I thought I’d begin by writing about the 3-Day Novel contest.
I’d had an idea, years ago, for an eerie, HP Lovecraft-goes to the Interlake sort of story — the initial image being, if I can recall, a man whose girlfriend had disappeared in the water (and he’s pretty sure she didn’t drown).
I never pursued it because, first, I always had other things to write, and second, the form seemed so limited. Because the patterns of a Lovecraft-type story, or a story using his “Cthulhu Mythos,” is always pretty much the same: after a lot of exposition, the hero gradually comes face to face with irrefutable evidence of the awful, COSMIC HORROR of the universe — the realization that human beings are irrelevant, that everything is doomed, or even that the hero or narrator may himself be transforming INTO THE VERY SORT OF NON-HUMAN BEING HE IS HORRIFIED BY. That sort of thing.
It’s worth pointing out that not only do we kind of know where it is going from the moment we see Lovecraft’s name, or just recognise the form, but that the hero himself (always HIMself for Lovecraft) usually isn’t even a very active protagonist; he is more of a horrified witness. Because that sort of story, as Lovecraft pointed out, is more of a gradual entry into a bad dream than an actual conflict.
And that is how the nightmares I remember seem to me — not like my regular random-action dreams (like old episodes of Mannix) — but an accretion of unsettling details until the final revelation, so awful that one has to wake up. For example: everyone has left and you are all alone on the Earth, or you aren’t all alone because your girlfriend is there, except, it turns out, SHE’S A VAMPIRE — don’t laugh unless you’ve been there — etc. Always followed by a QUICK CUT to being awake and slightly confused about why you feel scared and lonely, and quite concerned to establish the actual existence of your spouse in bed beside you (unless your spouse used to be that girlfriend, in which case, hard luck).
Anyway. It’s not that there’s nothing to a Mythos story, it’s just that, as Fritz Leiber observed — he was one of the many young writers who owed a lot to encouragement and advice from Lovecraft — it seems like a kind of aesthetic dead-end.
(But Lovecraft is unsettling — he had caught some magic, or something, in a bottle, and there are scenes that have remained in my dreams for, literally, decades — although he is also almost never actually scary. You’d think this might be a complete disqualification for a “horror” writer, but in fact, a disappointingly small number of horror writers are actually scary, ever. Still it’s strange, considering his enormous influence and reputation, that Lovecraft is no Stephen King, no Shirley Jackson.)
So… I had this idea for a longish horror story that would belong most of all to this very narrow and limited genre. Who would ever want to read it, or publish it? But that image, of the girlfriend in the water, and drowning is not what the hero is scared of, that stuck with me.
And then I thought of the 3-Day Novel competition. A good venue for a short novel, a good place to try an exercise in genre-writing. I don’t know if everyone who’s tried it agrees, but I thought if I was going to write a whole freaking novel in three days, I wanted the scaffolding of a well-established form for support. And the judges have to read your story.
So, I had a method, and I had an opportunity, and I had a motive, too: because I had just taken two years to write what should have been a fairly simple novel, probably because I worried about it too much (and I had had trouble with the one before that, too). So I wanted to just, please, START and FINISH a book without worrying about it too much.
Anyway, why have a cabin if you don’t use it to hide out and get smelly while you pursue some secret project?