Well, two things come to mind.
First: The words don’t mean anything; and second: Lovecraft was racist as fuck,
which is both crucial to understanding, and an irrelevant distraction from,
what he’s actually doing.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was not
an efficient writer. He was inordinately fond of using obscure and archaic
words for aesthetic texture. Generally speaking, this is behavior that every
competent writer will warn you to avoid.
A lot of writers that try to emulate
Lovecraft latch onto words like “tenebrous” or “eldritch” and inflict them on
the reader because, “that’s how this genre of horror works” without really
stepping back and trying to understand, “what the hell was Lovecraft thinking
when he picked these words out of English’s compost heap?”
The answer is fairly simple and
contradictory. At its core, language is about conveying information. That’s
what it’s there for. Lovecraft was subverting that. He was using language to
obstruct the flow of information, by inserting terms that were (potentially)
correct, but would confuse the reader.
It’s not about picking the right
word, it’s about picking the word that is just strange enough to muddle the
entire sentence, and prolong the confusion. (To be fair, I’m not sure how much
of this was intentional, and how much was an unintentional side effect of
Horror thrives on ambiguity and
imprecise information. The more information you convey, and the more efficient
you are with that information, the faster you can kill the horror you’re trying
to cultivate. This is a constant struggle in writing the genre; conveying
enough information to keep the reader cued in, while withholding enough to
maintain the unknown.
Lovecraft skews hard towards
keeping the reader in the dark. It’s not necessarily a bad approach, but it is
very tricky to execute well.
The best approach is to make sure
the actions of your protagonists are clear and understandable, but the
information they collect, and the rules your antagonists/monsters/star gods
work under are unclear or completely hidden. Strictly speaking this isn’t
Lovecraftian, since he had a real fondness for letting the ambiguity leak over
onto his protagonists.
This leads to an interrelated
issue. When Lovecraft was writing, the idea of a vast uncaring universe filled
with unimaginable and utterly alien beings was fairly novel. Today, Lovecraft’s
material isn’t that different (on a structural) level from an episode of Star
Trek or The Twilight Zone. That isn’t to say you can’t do anything interesting
with the concepts, just that you do need to offer a bit more than what
Lovecraft did because it’s 100 years later, and literature has marched on.
The second part is the racism.
Honestly, if you can read Lovecraft and not be deeply disturbed by the
ethnocentrism, then you may have seriously misread the text. Or made the same
mistake mentioned above of thinking, “well that’s just how this genre works.” It
is, but it’s something you need to look at very carefully.
That Lovecraft was a racist is,
really, just a distraction. While there are legitimate discussions about
cultural context and morality, and the implications of that on someone’s work,
it does not change the fact that Lovecraft is one of the most significant
writers in early American horror. Liking his work doesn’t mean you
automatically endorse his politics. The world is full of writers who are truly
horrible people. Reading, or even enjoying their writing does not reflect on
That said, Lovecraft’s
ethnocentrism does leak over into his work, and it forms the foundations of his
horror and (intentionally or not) does a fantastic job of informing the kind of
damage racism can actually inflict.
At a fundamental level, racism can
be described as exclusion from communication. It’s the moment where you say
someone else has nothing of value to contribute to the conversation of human
experience because of their ethnicity. There’s all the motivations that lead to
this, and the consequences are far reaching, but (at least for discussing
literature) it’s the moment where you exclude someone from the conversation because
of how they look and not based on their argument or experiences.
Lovecraft steps beyond that and
attributes some pretty harmful stereotypes to a lot of different groups. He uses
real people and their cultures as a vector to insert alien gods into his world.
There’s two parts for this.
First, it’s insensitive. In
picking up someone else’s culture, and turning it over, poking it for stuff, it
is always worth remembering that you are repurposing someone else’s
contribution to the conversation. Deliberately misrepresenting that as
something it’s not can be harmful. It’s a staple of pulp, and in turn the kind
of horror that Lovecraft was writing. But it’s something that does need to be
considered very carefully, because it’s no longer 1920.
Also, more than insensitive, it
actually undercuts the genuinely interesting things lurking in other cultures’
myths and legends. In a very real way, the Cthulhu mythos is actually less
interesting than the cultures Lovecraft was co-opting. Myths exist as a way to
explain how we understand the world. What Lovecraft did was scratch that out
and replace it with an oversized squid hitting the snooze button. It’s creepy,
sure, but it’s far less compelling than the Polynesian and African myths he climbed
over to get there. If you’re wanting to write about some lost civilization in
some faraway land that had contact with aliens from before time, then a good
place to start is by reading about the civilizations that actually existed in
the area at the time, and try to get a picture of how they viewed the world. As
much as peering into the unknown was Lovecraft’s forte, it’s the human experience
that grounds horror and makes the fear of the unknown that much more
compelling. Not the tentacles; I don’t care how tenebrous they are.
The second part is, he manages to
accurately depict the self-destructive effects of racism. Again, some of this is
probably unintentional, but the distorted view of the world that his
protagonists frequently share is worth noting. It’s not that they’re
maliciously racist, but that they have an abnormally limited frame of reference
for the world around them. In fairness, that frame of reference would have been
familiar to many of Lovecraft’s contemporary readers. He demonstrates how
xenophobia diminishes one’s ability to interact with and understand the world.
This is easily one of the biggest
stumbling blocks for writers who approach Lovecraft. He was racist (or was at
the very least an elitist, ethnocentric, snob). His characters are frequently
racist, (or, at least, elitist).
Writers who approach Lovecraft as
a fan, run a real risk of missing how pervasive the
racism really is. It’s not that the protagonist of Shadow over Innsmouth is
racist, it’s that the entire premise is. And yet, as horror is still very
Horror thrives on fear of the
unknown; that something is out there, lurking, waiting to do unspeakable things
to you. Which brings us to:
Xenophobia: fear of that which is alien to you; that which you do not
In a way, it’s a natural fit, but
a very hazardous one. The fear of people who follow different customs and have
a different culture, juxtaposed against a modern world that no longer has any tolerance
for that kind of prejudice.
I’ll stress something I said
earlier. What you like does not reflect on you. More than that, the characters
you write don’t automatically reflect on you as a person. How you use them, and
whether you endorse their views does.
Lovecraft’s writing lays a treacherous path that is difficult to
follow; so tread carefully.