When is a setting not a setting?

Every so often, I swap doom-scrolling online for perusing the content available via streaming services. I’m always amazed at the kind of stuff that I turn up, especially what might be best categorized as “schlock”. There is an extraordinary amount of “B-rated” television and film out there, and loads of that can be linked to the work of H.P. Lovecraft.

Considering Lovecraft’s longevity, it’s hard not to wonder where the originator of the Cthulhu mythos ends, and where those he inspired begin. Lovecraft’s presence has endured for decades. However, his stories carry certain traits that are consistent, no matter if the story was written by Lovecraft, or if it falls under the “Lovecraftian” umbrella. One of the most significant is the setting.

The setting in most stories will be an active component of the text, helping to create the full effect of the tale being told. With Lovecraft’s influence, the setting must endure in the way he imagined it, one that would suit the stories he wanted to tell. Nothing has changed in the years since his death. Others have been weird-fiction flagbearers, but in order to make a story Lovecraftian, one has to respect the conventions, and that means setting.

Would anything Lovecraftian feel like it did the original author’s stories justice if there wasn’t a New England background? Sure, but are there limits? Just take a moment and mull that question. Yes, some of Lovecraft’s stories didn’t take place in New England. However, without Lovecraft’s augmented version of the corner of North America he occupied during his lifetime, would these stories even be possible? Also, if people who followed Lovecraft, building on his original concepts. but chose to stray from the foundational Lovecraftian ideas, would these new tales fit within the larger mythos comfortably?

This is kind of a peculiar case, but Lovecraft’s interpretation of his surroundings became the default setting for his fiction throughout his lifetime. All of the writers that followed him picked up on his ideas and carried them forward, but always while relying on his efforts. In any work of fiction, the setting is central to the text, and all things Lovecraftian are no different. The key element here is that the setting has to be adapted to fit the story, not necessarily the other way around.

What to make of the backdrop for Lovecraft’s weird tales? Does this count as a setting, unique and separate from the real world places Lovecraft relied upon? There are actual locations in there, but the stories required that holes be dug within them to make room for Lovecraft’s freakish ideas. The setting(s) had to be modified to allow space for weird fiction. As if this wasn’t enough, everyone that has come after Lovecraft has had to approach New England in more or less the same way to keep the setting properly, “Lovecraftian”. Despite being a real and tangible place, or conglomeration of places, does this ongoing depiction of a geographic area count as a unique and distinct “Setting”?

I would argue yes, Lovecraft’s work is a setting unto itself. Its enduring and evolving nature over all this time has led to a sort of amalgam that has taken on a life of its own. The prevalence of references to “Arkham”, for example, has given a fictitious site an ongoing utility from one author to another. If the approach to representing New England in weird fiction started and ended with Lovecraft, remaining unique to him, then it would be hard to call it a setting. However, because other people have come along after Lovecraft passed away, and carried his ideas forward, I’d have to say that Lovecraftian fiction has morphed into its own setting. It would probably be fair to say that it requires that setting in order to fit properly under the weird fiction scaffolding Lovecraft erected decades ago.

By contrast, New England is a real place. It seems to be reaching to try and say that it can be set apart as a distinct setting for a category of written works. It isn’t difficult to peel back the fiction and see the real places described within the stories as separate and apart from the tales placed upon them.

It’s a debatable topic, and it isn’t always clear when a setting really stands out as its own distinct location or a modified iteration of something real. If it weren’t for those that were inspired by Lovecraft’s work and sought to emulate him, this conversation likely wouldn’t be possible. For my part, I think Lovecraft’s interpretation of his New England surroundings has become its own entity. Regardless, what makes a setting a setting could easily be discussed far beyond what this post has space for. One thing is clear, however, that weird fiction has a home in the shadowy cracks of New England, if not also a place on bookshelves everywhere.





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