All 7 elements are not required for a story to be Lovecraftian, but a story should have several elements listed below. This is based entirely out of my opinion and is based out of my readings of and reviews of Lovecraft and Lovecraftian literature, as well as referencing movies that are complimentary to the mythos.
1. The Nameless Horror
There is a monster, a creature, something that is actively malevolent, and that creature remains very mysterious, and perhaps exists entirely out of sight, is seldom seen. This is part of the narration, the reader knows nothing more about the foe faced by the protagonists. In the original Alien movie, the titular alien was nameless. The malevolent sentience behind the evil in Event Horizon isn't characterized or personified, but it's just there. Likewise for the demons and monsters from In the Mouth of Madness.
By giving known dimensions to a monster, alien god, or creature is to lessen it's horrific value. The unknown feeds into our primal fear, and where there is a question mark, we are willing to plug in the horrible details from our own imaginations. This is the lingerie for horror, it tantalizes not by what it shows, but by what it doesn't.
2. Queer Folk
When politics and religion, and the more prominent features of our cultures are put aside, people are people and that provides a means of connecting to people across said cultural and ethnic gaps. Queer folk break this connection, they are very different. The Queer folk have something that separates them from the common folk. Like the Innsmouth folk there is just something about them. Sometimes this is really obvious such as the mutations inflicted by radiation, or subtle as the quiet unease in the living room of the suburbanite cannibal household.
The function of the queer folk are to leave the protagonists isolated. They aren't locals, they are tolerated, for now, but they aren't welcome. Sometimes the thing that makes the folk queer is the...
3. Sinister Secrets and Societies
Secrets and secret societies are hallmarks of lovecraftian fiction. There are secret societies that dabble in black magic, or harbingers of a terrible legacy, or a hideous secret. Often the corporation, or the government, or a behind the scenes backer knows what is really going on, and it isn't realized until the end.
One of the most powerful basic plots is Nothing was As it Seemed, and sinister secrets and secret societies are a magnificent, effective, and entertaining way to creating this core plot.
4. Odd Occurrences
There is nothing quite like an odd occurrence to kick off a lovecraftian adventure. A strange object falls from the sky, a research station mysteriously goes silent after a cryptic message, a long missing ship reappears in a strange location.
This can be used as a common trope for starting an adventure, the odd occurrence isn't a McGuffin. It is often the cause and often the catalyst of the entire story, such as the melting meteorite of the Colour out of Space or the books of Sutter Cane (In the Mouth of Madness). A series of odd occurrences can also be strung together to create a map back to the source, unraveling sanity as the events unfold.
5. Strange Places
A proper lovecraftian tale takes place in a strange place. Either the location itself is exotic, such as a lush jungle, a harsh desert plain under an alien star, or the ice scourged wasteland of Antarctica, or something about the location has become strange. There is a strange mist that has isolated the area, or the location has suddenly become otherwise compromised, albeit by a largely unknown power/reason.
The importance of the Strange Place is to remove any aspect of familiar territory from the protagonists. They are in a hostile environment, such as the antarctic, or a disorienting or otherwise challenging location, such as bug filled alien fogs, or a place where their understanding of what is is challenged such as a hotel surrounded by demons that for some reason can't get in. At almost no point should the location be forgiving, or offer anything other than the most cursory respite.
6. Alien Artefacts
Not necessarily being from another world, the alien artefact is something that simply doesn't belong where it has shown up. Alien artefacts lace into odd occurrences, or prompt the appearance of the nameless horror. Artefacts can range from massive objects like mammoth space ships, or cyclopean ruins, to much smaller such as aged carven idols, books written in long dead languages, to things that are simply not describable.
The Artefact creates a focal point in a story, and can be a location (stonehenge) that provides respite, or is the object of the story because finding the artefact is tantamount to ending the horrific events that have started around it, or because of it.
7. Total Party Kill
The final note for the Lovecraftian tale is that the happiest ending allowed is the bitterly pyrrhic victory. In proper lovecraftian horror, the body count is high, and those who manage to survive have their sanity left in tatters, or their soul reduced to shreds. Defeating the alien costs the entire crew, and the ship, except for one escape pod and one (infected) survivor. Even in the best scenario, the protagonists are left with nothing but their lives, any evidence of the event and sacrifices made to stop it are simply gone. In more mainline stories, the monsters laugh and win.
The TPK ending is required for a Lovecrafian story because in the mythos, there is no Happily Ever After for humanity. There is only getting to survive a little longer.
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? Responses (11)
Not much to say, fan of Lovecraftian fiction (though truth be told some of the later authors suit me better than the original... might be culture clash). This goes in the RPG bookmark folder.
I will note that adding Lovecraftian horror to a campaign does not have to be all or nothing, the party can skirt the edges of something beyond them or find a 'minor' artifact in a otherwise non-lovecraft setting/campaign.
Very well written and most useful not only for writing fictions.
Thanks for sharing it with us.
Love Lovecraftian stuff :)
Don't forget the one where they manage to banish the evil but everyone thinks they're crazy and they end up either locked up (Nightmare on Elm Street) or on the run (Terminator 2). And of course, evil Always returns, mwahahahaha.
That's #7 TPK
There are no happy endings. Judgement Day can not be averted, Freddy can not be killed, and sometimes the heroes are written down in history as criminals.
I think this is a smart concise dissection of the genre. Insightful is a good word for it. But I think two things are left out that are very common to the genre.
1) I have noticed in Lovecraftian fiction that there is often a strong emotional detachment in the tone pieces. The works are often use an academic or clinical dissection of the events. The most obvious case of this is the afore mentioned Mountains of Madness, but also The Lurking Fear, The Dunwhich Horror and even Rats in the Walls all sort of have strong emotional detachment. Consider in Rats in the Walls when the protagonist discusses his invalid son with an almost off hand matter of fact tone. In modern Lovecraftian fiction there is a clinical tone to it. Consider reading the 'The Ugly Chickens' by Howard Waldrop and see if this does not strike you as having a Lovecraftian tone.
However, this tone may not be Lovecraftian and something more about the puritanical English approach to horror. Certainly true in Bram Stoker's Dracula (the book) was that Western Europeans could use reason, discipline and a scientific method to describe and thus defeat the vampire. In something like the Exorcist it is the failure of reasoning that is scary. I think that this scientific view or psuedo-scientific view that I believe runs through Lovecraftian fiction adds strongly to the next point.
2) I feel that the second essential part of Lovecraftian fiction is the corruption. Somebody may claim this is what was meant by total party kill or secrete societies but they would miss the point of this. Total Party Kill is a sad ending and secrete societies are part of that horror in our own backyard theme. Corruption is the idea that horror and destruction are contagious. Take the story 'The Lurking Fear' for example here you have the corruption of the Dutch settlers as the primary conclusion of the piece and the realization of which disturbs the narrator. In Event Horizon or In the Mouth of Madness you have the 'turning' of the reasonable hero. The Color Out of Space the farm is corrupted, Rats in the Walls the Virginian is corrupted, and in Shadow Over Innsmouth of course you have the *spoiler* the narrator finding out that he is part of that gold mining fish cult-so kind of corrupted.
Thanks for driving this discussion.
Awesome comment is awesome.
I like the exposition of the academic/disconnected perspective, and I would venture that the theme of corruption would probably be under nameless horror entry, and then link it back to the TPK as you mentioned. Very excellent discourse.
I never liked the corruption aspect of the Lovecraft's stories though, and that is why I wanted to separate it. Did it really matter if they were brother and sister in the Dunwhich Horror or that crab armed mole people were the Dutch colonists in The Nameless Fear? Indeed finding out that there was human corruption that lead to these horror takes away from the nameless horror part.