Earlier this week, Alexander Chatziioannou took us on a brief tour of the unknowable, trying to pin down the ever-growing influence of H.P. Lovecraft on gaming with a few lesser-known works that do a great job of evoking the author’s particular brand of horror. He pointed to three specific traits that games have glommed on to most: unfathomable entities, the loss of sanity, and cults. Cnightwing described another aspect of Lovecraftian horror that the Call Of Cthulhu pen-and-paper role-playing game handles particularly well (when you have a good dungeon master, anyway):
To me the single most important aspect of a Lovecraftian story is a deep sense of insignificance. This can be on an individual basis or reflected in the actions of the frequently featured cults. A protagonist in such a story must realize that they are not alone, that they are not a hero, that, in fact, their actions have almost no bearing on existence as a whole. Perhaps the elder gods and ancient beings are playing out some theater in which you find yourself, accidentally, and come to realize just how little you really matter. Maybe you start off on a Campbellian journey, but rather than overcome a great adversity, you are simply swept aside. For a cult, the act of worshipping or summoning things beyond their knowledge is compensation for their own deep feelings of inadequacy—after all, the leaders almost always feel like they are obtaining great power for themselves, whereas the gods could not care less.
I’d take my second example there and say that that is the key difference in a Lovecraftian story compared to a more conventional one. There is no hero. Challenges are not beaten. There is no realization of one’s potential. Instead, it has all the hallmarks of such a monomyth, but then collapses in on itself, unable to maintain a sense of meaningful progress, and that way madness lies.
When it comes to games, the thing that makes the Call Of Cthulhu RPG so very playable, and always worth coming back to, is that you can have the most fun in the world being utterly defeated. My favorite stories from years of role-playing are of the characters I lost, not those that survived. I fondly remember the time my police detective tracked down a cult, only to glance Tulzscha, the green flame, and suddenly age rapidly to around retirement. Unable to face his family, he went into hiding and got by as a private investigator, but just a few days, later he died fighting fire vampires in a hotel corridor. Then there was the journalist who was thrilled to discover a secret passage in an old Egyptian pyramid, only to meet an incarnation of Nyarlathotep, go temporarily insane, and shoot himself in the head. Fun times!
DJ JD approached the element of insignificance on a more cosmic scale:
The sine qua non element for me has to do with philosophical horror, specifically related to the idea of cosmological absolutes. Lovecraft gives us a universe that is deeply, elementally, unutterably alien. It’s not just that unfathomable entities exist or that people lose their minds, it’s that the unfathomable entities exist above us on the power/authority/food chain, and that people lose their sanity when they’re exposed to how things “really” work. Stripped down, the idea is that our sense of reality, our notions of morality and altruism and “goodness” only matter relative to each other, on this little dot of a planet. The rest of the universe could annihilate us or cause us endless suffering and torment, perhaps out of malice or perhaps simply by existing. It strikes deep at the heart of many things we take for granted in this day and age, and upends many assumptions we stay comfortably ensconced in, then and now.
I’m delighted to see that Sunless Sea got a shout-out in Alexander’s article, because it deserves it. In addition to everything he said there, that game nicely meets this read on the genre, too: Hell has breached the sea with an invading army, the rules of how humans die appear to be completely upended, and when you visit the Gate In The North (if you’ve found it, you know what I’m talking about) the only thing that matters is that nothing happens there ever. It’s another case of not just being a difficult or uncomfortable universe, but an impossibly alien one. It’s a place where our rationality, our humanity, and the power of our scientific progress are ultimately spitwads in a typhoon against careless, capricious forces vast beyond reckoning.
Getting into Lovecraft’s writing itself, White Suburban Punk addressed the author’s inescapable racism:
So much of his racism (practically xenophobia) is wrapped up in his fiction. He feared what he didn’t understand—and that was anything that wasn’t white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. It permeates almost all of his stories, even some of his best. “Shadows Over Innsmouth” is about the dangers of miscegenation, and even in “At The Mountains Of Madness” when the protagonists sympathize with the alien horrors from beyond as “men,” they are sympathizing with slave-owners.
Lovecraft probably wouldn’t have been as good as he was without his racism, which is a sad thing to contemplate. Even though I try to separate that out when I read his stories, because I don’t endorse those ideas, I can’t argue that it didn’t inform almost everything he ever wrote. About the only thing I can safely recommend that isn’t tainted by racism is “The Colour Out of Space,” which is one of the few stories of his that even Lovecraft liked.
Needlehacksaw asked what is behind Lovecraft’s growing influence and gave a theory:
This leads me to something I’ve been pondering a bit lately: whether the growing popularity of Lovecraft has something to do with the fact that, in a largely secular society, his fiction is no longer horrific anymore but inspiring some strange sort of comfort. It is, after all, a world in which there is irrefutable proof of higher beings, of something you can worship, even though the consequences might not always be to your taste. As somebody who grew up Catholic, drifted away from it, and started reading Lovecraft only as an adult, this aspect does undeniably make up a part of my fascination with his stories.
Michaelcerajessicaparkerposey laid out another take:
I would also maybe attribute it to the fact that this mythos allows you to represent pure, inexplicable evil, but it’s not tied to one particular religious tradition. To elaborate, I think it’s hard for us to have fictional representations about battles between good and evil rooted in, say, Christian theology these days for a number of reasons. On the one hand, God and Satan have been deconstructed for so long in popular and literary culture that setting your narratives in that “good vs. evil” framework seems quaint, naive, or distasteful for those people who think Christianity has, in a lot of cases, been co-opted by puritanical, intolerant self-serving ideologues. The Cthulhu mythos allows you to have the ancient wholly evil force without grappling with the ambiguities of Satan as anti-hero or wondering why an omnipotent God would allow people to commit horrendous evil deeds.
But as Johann Tor points out, it’s not quite so cut and dry:
To me, Lovecraft’s mythos is characterized not by its evil, but by its alien-ness. The horrendous entities themselves do not have anything approaching human thoughts and intents, so labeling them evil would be a bit off. They are eminently capable of doing harm to humans, but they are ultimately indifferent. Their impact lies in that they operate in a different scale, if not physical dimension, and to glimpse these truths (that there is such a thing as a painfully different cosmic scale or an alien dimension) ought to bring madness, not illumination.
In the end, Lovecraft’s popularity is best explained by demographics, nerd demographics specifically. These works used to be obscure, they are written in an idiom that takes some effort to appreciate, and they have higher intellectual aspirations than pure pulp. (I am not commenting on their value.) As the nerd contingent grows, they are bound to be more popular than before (why more popular than say, Clark Ashton Smith’s? Chaosium’s Call Of Cthulhu RPG seems to be the extra factor to me.) I would also be very interested in hearing the story of how many current creators read Lovecraft’s works in the ’60s and in the ’70s, how many played D&D‘s weird cousin in the ’80s, how many played Doom in the ’90s, and how many youngsters have instant access to all these and their epigones in the internet age.
Playing off that latter point, musictheoryjoy had a more cynical (but nonetheless accurate) explanation for Lovecraft’s popularity:
I think the growing popularity of Lovecraft is largely due to the fact that because it has entered the public domain, every entertainment genre is trying to cash in on it, and has successfully convinced people they like Lovecraft, and have had it successfully added to the list of things that nerdy geek-culture types are required to at least pay lip service to.
That does it for this week, Gameologiteers. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’l see you next week!