Living in the Midst of Storyworlds

Ingela Nilsson explains what storyworlds are, what they can do, and why we enjoy studying them so much.

“So what’s a storyworld?” says a friend who has seen the title of our new research programme. And this is one of those fairly rare occasions when I find myself able to explain in detail and with contemporary references and examples exactly what it is I’m currently working on, because storyworlds are something we all take part in and know – they surround us and imbue our consumption of facts as well as fiction. And while I so far in my research have been considering primarily ancient paradoxography and medieval romances, my favourite example when friends ask is the HBO series Lovecraft Country – a treasure trove of recycled, overlapping, and remanipulated storyworlds that have been widely enjoyed and discussed internationally since it premiered in August 2020.

Quite a few years ago I spent a summer reading the stories of H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937). A friend had become obsessed with this legendary writer of horror fiction and lured me into his weird world of monsters and madness. It was an interesting reading experience for many reasons. First, I was a big fan of horror fiction, so I enjoyed the stories on a personal level. Second, I was at the time very interested in Roland Barthes’ reality effect and the workings of fictionality, and Lovecraft’s way of employing his native New England as a semifictional setting in his otherwise fully fictional plots was fascinating on a more professional level. It was a strange summer, with the dark world of Lovecraft in stark contrast to the sunny town in Italy where I was visiting my friend.

The storyworld of Lovecraft is one in which reality, hidden beneath a layer of normality, is so alien that it becomes harmful to experience.

Against this background, it was fascinating to watch the HBO series Lovecraft Country while at the same time reading extensively on the concepts of storyworld, worldmaking and possible worlds. The fictional universe created by Lovecraft and shared by some of this followers – both contemporary members of the famous Kalem Club or the so-called Lovecraft Circle and later writers of Lovecraftian horror –  goes under the name of the Cthulhu Mythos. Cthulhu was the central creature in Lovecraft’s seminal “The Call of Cthulhu”, first published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales (1928): a huge cosmic entity with an octopus-like head and an anthropoid body with wings, terrifying and worshipped by cultists.
While the Cthulhu has become representative for the universe of Lovecraft, it is not the monster itself that is the scary part: what it truly appalling is the cosmic horror of the unknown rather than more traditional shock elements or gory details. The storyworld of Lovecraft is one in which reality, hidden beneath a layer of normality, is so alien that it is harmful to experience.

Original sketch of Cthulhu drawn by Lovecraft, May 11, 1934,
Brow Digital Depository

This is the aspect that was picked up by author Matt Ruff in his novel entitled Lovecraft Country (2016), offering a contemporary twist to the legendary but partly dubious heritage of Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s racial attitudes not only marked his personal ideas and other writings, but also found their way into his weird tales in the form of disparaging remarks and in the shape of dark-skinned monsters. As implied by Michel Houellebecq in his H. P. Lovecraft : Contre le monde, contre la vie (1991), racism is the basis of all fear in Lovecraft’s world. Ruff’s novel confronted and subverted this Lovecraftian legacy by exploring the affiliation between his horror fiction and the prevalent racism of the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the American South. The conjunction between horror and racism was focalized through the character of the black science fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family, experiencing the truly harmful workings of the real world.

The not-so-implicit racism of Lovecraft’s tales has accordingly been incorporated in the new storyworld, so that the protagonists have to overcome the terrors of racism and segregation while at the same time fighting supernatural monsters, though the two often – beneath or even on the surface – coincide.

Those of you who watched the HBO series recognize the story here: Ruff’s novel inspired the series, which – as is often the case – has received much more attention than the book. So Ruff should be credited with the subversion in which Lovecraft’s monsters are no longer scary dark “halfbreeds”, but white supremacists. The not-so-implicit racism of Lovecraft’s tales has accordingly been incorporated in the new storyworld, so that the protagonists have to overcome the terrors of racism and segregation while at the same time fighting supernatural monsters, though the two often – beneath or even on the surface – coincide.

So far, my use of the term storyworld has been very general but still, I think, comprehensible to most readers. The term can be as simple or as complex as we want it to be. In its most basic and ‘metaphorical’ sense it is the literary world in which characters and their actions are set within one or several works. I think this is the most common way in which we understand it as consumers or critics of fiction: we speak without thinking about the world of Stephen King or the world of Star Wars. But in order to be not just a handy term for something we all think we know, but also a useful concept in analytical practice, storyworld needs to be defined in relation to both the world created by the authors and the understanding of that world by the audience.

A possible world is dominated by its own logic: it doesn’t need to adhere to the rules of the actual world (at least not beyond what makes it comprehensible for actual world-readers), but it has to make sense as a world.

Postclassical narratology (that is, narratology as it developed after its structuralistic beginning, over the past couple of decades or so) has devoted much attention to the way in which readers, in the words of David Herman, “use textual cues to build up representations of the worlds evoked by stories, or storyworlds.” (Herman 2009: 106) In this sense, storyworlds can be seen as “mental models”: a “worldmaking practice” according to which the reader maps and works to comprehend a narrative (Herman 2002: 5). In this sense, a storyworld is the cognitive result of the reading process during which the reader’s comprehension is at work. As aptly put by the science fiction writer Arkady Martin, “A storyworld is thus a co-created world between author and audience, bound by mutually held-in-common rules of causality and verisimilitude.” (Martine 2019)

These mutually held-in-common rules also dominate the construction of so-called possible worlds, creating what could be seen as belief-worlds shared by members of a group. A possible world is dominated by its own logic: it doesn’t need to adhere to the rules of the actual world (at least not beyond what makes it comprehensible for actual world-readers), but it has to make sense as a world. Common examples are drawn from fairytales or superhero comics: such stories suspend belief in the common sense of the word, but they are perfectly logical as long as the characters and their actions are understood and accepted within their own storyworlds and thus by the reader (Ryan 1992). Even if we, as human beings, are deeply rooted in the notion that there is one world in which we live and through which we think, we can clearly handle the idea of multiple worlds in the form of aesthetic constructions, if not necessarily in physical reality (Kukkonen 2010).

When Matt Ruff wrote his novel in 2006, he was accordingly able to enter and rewrite a storyworld already known and shared by many. This resulted in the subverted storyworld the viewers encountered in the HBO series: a world in which the terrors of racism and segregation compete with the supernatural monsters in horror.

The original cover of the publication that featured the first Cthulhu story. (1928) Source: Wikimedia.

We don’t need more theory than this in order to briefly analyse the Lovecraftian tradition that I described above. Lovecraft was not very successful in his own time; he could not make a living off his writings and he published primarily in pulp magazines. But his storyworld attracted other writers so that an entire Lovecraft Circle devoted themselves to share and develop that same storyworld, which ultimately led to Lovecraftian horror fiction being seen as a subgenre of its own. That Lovecraftian world and the Cthulhu Mythos have since inspired endless tales, novels and films, but also music and games. When Matt Ruff wrote his novel in 2006, he was accordingly able to enter and rewrite a storyworld already known and shared by many. This resulted in the subverted storyworld the viewers encountered in the HBO series: a world in which the terrors of racism and segregation compete with the supernatural monsters in horror.
The subversion that appears in Ruff’s novel and the subsequent series could be described in terms of worldedness, or an augmented entanglement with the real world (Hayot 2011). Ruff creates the character Atticus Turner in order to focalize both the science fiction fan and the discriminated African American in 1950s, thus relating to the presumed reader’s/audience’s interest in the genre and their socio-political awareness.

Even if we, as human beings, are deeply rooted in the notion that there is one world in which we live and through which we think, we can clearly handle the idea of multiple worlds in the form of aesthetic constructions, if not necessarily in physical reality.

The latter aspect has been further emphasized in the HBO series, incorporating historical events – for instance, the 1921 Tulsa massacre and the 1955 murder of Emmett Till – in the Lovecraftian storyworld. This further blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality has received both praise and critique (see e.g. Phillips 2020 and Dent 2020), but from a strictly narratological perspective it opens up for a multiverse representation that contradicts Lovecraft’s idea of one underlying reality. In episode 9, the character Hippolyta travels through a series of alternative worlds, intrinsically interconnected and all potentially real, in a search for herself. While the episode within the frame of the series relies on the Lovecraftian tradition, it also opens it up for the inclusion of other storyworlds, most notably perhaps those of afromythology and afrofuturism.
Whether we appreciate the revisions and additions or not, we – the audience – can rather easily recognize and accept the multiple worlds, somehow related to but not quite the same as our real-life experience. Some of us have been well prepared for such multiverse representations through super hero comics or fantasy novels, but even readers or viewers who don’t enjoy that kind of fiction are, in fact, surrounded by storyworlds in the form of, for instance, historical, philosophical and scientific narratives of the kind that are included not only in Lovecraft Country, but in most human expressions.

Lovecraft Country (2020) Poster
Source: IMDB/HBO

From Homer’s Odyssey to Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” – we are transported into alternative realities based on shared belief systems. And this, I say to my friend (who is now starting to look a little tired), is the reason why we want to investigate Byzantine storyworlds. She nods and smiles, and then we have another glass of wine.

Ingela Nilsson is a professor of Greek and Byzantine Studies at Uppsala University
and the director of the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul (2019-21).
She is a specialist in Byzantine literature with a particular focus
on issues of literary adaptation, often from a narratological perspective.