What really makes you afraid in Lovecraft’s stories?

Dominik Janýška

Have you ever thought about what makes a good horror story? What does it take to write something spine-chilling and original? Even though the feeling of fear might be subjective to most humans, some books and stories can make most people’s hearts race. If someone asked me what book haunts me to this day the answer would be The Necronomicon by H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft is an American author who wrote most of his sci-fi stories in the early 19th century. Most of his work consists of eerie stories filled with mystery. Most of them have different protagonists who share lore with created entities and a whole pantheon of old Gods. And the reason the story makes your whole being anxiously filled with dread is his usage of language and the atmosphere that is brought by it.

The Necronomicon is a collection of Lovecraft’s most famous tales. The first story I read is called Dagon. To put it simply, it is about a man that got lost on the sea in a small boat after his ship was attacked by German Sea-raiders. Right off the bat, it starts with this line: 

„I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain since by tonight I shall be no more. “ 

When Most of his stories start like this, they make you feel like you are reading an old journal you found somewhere you would not expect it. But soon you realize you should have never opened it. The sentence structure and word usage seem old even for his time and are sometimes difficult to comprehend on the first read for a non-native reader. But this makes you focus on the book much more and after that, it is certainly easy to get lost in his terrifying world. 

The story then continues with our journal owner getting captured by the raiders and escaping shortly after that on a small boat. The only thing he could see was „the heaving vastnesses of unbroken blue. “ And so he waited for a passing ship to rescue him. Descriptions such as this one is the reason I cling to Lovecraft’s stories. He takes something everyone knows and can imagine and with just a few words sheds a very different light on the object. Sea is certainly one of his favorite settings. 

While sleeping the surrounding of our character greatly changed. The sea became a „hellish black mire which extended about me in monotonous undulations as far as I could see. “ Now terrified, he waited three days for the slimy substance to somehow solidify, he left his boat and walked towards a strange black mound that he spotted on the horizon. The description of his journey that took 2 days conveys the feelings of the sailor exquisitely. Mapping out all his senses, he describes the sight of the never-ending blackness and how much it resembles nothingness. How the smell of decaying fish and other sea life is almost maddening but is nothing compared to the silence he hears and the feeling his feet must endure while traversing the vast, incomprehensible environment that was once the sea. In every line of the story, you feel that something is wrong, and you wait and wait for something to happen. But it never does. Just the feeling of uncertainty every word brings is scary on its own.

When he finally manages to climb the hill, he finds a strange monolithic stone with engravings of strange creatures. „Of their faces and forms I dare not speak in detail; for the mere remembrance makes me grow faint. “ Sentences like these, where the thing that the protagonist is seeing is so terrifying or just indescribable are so common in the stories that I can firmly say that there is at least one such description in each story. It surely adds to surrealism and lets you draw the picture on your own, only using the limited information you got from the narrative before.

Shortly after the suspense comes the punchline of the story. 

„Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then. “

These descriptions and excessive use of adjectives are something in which Lovecraft excels. It matters not if it is a creepy monster or an ordinary object he describes. Somehow it always ends up being a description I tend to remember for at least a few nights while my brain makes very lively images to keep me awake more than I would like to be. 

I feel like this is a good enough introduction for everyone to at least try and read a few stories. If not for the suspense, then for the vocabulary and linguistic mastery. Some of them are as short as this article while some will last you for a few evenings. But do not blame me for your sleepless nights.

Lovecraft, H. P. (2008). Necronomicon. Gollancz.

A&E Networks Television (2020, July 17). H.P. Lovecraft. Biography.com.
Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://www.biography.com/writer/hp-lovecraft