Wrestling with Lovecraft
By James Chambers, author of On the Night Border
Writing stories in the Lovecraftian tradition poses a number of challenges.
On the surface, Lovecraft wrote stories about monsters, aliens, and ancient, cosmic entities, all imaginatively conceived and described, and all of them nearly incomprehensible to the humans, but in the best of HPL’s work, those things represent something more than a mere scary creature. Some symbolize the indifference of an uncaring universe, the dread of terrifying and inescapable aspects of one’s self derived from family history, or the shock of humanity’s insignificance in the full panoply of a distinctly inhuman universe. Others represent aspects of Lovecraft’s own fears and prejudices, many of which are troubling to modern readers. Writers venturing into Lovecraft country must consider all of this when choosing pieces of Lovecraft’s mythos to build on for new stories. What elements of Lovecraftian horror remain relevant today? How can one imbue them with new perspectives on the cosmic dread present in so many of Lovecraft’s stories? How does a contemporary writer grapple with the objectionable biases in many of Lovecraft’s stories? (For an amazing answer to that last question, go read The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle.)
Then there’s the issue of how much Lovecraftian fiction has been created in the years since HPL died. At one point a small number of people kept the mythos alive, writing these kinds of stories and drawing on Lovecraft’s creations. By the 60s, though, HPL’s inventions were headed to the pop culture mainstay they’ve become today. They influenced music, comic books, movies, and more. By the 80s, Cthulhu appeared in Saturday morning cartoons and had become the basis for a role-playing game as well as board games, card games, and computer games. Not to mention that the number of people writing Lovecraftian fiction skyrocketed, meaning that more and more of the mythos became well-trod and familiar. What more could anyone say about or do with Lovecraft’s creations that didn’t merely repeat past work? What new shadows and fears remained for discovery there?
When I wrote one of my earliest forays into Lovecraftian fiction, “Refugees,” none of this occurred to me. I hadn’t read a lot of mythos fiction (except HPL’s own) and never played Call of Cthulhu (despite playing other RPGs, including the horror-themed Chill). I knew little about Lovecraft as a person. His biases were less in the foreground of the conversation than they are today. Lovecraftians seemed more concerned with tentacles and how many times one could get away with using “eldritch” in a single story (and, thankfully, Lovecraftian scholarship has advanced immensely since then). When I approached Lovecraft I stuck strictly to his original tales and ignored any inventions added to the mythos by other writers. One of the few writers whose Lovecraftian fiction I did read at the time, Stanley C. Sargent, took this approach and delved into Lovecraft’s themes, warts and all, in brilliant and innovative stories, such as “The Black Brat of Dunwich.” The one cue I took from other mythos writers was to create my own personal patch of Lovecraft country.
“Refugees,” published by Allen Kozowksi in the first issue of his magazine Allen K’s Inhuman, introduced Knicksport, a fictionalized version of where I live on the north shore of Long Island. For such a relatively small area geographically, it offers a number of cool opportunities for horror stories. An intricate coastline with plenty of bays and small harbors. Wooded areas that have somehow avoided the developers’ bulldozers for centuries. A history back to the Colonial era. Abandoned places and stretches of wetlands. Even a pine barren to the east and sandy shore cliffs if you know where to look. Three hundred years ago, the New England colonies governed that part of Long Island and at least one witch trial occurred there. So I consider it grandfathered into Lovecraft’s weird New England by association.
Knicksport features prominently in my Lovecraftian novella collection, The Engines of Sacrifice and has become the hub for my ventures into Lovecraft country ever since, connecting stories in a slowly expanding sub-mythos. Characters reoccur in large or small roles, references overlap, and stories set in different eras reveal the consequences of what came before.
For “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills,” the first story in my collection On the Night Border, published by Raw Dog Screaming Press, I dug into the local history of Northport. In the early 1960s Beat author Jack Kerouac lived there (in several different houses during his time as a resident) and frequented Gunther’s, a Main Street bar. Gunther’s still stands today, despite a fire that closed it for more than a year not long after I wrote the story. It reopened, though, and they proudly display an article about Kerouac in the front window. Baymen still go clamming out of Northport, though the business is much diminished and the bay ecosystem much altered. Some still drink at Gunther’s too. Much of the story sprang from research into Kerouac’s time in the town, especially his drinking habits. Lines of dialog based on quotes from interviews he gave at the time, and the bit of Kerouac-ian language near the end of the story proved quite a challenge until listening to recordings of Kerouac reading his work gave me the sense of the rhythm I needed to write it.
The Lovecraftian elements proved a different puzzle to solve. What most appealed to me here was the contrast between Kerouac’s search for spiritual grace in a material world and the horrific indifference of a Lovecraftian cosmos to all that. Which of HPL’s creations best fit the themes of the story and would support the horrific vision it needed? Would this carve out any new pathway thematically? I won’t answer these questions here to avoid spoilers. Some people may have read the story when it was first published in Shadows over Main Street 2. It appeared there as a loose sequel to my story, “Odd Quahogs,” which takes place 15 or 20 years earlier and prominently features Raker’s, the analog for Gunthers that factors into “A Song Left Behind.” Taken together those two stories mark, for me, the point when I really got a handle on answering the challenges of working in a Lovecraftian mode. Whether or not they succeed is, as always, up to the reader, but “A Song Left Behind” received a Bram Stoker Award® nomination so I take that as a good sign.
I don’t often write Lovecraftian fiction. A pair of new Knicksport stories exist, one soon to be published in At the Mountains of Madness Revealed, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, forthcoming from PS Publishing. The fate of the other has yet to be determined. Both pieces offered new opportunities to answer the challenges in new ways, and I suppose that’s what it takes for me to write these kinds of stories. Although I do enjoy spending time in Knicksport and its surroundings, and there is that one incident with William Wintermill and the Martinson estate that has never yet been told…
On The Night Border, Synopsis
- Publishing Date: September 12, 2019
- Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press
- Page Length: 220 pages
Dark things stir in the night. When the world sleeps and quiet settles in, shadows assume sinister shapes, guilt and regret well up from the mind’s deepest recesses, and the lonely face their greatest fears. Darkness bares the secret truths whispered on the lips of the lost and the desperate. At night, terrors come alive. For those who journey too far into the dark, no escape remains–but there is a place from which to view these nightmares, a place…on the night border.
The fifteen stories collected here come from the last edge of the light and deliver glimpses into the dreadful, the mysterious, and the strange. These stories offer readers unsettling and weird visions from across the border, visions out of history and from the world around us, visions of cosmic horror, personal madness, and agonizing heartbreak.
A literary legend confronts the reality of a chaotic, uncaring universe. A young girl grows up in the shadow of a ferocious monster. A man seeks to kill his memories. Love defeats death in an odd world not unlike our own. An artist’s drawings unlock a terrifying truth of his adopted city. A mask burns. The mother of plagues offers a deadly future.
Readers will find here all of these and many other visions of what lies on the far side of the line, including, by special arrangement, stories of Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak and Kolchak, the Night Stalker. Walk up to the edge. Listen to the whispers on the wind. Peer across at the terrors beyond from your vantage point…on the night border!
James Chambers, Biography-
James Chambers is an award-winning author of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction. He wrote the Bram Stoker Award®-winning graphic novel, Kolchak the Night Stalker: The Forgotten Lore of Edgar Allan Poe and was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for his story, “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills.” Publisher’s Weekly gave his collection of four Lovecraftian-inspired novellas, The Engines of Sacrifice, a starred review and described it as “…chillingly evocative.”
He is the author of the short story collections On the Night Border and Resurrection House and several novellas, including The Dead Bear Witness and Tears of Blood, in the Corpse Fauna novella series, and the dark urban fantasy, Three Chords of Chaos.
His short stories have been published in numerous anthologies, including After Punk: Steampowered Tales of the Afterlife, The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, The Best of Defending the Future, Chiral Mad 2, Chiral Mad 4, Deep Cuts, Dragon’s Lure, Fantastic Futures 13, Gaslight and Grimm, The Green Hornet Chronicles, Hardboiled Cthulhu, In An Iron Cage, Kolchak the Night Stalker: Passages of the Macabre, The Pulp Horror Book of Phobias, Qualia Nous, Shadows Over Main Street (1 and 2), The Spider: Extreme Prejudice, To Hell in a Fast Car, Truth or Dare, TV Gods, Walrus Tales, Weird Trails; the chapbook Mooncat Jack; and the magazines Bare Bone, Cthulhu Sex, and Allen K’s Inhuman. He co-edited the anthology, A New York State of Fright: Horror Stories from the Empire State, which received a Bram Stoker Award nomination.
He has also written and edited numerous comic books including Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals, the critically acclaimed “The Revenant” in Shadow House, and The Midnight Hour with Jason Whitley.
He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and recipient of the 2012 Richard Laymon Award and the 2016 Silver Hammer Award.
He lives in New York. Visit his website: http://www.jameschambersonline.com.
Praise for On The Night Border
“On the Night Border is an assemblage of wonderfully-horrific tales by a writer madly in love with language. The fictions within are chambers of storytelling madness that, once fully explored, each and every one, infect the reader into wanting want more, more, more.” –Michael Bailey, author of Psychotropic Dragon and Seven Minutes
“Leave the comfort of what you think you know behind and journey through the dark imaginings of James Chambers, an author with the talent to turn ordinary places and familiar people into our worst nightmares in this latest collection. Get this book now!” –Rena Mason, Bram Stoker Award(R) winning author of The Evolutionist and East End Girls
“Chambers tells stories with the uneasy familiarity of urban legends or tales told around a campfire on a chilly fall evening. Some of the stories you may have read, others leap out at you for the first time. “Kolchak The Night Stalker: The Lost Boy” fluidly takes you back to that ’70s television show, while the closer, “Red Mami,” is a stunner. Highly recommended!” –Multi Bram Stoker Award-Nominated John F.D. Taff, author of Little Black Spots and The Fearing
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If you would like to review On The Night Border or feature James with an interview or guest article for a media publication, blog, or author blurb, please e-mail Erin Al-Mehairi, publicist, at email@example.com.