The First Rule of Writing is You Don’t Talk about Writing

Now that we’re a couple of days into it, I wanted to say something about “Allendale” and, more specifically, about why I think Lovecraft’s story is so good. First, I love that, right from the start, he lets you know that you’re in a world very much like this one, possibly this one. After all, an author you know and probably have read is in the world of the story as well. I’m not sure if Lovecraft’s original story is as firmly routed in a kind of plausible alternate history of the land as mine, but it wouldn’t surprise me. But I think there’s something effectively funhouse about a labyrinth that doesn’t appear to be. Like, with “Allendale,” you’re just outside of Gallatin, on a road that really exists, talking about a house I really saw out there and wished were connected to the Allens. It appears to be a straight historical hall we’re walking down, and yet, the maze is so big, the curves so slight you don’t realize you’re making them, and then, whoops, you’re not in a real timeline decorated with fiction but a fictional timeline decorated with fact.

When did we make that turn? You look back and the hallway still seems straight, but you can’t see the front door anymore. It’s just a fucking brilliant approach to horror, because it introduces the uncanny at a level most people aren’t prepared to steal themselves against. Here’s a more blatant example. If I tell you that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1676, you either think I’ve made a typo OR that you’re reading a book set in a timeline much different than the one you live in. The things in that timeline may be horrible or scary or whatever, but you have a certain amount of distance. But say that I say that the Declaration of Independence was ratified on June 30, 1776? Feel that? That feeling of “No. That’s not right. But wait, is it right? Did they ratify early and then not announce it until the 4th?” It’s just, ugh, I die of jealousy over how well it works to set uncertainty in the mind of your reader, how it kicks in a little self-doubt without signalling that that’s what it’s doing.

Could Stephen King have come to Gallatin for pot in the 70s? Is that where the Allens lived? There is a house there… That was isolated… It just puts you in the mood of uncertainty right from the get-go without it being obvious.

I love it. Later on you’ll see how Lovecraft, and by extension, I make the turns in the labyrinth tighter, the history more elaborate and less true, but in a way that seems plausible.

The second trick of Lovecraft’s that’s really obvious here is the “the story doth protest too much” strategy. No one thought the house was haunted. Everyone thought the deaths were natural. No one had any idea things were strange. I’m certainly not going to say for certain anything weird was even going on in the house. Just phrase after phrase about how everything’s fine, fine, fine. It doesn’t take too many “Oh, it’s completely cool here, totally cool. No, really, it’s lovely.” before you’re like “Um, I think this is not cool, but I don’t know why.” Lovecraft uses this trick a lot in his writing and he’s not always exactly subtle with it, but I think it works well here.

The third thing that he does really well that’s already obvious are the tiny cliffhangers. The story builds up over and over to these small moments of revelation. Serializing the story, it was nice because they’re kind of natural places to break for the day. But again, if we’re using the labyrinth metaphor, these are little turning points. We’re going along one way–say talking about how everything is fine at the house, how all of the stories can be dismissed–and then we turn and now the Uncle’s notes tell us something different.

But watch how this goes tonight, because it’s a skill I could sorely learn as a writer. Last night we learned that there’s something in the notes that undermines the family myth of the house. So, you’d think that we’d be on to talk about what’s in those notes. But no, we have four more days after today before we return to the subject of the notes. They’re just hanging out there, a little tantalizing temptation to keep us moving further into the story. And once we reach the notes, watch how he throws something farther down the hall for us to move toward, to try to figure out.

It’s so good. And even seeing how he’s doing it somehow does not take away from the magic I feel seeing it done.

One thought on “The First Rule of Writing is You Don’t Talk about Writing

  1. Sort of like Tom Wolfe’s point that Chuck Yeager and his cohorts never talked about what it meant to have the ‘Write Stuff.’

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