Last February I took a Writing The Other course on character arcs; I was ill at the time, and couldn’t deal with a live session, so in June I was slowly working through the videos amidst all the other pressures in my life for the previous three and a half months. Stant Litore put together a fascinating series that combined lessons from two of his books, Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget, and Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget, and unified the two by focusing on how elements of the world you build put pressures on your characters that influence the choices they make.
I reached the point in the Sunday morning lecture where Litore went on a slight tangent to talk about a short story by Jorge Borges that was at once an homage to and critique of H.P. Lovecraft, a very influential “father” of the cosmic horror genre. Almost all of Borges’ 4-page story hit the reader with classic Lovecraftian elements: a strange house, the viewpoint character fearfully but compulsively exploring it, finding furniture that wouldn’t suit a humanoid body, his growing fear as the strangeness increases, the terror when he hears sounds of the owner returning. In the last line, though, the protagonist chose to face the strangeness without closing his eyes. Litore’s telling was gripping, and made a strong point about the power of focusing on character choices in our writing.
But to me, it was equally powerful in understanding Lovecraft himself, which was probably part of Borges’ intent. A key element of cosmic horror is strangeness the mind cannot comprehend; Lovecraft’s characters usually die or go mad when exposed to creatures beyond time and space. People used to celebrate his contributions to the genre, but these days my writer acquaintances are more likely to recommend August Derleth or more modern writers for a specific reason: Lovecraft was intensely racist.
The lesson I took from this was that both his powerful stories and his racism stemmed from intense xenophobia, fear of the other. Cosmic strangeness for him led to horror because people significantly different from him were frightening. Borges pointed out that horror need not be the only reaction to the unfamiliar.
People sometimes use their writing to explore their own issues, their own traumas, their own fears. We can hope that the exercise might lead us to write powerful stories, but also to personal growth and perhaps even closure. Lovecraft managed the first, but utterly failed at the second.
Let’s all try to do better.