A sign of true cultural phenomenon seems to be that many people want to copy its masters endlessly. Conan the Cimmerian. Sherlock Holmes. Dracula. The Cthulhu Mythos is no exception. The original body of work by H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard and others remains the patterns on which hundreds of poor imitations have been created. Sometimes this leads to better things -- take for example the amazing Ramsey Campbell -- and sometimes it is merely a creative dead end.
Why should anyone want to write a Cthulhu Mythos story? Why not create something new and original? I'm speaking of the more mature crowd who have moved on beyond the early imitative years. I'm not sure what the answer is but this article will offer some advice to those writers who do want to write in the Mythos. It is my hope that these few simple thoughts will lead new writers (and old) to writing more creatively within that Myth structure which we all adore (or in some cases not!).
First off, let me establish my own history within the Mythos. The reason for this, is so the reader will not take me for a Mythos fanatic nor a detractor. I have written Mythos stories, and continue to write still, though not exclusively. My first story was "The Man Who Would Be King" (Eldritch Tales Fall 1990). It was a short homage to Stephen King and is essentially a body transfer story that borrows heavily from King's own pastiche, "Gramma." I followed this up with another traditionally structured tale, "At the Sound of Tone . . ." (Cthulhu Cultus, 1998). To say the least, the guy got eaten at the end.
After these two stories I began to wander farther from the parent tree with stories that might be called more "Lovecraftian" than Mythos. I see this as a healthy state of things. Once I had tried my hand at the traditional approach I became bored with it and wanted to experiment. And it is this drive that spawns the new classics in the Mythos: stories like "Children of the Kingdom" by T.E.D. Klein or Karl Edward Wagner's "Sticks" or Michael Shea's "Fat Face." Stories like these demonstrate several important features: new narrative structures or styles, new themes and new plots.
Narrative structures are ways of telling a story. Traditionally this is done with a series of journal entries in stilting English with archaic punctuation, the reminiscences of a madman or a letter written by someone who ends up being dragged out a window. Avoid these by creating new ways of presenting plot. This is an area I experimented with in "Black Sun" (Nightscapes, 1998). The tale concerns Nyarlathotep taking over a space station. To make the telling more interesting I told it from twelve different view points, alternating with each break in the story. This allowed me to get to know everyone on the station as well as conceal certain information, making the story creepier.
Theme is the underlying message or quality the writer wants to bring out in the story. This is more than a new book or Great Old One. Traditional Mythos themes would include the terror of the immensity of the cosmos, the fear of the unknown, the machinations of evil forces. But there is nothing that says these have to be the themes of every Mythos story. The works of Wilum Pugmire are wonderful examples of new themes being woven into the Mythos structure. Each story has some element to it which is not about Lovecraftian terror but the pain of love, loss, human feelings. There is no limit to the variations that can be interwoven into the Mythos' overlying themes.
New plots are more difficult. There are only so many plots possible. But plots are not as important as the two other elements mentioned previously. Still, here is a list of story types which H. P. Lovecraft and others made famous in their fiction but have been repeated endlessly and should be avoided unless the writer can bring some new structure, theme or style to them.
1. The August Derleth Special -- A man inherits a house which once belonged to a wizard and he gets possessed by the spirit of his evil ancestor.
2. The Deep One Denial -- a man with fishy features eventually transforms into a Deep One.
3. The Tome of Terror -- a guy finds a book (or other object) and raises a monster which eats him.
4. Dunwich Doldrums -- A monster is released and ravages the countryside.
5. Ghoulish Grandparents -- A man starts hanging out with Ghouls and becomes one.
6. Cthulhu Phone Calls -- Guy is being driven crazy by Cthulhu's calling and goes on a long quest and finds him and goes nuts when he does.
7. Revolting Revenge -- Bad guys pick on the wrong guy who sends squidgy terror to kill them.
8. Body Transfer Troubles -- A guy steals the body of another person.
There are probably others I have forgotten but this is a good list to avoid. They were done by HPL and his imitators in the 40's and his imitators in the 50's and his imitators in the 60's. . . . Including myself.
That's a lot of DON'TS. What about the DO'S? I can only suggest, but let's try a few things. First off, begin where every good horror story should. Start with something really scares you. What's an obscure thing that scares you? No spiders, tentacles, squidgy goo or any other old-hat stuff. What about lint? Bunny slippers? That lady at the supermarket who smiles in a funny way? The Elvis stamp? You decide. Find something new.
Secondly, try telling the story in a new way. No journals or letters. Be more interactive. Maybe it's only a conversation between a woman and the guy at 9-1-1. Or start the story in an unusual spot. Don't begin at the beginning. Pull a Pulp Fiction. Start in the middle and work back to the middle. For my latest story I'm starting at the end and working backwards. The guy is already consumed by the ancient entity and is remembering back how he arrived there. I got the idea from an episode of Seinfeld. Don't be tied to traditional forms. Experiment.
Lastly, try to say something that hasn't been said before. H.P. Lovecraft wanted to capture the feeling that the stark vastness of space makes a single individual feel. Perhaps you have something to say about dieting. Or aging. Or childbirth. Or being lonely. Or being afraid. Dig deep and find that unique theme that only you can develop. Don't ride on someone else's shirttails. Or if you are going to write about an old theme make sure you have something new to say about it. Does the vastness of space bother you when every atom of your body could contain a miniature universe?
One final note: let's remember that all good tools of the writer's trade apply to Cthulhu Mythos fiction. The more you can make the reader see, feel, taste, smell, and hear, the more real is the experience. Lovecraft in his essay, "Supernatural Horror in Literature," says that ultimately all
that matters is that you scare your reader. Though this is entirely true, why put up obstacles for your reader with turgid prose or multiple adjectives. Style is the result of how a writer works. Is he as thick as Lovecraft or as thin as Hemingway? Use good writing style to drive that stiletto of horror into your reader's brain. Scare your reader and he'll come back. And again. Like some kind of sick, addicted sycophant. Hey, maybe there's a story in that?
Created: October 5, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004