Despite being called the father of horror, very few modern authors imitate H.P. Lovecraft. When they do, they tend to steal elements of his “world-building,” that is, they use the Cthulu Mythos or other elements of the stories and write in a totally different style from Lovecraft. This tends to miss what makes Lovecraft’s work compelling; it’s not the mythos itself, but how it is revealed that makes such an impact. Lovecraft is really Weird Fiction, not so much “Horror,” which as a literary genre solidified itself later in the 20th century. The feelings evoked are not merely fear, but the uncanny, the unsettling, the fantastically interesting, the imaginative. Like the protagonists of his stories, the reader is compelled by curiosity more than terror. Rarely, an author will capture these more subtle feelings by utilizing elements of Lovecraft’s style as well as his mythos.
A perfect set of examples of this dichotomy are the first two stories found in Stephen King’s Night Shift, “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “Graveyard Shift.”
The first, “Jerusalem’s Lot,” (not directly related to King’s Vampire novel Salem’s Lot) appears inspired by “Festival” by Lovecraft, but has elements of many of his other stories. We have a decrepit, forgotten New England town with a strange church, now empty, that once housed some sort of strange cult devoted to gods with Lovecraft-like names. The protagonist has a family history attached to the weird place (he’s a descendant of Boone, the cult leader) and feels compelled to explore it to solve the mystery (in this case, why everyone disappeared and why), eventually leading him to embrace the insanity of the unreal situation. We have a strong “descent into madness,” a technique Lovecraft frequently used, in which the protagonist is presented with a series of facts and events that are increasingly bizarre and divorced from predictable, familiar reality. This often coincides with a physical descent into the earth, as in “Festival.” It is fitting that the end of “Jerusalem’s Lot” that madness coincides with the protagonist opening a chasm within the decrepit church, from which a final horror emerges and murders his friend.
The effectiveness of the story does not come purely from the Lovecraftian elements, but from the execution. King narrates the story in first person through letters and journal entries. This allows for tight control of the pacing of the story, elongating moments of tension, and also allows for the mystery to be prolonged and the solutions obscured. At the end, since the “resolution” is written in first person, the audience is no longer certain as to the reality of any of it. The question remains as to whether Charles (the protagonist) is writing in madness or whether he really saw the horrors he writes of. The ambiguity of the strangeness is reinforced by a short epilogue written by Charles’s relative, declaring that his lost cousin suffered a brain fever that caused him to murder his friend, Cal. There is no evidence of a chasm beneath the church. The final ending is the cycle beginning again: the new relative declares he will return to his ancestral home, and he notes the sounds of rats in the walls, which began Charles’s descent into madness.
If we contrast this work, which is Lovecraftian in the truest sense in regard to both the elements of the story, themes, and as to how it is executed, to the following story, “Graveyard Shift,” we can see plain the difference between Weird Fiction and Horror as it became in the second half of the 20th century.
In this story, we have several Lovecraftian elements working to deliver the tension and conclusion, specifically the “Descent into madness,” which, like several Lovecraft stories (“Festival,” “The Nameless City,” and “At the Mountains of Madness” to name a few) is not merely metaphorical. The setup is simple, and the payoff swift in “Graveyard Shift.” Workers at a mill on the overnight shift are tasked with cleaning out the basements of a mill, where they find that aggressive rats (another favorite creepy beast that Lovecraft’s characters blame things on) are proliferating. As the characters investigate and attempt to exterminate them, they find more basements, and each level reveals things that are older and more bizarre than before. A simple conflict arises between two characters: Hall, a college dropout, and Warwick, the shift foreman. The story climaxes as they discover a basement that pre-dates the mill’s founding and which is full of not just over-large rats but mutant rats with wings or missing legs.
The bottom is the end of sanity. Three characters are present. One, Wisconsky, runs (he’s the wisest, of course, what I call the “true believer” in horror stories). Warwick disbelieves and insists in his own mind that what he is experiencing is mundane, and Hall embraces the madness with an aside that those mutant rats were what he was always looking for as a drifter. At the end of the long basement, he snaps and murders Warwick as the foreman tries to turn from the final horror (a tremendous rat). Hall, however, cannot escape from the queen of the rats and is killed as he tries to escape (an advantage to writing in the third person—you can kill all the characters in a scene). Like the previous story, the cycle begins again as the remaining workers decide to check out the basement themselves, wondering where the others have gone to.
Unlike “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “Graveyard Shift” doesn’t utilize the cosmic elements of Lovecraft. The monsters are merely monsters, and while the mystery of their existence remains unanswered, they are not gods nor harbingers of gods. There is no larger, darker reality that confronts the characters, no hint of a universe that is larger and stranger than the one they know, no hint that human beings might be insignificant, transient rulers of an old earth in an eldritch expanse of space and time. There are no deep questions about the nature of the self, the hidden horrors of family history, or where one fits into the grand, ugly, hidden world beneath. “Graveyard Shift” is straight horror and, to that end, effective. It provides a disturbing and satisfying payoff, but it doesn’t leave the reader wondering after the fact; it presents no lingering feeling of existential uneasiness.
It should go without saying that Stephen King, even when he published these stories (1970 for “Graveyard Shift” and 1979 for “Jerusalem’s Lot”), knew how to write horror. It’s not gore or ugliness for its own sake, but the understanding that something horrible is approaching, waiting to be discovered. A mystery underlies most horror plots, and King uses his skills to draw out the mystery and build anticipation. In these two stories, you can see the separation between straight horror and its focus on plot and character interactions, and what some people call “cosmic horror,” which brings in revelations about the setting to create a wider set of emotions. Rather than just fear and anxiety, there is the feeling of unease, of disquiet, of weirdness.
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Well said and good examples!
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