Decoding H.P. Lovecraft

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Giant squid!
Photo: Yinan Chen

Guest blogger Jonathan Wood is an Englishman living in New York, an author, and a geek dad. His debut novel, No Hero, was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a funny, dark, rip-roaring adventure with a lot of heart.” Jonathan’s latest novel, Anti-Hero, follows the continuing adventures of Arthur Wallace and MI37 as they defend Britain from unspeakable cosmic horrors. Find out more about Jonathan at his website or on Twitter.

Ok, I realize this sounds like it’s going to be a sex advice column, but this is science fiction. So 1920s horror icons it is.

H.P. Lovecraft has one of the most distinctive vocabularies in our genre. Or at least he seems to. But how much did he actually use words like “gibbous” and “squamous,” and, while we’re at it, what the hell did he actually mean?

Squamous
Used 1 time.

Once? Once? What the hell? For me and my friends, this was pretty much the definitive Lovecraftian word. Everything was squamous. You were squamous. Your mum was squamous. Also, for such a disgustingly, oozingly slick word, I find it rather disappointing that it means dry and scaly. Not off to a good start, Lovecraft. Not at all.

Effulgence
Used 4 times

Ok, so four times is better that once, but still, this is a disappointing showing for effulgence. In this case, it means “brightness or brilliant light radiating from something.” Technically that doesn’t preclude the brightness being caused by some sort of utterly vile ectoplasm, dripping from the pores of some unspeakable horror so I think that’s ok.

Gibbous
Used 9 times

OK, I’m excited because I knew this one. A disappointingly mundane word, though. It just means that the moon is less than a full circle and more than a half circle. It sounds like “gibber,” but basically means “semicircle with a paunch.” Not so horrific now, is it?

Non-Euclidean
Used 2 times

According to my extensive (erm…) research, this is defined as “going beyond Euclidean principles in geometry, especially in contravening the postulate that only one line through a given point can be parallel to a given line.”

After I recovered from going cross-eyed, I tried again, and, basically, in Euclidean geometry, if you have a line and a point, there is only one line parallel to the first that can pass through that point. In non-Euclidean, more than one line can pass through the point, possibly even infinite lines, because, according to the internet, reasons.

I don’t know, it got weird. You win this time, Lovecraft. That sounds strange as all hell.

Stygian
Used 6 times

“Of or relating to the River Styx,” the river that one had to cross in order to get to Hades. Suitably demonic and dark. A bit classical in its stylings, but it has bonus points for a nice squidgy sound in the middle with the soft “g.” Lovecraft is crawling back towards creepy.

Eldritch
Used 23 times

This is more like it. “Weird and sinister or ghostly.” This is the money word of Lovecraftian fiction. Forget “squamous.” “Non-Euclidean” can go hang. We’re all eldritch, all the time, baby.

Gambrel
Used 21 times

Ok, we’re cooking with gas now. Gambrel. I don’t know? Something about dancing goat hooves going tipper tap across the skein of my sanity, right? Let me see, let me see…

“A roof with two sides, each of which has a shallower slope above a steeper one.”

Uhh.

Tenebrous
Used 9 times

“Dark, shadowy, or obscure.” I think we’re back on track here. This is…

Wait, no, I’m sorry. This is outweighed two to one by a bloody architectural detail? What the hell? “Gambrel” is just describing a roof? That’s what’s tenebrous around here: the overuse of “gambrel.”

Ululating
Used 16 times

Hmm… “Howl or wail as an expression of strong emotion, typically grief.” That’s two good ones in a row, I suppose. And together that’s more times than bloody “gambrel” shows up.

Bloody “gambrel.”

Cat
Used 46 times

Ok, yes, I know what “cat” means. It’s just… 46 times. We get squamous once, and cat 46 times? That’s twice as many showings as “eldritch” even. I mean, is Lovecraft a horror icon, or a contributor to Cat Fancy magazine? Did I look up the wrong dude here?

Or… Wait… Is there a secret message? Dark, unknown masters capable of mind-bending, unspeakable horrors…

OH GOD, IT’S THE CATS! THEY’RE ALREADY AMONG US! IT’S TOO LATE! THEY KNOW THAT I KNOW! MUST GET THE MESSAGE OUT BEFO–

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