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Fun exercise: translating Lovecraft into Hemingway

One dreary afternoon last October, David and I started playing a game. (Not that kind of game.) He would read aloud a passage from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” and I would try to communicate the exact same thing, in the style of Hemingway. For example:

Lovecraft:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Hemingway:

Some things, man wasn’t meant to know.

Why Hemingway vs. Lovecraft, and vice versa? Because they were contemporaries who shaped two diverging paths in American prose style and content while sharing a fascination with fear. Lovecraft was born a mere nine years before Hemingway, though Hemingway lived for thirty years more. Both writers saw sweeping changes in science, policy, and culture. As Charlie Stross has pointed out, the discoveries in the field of astronomy alone warranted a deep and sustained cosmic horror — an existential terror at the vastness of the universe and humanity’s insignificance within it. Similarly, Hemingway witnessed the horrors of war and the technological innovations that made it possible, during his time on the Italian Front during the First World War. His intrigue with armed conflict, and with man’s war with himself, only continued during his time covering the Spanish Civil War and the landing of troops at the Normandy beaches. The horror both men experienced winds its way through their works — Lovecraft’s an undeniably racist hatred of the Other, Hemingway’s in the overwhelming desire to determine how exactly people can triumph over fear itself.

Despite cavernous differences in subject matter, life experience, number of romantic entanglements, location, and approach toward modernism, the men shared more than you might think. Demographically, they were almost alike, aside from their respective families’ social standing: straight, white, male, raised Protestant but secretly agnostic or atheist. Early readers of Hemingway’s work accused him of the racism, homophobia, and misogyny that we now see as endemic to Lovecraft’s work. Both men also struggled with what we might now deem mental ilness. Hemingway’s last days were marked by paranoia, profound loneliness, hypertension, and emergency electroconvulsive treatments that could not prevent his suicide. Lovecraft’s father was institutionalized, and as a boy Lovecraft was consumed by anxiety, resulting in a life lived primarily indoors and a nervous breakdown that kept him from graduating high school. His mother was also institutionalized, and afterward, Lovecraft’s reclusive behaviour kept him from capitalizing on publishing opportunities that would have kept him from dying in poverty. He became what we’d now refer to as NEET or hikikomori. They suffered very different ailments, but their suffering was equally sharp.

And yet, one could not name two other such diametrically opposed contributors to the canon of American literature. Lovecraft’s prose is florid where Hemingway’s is spare. Hemingway’s novels and short stories are few where Lovecraft’s are legion. Hemingway’s stories have a definitive beginning, middle, and end, while Lovecraft’s are often little more than tone poems. (I’m looking at you, “Nyarthlotep.”) Compare these two passages, which are equally horrific in their own way:

“This lady is going to have a baby, Nick,” he said.

“I know,” said Nick.

“You don’t know,” said his father. “Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what is happening when she screams.”

“I see,” Nick said.

Just then the woman cried out.

“Oh, Daddy, can’t you give her something to make her stop screaming?” asked Nick.

“No. I haven’t any anaesthetic,” his father said. “But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.”
“Indian Camp,” 1924

versus

“You think those floundering things wiped out the servants? Fool, they are harmless! But the servants are gone, aren’t they? You tried to stop me; you discouraged me when I needed every drop of encouragement I could get; you were afraid of the cosmic truth, you damned coward, but now I’ve got you! What swept up the servants? What made them scream so loud? . . . Don’t know, eh? You’ll know soon enough! Look at me—listen to what I say—do you suppose there are really any such things as time and magnitude? Do you fancy there are such things as form or matter? I tell you, I have struck depths that your little brain can’t picture! I have seen beyond the bounds of infinity and drawn down daemons from the stars. . . . I have harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness. . . . Space belongs to me, do you hear? Things are hunting me now—the things that devour and dissolve—but I know how to elude them. It is you they will get, as they got the servants. Stirring, dear sir? I told you it was dangerous to move. I have saved you so far by telling you to keep still—saved you to see more sights and to listen to me. If you had moved, they would have been at you long ago. Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you. They didn’t hurt the servants—it was seeing that made the poor devils scream so. My pets are not pretty, for they come out of places where aesthetic standards are—very different. Disintegration is quite painless, I assure you—but I want you to see them. I almost saw them, but I knew how to stop. You are not curious? I always knew you were no scientist! Trembling, eh? Trembling with anxiety to see the ultimate things I have discovered? Why don’t you move, then? Tired? Well, don’t worry, my friend, for they are coming. . . . Look! Look, curse you, look! . . . It’s just over your left shoulder. . . .”
“From Beyond,” written 1920, published 1934

What I enjoy about comparing these two passages is that they’re both about mad scientists, in their own way, anointing followers into their madness. Nick’s father is the only doctor around for miles, and clearly relishes the way his position affords him great respect at the cost of his compassion. Crawford Tillinghast is the inventor of an augmented reality device, and, while demonstrating his invention, handily demonstrates his total loss of compassion. These are both learned men of science who can’t stand any whining about morality or kindness. (Nick’s father calls the expecting mother “a dirty Squaw bitch,”; Tillinghast cares not that his servants have been killed by the creatures his machine made visible.) Both are privileged in their circumstances, and their villainy stems from that privilege. But the execution of that message is completely different.

So, give it a go. The fun thing about flipping between such disparate styles is realizing you can re-arrange the words like furniture, while still making the same point. In fact, the exercise is so powerful that Ursula LeGuin suggests it in Steering the Craft, her workshop book (where I initially got this idea). In an exercise called “I am Gabriel García Marquez,” she challenges writers to take on another writers’ voice, just to see what they’re capable of. The subject matter can be uniquely yours, but finding five different authorial voices to express the same idea is actually a pretty great way of exploring the limits of that idea. Knowing all the different voices you have available to call on means that you can choose from among them freely.

  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, Tor.com, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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