A Writer’s Notebook: News stories

Believe it or not, this is a true story.

Sort of.

I remember studying H. P. Lovecraft in college, though at the time we studied him as literature, not gospel. I was enchanted by his name, Lovecraft, as though it was a commandment: here is the craft of writing fiction, and you shall adore it. But as much as I enjoyed his name, I utterly revered the names he wrote into his stories, none more than that mysteriously unpronounceable Cthulu. I’d read all the stories, studied the mythos in compendiums, listened to the tribute song by Metallica, even played that ridiculous role-playing game.

I had no idea that I was preparing for a life in the priesthood. Very few of us did, really. Even when the news began to break, the strange reports buried in the back pages of newspapers or tucked away in tiny side-links on the Internet, under some heading like “Odd News,” even then we had little clue as to our future.

I saw it a few days after the news first broke. I like to peruse the odd news files, always have. But the headline, “Giant Sea Creature Baffles Chilean Scientists,” was nothing more than a curiosity. Even I, with all my literary training, all my love of Lovecraft, didn’t immediately grasp what it was we had found. Some dead whale, except it was so badly decomposed its internal organs had turned nearly gelatinous. Then it wasn’t a whale, it was a giant squid, but the more scientists studied the degrading corpse, the more tentacles they discovered, far too many for a squid. So it was a mammoth jellyfish, some behemoth heretofore unknown. But the flesh encasing the jellied organs was tough, almost like sodden leather, nothing like any jellyfish anyone had ever encountered.

For three weeks this went on, but for the most part the news remained buried in the oddities. Some of us, though, had begun to read with greater interest.

My friend Vernon, from grad school, was the first of our future priesthood to arrive in Chile and confirm what some of us had begun to suspect: the great gods of old had at last surfaced, exactly as Lovecraft had described. Cthulu had arisen. And Cthulu was dead.

It took another few months for those of us who understood the old gods, however little we can understand these great and terrifying beings, to convince the rest of the world of the truth. And to this day we remain a fringe movement, still gaining devotees, but we are beginning to challenge the upstart faiths that have for so long denied the old religion. But our biggest challenge, both among the other world religions and, more importantly, within our faith itself, was how to explain this terrible paradox: in the same moment that we found God, we found that God is dead.

One of the first writing exercises I really loved was using newspaper clippings to find a story. It’s an old exercise, but I was introduced to it by Robert Flynn (from whom I took a summer workshop at West Texas A&M back in 2000; I got to see Bob read again just a couple of weeks ago in San Antonio, which was delightful). That exercise was also the first that bore real fruit, resulting in my story “The Simple Things,” which later appeared in (the now-defunct) Bias Onus Quarterly.

The exercise is fairly simple: take a headline, just those few words — a subject and a verb, occasionally an object — and devise an entire story based on it. Sometimes, as in the exercise I did in Bob Flynn’s workshop, you can mine the news article itself for details — characters, locations, etc — but you should be careful not to merely rewrite the news story. Instead, look for minor characters from whose perspective you could tell the same story differently, or imagine alternate scenarios that might change how the plot unfolds.

In this case, I dug into my archive of old news clippings (I keep loads of them on hand, just in case) and found an old online story with exactly the headline above: Giant Sea Creature Baffles Chilean Scientists. I remembered when I first saved that file that I had immediately associated it with Lovecraft, so I figured, what might happen if the Cthulu Mythos turned out to be real?

Hence, this beginning to a story.

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