Column: Writing the Mythos: By Its Cover: Mythos Tomes

By Its Cover: Mythos Tomes

By G. W. Thomas

H. P. Lovecraft did not invent the idea of the arcane tome, one so evil its very existence meant insanity and worse for its possessor. The idea is borrowed–with acknowledgement–from Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933), a turn-of-the-century writer who carved out a career largely in historical fiction but with a few excursions into the macabre. His book The King in Yellow (1895) is a loose collection of tales revolving around a weird play, the same King in Yellow as the book’s title. The contents of this play are never revealed, but their effects are hinted at in stories like “The Yellow Sign” and “The Mask”. The King in Yellow proved such a success it inspired, amongst others, a Raymond Chandler mystery “The King in Yellow”, about a boxer, and was parodied in G. K. Chesterton’s “The Blast of the Book”, in which Father Brown must prove a killer book is a fraud.

The purpose to which Lovecraft puts his elder books is two-fold. First off, as with Chambers, they serve as the human glimpses of a much larger cosmos, written by those men and women who have realized the big picture. Secondly, he uses them as a technique he borrowed from another Victorian writer, the ghost-story writer, M. R. James (1862-1936), who employed lists of bibliographica to act as a layer of respectability in an otherwise impossible scenario. James knew the human tendency to give credence when confronted by authoritative lists. Gaining the reader’s acceptance of the impossible is key to any fantastic story. Lovecraft borrows this trick, lacing his mythological volumes amongst real ones as in “The Picture in the House”:

I had turned to a neighboring shelf and was examining its meagre literary contents–an eighteenth century Bible, a “Pilgrim’s Progress” of like period, illustrated with grotesque woodcuts and printed by the almanack-maker Isaiah Thomas, the rotting bulk of Cotton Mather’s “Magnalia Christi Americana”, and a few other books of evidently equal age–when my attention was aroused by the unmistakable sound of walking in the room overhead.

From “The Call of Cthulhu”:

The other manuscript papers were brief notes, some of them accounts of the queer dreams of different persons, some of them citations from theosophical books and magazines (notably W. Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria), and the rest comments on long-surviving secret societies and hidden cults, with references to passages in such mythological and anthropological source-books as Frazer’s Golden Bough and Miss Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe. The cuttings largely alluded to outrĂ© mental illness and outbreaks of group folly or mania in the spring of 1925.

The Lovecraftian or Jamesian horror story works like a strip-tease in which the writer reveals, layer by layer, more evidence to support a fantastic idea, whether it is a killer play or beings from space. Like the most erotic dances, the author never gives the reader the ‘Full Monty’ (which would probably make them laugh, not scream), but allows them to “peek” only a fleeting glimpse of the terror, their own mind creating something more terrible than anything that can be described. The arcane tome is one tool in this subtle dance.

Now, let’s imagine a story in which a man walks out of his house to encounter a gigantic monster, goes insane, or is eaten. Ludicrous, certainly not frightening. The worst Mythos stories are those that have this level of subtlety. (I won’t mention any of the multitudes of bad Mythos tales that get published in the small press every year, my own included. But even H. P. Lovecraft, the man who invented the whole thing was not above failing at it occasionally, as can be seen in “The Diary of Alonzo Typer”.) The best tales, such as Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks”, are those that take their time, slowly revealing small bits until the reader imagines the most evil of scenarios, and the willing suspension of disbelief is maintained.

So ask yourself, as you begin your new Mythos tale:

  1. How will an evil tome actually make my story scarier? Is there a newer medium that might work better such as a DVD or video recording (ala The Ring), a numerical code (as the one used in the Lost television show) or even a computer virus. Use your imagination. Information is everywhere. The system for delivery is up to you.
  2. Can you use one that already exists rather than creating another one? Because how many of these things are there really? If every other book contains the secret to the universe then why haven’t more people found it out? If you are going to create a new one, how can it be different than The Necronomicon and its ilk? Moldy vellum covered in forgotten languages has a certain creepiness but the sophisticated reader will identify it immediately. Whatever is predictable is boring, so avoid it.
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IFPColumn: Writing the Mythos: By Its Cover: Mythos Tomes