In the morning mist comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport. White and feathery it comes from the deep to its brothers the clouds., full of dreams and dank pastures and caves of leviathan. And later, in still summer rains on the steep roofs of poets, the clouds scatter bits of those dreams, that men shall not live without rumour of old, strange secrets, and wonders that planets tell planets alone in the night. (The Strange High House in the Mist, H.P. Lovecraft)
Chilling, isn’t it?
H.P. Lovecraft is often considered the “Father of Horror” for a good reason. No other had done horror like Lovecraft, with the exception of Mary Shelling’s Frankenstein written in 1818 and Bram Stroker’s Dracula written in 1897. While these authors wrote of monsters in the dark, Lovecraft wrote of monsters that could hardly bear description. These creatures came from other dimensions, from places that only exist in nightmares, and from the primal fear found in all people.
Lovecraft can be hard to read, as his writings come from the early 1900’s, during the Gothic Novel movement. Much like the Gothic architecture found in the cathedrals of Europe, this style is meant to convey a dark grandeur. The words and style that Lovecraft choose wholly contribute to tone that he wished to deliver to his readers. He used words that brought vivid images and, used with his themes of grotesque and the unknown, Lovecraft puts your teeth on edge and makes your heart sink.
Is his style his key to success?
This Gothic Novel style didn’t guarantee success for Lovecraft, in fact, he never saw his works receive the praise they now have, as his works became successful after his death; but, the Gothic style made sense with his characters. Lovecraft’s narrators were often of an educated background, researching and exploring for academic purposes. This let Lovecraft write with a more sophisticated word choice, which isolated many of his readers during his career. Many of the reading audience at the time was not educated enough to fully understand his works. It wasn’t until the average person achieved higher education that his works resurfaced and developed his legacy.
In writing like this, Lovecraft is able to more fully describe what he sees in his stories. This voice also changes the readers perspective. The average reader is used to reading stories that are somewhat easy to understand and is used to following characters that win in the end. In Lovecraft’s stories, the main character is more educated than the reader, using words that the reader must look up or used context to derive it’s meaning. While this might put off many readers, the challenge and sense of the unknown actually adds to the story.
What does it mean?
Applying this to modern stories could add another level of immersion. It seems that most stories written after 1995 took on a very easy to read voice. The Lovecraftian method is still an option, although an intimidating one to some. A great book that uses its voice and word choice to help immerse the reader is Flowers for Algernon written in 1966. The story follows a man with a severe mental disability. Scientists have found a drug to increase intelligence enormously and test it on some rats which show drastic improvement. They then inject our narrator with the drug and, as the story develops, we watch this mans word choice become more sophisticated as he gains intelligence. This is just one example of using voice and tone as another layer of immersion.
Maybe we should stop writing books for the lowest common denominator and attempt to challenge the audience. Books with a higher vocabulary improve the readers vocabulary and improve the skill of interpreting and understanding what is read.