Tag Archives: writing horror

Q&A: Cults and Killing

So is there really such thing as a stereotypical lovecraftian cult (ie hooded figures in dark dungeons who preform human sacrifices)? And how would you respectfully portray these, while still retaining creativity?

No.

Though it might be more accurate to say, “sorta, kinda, not really.”

Cults exist. These are usually small, radical offshoots of mainstream religions. In the US, most cults you’d encounter would use Christianity as their baseline, and then deviate significantly. Often times, these are the product of an individual or small cadre of individuals, who have hijacked a religion and re-purposed it for their own goals. (To be fair, agnostic cults do exist, these aren’t strictly a religious exercise.)

Because cults deviate from the normal, “baseline,” of their surroundings, most will attempt to conceal their behavior and beliefs from the outside world. Usually, this is by withdrawing and refusing to interact with outsiders. Lovecraft plays off the idea of cults that have a large enough stake in their local community that they attempt to pass themselves off as normal, keeping their true nature under wraps. Again, this is somewhat true to life, with real world examples.

Additionally, cults can be dangerous, both to their own members and to outsiders, depending on how the cult is structured, and how far it is willing to go in order to protect its interests. Crimes tracing back to cults are somewhat unusual, but it’s not unheard of. I’d almost be inclined to say it’s, “expected,” even they appear to have stayed inside the law.

Most of the time, when there are crimes being committed, they’re more in the range of abuse. Years of emotional and psychological abuse can take a serious toll on former members who attempt to break away.

Beyond that, I can think of a few cults that ended with NFA violations (illegal weapons), and even a few that ran afoul of the IRS over tax evasion.

Human sacrifices, not so much. Ritualistic murders do occur, rarely. However, these are the result of individuals, not entire cults. They’re also not the crowd of hooded figures chanting, that you’d get from Lovecraft.

So, the two pieces do exist independently. They just don’t intersect. Extensive research starting in the 1980s has showed no pattern of ritual killings associated with cults or other secret societies in the United States.

The cult killings I am aware of tend to be more in the range of accidents. (I mean, actual accidents here, as in, “we needed to beat the evil out of him, and accidentally went too far,” not, “oh, he was going to expose us, so we murdered him and made it look like an accident.”) There are also mass suicides of cult members, like Heaven’s Gate in 1997, and of course Jonestown in 1978.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are (rare) groups like Aum Shinrikyo. The Japanese doomsday cult responsible for a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. Using Sarin gas, they killed 12, and injured over 4,000.

Now, having said all of this, it is important to remember that Lovecraft was racist as fuck. Lovecraft’s work plays upon early 20th century American xenophobia. His cults are centered on foreign, “primitive,” religions from distant parts of the world, transplanted to rural New England. The beings they worship are just punctuation on something that’s already, legitimately, pretty offensive. This stuff can be pretty easy to accidentally transplant when you’re picking through Lovecraft’s material looking for ideas.

There’s an irony here: Cosmic horror is probably one of the most philosophically interesting strands of the genre, but its iconography and structure is often saturated in hurtful, xenophobic stereotypes, or ghosts of the same.

Simply flipping the script isn’t really an option because of actual history. I mentioned extensive research into cults beginning in the 1980s. That was spurred by sensationalist reports of satanic cults engaging in ritualized child abuse, and blood sacrifices. Those reports led to extensive investigations, and in the end, the result was basically nothing to show for it. No mass network of ritualized killings. No massive, covert, organization. Even the initial reports were eventually debunked, but the result was, effectively, a modern witchhunt.

If you’re wanting to work within the genre, and using a modern setting, I would recommend reading up on real world cults, and working from that model. There’s no real way to be respectful, given the subject matter, but it will give you a much more concrete idea of what these kinds of groups are like.

-Starke

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Q&A: Setting the Rules in Horror

One thing that always bugs me about ghost stories is how there doesn’t seem to be any consistency In how a Ghost operates. Theyre built up as scary only to have them be really incompetent. There’s this particular case in IT. Where one of the kids gets grabbed by Pennywise then just wrestles out and runs away. It makes Pennywise seem really incompetent. Other ghost stories do this. Where the ghost can hurt you. . . except when it cant. No logic behind it. How can a writer avoid this?

The short answer is: By making sure there are logical rules underpinning your setting. With horror this is a little harder than it seems, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

Start by writing up the rules for the monsters in your setting. How are they created? What are their powers and limitations? What do they want? How do they go about getting that?

To an extent, this is something you should probably do anyway, if you’re creating an elaborate setting. But, it can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with monsters, or other fantasy creatures.

Exactly how you format this is, obviously, up to you. There’s no strict list of things you need. If you’ve got multiple kinds of monsters, the document doesn’t even need to be uniform between them.

Also, if anyone’s wondering, there is no “One True Set of Rules for Ghosts,” or any other kind of monster. There’s a lot of variety in folklore, which gets even more diverse when you start taking other cultures into account. When you’re creating a monster, either from scratch or from some basic template, like a ghost, you have a lot of latitude to decide how they work in your story.

Once you have those rules, keep them with you when you write. Depending on how large it is, and how you work, you may want to physically tape it to your wall, or you might simply keep them open in another window while you’re typing on your computer. It doesn’t matter where the document is, just make sure you keep that stuff close and accessible.

So, I said this is a little harder with horror. Most horror, as a genre, thrives on fear of the unknown. Once you’ve taken the rules for a horror setting, dragged them out in the open, and poked them with a stick, the illusion collapses, and much of the fear escapes. If you want to scare someone, you need their imagination to do the work for you.

This means, you do not want to put those rules out in the open for your audience. Even in a normal setting, you’ll probably want to hold back a bit, and spool those out over time, as your characters learn, and discover new information. But, with horror, hiding those rules, while still clearly enforcing them is a difficult, but vital, skill to master.

There’s an important detail here. Even if you clearly infer a rule in your horror, so long as you don’t go out and explicitly define it, there’s going to be a degree of unease. Horror thrives on that space, where you should be safe, but you’re not completely sure.

The other set of rules you should keep in mind, are the ones your characters create for the monster. If it’s trying to kill them, they’re going to be trying to figure out how to avoid that. Looking for what the monster’s limits are, and trying to identify its methodology. After all, if they know that it can’t kill them under certain circumstances, then they’ll want to find a way to engineer that situation.

The thing about your characters is that they can be wrong. They can look at the information available, and make an entirely rational but incorrect assumption. This can create situations where the monster is suddenly able to “break the rules,” because the rules your characters worked out aren’t the real limitations you set at the beginning. This should send your characters back to the drawing board, looking for something they got wrong.

Now, obviously, if your character is a veteran monster hunter, then they’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what the rules are. Though, even with that, there’s a lot of room for a character to prepare for the wrong monster. To be fair, this kind of character doesn’t usually work well in horror. It’s not a hard, “no,” but it does make your life more difficult. This is because they’re likely to have a (mostly) accurate version of your rules internalized. Point of view characters like this can work, but it requires you to be a lot more creative. If you think you’re up to it, feel free to experiment. However, stories with characters like this will often trend more into supernatural action rather than horror.

One more vitally important thing: Don’t pull your punches. Not in horror. If there’s a monster out there in the forest trying to kill them, and it gets the opportunity to pick someone off, kill them. The only time I’d caution against this is if you’re late in the story and running out of characters to snuff. In those cases, I’d suggest stepping back a scene or two, and figuring out how to keep them alive by avoiding that situation entirely.

Even then, I’d still recommend you roll with a death, even if its your designated protagonist. As a genre, horror is an indiscriminate killer. The story will survive your favorites dying. Also, sometimes, the monster wins, and your story ends with the last survivor down. That’s okay. It’s far better than a situation where your monster loses credibility because it fumbles a kill. If you find the story really doesn’t work without them, then that’s what rewrites are for.

I should add, I’ve been approaching this from the perspective of a story where the monster is trying to kill the protagonists, but this isn’t a certainty. Sometimes in horror, the monster doesn’t want to kill your characters. If it wants something else from them, that can be even more horrifying. Another possibility worth mentioning is, sometimes you’ve got monsters that honestly do not care about your characters at all. They’re content to go about their business, oblivious to the damage they cause.

-Starke

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Maybe this isn’t the right blog to ask at but I figured I’d try anyway. Do you have any helpful knowledge or tips on writing Lovecraftian horror?

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
Lovecraft’s upbringing.)

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
you.

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
effective.

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
understand.

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.

-Starke

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