Mythology Prompts,  Writing Prompts

15 Writing Prompts from Lovecraft

In the spirit of Halloween, I decided my next prompts should be based on the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft. These spooky tales of unspeakable horrors are just what we need this time of year. (Plus I’m working on a Lovecraft-inspired project for NaNoWriMo this year.)

Usually I paraphrase or summarize the myth or story for you before giving my two cents and a prompt. However, it seems wrong to paraphrase stories written as fiction for reading pleasure. There is no way I could capture the same emotions or do them any sort of justice. So, instead I will give a brief synopsis and move on to the prompt.

I am using my Barnes & Nobel leather bound edition but I found a site online that has all of Lovecraft’s stories in chronological order. Some of them even have audio! I will link to each story so that you can read it at your convenience. The book has a paragraph before each story with a brief history and interesting facts. The site has a small biography, a media library, and a blog.

1) Polaris

The Tale

The Pole Star, evil and monstrous, leers down from the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p.36

A man is vexed by the star Polaris shining in his bedroom window. He begins to dream of a fantastic city, then he feels attached to it. He is part of it and has a role to play in an impending war. Then he dreams of the modern world cursing Polaris for removing him from his post. Most of all he is angry that the others around, daemons he is sure, laugh at him and tell him he is awake even though he is clearly dreaming.

The Prompt

I love a good mirrored story. I’ll take something as simple as: starts at a funeral ends at a funeral. But this is marvelous. He starts dreaming, feeling insane because of the dream. Then he believes the dream and feels insane because the real world is now the dream. Muah!

In the story Polaris recited a poem and then transfers the fantastic man into the modern one. It speaks of time passing and things being forgotten. He calls it a messenger twice. The quote above is repeated in the story. Try extending this tale. What message was Polaris trying to convey. Why did it forget? Is the war not over or are there consequences that need to be dealt with?

2) The White Ship

The Tale

But more wonderful than the lore of old men and the lore of books is the secret lore of the ocean…. And these glimpses have been as often of the ways that were and the ways that might be, as of the ways that are; for the ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of time.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 60

A man, third generation lighthouse minder, lives alone at the edge of the ocean. He has an affinity with the sea and is taken on a fantastic journey upon a white ship. He sees many wondrous lands but is not allowed to stop on any until reaching the Land of Fancy where everything is perfect. After uncountable years he grows restless and wants to set of for the Land of Hope. His guide warns him but they go anyway. They sail to the edge of the world and fall off. The man awakes on the stones by his lighthouse, a ship crashed on the shore. He let the light go out and he never sees the white ship again.

The Prompt

A nice allegory that isn’t even creepy. But it’s nice to see another side of Lovecraft. As I read I wondered if they would just take him home, he lived in the Land of Hope all along.

For your prompt, write a story where the character goes in search of a mythical place only to find that they started there. Explain why they didn’t know and why everyone else thinks its mythical.

3) The Terrible Old Man

Messrs. Ricci and Silva met in Water Street by the old man’s front gate, and although they did not like the way the moon shone down upon the painted stones through the budding branches of the gnarled trees, they had more important things to think about than mere idle superstition.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 82

The Tale

Three thieves attempt to rob the wrong old sea captain.

The prompt

This story shows Lovecraft’s true colors with regard to race. He chose a Polish, Portuguese, and Italian name for each of the robbers to show what sort of nonsense was coming into the country. *sigh*

The story is amusing though. While everyone else knows better than to mess with the old man, these three, being new, don’t have a clue that they may be walking into the lair of something Other. (Which is kind of ironic considering the message Lovecraft was trying to send, is it not?)

Outsiders vs town gossip is not new. It’s one you can see in other works of Lovecraft. It is fun though. Write a story about an outsider who either doesn’t know or ignores some town gossip and gets into trouble. Do they make it back out or suffer a horrific fate?

4) The Tree

The Tale

At one end of the tomb, its curious roots displacing the time-stained blocks of Pentelic Marble, grows an unnaturally large olive tree of oddly repellent shape; so like to some grotesque man, or death-distorted body of a man ,that the country folk fear to pass it at night when the moon shines faintly through the crooked boughs.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 84

Two sculptors who have a famed brotherly relationship are challenged to a contest. When one of them dies of mysterious illness everyone weeps. As the statue is completed a terrible accident takes the other artist and destroys his life work. Could it be revenge?

The Prompt

I never thought I’d read a Lovecraft story that takes place in Ancient Greece. I was already smitten but then Tyche entered the story. I wrote my thesis on depictions of Tyche on Roman coins. (Yes, I’m a nerd, but then, you’re reading this so…) I was hoping she’d play a bigger role but I’ll let it suffice that the goddess of chance and changing fortunes was at the center of the contest.

At first I expected outright betrayal. As the tree grew I thought maybe the deceased Kalos (whose name means “Good”) was helping his friend, inspiring him from beyond. Then I remembered who I was reading and eagerly awaited the creepy thing. The last line is brilliant and more wonderful because I could just imagine the wind through the branches actually sounding like the Greek word, pronounced oida.

For your prompt, imagine this revenge-driven tree standing in the abandoned grove. It achieved it’s aim, but according to the bee-keeper, it still calls out “I know, I know.” Might someone turn the power of the tree to their advantage? Could the tree be given a new purpose? Try to write that story without it sounding super lame.

5) The Cats of Ulthar

The Tale

Very sleek and fat did the cats appear, and sonorous with purring content…And for two whole days the sleep, lazy cats of Ulthar would touch no food, but only doze by the fire or in the sun.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 89-90

A mean old couple learn what happens when you mistreat creatures with ancient backgrounds.

The Prompt

Putting aside the “dark wanderers” who tell fortunes and apparently pray to odd gods, this was a fun tale. The wanderers had a distinctly Egyptian feel though the setting for the story was made up. Having a soft spot for cats myself, it was nice to see the trait given it’s own legend by an author whose stories I enjoy.

This was a simple tale without the nagging questions that often accompany a Lovecraft plot. Therefore, I’ll ask you to write your own legend. Think of an obscure law, real or imagined, and then tell the tale of how it came to be.

6) Nyarlathotep

The Tale

He said he had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries, and that he had heard messages from places not on this planet.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 121

A mysterious figure appears and begins giving prophesies and showing visions that leave the beholders in numb wakefulness and nightmarish sleep. The narrator must see for himself as he is scientific and does not believe in such things. He learns that not everything is explained by science.

The Prompt

Lovecraft wrote this based on a dream. And supposedly penned the first paragraph before fully waking. It’s odd that his dream was about nightmares and nights filled with screams. If he frequently had dreams like this, it’s no wonder he wrote such weird stories.

For your prompt, answer this, is Nyarlathotep recruiting people for some inter-dimensional war? Is he simply spreading chaos, and if so, to what end? Give us something of this mysterious figure’s motivations.

7) Ex Oblivione

The Tale

And I would tell myself the realm beyond the wall was not more lasting merely, but more lovely and radiant as well.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 132

A man who wishes to move from existing in the commonplace world of the living into the beautiful world of dreams finds a gate that may lead to eternal wonderment or eternal disappointment.

The Prompt

Who hasn’t wished, at least once, that they could live in some dream? The dream world that this character found seems to be a bit different though. It reminded me a bit of the addicts in the movie Inception except instead of dreams constructed by the dreamer, this world already existed. They found writings by sages “too wise to be born in the waking world.” How did this person find this dreamscape? Were they sent there or did they stumble upon it somehow?

8) What the Moon Brings

The Tale

I hate the moon – I am afraid of it – for when it shines on certain scenes familiar and loved it sometimes makes them unfamiliar and hideous.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 212

The narrator describes a familiar landscape as the moon transforms it into a nightmarish city of the dead.

The Prompt

This very short piece may also have been inspired by a dream. Seriously, did Lovecraft eat too much cheese before bed? Anyway, try writing a description of a place or object you find comforting from a terrifying point of view.

9) The Hound

The Tale

In my tortured ears there sounds unceasingly a nightmare whirring and flapping, and a faint, distant baying as of some gigantic hound.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 216

Two dilettantes tire of dabbling in philosophy and the arts and move on to more macabre pastimes. During an excavation they uncover something that unleashes a curse upon them. One which they cannot escape.

The Prompt

This was a fun spooky story. Like many a mummy’s curse story, the reader can see what’s coming. That does not stop it from being a good story. The story was apparently criticized at the time for being too florid but the effect made it more fun for me to read in the 21st century. It also fit the character well.

The prompt for this one is to do a little prequel. The figure they steal the amulet from, was he it’s guardian? Was he cursed? Had he hunted the beast and taken the amulet to his grave in an attempt to hide it from the world? Tell me his story.

10) The Festival

The Tale

Great holes secretly were digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that aught to crawl.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 269

A person travels to a New England town at the behest of familial tradition. Once there they are thrown into an oddly ancient landscape filled with suspicious figures and grotesque rites.

The Prompt

I found it interesting to see Kingsport appear in multiple stories. It features in a story farther down the list but the extraordinary event takes place above the city instead of below. In “The Terrible Old Man,” the events take place at sea level, rounding out the entire creepy village.

Do you suppose that the creatures who perform their rites below the city interact with those above? (Yes, I realize you haven’t read that part yet. Skip ahead to #12 if you can’t wait.) What makes this town so conducive to otherworldly creatures? Even the Terrible Old Man lives there. Answer one of these questions for your next prompt.

11) In the Vault

The Tale

In this funereal twilight he rattled the rusty handles, pushed at the iron panels, and wondered why the massive portal had grown so suddenly recalcitrant.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 343

A careless undertaker whose pragmatism borders on indecency finds himself the victim of his own oversight and learns that the consequences can be life-altering.

The Prompt

I found this tale to be pretty funny, actually. The doctor spends most of his time ripping on Birch and all his shortcomings. Then when the creepy stuff comes, he makes fun of him for not noticing things were getting creepy. The last line was pretty hilarious though. Maybe it’s just me. But maybe not. Feel free to let me know in the comments.

The doctor urged Birch to let no one else tend his wounds or see his scars, the new doctor agreed that this was prudent. Write the story of what would have happened if someone else had got a glimpse of the teeth marks on Birch’s ankles.

12) The Strange High House in the Mist

The Tale

It was at this point that there came a knocking on the door; that ancient door of nail-studded oak beyond which lay only the abyss of white cloud.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 405

In this tale the residents of Kingsport have grown accustomed to the spooky house high on the cliff above them. They know not to ask questions or to look at the lights in the windows at night. But when a tourist comes with his family he can’t help but satiate his curiosity. He learns of ancient secrets only to be returned to the world below a husk of what he formerly was. The house, however, is also forever changed and the residents now fear it will take others.

The Prompt

I felt like Lovecraft told us why he writes what he writes in this story. He talks of the tourist’s wife praying to “the bland proper god of the Baptists.” I couldn’t help but wonder if he simply thought the popular religion of the day was too boring and the world needed to be spiced up.

There are many questions you could ask about this story that would serve as nice prompts. First, anything about the mystery visitor at the cabin who the bearded man refused to let in. What did he/she/it want? Did the bearded man know him/her/it? Was it perhaps part of the hideous cult that practices underground? Next, what did the ancient gods want with Olney and had they been waiting for someone to come and give it to them? Did they drain whatever it was he was missing when he came down on purpose? If there is reveling in the house now what would happen if the town’s other young men do decide to venture up the cliff? Take your pick!

13) History of the Necronomicon

The Tale

Original title Al Azif Azif being the word used by the Arabs to designate that nocturnal sound (made by insects) suppos’d to be the howling of daemons.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 621

Exactly what the title implies. A short treatise on the origins and translations of the Necronomicon.

The Prompt

I’m sure you see this one coming. Write a fake history for a supposedly evil object including origin, subsequent owners, periods of unknown location, and mysterious events.

(Note: The link for this one is for a different site. The one I used for all the others was missing this story for some reason.)

14) The Evil Clergyman

The Tale

Everything was shadowy pantomime, as if seen at a vast distance through some intervening haze – although on the other hand the newcomer and all subsequent comers loomed large and close, as if both near and distant, according to some abnormal geometry.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 942

In this story an unnamed character goes to an unnamed place to investigate an unnamed person who was part of an unnamed society that committed unnamed unspeakable deeds. He seemingly summons a spirit who in turn summons more. The latter group make some decision about the first which unsettles him. The narrator must then protect himself, ending the strange event, but remaining changed forever.

The Prompt

How’s that for vague? When I read a story that has unanswered questions, I tend to get frustrated. But this story is entirely composed of unanswered questions and somehow I enjoyed it more that way I think. I’m not sure it’s necessary to know who exactly the evil clergyman is or what exactly he did. It was clearly occult and scary as the residents are afraid to even change the room. I don’t even really need to know who the other clergymen were or why they had the effect that they did. It seems clear that the evil man wanted to possess the narrator in order to come back to life, but I’m open to other suggestions on that too.

The one question that I wish I had an answer to is this: why did the narrator have that purple light device and how did he know what to do with it without really knowing? Give me the backstory on that.

15) The Book

The Tale

It was a key – a guide to certain gateways and transitions of which mystics have dreamed and whispered since the race was young, and which lead to freedoms and discoveries beyond the three dimensions and realms of life and matter that we know.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Noble, p. 945

The narrator describes the marvelous changes to their perception of the world after reading a profane book.

The Prompt

The idea of walking through life seeing all times at once is fascinating. As is the idea that the narrator is of all these times. They seem to have a difficult time distinguishing between their various selves.

I’d loved to see a story, and it would probably have to be novel-length, where this character is forced to live several disjointed lives as the result of reading this mysterious book. They want to try to undo the effects but only have so much time in each life before being shunted to the next. How would they go about solving such a problem?

I hope you enjoyed these stories as much as I did. Be on the look out for updates on my own Lovecraftian story. There will be gangsters and flappers and monsters, oh my!

If you use any of these prompts feel free to link to your story in the comments. And please share with anyone you know who needs a good spooky story in their life. Have fun!

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