“Where do you get all your ideas?”
That’s a commonplace question for writers of fantastic fiction – horror, science fiction, fantasy.
A very uncommon author wrote down a lot of his story ideas in a list called a ‘commonplace book.’
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who brought us the Cthulhu Mythos and a raft of other horrible, fascinating, beautifully crafted stories, took his dreams, fancies, inspirations, and random events in his life – and wrote them down as seeds for his fiction.
A few samples from each year:
4 Horror Story
Man dreams of falling—found on floor mangled as tho’ from falling from a vast height. [x]
8 Hor. Sto.
Man makes appt. with old enemy. Dies—body keeps appt.
25 Man visits museum of antiquities—asks that it accept a bas-relief he has just made—old and learned curator laughs and says he cannot accept anything so modern. Man says that
‘dreams are older than brooding Egypt or the contemplative Sphinx or garden-girdled Babylonia’
and that he had fashioned the sculpture in his dreams. Curator bids him shew his product, and when he does so curator shews horror. Asks who the man may be. He tells modern name. “No—before that” says curator. Man does not remember except in dreams. Then curator offers high price, but man fears he means to destroy sculpture. Asks fabulous price—curator will consult directors.
Add good development and describe nature of bas-relief. [Cthulhu]
51 Enchanted garden where moon casts shadow of object or ghost invisible to the human eye.
52 Calling on the dead—voice or familiar sound in adjacent room.
53 Hand of dead man writes.
54 Transposition of identity.
55 Man followed by invisible thing.
56 Book or MS. too horrible to read—warned against reading it—someone reads and is found dead. Haverhill incident.
57 Sailing or rowing on lake in moonlight—sailing into invisibility.
87 Borellus says, “that the Essential Salts of animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious man may have the whole ark of Noah in his own Study, and raise the fine shape of an animal out of its ashes at his pleasure; and that by the like method from the Essential Salts of humane dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal necromancy, call up the shape of any dead ancestor from the dust whereinto his body has been incinerated.” [Charles Dexter Ward]
90 Anencephalous or brainless monster who survives and attains prodigious size.
91 Lost winter day—slept over—20 yrs. later. Sleep in chair on summer night—false dawn—old scenery and sensations—cold—old persons now dead—horror—frozen?
107 Wall paper cracks off in sinister shape—man dies of fright. [x] [Rats in Walls]
110 Antediluvian—Cyclopean ruins on lonely Pacific island. Centre of earthwide subterranean witch cult.
116 Prowling at night around an unlighted castle amidst strange scenery.
117 A secret living thing kept and fed in an old house.
118 Something seen at oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house.
119 Art note—fantastick daemons of Salvator Rosa or Fuseli (trunk-proboscis).
120 Talking bird of great longevity—tells secret long afterward.
128 Individual, by some strange process, retraces the path of evolution and becomes amphibious.
Dr. insists that the particular amphibian from which man descends is not like any known to palaeontology. To prove it, indulges in (or relates) strange experiment.
130 N.E. region call’d “Witches’ Hollow”—along course of a river. Rumours of witches’ sabbaths and Indian powwows on a broad mound rising out of the level where some old hemlocks and beeches formed a dark grove or daemon-temple. Legends hard to account for. Holmes—Guardian Angel.
131 Phosphorescence of decaying wood—called in New England “fox-fire”.
132 Mad artist in ancient sinister house draws things. What were his models? Glimpse. [Pickman’s Model]
133 Man has miniature shapeless Siamese twin—exhib. in circus—twin surgically detached—disappears—does hideous things with malign life of his own. [HSW—Cassius]
134 Witches’ Hollow novel? Man hired as teacher in private school misses road on first trip—encounters dark hollow with unnaturally swollen trees and small cottage (light in window?). Reaches school and hears that boys are forbidden to visit hollow. One boy is strange—teacher sees him visit hollow—odd doings—mysterious disappearance or hideous fate.
140 Explorer enters strange land where some atmospheric quality darkens the sky to virtual blackness—marvels therein.
151 Man forced to take shelter in strange house. Host has thick beard and dark glasses. Retires. In night guest rises and sees host’s clothes about—also mask which was the apparent face of whatever the host was. Flight.
152 Autonomic nervous system and subconscious mind do not reside in the head. Have mad physician decapitate a man but keep him alive and subconsciously controlled. Avoid copying tale by W. C. Morrow.
157 Vague lights, geometrical figures, etc., seen on retina when eyes are closed. Caus’d by rays from other dimensions acting on optick nerve? From other planets? Connected with a life or phase of being in which person could live if he only knew how to get there? Man afraid to shut eyes—he has been somewhere on a terrible pilgrimage and this fearsome seeing faculty remains.
158 Man has terrible wizard friend who gains influence over him. Kills him in defence of his soul—walls body up in ancient cellar—BUT—the dead wizard (who has said strange things about soul lingering in body) changes bodies with him . . . leaving him a conscious corpse in cellar. [Thing on Doorstep]
172 Pre-human idol found in desert.
173 Idol in museum moves in a certain way.
174 Migration of Lemmings—Atlantis.
175 Little green Celtic figures dug up in an ancient Irish bog.
184 Expedition lost in Antarctic or other weird place. Skeletons and effects found years later. Camera films used but undeveloped. Finders develop—and find strange horror.
185 Scene of an urban horror—Sous le Cap or Champlain Sts.—Quebec—rugged cliff-face—moss, mildew, dampness—houses half-burrowing into cliff.
186 Thing from sea—in dark house, man finds doorknobs etc. wet as from touch of something. He has been a sea-captain, and once found a strange temple on a volcanically risen island.
187 Dream of awaking in vast hall of strange architecture, with sheet-covered forms on slabs—in positions similar to one’s own. Suggestions of disturbingly non-human outlines under sheets. One of the objects moves and throws off sheet—non-terrestrial being revealed. Sugg. that oneself is also such a being—mind has become transferred to body on other planet.
188 Desert of rock—prehistoric door in cliff, in the valley around which lie the bones of uncounted billions of animals both modern and prehistoric—some of them puzzlingly gnawed.
189 Ancient necropolis—bronze door in hillside which opens as the moonlight strikes it—focussed by ancient lens in pylon opposite?
190 Primal mummy in museum—awakes and changes place with visitor.
191 An odd wound appears on a man’s hand suddenly and without apparent cause. Spreads. Consequences.
193 Strange book of horror discovered in ancient library. Paragraphs of terrible significance copies. Later unable to find and verify text. Perhaps discover body or image or charm under floor, in secret cupboard, or elsewhere. Idea that book was merely hypnotic delusion induced by dead brain or ancient magic.
194 Man enters (supposedly) own house in pitch dark. Feels way to room and shuts door behind him. Strange horrors—or turns on lights and finds alien place or presence. Or finds past restored or future indicated.
195 Pane of peculiar-looking glass from a ruined monastery reputed to have harboured devil-worship set up in modern house at edge of wild country. Landscape looks vaguely and unplaceably wrong through it. It has some unknown time-distorting quality, and comes from a primal, lost civilisation. Finally, hideous things in other world seen through it.
196 Daemons, when desiring an human form for evil purposes, take to themselves the bodies of hanged men.
197 Loss of memory and entry into a cloudy world of strange sights and experiences after shock, accident, reading of strange book, participation in strange rite, draught of strange brew, etc. Things seen have vague and disquieting familiarity. Emergence. Inability to retrace course.
198 Distant tower visible from hillside window. Bats cluster thickly around it at night. Observer fascinated. One night wakes to find self on unknown black circular staircase. In tower? Hideous goal.
199 Black winged thing flies into one’s house at night. Cannot be found or identified—but subtle developments ensue.
200 Invisible Thing felt—or seen to make prints—on mountain top or other height, inaccessible place.
201 Planets form’d of invisible matter.
202 A monstrous derelict—found and boarded by a castaway or shipwreck survivor.
203 A return to a place under dreamlike, horrible, and only dimly comprehended circumstances. Death and decay reigning—town fails to light up at night—Revelation.
204 Disturbing conviction that all life is only a deceptive dream with some dismal or sinister horror lurking behind.
213 Ancient winter woods—moss—great boles—twisted branches—dark—ribbed roots—always dripping. . . .
214 Talking rock of Africa—immemorially ancient oracle in desolate jungle ruins that speaks with a voice out of the aeons.
217 Ancient (Roman? prehistoric?) stone bridge washed away by a (sudden and curious?) storm. Something liberated which had been sealed up in the masonry of years ago. Things happen.
218 Mirage in time—image of long-vanish’d pre-human city.
219 Fog or smoke—assumes shaped under incantations.
220 Bell of some ancient church or castle rung by some unknown hand—a thing . . . or an invisible Presence.
221 Insects or other entities from space attack and penetrate a man’s head and cause him to remember alien and exotic things—possible displacement of personality.
H. P. Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book preserved in our forum.
Author, make a Commonplace Book of your own. Jot the seeds down, and check them off as you use them.
–William V. Burns