There’s a bit of interest in my blog on colorless prose and how this might be identified with hard SF, so I’m thinking I should cover purple prose, too. This is something that generally infects the horror genre, for example: H.P. Lovecraft. Purple prose describes the settings, characters and action of the story in elaborate and florid terms, including overuse of adjectives. It was named by the Roman poet Horace (65 BC – 8 BC), who compared it to sewing the purple patches of royalty onto your clothes.

I don’t have anything in particular against Lovecraft. He wrote a very atmospheric prose, like Poe, that successfully convinces us there is a great unknown lurking out there just ready to snap us up and eat us for dinner. However, his work is a bit pretentious. Here’s an example:

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
― H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories

I love the feeling he generates, but by today’s literary standards, Lovecraft isn’t that great a writer. First of all, he fails on the diversity issue. Almost all his characters are white males with an upper class background, and his Elder Gods are also overwhelmingly male. I can make a short list of the female exceptions right here: Asenath Waite, Georgina Clarendon, Darkness, Lilith and Lavinia Whateley.

Lovecraft also spends very little effort on characterization. Since all his characters are basically the same, he gives us minimal background on who they are and how they look. They’re really just pawns who thrash around feebly until they get swallowed up by the forces of evil. The stories have very little in the way of development, because they basically all end the same way. It was the journey that Lovecraft was really interested in.

There are reasons for use of purple prose, of course. It’s useful to sound like Lovecraft, for one thing. It also tends to generate a Victorian feel and can add a bit of comedy. Most authors are going to try for a style somewhere between “purple” and “colorless.”

Moderation in all things–even adjectives.

Illustration: Lilith, Queen of the Night