“Lovecraft was a bad writer”, they said. Discuss!

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Lovecraft eZine wallpaper — click to enlarge for use

I scour the web daily for links to post here and at the eZine Facebook page, and I frequently see comments in forums about Lovecraft’s “poor writing ability”.  Great ideas, they say, but poor execution.

I have to disagree.  Lovecraft doesn’t write like other authors, it’s true; but that doesn’t make it bad writing.  And I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the majority of those who are on this bandwagon have barely glanced at his work.  They “couldn’t get into it”, so therefore it must be terrible.

Lovecraft has his own distinctive style, just like Bradbury, Block, Child, and so many others.  And like any author, some of Lovecraft’s stories are better than others; but I honestly can’t see how anyone could say that At the Mountains of Madness, The Call of Cthulhu, and The Shadow Out of Time are examples of poor writing.

I’ll venture to say that many authors that these people love won’t be read one hundred years from now — but Lovecraft will.

Your comments are welcome below, just be respectful.

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45 responses to ““Lovecraft was a bad writer”, they said. Discuss!

  1. I couldn’t agree more ! If you can ready french, I would suggest to read the essay by Denis Mellier named “L’écriture de l’excès : fiction fantastique et poétique de la terreur”. It concerns a lot of rhetorical aspects of horror writing and has a long and detailed chapter about Lovecraft himself and his style. I found it very enlightening 🙂 .

  2. Lovecraft’s writing is certainly “mannered,” but so is opera singing, Shakespearian acting, classical chamber music, and death metal, for that matter. He had a distinct rhythm and vocabulary that harkened back to earlier times, including the use of archaic words that belonged more in the 18th century than the early 20th. For those of us who love his work, that’s an intrinsic part of his appeal – that sense of being in another place, with a different perspective and vocabulary,

  3. I completely agree with you – most people who say that haven’t even read most of Lovecraft’s work. I have often thought it is a petty and short-sighted thing to say about an author who created a mythos that is known across the globe and has inspired so many others. I have heard the same thing (often with a disdainful sniff) about Poe.

  4. O gawd–DON’T GET ME STARTED!!!!! I have gone on to these forums and called a bunch of people bad names because of their grotesque stupidity; but I really need to grow up myself and stop this behavior, and the real reply is Lovecraft himself and his EXCELLENT fiction. Lovecraft was a superb writer, and this is pointed out more and more by intelligent scholars and critiques who actually understand that which incorporates good writing. A “poor” writer wou’d not have his work constantly in-print since the 1940s, nor wou’d a bad writer have so many new editions of his work (the new Centipede Press edition edited by Joshi, the forthcoming single volumes from PS Publishing, the three volumes of THE VARIORUM LOVECRAFT, and the spectacular hardcover edition THE NEW ANNOTATED H. P. LOVECRAFT). And, really, one cannot talk sense to some goon who posts a comment like, “Lovecraft’s writing is worse than that of a third grader…” A person so pathetically stupid to think such a thing is beyond reason & salvation. There’s a completely stupid person at the Eldritch Dark forum who has been posting comments dissing Lovecraft in a thread I started concerning the Oxford edition of Lovecraft, a person who repeatedly insists that Lovecraft was a lousy writer, that Lovecraft’s stories aren’t cosmic, that Lovecraft was a pretentious poseur, &c &c. But Lovecraft will always win such arguments, because he is a confirm’d Classic of American Literature, a writer who was almost always a master of his prose style, of his ultra-original vision. If I wasn’t such a confirm’d Mormon, I’d say that LOVECRAFT IS GOD. I believe I’ll say it anyway….

    • Agreed. To me Lovecraft was a fine writer. His prose was atmospheric and hypnotic. His tales would not be as effective (though they would still be great) without his flavor and rhythm. I find his voice extremely effective and charming.

    • Fully agree Willum. In some sense he may have been a bit of a poseur, but that’s mainly because he was ploughing his own furrow in regard to his style and content, and as a leading member of his cadre, I believe that he could be allowed this foible. How many writers could this be leveled at; a fair few I bet – especially nowadays.

  5. Lovecraft was like an impressionist painter. Americans were raised on the sparse sentences of writers like Ernest Hemingway. That writing became the standard against which all other writers were judged. Like a Van Gogh or Picasso, whom critics judged their works as non-art, because they didn’t fit the agreed upon patterns for good art – Lovecraft was judged as a non-writer, because his words, like their brush strokes, fell outside the lines. Like Van Gogh, time has proven what is great art, and with Lovecraft, what is great writing. For so many to say, he was a horrible writer with a great imagination – that just doesn’t make sense.

  6. The problem is most people cant tell good writing from a hole in the ground (how the hell the Twilight series did so well is beyond me). Lovecraft’s work has inspired numerous authors where as poor writers fade in to obscurity.

  7. The guy is great – really mastered a certain style and story – but his voice and stories were monotone, his characters, situations, and themes static, his prose clunky, and every story is insanely similar to the last, down to certain lines showing up time and time again, only worded slightly differently. And they largely end the same way – a male fleeing in deranged horror. For me, it’s his influence that was great. He was a master of the subtle horror and of mood, a solid and imaginative storyteller, but far from the best writer of all time. That said, he certainly wasn’t bad, either; he deserves to be called a great.

  8. Sometimes you have to understand the context. I like reading all things HPL but I am not a scholar so others will no doubt say this better.

    One example is what may be called HPL’s Dunsanian wiritng. Here I think he has gone to great efforts to give a cadence and feel to his language so it matches the dreamy similar works of Dunsany. The one that immediately springs to my mind is The Doom that Came to Sarnath. If you compare this to modern popular prose (be it blog entries, what passes for news on Huffington post or even genre novels) it can seem overblown and affected. However if you do a bit of delving you find he took extraordinary care with his word selection and phrase structure. Reading it aloud brings the effect of the cadence to magical life. The more you delve, the more you find this is the case with a considerable body of HPL’s work.

    Another point is that if he is regarded poorly now by some of the impatient modern public, one has to wonder why his services as a ghostwriter were in such demand.

  9. I get into this debate frequently. Lovecraft did not write in the style that was, during his life and immediately after, becoming popular: the “modern” style of George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway in which (in Orwell’s formulation) writing should be as “clear as glass” so that you can see the meaning rather than being distracted by the prose. Lovecraft’s writing is not like Streamlined Moderne architecture but like Art Nouveau and earlier forms, Victorian. It is carved, varnished wood, rather than straight simple lines. To people who do not like reading him, I suggest that they listen to some of the more high-quality audio readings such as those by Richard Coyle (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJiSK3KW628&list=PL7EB609F2A8C7ADE5)

  10. Hello everyone.
    I’m a french reader of Lovecraft and of the website, so i have to apologize for my english.
    I just wanted to say that the most I read about h.p.Lovcraft is the french translation, but I already have read some stories in english. In both cases, it’s very well written… in my opinion. My favorite one is Azathoth. I guess that everybody knows this short text:

    “When age fell upon the world, and wonder went out of the minds of men; when grey cities reared to smoky skies tall towers grim and ugly, in whose shadow none might dream of the sun or of spring’s flowering meads; when learning stripped earth of her mantle of beauty, and poets sang no more save of twisted phantoms seen with bleared and inward-looking eyes; when these things had come to pass, and childish hopes had gone away forever, there was a man who travelled out of life on a quest into the spaces whither the world’s dreams had fled.”

    I think that this text is a good exemple of Lovecraftian style: fluid, precise, well rhythmic… We see that Lovecraft has his own distinctive style, just like Goethe, Baudelaire, Clark A.Smith and so many others. His love for agents words comes from his interest in old poetry, like Alexander Pope, so I Suppose… It’s not a problem to me, even if it’s realy hard to read when you’re french!

    The Idea of a “poor writing ability”, “Great ideas, they say, but poor execution” is more someting I would say about Stephen King. His sentences are very short and the vocabulary is less precise or extensive as others ones like Lovecraft.

  11. I agree with you all in some ways, I agree that his writing was unique and beautiful. His stories are also amazing, however, I will say this ( and I have read plenty of his work, he is also a big inspiration on my own writing) he couldn’t write dialogue or women.

  12. Read all of his works many times over.Arguably the best writer ever…enough said!

  13. Those who say Lovecraft was a bad writer probably never wrote an essay in their life. I read Lovecraft and I can say this…. I want to read more. From the Mountains of Madness I say to thee…. farewell.

  14. Lin Carter said the following in Lovecraft: A Look Behind The Cthulhu Mythos: “He has no ability at all for creating character or for writing dialogue. His prose is stilted, artificial, affected. It is also very overwritten, verbose, and swimming in adjectives. His plotting is frequently mechanical and his major stylistic device, which becomes tiresome, is the simple trick of withholding the final revelation until the terminal sentence — and then printing it in italics, presumably for maximum shock value.”

    Does this make Lovecraft a bad writer? HELL NO! What makes a bad writer is his / her inability to connect with a reader, the mechanics of writing be damned! Lovecraft did this by introducing a whole alternate cosmos of formidable and horrific beings in an era before the terms “parallel universe” and “alternate reality” were in vogue. He hinted at things too terrible to describe and made you feel them, fear them, and left you wanting more. His descriptions rose above prose that was (arguably) “overwritten, verbose, and swimming in adjectives.” In this time of special effects CGI, it’s easy to forget that in Lovecraft’s time, the only way to plant an image in the mind of an audience was via the written word. Lovecraft was adept at this, his language, stilted though it might be, evoked atmosphere, wonder, and dread in a very visceral way. He may not be to everyone’s taste and his chosen genre may not be to everyone’s liking, but to call him a bad writer says more about his critics than about Lovecraft himself.

    By the way, the opening paragraph is Carter’s way, not of disparaging Lovecraft, but of acknowledging his imperfections and proving that in spite of them, Lovecraft way a true innovator and master of his craft.

  15. I don’t think he’s quite as masterful as is often proclaimed – but I am also a big, long-term fan. I think his writing can very much be accused of overreaching, but that’s fine because it’s where his humanity shows through – kind of important given how much of his narrative came from his dreams or night terrors. But it’s OK to admit there’s flaws in his work; I’m pretty sure that relentless adulation would be a pedestal the guy would feel a little uneasy about.

    The big problem is when people are castigated as stupid or ‘not getting it’ if they have problems with the text, or if it’s not for them. People like what they like, and their interpretation of the man shouldn’t change one’s own – though we should always consider why we like things. It’s good to be challenged by people who aren’t necessarily singing from the same sheet.

    Like every author, Lovecraft has his share of clangers, particularly if your ear isn’t tuned for his prose. And it takes time: try reading a whack of Chaucer when you’ve been reading only modern lit – your brain takes time to adjust. Same with HPL. ‘Getting it’ may be a matter of acclimatisation. If people are met with insults because it doesn’t click the first time around, they’re not likely to come back for more.

  16. People also complain that Jesus never said stuff so that everyone could understand what he was saying. Most times he talked in riddles or parables. That often frustrates people. It does me. And Lovecraft had a way of saying simple things in complex ways. So instead of saying “the dog crossed the road to see what the rabbit was doing”, he would say “the canine became immensely curious about what was going on with a furry rodent on the other side of the thoroughfare, thus he felt compelled to cross, at the risk of his own safety, to further investigate”. People nowadays want to get to the point without all the flowery language thrown in. But that was HIS style of writing. If you do’t like it, well, there is always comic books 😀

  17. Lovecraft’s prose is perfectly suited to his stories, his rhythm and cadence adds immensely to the atmosphere and mood of his work. I am a wannabe author myself and one of the things I have l have learnt is that different stories needs different prose. There is a big difference between writing a tense fast-paced action thriller and a slow cooking moody piece of horror.
    Lovecraft knew exactly what he was doing.

  18. People gripe about HPL’s wordiness, but I find it lyrical, and his work is wonderful to read out loud. His works force me to take my time with the story or poem and revel in the beauty of language.

  19. L. Sprague De Camp, in his biography of Lovecraft, does a lot of picking-apart of HPL’s prose, often with a negative slant. He obviously judges Lovecraft by the standard of “good writing” of the mid- to late 20th century. But HPL wrote at the beginning of that century, and was a self-avowed admirer of the 18th. He consciously wrote in the style that suited him, and as others have said, his writing connects with readers nearly 100 years later, so picky criticism seems irrelevant.A reader new to HPL has to make a bit of an effort to let the words weave their spell, but that effort is worthwhile.

  20. i think the easiest thing to say is that Lovecraft was a bad writer. the simplest thing to do is to look at construction and usage and say he was a bad writer.
    however, there is more to good writing than writing properly.
    i will use the example i have heard more than any other: Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES. the introductory paragraph is poorly written, there is no doubt about that. yet, why is the work so brilliant, and why is that introduction so brilliant.
    Dickens condensed the entire story into that one long paragraph. the duality theme of the novel is spread out on an operating table, etherised for your consumption before you get to know the characters or their situations. it is an absolutely brilliant paragraph. poorly written, yes. so what?
    a lot of pulp fiction writers lacked the style of their mainstream contemporaries, no one is denying that. their use of the english language lacked a certain finesse and catered to the growing working class of the times. but i think that is where they displayed their brilliance. they were pioneers in a society where reading and writing for entertainment were no longer relegated to those with higher educations.
    so was Lovecraft a bad writer? in the most basic sense of usage and form, he certainly wasn’t a stylist. he wrote nothing like those who influenced him, but they wrote for a different kind of reader and for a different time. whether Lovecraft chose his style consciously or not will never be known, but he appealed to an increasingly blue-collar reader, and there is brilliance in that alone.

  21. Lovecraft, could not write a scene to save his ass.

    His word choice was over the top at times, he should have been writing the generations before his time. This doesn’t mean he was a “Bad” writer, on the contrary, He had a most unique voice, he was Melodramatic, insightful, his ability to hold tension and his use of keeping the suspense are rarely reached.


    When you’re writing about a writer, who is scribing in first person, fearing – a creature outside his door that is clawing his way in at any minute, as the Writer franticly scribbles about it describing it in Absurd detail all the while awaiting, his appending “DOOM”! Well, it just looks a little silly.

    Lovecraft, did get better as time went on. I feel when people say that, they have only read SOME of his stories not all. When I first read Lovecraft and I had come to a story, like the one I describe above I was turned off as well. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s that I started to enjoy some of his stories. That being said, he still left me with my imaination going wild.

    Good reading to you!!!

  22. The fact that we’re arguing this, pushing a century after the stories were written, is my rebuttal. Some of the elements of his writing, especially his earlier writing have some definite stylistic failings. But considering the amount of discussion, the amount of material published every year that discusses, covers, pastiches or reboots Lovecraftian fiction shows that we’ll be arguing this (well, I probably won’t) in another century, while the latest hot set of fantasy trilogies, or teen series will be long forgotten. Cthulhu Ftagn.

  23. They also said this about R.E. Howard, and even Edgar Allen Poe. The thing is, that in the end: those who can do, those who can’t criticize those that did. Lovecraft had a very unique style, some will like it, some won’t, but to say that he lacked talent would be a real disservice to a man that inspired generations of other writers.

  24. One of the things I realized when reading Lovecraft stories is that he gives you enough for you to “fill it in” with your imagination. Its amazing how frightening this technique is and he uses it regularly. A simple line can generate what amounts to a micro-dream of the horrible terror of an action that is only hinted at in his words. Its this very quality that not only cements him as a great writer, but elevates his stories to literature.

  25. Lovecraft was a great writer, based on his enduring, indeed, growing appeal, and his influence on other writers. He could regularly make readers suspend disbelief about some of the most unbelievable entities in literature, and, at his best, he was a master of atmosphere, and was able to cause that little shudder and a little furtive look over one’s shoulder. Very few authors still have their work growing in influence this long after they have left the stage.

  26. I have read stories and novels by different authors, and enjoy them. But the two authors that I constantly come back to is H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Why? Because they draw me into the story and hold me there until the very last word. Story is king, and these two writers knew how to spin a yarn! And by the way, don’t distain comics. Many of today’s comics are well written and sophisticated. H.P. Lovecraft a bad writer? Yeah, bad to the bone, baby. Bad to the bone!

  27. Who knows. The issue here is related with some kind of writing skills. We need to define the meaning of ”writing ability”. What does that mean? Let’s suppouse it means grammar right application. In that case Publishers are the one who check and correct grammar of some text they are going to publish. So it really doesn’t have a necessary link between the author and his final work. By other hand, if we say writing ability means creativity, we know Lovecraft was probably one of the greatest authors in his genre, probably there was not any other author like him in his time. I guess the right way of this discussion is: in first place to have some accord in the meaning of the phrase “writing ability”. Once we have a same or at least similar meaning, we can start to discuss the issue.

  28. People complain about the “purple” writing,” yet I read Lovecraft continually and find very little such affected prose. His narrative voice is perfectly natural, if a bit antiquated. People accuse we who strive for a Literary style as writing in an old-fashioned way–but good writing is timeless, to my mind, and Lovecraft was a very good writer. Lin Carter’s ranting about “stilted, artificial, affected” is nonsense, Lovecraft’s prose is the complete opposite of this. HPL thought of writing as an art form, and he desired to write as an artist, to create fiction that had substance. He succeeded, and his fiction will remain in print for all of mortal time. Every new edition of his work swells his audience. I am SO EXCITED about reading the fiction anew in THE NEW ANNOTATED H. P. LOVECRAFT!

    • “stilted, artificial, affected” Hmm… Why does it sound right when I read it aloud then?
      In my humble opinion, reading a text aloud is the easiest way to determine if it is natural or artificial, if you cannot make it sound right while reading it aloud, well, then it is time to rewrite.

  29. I have to admit when I was 14 or 15 I liked Howard much better than Lovecraft. My first experience was “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and the first time I read it I didn’t like it at all. I discovered “In the Midst of Life” by Bierce soon after that and as I matured my enjoyment of HPL increased. The first of his stories that really caught me was “The Strange High House in the Mist” and after that I was hooked.

  30. Part One of Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy gives a rebuttal to the literalizing of Lovecraft by the Wilsonian school of critics (along with some philosophical slogging). Worth a look if you can’t get enough about HPL.

  31. Today, people are in a hurry. They’re impatient and want it now, buddy! Today’s novels and stories are fast-paced to accommodate today’s fast-paced society. In the twenties and thirties, life was less hectic and slower paced. Compared to today, life was much simpler. Not easier, but simpler. The twenties were extravagant and fun, the thirties dark and uncertain and dangerous. Proabition began and the criminal bootlegging and gangster element horrified the nation.

    H.P. Lovecraft deemed himself a gentleman. He admired Edgar Allen Poe and in his early writing period mimicked his style of writing. Later, he drew upon the writings of Lord Dunsany to create a whole new direction for his unique fiction of cosmic terror. He didn’t write for money, he detested the very idea of being paid for what he did for pleasure as a gentleman. However, in time, that attitude would change.
    Broke and nearly destitute, he lived on nearly nothing, eating beans and noodles. He was a product of his times, and anti-Semitism was rampant. He saw and hated the flood of “alien” immigrants into America. He hated it. By today’s standards, he was a bigot.

    H.P. Lovecraft, like many great artists, was a complex man. He lived in his own world and I doubt that he would ever intentionally harm anyone.
    Did he hate Jews? He married a Jewish woman. Would a man who really hated a race, marry one. Not likely.

    During the thirties, he found his market in Weird Tales magazine. And his writing was exposed to its readership. Fans were created, fans that would carry on his legacy for future generations.

    If one is used to reading fast-paced modern fiction which is a Lamborghini flashing down the super highway, then one must realize that to read a Lovecraft story, one must step out of the Lamborghini and climb into an old-fashioned horse and buggy. And take a leisurely journey into unexpected cosmic terror!

  32. It is a loaded question really without a meaningful answer. His works are read and loved by many people around the world (in the original and in translation), and I believe that’s not just because of the plots of his stories but the way in which they are told.

  33. Good or bad. Who can really say what is good or bad, with authority? For me it is about ideas and the feel of his stories, not the technical aspects.

  34. Debating the merit of any writer usually seems pointless. And I do it anyway. I notice that most commenters here favor Lovecraft, so I feel safe to say that I agree. A lot of his work doesn’t work, to put it frankly. So I suppose I can understand why a person might believe he was untalented. I don’t worry about the bad work Lovecraft produced, or that any writer produced. A writer’s career should be measured by his worthy pieces. If a single story strikes me as meaningful, then that’s all I need. In Lovecraft’s case, there was more than one, but I won’t mention any specific stories. That’s an entirely different debate.

    A lot of people aren’t going to appreciate Lovecraft’s better work anyway. It requires a special perspective. If you can’t see it, if your imagination doesn’t actually take you to the experience, then you won’t enjoy it. Is enjoy the right word? Probably not in this case. Anyway, I know it’s true of any fiction that the right point of view is necessary, but it is particularly true of Lovecraft. Knowing that I can’t fault Lovecraft detractors, but I certainly don’t agree with them.

  35. I have to agree that Lovecraft’s execution was at times poor and frequently old fashioned. His story-telling, however, was first rate. The two things should not be confused. Most writers excel at certain things and do less well at others, Lovecraft was no exception. His stories are not character-centric, instead, he focuses on plot and atmosphere and there is nothing wrong with that. His over use of certain words and overly scientific language can be grating at times but whether he was a bad writer really depends on what his writing and what it’s intended purpose was. He wrote fiction, therefore, its purpose was to entertain; it does that and so I would say that he was a good writer. It’s just unusual to have such a good story-teller with such a bad writing style. Though, I would certainly take content over style any day.

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