Lovecraftian Lyricism [The Forge #8]

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"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." --H.P. Lovecraft, "Supernatural Horror in Literature"

What are the elements of Horror or Mystery? How does one distill the essence of the genre and infuse it into a crafted Quest? This week we're not going to spend time with scripting in the Quest Crafter, but on the techniques that endow your story with the aesthetics of Horror.

Should you wish to see a detailed examination of all the elements, I strongly recommend reading the entire 30 page essay from one of the masters himself.  I hyperlinked Lovecraft's article above ("Supernatural Horror in Literature"). 

But if you want the footnoted version, I shall endeavor to abbreviate some of his insights below. Incidentally, focusing on many of these suggestions will improve non-horror stories as well. 

  1. Keep Secrets.  Secrets create tension. Secrets beg to be discovered. They wait like a treasure chest, just asking to have their locks sprung. All quests should have a secret. The best have a secret with a twist (I prefer moral twists). For example, "commoners" have hired the adventurers to destroy a nest of zombies outside of town. What they haven't revealed is the zombies are actually protecting the townsfolk from them, for they are secretly bandits wishing to prey on the town. 
  2. Use Suspense & Foreshadowing.  Hint at the dark terrors that may await, but use a light touch.  This is the most difficult thing to do in many stories, and spoiling things early on will certainly do much to ruin the mood.  To do this well almost requires you to psych yourself out.  Even better, hint at more, but don't reveal the totality of secret. Create fragments of history. Leave gaps in the puzzle for players to fill from their own imaginations. Consider leaving certain questions unanswered completely (at least in your first "episode"). Fortunately a Quest need not be linear...each and every possible outcome and terror can be a possible path and ending. For example, in my quest "Dark Gifts" (Worldbreaker #2) player choices determine who the real kingslayers are...the identity of the villains is not set in stone, but determined by player choices, and *SPOILERS* even allows for a party member to be the assassin. This leads to the next point.  
  3. Create False Trails. Make false allies. Make false enemies.  Twist things. You might even allow the adventurer(s) to choose to be the villain, but never force adventurers to be evil (remember, we have kids playing with their parents). 
  4. Make the Adventurers' fears mirror those of Players. The best Horror connects us with the characters in the story either because we associate with the personalities of the protagonists or the fears addressed resonate with universal human fears. Visual horror can appeal to instinctual biological impulses (jump scares, creepy images or sounds). Written horror must appeal to psychological fears. Social Alienation. Damnation. Meaninglessness of personal actions or efforts (or existence itself--though a well grounded person will find such suggestions empty and uncompelling). Poverty.  The best horror or suspense imparts us with a sense that our actions DO matter, but that we ever teeter on the brink of failure, and a poor choice will result in disaster. 
  5. Set Atmosphere. Make Places into People. Look at how Stephen King perpetually personifies the inanimate in his works. The Dome is intelligent. Black House is capable of motion and intent. The Dark Tower looms throughout a series of novels like a monolithic foe. In the aforementioned and linked essay, Lovecraft wrote, "Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation." (Emphasis added.)

I would like to think my commissioned Horror quest, "Raventree Manor" does all of these at some level. I spent 40 hours listening to Lovecraft's stories in audiobook format to try and get it right. That leads to my last point:  Borrow brilliance from others. Learn from the masters. Get inspired. 

Wikipedia has a pretty good write-up of some scholarly analysis of Horror elements. We'll leave you with a quote from that entry with some good parting advice:  "Sometimes a story intends to shock and disgust, but the best horror intends to rattle our cages and shake us out of our complacency. It makes us think, forces us to confront ideas we might rather ignore, and challenges preconceptions of all kinds. Horror reminds us that the world is not always as safe as it seems, which exercises our mental muscles and reminds us to keep a little healthy caution close at hand." --Elizabeth Barrette's "Elements of Aversion"

Happy quest writing!

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