As a writer, how do you format the dialogue of an elder god?
This was the problem I faced while writing “The Elegy of Entrails,” a Lovecraft lovefest set on an extraterrestrial world.
Quotation marks felt too petty. You don’t say “What’s up?” to Cthulhu and expect “Not much” in return. Sure, the gods in Homer’s The Illiad speak like anyone else, but what about those things beyond existence? Creatures more dream than meat?
H.P. Lovecraft was my first source for style. Lovecraft founded the Cthulhu Mythos, creating the modern conception of eldritch beings (mostly by removing grace from the Christian God’s enormity). But those beings move about unseen, emotions or elbows striking the world, and I only found one meaningful communication between gods and men.
This rare coherence comes from Nyarlathotep, a herald of the outer gods and a god himself. In his first appearance in the short story “Nyarlathotep,” the deity walks the earth in the form of an Egyptian pharaoh. The protagonist goes to hear him speak, and madness ensues, during which we receive glimpses of a collapsing world. We do not read Nyarlathotep’s speech patterns, although its hinted he talks like a man.
Nyarlathotep speaks again in Lovecraft’s unpublished The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. In the heat of a dream, the novella’s protagonist flies “through the empty spaces toward other worlds and other stars and the awful voids,” where he meets Nyarlathotep. The god is again a Pharaoh, and when he speaks, his voice is bound by quote marks:
“Hei! Aa-shanta ’nygh! You are off! Send back earth’s gods to their haunts on unknown Kadath, and pray to all space that you may never meet me in my thousand other forms. Farewell, Randolph Carter, and beware; for I am Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos!”
Cool, but not helpful.
My second source was Phillip K. Dick’s Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a science-fiction novel in which a man tries to prevent his body from being stolen by a god. The dimension-shifting, the multitude of Palmers, the way they murmur “like a rattling, far-off wind,” was all very intriguing, but the formatting was, again, quote marks.
My final source was various fantasy and science-fiction support groups. Here there was a refreshing number of ideas. (I’ll list my favorites below along with attributions and my personal thoughts).
- From Elmer Reedy: “We usually reserve italics for peoples thoughts, or telepathy. I think all caps would work for a deity.”
ALL CAPS WOULD BURN OUT MY READER’S EYES.
- From Kyla Karnoski: “I’d rather read italics than all caps, but I think it would be okay to use regular speech and hint at the power of the voice.”
This advice concurs with Lovecraft and Dick’s style, but still, I am unsatisfied with god-speech corresponding to human-speech.
- From Jordan Zlotolow: “I like bold italics when a creature of evil speaks.”
Well, I don’t.
- From Christian Moller: “You know what would be great? A cockney accent!”
I ‘as tryin’ ter make gods, not orks from Warhamma’ four-de-bloody-kay.
- From Stephan Rae: “Elder god dialogue should be identical to the being it is speaking to. A highly advanced being would use the voice and speaking style of the lower being as a convenience. The lower being would recognize what is being said without the bother of an accent. Have you ever heard yourself speaking on a recording? You always say “That’s me?”—an advanced being could use that to his advantage. Imagine an advanced entity speaking to a group of people and each hear a different voice—their own. It would also cloud the gender issue—women would hear a woman, men would hear a man.”
A good idea, but I seek beyond the quote mark.
- From Michael McDonald: “!sdrawkcab ti etirW .krow meht ekaM”
- From Cliff Huss: “Flashes of emotions, pain, visions and symbols, so you’re not sure if its just madness.”
Not a bad idea, except I wanted this god-thing to have a conversation with my protagonist, not resting eldritch face.
- From Frank Zlotkowski: “Let the being do the formatting!”
These are mythological creatures, not Deadpool.
- From Colin Paddock: “In waking dreams and shared nightmares of impossible perspective and writhing undulating sanguine carnal forms.”
Someone’s been smoking the untempered schism of the cosmos.
- From Roel Schulting: “Use the word oblong a lot.”
Friends and enemies, the next Stephen King right here.
In the end, I pulled my style from the unnecessary syntax of free verse poetry. The odd use of tabs, the arbitrary space between words. (I also italicized.)
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Let me know if you have a better idea.
I commissioned Nazareno Gonzalez to create the gif. You can see more of his art (and prices) at Deviantart.