H.P. Lovecraft knew how to write a hook. Say what you will about his adjective addiction or his lapses into florid prose; one place where he knew how to get to the point was in an opening line. He may have meandered a bit after getting your attention (and I’d argue that’s part of his charm), but in his pulp fiction heart Lovecraft understood the importance of grabbing you right away to earn your patience, and his stories consistently showcase his mastery of the intriguing opening.
I’m currently writing a novel with a strong Lovecraftian influence, so I’ve been revisiting his body of work, and recently, while discussing hooks with a young writer I’m mentoring, I realized that any horror writer, no matter how modern their style, would do well to look at Lovecraft’s openings for good examples of powerful hooks. Here are my top ten favorites from the gentleman of Providence.
10. THE DUNWICH HORROR
When a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country.
Subtle and atmospheric but for me the hook is that it’s a WRONG turn. You wouldn’t go there on purpose. And that makes me curious about that curious country.
9. AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS
I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why.
The reluctant narrator. He doesn’t want to talk about this shit but no one will heed his warnings without an explanation? I’m in. Give up the goods.
May the merciful gods, if indeed there be such, guard those hours when no power of the will, or drug that the cunning of man devises, can keep me from the chasm of sleep.
Um, dude, are you okay? What’s so bad about falling asleep? Could it be the dreams?
7. THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK
Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake was killed by lightning, or by some profound nervous shock derived from an electrical discharge.
Dead body introduced by a rational, journalistic voice that you just know is going to suggest that something far stranger than lightning killed Mr. Blake.
6. THE DESCENDANT
In London there is a man who screams when the church bells ring.
And I want to know why.
5. HERBERT WEST – REANIMATOR
Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.
All about dissonant juxtaposition. Why would the memory of a longtime friend become a source of extreme terror?
4. THE CALL OF CTHULHU
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
This one’s a classic. A concise philosophical statement that makes you wonder why connecting the dots and reaching certain conclusions would be so bad that your ignorance is the ultimate mercy.
3. THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS
Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.
What end? And WTF did you see, exactly, if that’s your opening?
I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.
Top that! Hard to do, but I believe the man himself did with…
1. THE THING ON THE DOORSTEP
It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.
Possibly one of the best opening lines in all of horror literature. Within 31 words you know that some heavy shit went down. You want to know why one bullet through the head wasn’t enough. Was emptying the gun enough? And how is he not his friend’s murderer? Put a paradox like that up front with highly specific details and visceral language and promise to resolve it in the story that follows, and you have me eating out of your hand.
What do you think, did I miss any of your favorites? Which of Lovecraft’s opening lines hooked you on his writing?