Writing The Evil Other

The master of the evil other.

No, I didn’t screw up my title.  In this post the term ‘the evil other’ is used to refer to those forms of evil that are innately and absolutely inhuman, perhaps unhuman is a better way of saying it.  Writing ‘Other’, whether evil or not, is often one of the most difficult ventures in the fantasy/science fiction genre.  It is also a difficulty fairly unique to the fantasy/science fiction genre.  In most genre’s of fiction, whether historical fiction, mystery, romance, political fiction, etc, the cast of characters are entirely human.  Even in the vast majority of fantasy and science fiction the characters are, while not completely human, at least similar.  Tolkien’s Elves, Orc, Dwarves, and Hobbits are all essentially human in their personalities.  While they exaggerate certain traits (for example purity, or greed), they still have an essentially human psychological make up.

Even Sauron, while most certainly not human, has many traits that easily fit within human psychology.  Sauron’s wickedness is driven by a need for power, for control, which is (let us admit) a profoundly human motivation.

Introducing a creature into your story that is profoundly unhuman is extremely difficult to do in an effective manner.  Today I am going to talk about H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps the best author of the ‘evil other’ that I have ever read.  I have mentioned him a few times in the past, usually in this same vein.  Lovecraft lived from 1890 to 1937 and, overall, had a fairly sad life.  Between his parents mental illnesses, his own brief bouts with madness, near constant poverty and failure, one failed marriage, and the general tone of loneliness that pervades the story of his life, it is fairly depressing to read.  However, while his stories were never particularly popular during his lifetime, Lovecraft’s writing changed the face of the horror genre forever.

'From A Shadow Over Inns Mouth'

Before Lovecraft, and certainly still popular, the genre of horror writing was predominately monster stories.  Movies like The Wolfman or Creature from the Black Lagoon come to mind, or books such as Dracula or Frankenstein.  The basic plot of these stories is generally the same: man meets/creates monster; monster runs amok killing, maiming, crippling, and generally causing horror and tragedy (and often public panic); some man (perhaps the original, perhaps not) finds a way to defeat/destroy/subdue monster and saves the day.  Details vary from story to story, as does quality.  While Creature from the Black Lagoon is something of a B movie, Dracula and Frankenstein are classics.  Lovecraft’s writing, on the other hand (especially later in life), focused not on the monster, but on the ‘Evil Other’.  While the monster in monster stories is always powerful, Lovecraft’s Cthulian creatures were beyond the scope of human imagining, often literally.  Lovecraft does not often describe his creatures, and when he does the descriptions are vague, leaving the majority of the creature to the reader’s imagination.  Often the sight, or even the very presence of the creature is enough to drive a character into madness so that description becomes impossible.

Moreover Lovecraft brings across the unhumanity of his creatures by focusing on the effect it has on the characters, rather than by making the monster one of the characters itself.  In Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, etc the monster is effectively made one of the characters.  The reader can discern what the monster’s motivations are and those motivations are always human.  Lovecraft avoids the problem of trying to create an unhuman motivation.  The reader will never understand the motivations of Lovecraft’s creatures.  However, Lovecraft does not do this in such a manner that it seems as though his creatures have no motivations, but instead in a manner that makes it seem as those these creatures have motivations and desires of a nature and scope that the human mind cannot comprehend.

Lovecraft presents us with a universe in which human beings are wholly and completely unimportant.  Humans are the fleas hopping around on the game boards of dark and alien gods.  The terrible endings that befall many of Lovecraft’s characters do not happen because they gained the god’s attention, but because the god’s very presence was enough to destroy the human mind.

Lovecraft's only novel length book, first published as a serial in the magazine Astounding Stories. This story was presented in the February through April issues of the magazine in 1936.

This is a large part of what makes Lovecraft’s writing of the ‘evil other’ so effective.  The ‘evil other’ is not an antagonist, it is not even a character.  It is a thing that has goals, desires, and motivations far beyond the scope of the story.  The ‘evil other’ is not active in the story, instead the story simply takes place in its overwhelming presence…indeed the story is often caused by its overwhelming presence.  While this presence can be felt through the entirety of the story it is subtle, often understated, or even unstated until near the end.  The story is about how the characters react to the presence/influence/existence of the creature rather than about the creature itself.

An example of this is Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulu”.  In the story Cthulu does not act.  Yet the story is driven by his presence as his awakening drives the narrator mad.  This use of ‘other’ as a defining aspect of the story, rather than as a character, is what makes its unhumaness effective.

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About noothergods

I hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.

Posted on June 11, 2011, in H.P. Lovecraft, Style and Structure, Tobias Mastgrave and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This seems to be the sort of thing the writers of “Mass Effect” are going for with the Reapers. Or, more accurately, that’s the effect the Reapers are going for, with mixed success.

    • Yes, to some degree. The reapers, in my opinion, were intended to be a sort of evil other. However, the makers of Mass Effect weren’t quite successful in bringing that across. I think that this is because the end game loses a lot of the majesty of the reapers. When you can drive them back then they effectively lose their otherness and the resulting disappointment makes the buildup in the early story seem exaggerated. If you read Lovecraft, especially his Cthulian fiction, is that there is no winning. There is no fight actually. When the Cthulian gods go to war men aren’t on one side of the battle or the other. Instead they are swept along in the wake and, if very lucky, might make it out alive. Lovecraft shows us how the actions of the gods affect men rather than how the actions of man affect the gods.

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