” This is known as “show, don’t tell.”
In Lovecraft’s tale, “The Call of Cthulhu,” we can see an example of “show, don’t tell” in his description of a sculpture representing the titular abomination:
“It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.”
The reader can picture, and more important feel, the horror of the grotesque image of Cthulhu. Such examples are unfortunately few and far between in Lovecraft’s corpus, however. He relies heavily on “telling the reader what to think or believe.” In a more representative quote, also from “The Call of Cthulhu,” we are informed:
I found [Wilcox] at work in his rooms, and at once conceded from the specimens scattered about that his genius is indeed profound and authentic. He will, I believe, some time be heard from as one of the great decadents; for he has crystallised [sic] in clay and will one day mirror in marble those nightmares and phantasies which Arthur Machen evokes in prose, and Clark Ashton Smith makes visible in verse and in painting.
The reader doesn’t get a sense of the manner (Feverishly? Languidly? In a dreadful dreamlike state?) in which Wilcox works, is not given descriptions of the sculptor’s “specimens” that prove they are indeed works of “genius,” and is flatly instructed to believe his output is equal to that of “the great decadents” without any imagery — either of his work or theirs — to back this up.
So, be forewarned: Tell, don’t show, if you want to write exactly like Lovecraft. But steel yourself for criticism from 21st-century readers.
3. Use Lovecraft’s favorite words
Lovecraft loved using adjectives. Lots and lots of adjectives.
As The Arkham Archivist observed, “One of the things any fan of Lovecraft discovers early on is that Lovecraft was very attached to certain words. We either laugh or groan every time we hear something described as ‘indescribable’ or called ‘unnamable’ or ‘antiquarian’ or “cyclopean.’”
He also loved using adverbs. Lots and lots of adverbs. I stopped keeping count of the times he qualified some quality as “singularly,” “curiously,” “uncannily,” “horribly,” “strangely” or “peculiarly.”
A list of Lovecraft’s favorite words, and their frequency of occurrence throughout his work, is available here. Throw an “abnormal” in here, an “accursed” in there, and don’t forget to add a “hideous” or two, and you’re all set.
4. Add a few of Lovecraft’s favorite tropes
“Once or twice I have literally written out a dream; but usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I wish to express,” Lovecraft wrote in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction.”
Dreams and dreamlike states are among Lovecraft’s favorite fictional tropes. Others include:
- Hashish/opium (to induce those dreams and dreamlike states)
- Dead and/or lost cities in far-off lands
- Bas relief carvings of ancient gods (often originating from dead and/or lost cities in far-off lands)
- Ancient languages forgotten by all but a handful of scholars
- New England and the New English
- Primitive cults still in operation
- Prehistoric evil popping up unexpectedly in the midst of the 1920s/30s
- Madness engendered by cosmic horror
- Poets and artists as visionaries
- The distant past as a terrifying source of malignancy
5. Talk is cheap, contractions are vulgar, slang sucks, and the ladies are absent
Lovecraft abhors dialogue. He’s all about reported speech.
“Who’s at the door?” he snapped. “Well, come in—hurry up!”
Lovecraft would write something along the lines of:
From within, he inquired tersely who was on his doorstep and, upon discovering that it was I, bade me make haste to enter.
Lovecraft abhors contractions. You will not find won’t in his stories, so you should not use shouldn’t.
Lovecraft absolutely abhors slang and colloquialisms. His low-brow cops sound like his over-educated young poets, who sound like his wizened old men, who sound like his naive narrators. All of them sound like Lovecraft.
Lovecraft seems to abhor women. They are nearly absent from his stories.
Bonus tip: Lovecraft is also no fan of exclamation points! Don’t use them!
6. Never use one word if you can use ten
Brevity is your enemy if you’re trying to write like Lovecraft. Take a simple sentence such as this:
“The cop’s name was Bob.”
That’s how I would write it. Lovecraft, however, would write:
“The man, known by the name of Robert Smith, was by profession a police officer under the employ of the local institution of law enforcement, at which he had for some years been a tireless instrument of justice.”
Hedging, circumlocution, and a stilted affectation of “proper” speech are hallmarks of Lovecraft’s writing.
7. Lovecraft’s racist views
Nope! Sometimes we should not write like our favorite authors.
You can read a short story about the horrors of Japanese candy, written in the style of H.P. Lovecraft, at The-Delve.com.
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.