Thursday, October 23, 2014

My take on H.P. Lovecraft (reader question)

A reader asks,

“Ed, Have you read any H.P. Lovecraft? What do you think of his stories? Did he influence Eleven Miles of Night, or any of the short stories in your Hay Moon collection?”

Let’s begin with the first question.

Yes, I’ve read him—a lot of him, in fact. I discovered Lovecraft while I was in college, when I was about twenty years old. I was in that “bulk reading” stage of my life. I was reading everything I could get my hands on—from contemporary pop fiction to classical literature.

I knew that I wanted to do at least some of my future writing in the horror genre. I had already read everything that Stephen King had written to that time (this was circa 1988); and I was ready to move on to some other horror novelists. I also wanted to read some horror fiction that was a bit more “academic”, if I could find it.

I gave Edgar Allan Poe a try. While I enjoyed some of Poe’s stories, I definitely found his florid, nineteenth-century prose off-putting at that stage of my life. I needed something a bit more modern.

As this was a full decade before the Internet, research was a catch-as-catch-can endeavor. I learned of Lovecraft’s existence through some scattered essays of literary criticism I had read. (Stephen King also mentions him in several of the introductory essays to his own works.) I knew that Lovecraft had done most of his writing in the 1920s and 1930s. He was roughly contemporaneous with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose fiction I had read and liked.

Lovecraft, I thought, might be what I was looking for. And he was. Sort of…

But Lovecraft didn't entirely meet my expectations. The first thing I noticed was that Lovecraft was more of a short story writer than a novelist. Only four of his works can be fairly described as novels: At the Mountains of Madness, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Lurker at the Threshold. And they are short novels at that—really better described as novellas. Most of what Lovecraft wrote would be classified as long short stories.

Lovecraft’s worldview also differed from what I’d anticipated. Not all horror fiction addresses spiritual concerns; but much of it does. Roughly eighty percent of the genre touches upon the supernatural, and that means the portrayal of some sort of a spiritual reality, often along Judeo-Christian lines.

H.P. Lovecraft—somewhat unique among horror writers—was an atheist, for all practical purposes (though his beliefs are more often described as cosmicism, or “cosmic indifference”).

While I don’t exactly wear my religious beliefs on my sleeve when I write, there is a discernible belief in a “spiritual force for good out there” in my novel Eleven Miles of Night, and several of the short stories in Hay Moon (especially the title short story). Although I wouldn't characterize my horror stories as “Christian fiction” by any means, they are written within a largely Judeo-Christian framework of good and evil.

Lovecraft’s fiction, by contrast, is naturalistic—except for the fact that there are extra-dimensional monsters, the so-called “old ones” out there. The old ones inhabited the earth long before the ascent of humankind, and they are always threatening to come back.

Lovecraft presents a universe in which human beings are the mostly unwitting victims of these “old ones”, which have a lot more in common with science fiction aliens than with ghosts, vampires, or demons. Although the old ones have special powers, they are not exactly spiritual in nature.

Perhaps this is why Lovecraft has been classified as a horror writer only by default. Publishers and bookstores need to fit literature into neat categories, after all. Many diehard Lovecraft fans are apt to bristle at the horror label, preferring the more vague moniker, “weird fiction” instead.

Whatever it was, exactly, that Lovecraft wrote, you have to admire the scope of his imagination. His stories (and he wrote a lot of them, by the way—many of which are now available only in electronic form) reveal a creativity that was truly profound in the early twentieth century. (We must remember that Lovecraft did not have Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Ray Bradbury to build upon. Nor did he have access to the science fiction films of television’s golden age.) Lovecraft’s stories were and remain unique and inimitable. Though his work has spawned a subgenre dedicated to its imitation, the products of the Lovecraft imitators continue to pale in comparison to the real McCoy.

That having been said, it must be noted that Lovecraft’s stories are relentlessly plot- and monster-driven—not character-driven. Even Lovecraft’s most ardent fans admit that character development was not his strong suit. His human protagonists are notoriously two-dimensional. Most are either young men who are driven to madness by their interactions with “the old ones”, or academic types who spend all of their time puttering around in the dank and dusty library shelves at Miskatonic University.

I suspect that this is the main reason for Lovecraft’s overwhelming emphasis on short fiction: A two-dimensional character can work in a 5,000-word short story. But over the course of a 100,000-word novel, a stock character falls flat.

Lovecraft has also been criticized for his lack of “meaningful female characters”. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say that he doesn't have any female characters—or almost no female characters.)

As I’ve stated elsewhere, I have little patience with those who insist on bringing their ideological crusades into the analysis of fiction. But this particular critique of Lovecraft is not mere political correctness. It isn’t so much that Lovecraft’s depictions of women are stereotyped, or sexist, or misogynistic, as it is that he doesn't acknowledge women’s existence at all.

I’m willing to tolerate fiction that doesn't have suitably “strong women” in the contemporary usage of that term. Fiction that contains zero women is something else entirely. A writer who can only write one half of the human race (and superficially at that) is a writer with a major handicap.

By all accounts, Lovecraft was more than a bit of a recluse. He didn't get out much, and he didn't have many conversation partners. This shows not only in his arrested character development, but also in his stilted dialogue.

Here is an excerpt of dialogue from “The Colour Out of Space”, which is often cited to illustrate Lovecraft’s struggle to reproduce authentic human speech:

"Nothin'... nothin'... the colour... it burns... cold an' wet, but it burns... it lived in the well... I seen it... a kind of smoke... jest like the flowers last spring... the well shone at night... Thad an' Merwin an' Zenas... everything alive... suckin' the life out of everything... in that stone... it must a' come in that stone pizened the whole place... dun't know what it wants... that round thing them men from the college dug outen the stone... they smashed it... it was the same colour... jest the same, like the flowers an' plants... must a' ben more of 'em... seeds... seeds... they growed... I seen it the fust time this week... must a' got strong on Zenas... he was a big boy, full o' life... it beats down your mind an' then gets ye... burns ye up... in the well water... you was right about that... evil water... Zenas never come back from the well... can't git away... draws ye... ye know summ'at's comin' but tain't no use... I seen it time an' agin senct Zenas was took... whar's Nabby, Ammi?... my head's no good... dun't know how long sense I fed her... it'll git her ef we ain't keerful... jest a colour... her face is gittin' to hev that colour sometimes towards night... an' it burns an' sucks... it come from some place whar things ain't as they is here... one o' them professors said so... he was right... look out, Ammi, it'll do suthin' more... sucks the life out..."

(Perhaps recognizing this gap in his own skills, Lovecraft consistently minimizes dialogue in his stories, by the way.)

Overall, then, the human side of Lovecraft’s fiction is extremely weak; and that is a severely limiting factor for any author. Fiction should ultimately be about people—even if those people inhabit a universe filled with supernatural terrors.

This is why Stephen King succeeds brilliantly where Lovecraft falls short. Stephen King’s supernatural villains are not especially innovative: King writes about vampires, ghosts, and serial killers—the sorts of antagonists that have been filling horror fiction for years. Readers love King because they identify with his characters—Ben Mears of Salem’s Lot, the Torrance family of The Shining, Stuart Redman of The Stand, and, of course, the eponymous Carrie. If King’s characters were as flat as Lovecraft’s, King would not be where he is today.

In summary, then, I admire Lovecraft for his undeniable creative strengths. (Oh, I might also mention in passing his prodigious vocabulary, which includes SAT exam stumpers like cyclopean and antediluvian).

Nevertheless, if I had to select a list of ten fiction writers whose works would sustain me for life on a remote Pacific island, H.P. Lovecraft wouldn't make the cut.  And to the extent that he is an influence of mine, he is a minor and mostly technical one. 

Hay Moon and Chinese vampires

I recently received some reader email about the story "The Vampires of Wallachia," which appeared in the collection Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and SuspenseIf you've read the story, you'll know that this tale involves a group of Chinese vampires who have set up base in rural Ohio. 

The reader specifically wanted to know if I had researched the subject of Chinese vampire lore before writing the story. The answer is yes. We tend to think of vampires as a purely Western bit of mythology. Somewhat surprisingly, however, vampire legends appear throughout the world--including Asia.

The Chinese version of the vampire is called jiāngshī (殭屍 in Chinese characters). My research tells me that these aren't vampires as we Westerners understand them, though. The jiāngshī might be better described as "supernatural zombies". They are reanimated corpses that kill the living and thereby absorb their life essence. 

Therefore, the vampires in the story "The Vampires of Wallachia" are Western-style vampires, if you want to get technical about it. 

The larger point, though, is that the concept of the reanimated dead coming back to prey on the living in one form or another is obviously a universal trope of sorts, and one that transcends any  particular religious or cultural tradition.


Kindle edition

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

More leftwing politicking from Stephen King

I've long known that Stephen King is a Democrat, and something of a liberal one as well. (Hey, King is from the 1960s student protest movement; what else would you expect?)

I don't generally choose my reading list based on authors' political beliefs. I don't think that most readers do. Nor do I recommend that they should.

However, Stephen King isn't just another author who many people have heard of. He is a major celebrity, and a household name. He's been a celebrity and a household name for at least thirty years. Therefore, everything that Stephen King says or does is bound to attract attention.

And while his abilities as a novelist are well established, he often comes across as an uninformed but highly opinionated ideologue when he wades into politics:

Now King is using his money and clout in an attempt to sway a Maine Senate race.

Stephen King picks sides in Senate race

Stephen King--just like any other citizen--has a right to speak his mind on political issues in the public square. However, there is a point where it is not unreasonable to ask: Is King a novelist with leftwing political views, or is he a leftwing political activist who writes novels?

Government waste--the latest and greatest

Accounts of absurd government waste are nothing new, of course; but if you're a taxpayer, it is hard to ignore the more egregious examples of government fiscal malfeasance:

Free paranormal stories on Amazon

The reviews for this one are mixed, but Jeff Bennington is a popular paranormal author. It might be worth a try:

Deromanticizing the independent bookstore

An interesting article from Huffington Post details one author's experiences with an independent bookstore:

Amazon's new Kindle: nice but expensive

Granted, not everyone will want to pay $200 for a reading device. 

The above review refers to the Kindle Voyage, which is the deluxe model. You can still buy a basic Kindle for only $79, which is pretty cheap, in the big scheme of things.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Publishers, "the book business", and modern-day Luddites

A mostly innocent but extremely misguided piece by Michael Wolff of USA Today:

"The book business believes that Amazon is unfair in the way it sells books. It believes, in fact, that Amazon in its sales practices — pressuring the book publishers to lower their prices and profits — is the enemy. Amazon's ultimate design, publishers believe, is to ruin them or to wholly shift the center of gravity in the business from the creators of books to Amazon, the dominant seller."

I'm amazed at how inarticulate professional mainstream journalists are nowadays. The "book business" encompasses an entire supply chain--which includes not only publishers, but also writers (many of whom now publish independently), and book retailers. The book retailing sector includes not only Amazon, but also Walmart,, and even your local grocery store. (I have bought a lot of books at Kroger and Walgreens over the years.)

"Indeed, while Amazon may be the worst thing to have ever hit the book business..."
Amazon is not "the worst thing to ever hit the book business". Amazon makes reading more affordable and more accessible to more people than all those overly romanticized corner bookshops ever could. Amazon encourages reading by making the process of book purchasing easy, convenient, and affordable for the masses. How is that bad for "the book business"?

Wolff then suggests that publishers can "win" by selling books directly to consumers, thereby bypassing the need for evil retail outlets like Amazon. 

It's a grand idea, but it displays Wolff's ignorance of the function of the retailer: The retailer serves as a market aggregator: Readers want to do all of their book browsing in one place; they don't want to visit a dozen different publisher websites every time they purchase a new book. (And how could publishers based in high-rent New York City ever compete economically with Amazon's distribution system?)

Wolff closes with a bit of wishful thinking about building a "culture for books". The best way to do that, again, is to make them more affordable and easier to acquire. This is exactly what Amazon does. And while I share Wolff's contempt for most celebrity-authored books, the USA Today columnist comes off, overall, as a Luddite and an unrealistic nostalgist.

I miss the past, too. I miss the days when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, all four of my grandparents were still alive, and rock music was worth listening to. I miss the days when I had a full head of hair, and most people whom I met were older than me rather than younger. But time marches on.

And truth be told--I do miss those old brick-and-mortar bookstores a little bit myself. It was indeed fun to while away a few hours at Borders on a Sunday afternoon. 

But I don't miss paying full list price on a $29.95 hardcover novel, and I don't miss having my selection limited to what could be housed in the shelves of the Waldenbooks at my local mall. 

Wolff's basic premise, that Amazon and ebooks are an evil force to be "defeated" is just plain silly. It ignores the facts of consumer preferences, technological changes, and the economics of bookselling. 

Should we wage a campaign to bring back the cassette tape and the 8-track while we're at it--defeat the CD and the MP3?

Also: Whatever happened to the days when left-leaning journalists cared about saving trees--which, economics aside, is a huge selling point of ebooks?

Hauntings, places, and people

Different perspectives on the traditional haunted house story:

This essay waxes a bit on the philosophical side: It covers a range of topics from The Amityville Horror to Marxist economic theory.

Ghostly locations worldwide

Most of these are in Europe:

Cincinnati: a creepy place

Much of my horror fiction is set in the Cincinnati area, where I live and write. 

For inspiration, I often investigate local urban legends. (I always modify the urban legend somewhat when I write fiction, though, as was the case for my recent horror novel, Eleven Miles of Night--which is also set near Cincinnati.) 

Blogs like this one always get my idea factory churning:

Creepy Cincinnati

Monica, get a new schtick

I personally have nothing to say about what transpired between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky almost two decades ago. Consenting adults and all that…

But one can only ride the PR wave of a presidential affair for so long. I would submit that 16 years is more than long enough. It is time for Monica Lewinsky to move on, perhaps?

Marijuana brownies--just like Little Debbie?

What could possibly go wrong with the marketing concept of combining the habits of potheads with popular children's pastries? Coming to a lunch box near you...

Uncertain times and post-apocalyptic fiction

Post-apocalyptic fiction wasn't so popular during the optimistic 1990s. 

Today--with Islamic terrorism, economic uncertainty, and the collapse of the "new world order" into multipolar chaos, post-apocalyptic fiction is all the the rage:

HP Lovecraft still relevant

HP Lovecraft was not a commercially successful author in his lifetime; but his influence persists to this day across various forms of "weird fiction" and film:

'Gone Girl' and the "M-words"

I haven't seen the movie yet, though I did read the book, and very much enjoyed it.

One thing I like about Gillian Flynn is that she portrays gender relations with a nuance that is sorely missing from the politically charged blogosphere nowadays. 

The blogosphere is dominated by radical feminists, on one hand, who see everything through the lens of a patriarchal oppression narrative. (And by the way, not all of the "feminists" are women.)

On the other hand, the men's rights crowd is characterized by a similar degree of ideological tunnel vision. (And they have an "oppression narrative" of their own.) 

Online arguments between these two camps often erupt into wars in which both sides deserve to lose.

The truth is that real life doesn't conform to either gender-based oppression narrative. Sometimes the "bad guy" really is a guy--and sometimes the "bad guy" is a woman. 

But one should never confuse identity group politics grievance mongers with observations of real life.

Pacific tensions

Yet further evidence of why the US needs Japan as a full strategic partner.

WWII was 70 years ago. The threat today is Sino-Russian militarism, not the ghost of imperial Japan.

Obama and the jerk boyfriend

As regular readers will know, I'm no fan of President Obama, but I have to admit that he did a wonderful job of turning the tables here:

Sorry, no #gamergate analysis here...

A few of you have asked me, but I'm going to stay out of this one, because:

1.) From a distance, this strikes me as a lot of manufactured drama more than anything

2.) I don't understand what the big deal is. If guys want to play "guy-specific" videogames, I'm fine with that. 

On the other hand, if there is a market for female-centric games, I'm fine with that as well. (That's the wonderful thing about free markets--supply answers demand.)

(The market would, I assume, also produce games that are "gender neutral", for lack of a better word.)

It's no different in principle from the world of fiction: We have authors like Clive Cussler (predominantly male readership) and we have authors like Emily Giffin (mostly female readership). We also have plenty of authors like John Grisham, who are read by men and women in more or less equal numbers.

3.) Finally, I'm admittedly an outsider to the world of hardcore gaming: I haven't played video games since Asteroids and Pac Man were the latest things. I pretty much burned out on video games when I started high school (that was in 1982.) And I frankly don't have either the time or the inclination to wade through all of the pointless drama here. 

Scandinavian Cold War tensions

More signs that Russia is back...for better or worse.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Vampire burial in Bulgaria?

"Just in time for Halloween, the man known as “Bulgaria’s Indiana Jones” may have unearthed the grave of one of the undead. On Oct. 9, archaeologist Nikolai Ovcharov announced that he discovered what he called a “vampire grave” that contains a skeleton with a ploughshare – an iron rod used for a plough – driven through its chest, the Telegraph reports. The grave dates back to the 13th century and was discovered at Perperikon, an ancient Thracian city in southern Bulgaria."

Vampire hunting in the 1800s

Because people in the 19th century took vampire hunting seriously:

Independent publishing: both sides

A fairly balanced assessment of the pros and cons of the independent publishing trend:

John Grisham's damage control

This is a case study of why fiction writers should be very cautious when tempted to make off-the-cuff public statements about politics and controversial issues:

Saturday, October 18, 2014

10 horror novels that should be movies or miniseries

I definitely agree with one of the books in this list: The Rising, by Brian Keene.

The Rising is one of the best zombie novels out there. 

If made into a television series, though, it would have to compete with The Walking Dead, and all the other zombie movies that have hit the big screen of late (most of which--unlike The Walking Dead--aren't very good)).