It’s In The Atmosphere

I love to read, and that is no secret. I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite genre, but I am probably seen more reading science fiction or fantasy. I have been known to pick up a classic or two, though–I still hold that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are two of the best books I’ve ever read, despite that the vernacular of both is very dated. Somehow that added to their charm.

That said, some of the most fun stories I have ever read come from H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft is not only famous for the Cthulhu mythos, but he is also considered the father of modern horror. Which, I think personally, is due to his amazing ability to create a unique atmosphere for each of his stories.

Atmosphere Is All Around You

Atmosphere, put simply, is the feeling you get about the environment the characters are in. A good example would be going to a haunted house. Notice there is always little to no light? How about the spooky sounds or music that plays just loud enough for you to hear, but not quite make it out? These are just pieces that add together to spookify the atmosphere.

Of course creating atmosphere at a haunted house is much easier than say, a written story. In a haunted house, you are there to feel the cool breeze that gives you chills, or to experience the (emulated) thrill of your life threatened. In a story though, the author has to use words to describe the scene to you. Luckily there is a rule of human nature that comes into play here, and I believe H. P. Lovecraft understood this rule and took it to heart with everything he wrote.

You see, the rule is, you can never portray anything better than your audience can imagine it. A good use of this rule is the comic strip Garfield Minus Garfield. While each comic gives you the idea that Jon is really a paranoid psychotic by removing Garfield in the strip, you sometimes can’t help but imagine what Garfield was really doing in the original comic. Much of the time, if you view the original comic, it may not be nearly as funny as what you had thought up.

Close Your Eyes, What Do You See?

Luckily, this rule isn’t only for comedy, it works great for horror, and H. P. Lovecraft truly understood this. Take a look as this excerpt from the story, Whisperer in the Darkness.

“Night was falling now, and as I recalled what Akeley had written me about those earlier nights I shuddered to think there would be no moon.”

In your mind, you can see the darkening sky as the sun went down without a moon to light the sky or the monstrous clouds formed overhead, covering all the stars. Now look back at that excerpt.

There is actually no real description of the sky.

The image in your mind is just what you formed from your own experiences with a spooky night. It takes a great deal of talent and knowledge of the human mind to know just how much to describe in a story for the audience to take it the rest of the way. This talent and knowledge is what made Lovecraft a master horror author.

Let’s look at another excerpt. This one is from the famous Call of Cthulhu.

“A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.”

Here we have the first description of Cthulhu that Lovecraft ever published. We all know the general concept of the monster, but look at how few details are really given. Now think about every version of Cthulhu you have seen. Or you can just do an image search on the Internet.

Sure they have the general tentacled face, and many have a sloping stature, but each interpretation is different. Some just slightly, and some by a huge difference. Each version has incorporated that particular reader’s concept of the monster, and it is that Cthulhu they have always seen when reading Lovecraft’s stories. Not yours, not mine, but their own. That one.

Even if Lovecraft gave exact specifications on how Cthulhu looked, all the way down to the exact dimensions of each tentacle, there would still be small gaps that, as readers, we would fill in with our own ideas. But he didn’t, because who wants to spend their time reading nothing but descriptions?

Instead, Lovecraft just gave us that one sentence, our first look at one of the most iconic–and most horrific–creatures in modern horror. He knew how to give just enough to make the darkest corners of our imagination come alive, and it was that ability that made him, arguably, the greatest horror author of the twentieth century.

By John Ayers

By day, John is a mild-mannered techie, geek, and dad. But by night, he is a dice-rolling, comic-reading...techie, geek, and dad. Not everyone has to live two lives, you know. You can find him on Twitter as @FalconX2.

1 comment

  1. I think another excellent example of atmosphere can be found in Christoper Golden. He is the first author to ever make me feel the snow in my hair or the cold, sharp wind in my lungs while in the comforts of my own bed (Bones of Giants). Even Baltimore gave me the since of utter dread and dirt in the hospitals.

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