Tag Archives: H.P. Lovecraft

Not Fan Fiction

Ken Liu’sSingle-Bit Error,” published in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology, is related to Ted Chiang’sHell is the Absence of God.” (I discuss this relationship more extensively in yesterday’s post). Both stories are explorations of faith and atheism, using the concept of angelic visitations to drive the action and the philosophical discussion. To be clear, Liu lists the story’s influences as a note at the end, and got Chiang’s permission before publishing his take.

I enjoyed reading the two pieces as a conversation, and, in many ways, this is what literature is about. The flow of philosophical ideas from Plato to Aristotle to Aquinas, for example, is a part of the Great Conversation that makes it so worthwhile to be a reader of writer. That said, Liu’s piece is hard to classify, and I imagine it was incredibly hard to publish.

I think there is a kind of writing that exists that sits somewhere on the spectrum between fan fiction and an original story (if there truly is such a thing). When I get an idea like this, it’s not exactly that I want to write in another writer’s world, but that I want to use another writer’s premise for my own exploration. Sometimes, strong anthologies get created by giving lots of writers the same premise and putting the results side by side, but, for the most part, I groan when I get one of these ideas because I know it’s not going to be an easy road. For example, I love the premise of Catherynne Valente’s book, Palimpsest, and I want to play with it myself. The difficulties with doing this have stopped me, however. Unless I really, really care about the idea, I won’t write it.

That’s one thing that I love about the Creative Commons license. I think labels like that declare that it’s OK to experiment along those lines (as long as it’s not the non-derivative license, I guess). I think it’s good to create a space that truly allows conversation in literature. There’s a lot of healthy activity along these lines, but, for the most part it deals with older works that are out of copyright.

Take, for example, the many retellings of fairy tales, such as those in Ellen Datlow’s and Terri Windling’s Snow White, Blood Red anthology. Or several stories in Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things anthology (for example, “A Study in Emerald,” which mashes up Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes, and “The Problem of Susan,” which questions the treatment of Susan in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia). There’s also a huge and vital community devoted to developing the ideas of H.P. Lovecraft.

Liu’s story makes me wonder why that conversation doesn’t seem to happen as much around more current literature.

I felt this particularly keenly because I’m currently struggling to find a market for a piece that makes many references to Star Trek (particularly the Klingon language), and yet is not fan fiction and is not a Star Trek story. That limbo is an interesting place, but it’s not an easy place to be.

(Note: I wrote this post and then decided to contact Ken Liu to ask him about marketing his story and about influences. He kindly replied. Look for some thoughts from him in the next couple of days.)

Camp and Creepiness

I like H.P. Lovecraft, as you may guess from the picture at the top of the page. I’m fascinated by how he possesses the ability to scare, mixed with this incredible silliness that inspires people to make stuffed Cthulhu dolls and giggle at the idea of souls getting swallowed. Witness this excerpt from his story “The Outsider,” which my husband and I have decided is impossible to read straight:

Fancying now that I had attained the very pinnacle of the castle, I commenced to rush up the few steps beyond the door; but the sudden veiling of the moon by a cloud caused me to stumble, and I felt my way more slowly in the dark. It was still very dark when I reached the grating–which I tried carefully and found unlocked, but which I did not open for fear of falling from the amazing height to which I had climbed. Then the moon came out.

Most demoniacal of all shocks is that of the abysmally unexpected and grotesquely unbelievable. Nothing I had before undergone could compare in terror with what I now saw; with the bizarre marvels that sight implied. The sight itself was as simple as it was stupefying, for it was merely this: instead of a dizzying prospect of treetops seen from a lofty eminence, there stretched around me on the level through the grating nothing less than the solid ground, decked and diversified by marble slabs and columns, and overshadowed by an ancient stone church, whose ruined spire gleamed spectrally in the moonlight.

Once he starts hitting “abysmal”, “grotesque”, “bizarre”, and “stupefying”, things just get a little silly, and the story feels campy. On the other hand, I’m interested in how Lovecraft pauses here to try to lay out the character’s state of mind. This is an important moment in the story, since a key part of the horror involves reversals of the character’s expectations. So, the character believes he has climbed a long time, but is actually on the ground. Lovecraft lingers over this, making sure that the reader understands the implications of the surprise. There’s a lot that’s good about this. But his barrage of adjectives also make the moment comedic.

The link between horror and comedy has often been observed. Here’s a spot I can point to as a clear example.