Monday, September 16, 2013

If You’d Rather Write Pulp Fiction…

H.P. Lovecraft begins his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) with these words: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”  

He goes on to survey the influence and history of gothic writers leading up to his great mentor, Edgar Allen Poe.  He then traces the development of weird fiction in America and England, and finishes with a critical review of contemporary authors circa the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  His language is ponderous and academic, but also stately—comprised of long, well wrought and grammatically complex sentences reminiscent of his literary hero.

A few years before this, George Allan England published a less well known essay called The Fantastic in Fiction (1924).  He begins with these words:  “One of the most profitable fields of fiction, if the writer knows how to cultivate it, is that which for lack of a better term we may call “Pseudo-Scientific”.

Rather than dwell on the works of his predecessors and contemporaries, or seek any understanding of historical continuity, England goes on to brag about all of his recent publications, here and there acknowledging that he might have saved his creative energies by borrowing some from elsewhere:  “My ‘House of Transmutation’ dealt with some rather horrific adventures in remodeling a gorilla to human form and intelligence…I will confess to having been a little influenced by that real masterpiece, ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’…”

Elsewhere in his essay, England, who emulates H.G. Wells as Lovecraft does Poe, says this about his mentor:  “Wells is, of course, one of the most successful modern ‘science-fakers’.  The skill wherewith he makes the impossible seem possible may well serve as a model to any aspirants in this line of endeavor.”  And this is the gist of his advice to would be fiction writers—become adept at faking science.

This requires extensive research.  England describes how nearly every story he wrote required considerable study in diverse fields.  What if there are insufficient facts or scientific research to support the premise of a story?  No problem—make some up:  “On a pinch, one can quote learned authorities which never existed, and fabricate weighty conclusions out of whole cloth.”  Lovecraft certainly made frequent use of this technique in creating his Necronomicon and similar reference books, as well as fabricating detailed histories of fictional people and places.

England advises writers to include a didactic element in their fiction.  Even if the science is fraudulent, the reader should still learn something new and useful.  “In the bushel of chaff, a grain of good wheat can be hidden.”  Unlike Lovecraft, he also felt that the story must include some romance woven into the science and fantasy.  “The scientific warp must be shot through with the woof of human interest and love.”     Balance was needed, or else the story would appeal only to scientifically minded readers.

George Allan England was primarily a science-fiction writer, though he dabbled in horror.  One of his better known tales, The Thing From Outside (1923), often shows up in anthologies. It was featured in a post last month, (“Cosmic Ants”).  England also wrote a trilogy of science novels dealing with an apocalyptic future earth.  These were eventually collected as Darkness and Dawn (1914).

To get a sense of the range of his imagination and the perhaps some of the spirit that enlivened this early speculative and weird fiction, here are some of England’s stories expressed in the form of ‘what-if’ questions:

1.  What if forms of life evolved in the Arctic without chlorophyll or any other plant life as we know it?
2.  What if someone were kept alive indefinitely with a mechanical heart?
3.  What if there was an elixir that reversed the aging process and made people relentlessly younger and younger?
4.  What if you transplanted the brain of an executed murderer into the skull of a large dog?
5.  What if evil capitalists took over the world’s air supply and sold it to the oppressed?  (England was a socialist and once ran for governor of Maine.)
6.  What if an evil crime boss could direct his henchman using only the power of his mind?
7.  What if you planted wheat found in an ancient Egyptian pyramid?
8.  What if you had a special radioactive ray that dissolved gold and aimed it at the world’s banks?
9.  What if you were a passenger in a dirigible that was struck by a meteor?

And so forth.  It would obviously take a great amount of study and research to make any of these ideas believable—but he did just that for a time and was fairly successful.  One of my favorite quotes from George Allan England:

“Let the writer resolve, that for every 100 lies, he shall tell at least one truth of real value to the world, and perhaps he can somewhat salve his conscience.”

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