Wednesday 10 November 2010

I need to talk about Howard

As you will probably know, I’m currently running a Call of Cthulhu pbem set in 1920. I’ve known Lovecraft’s work for years now but because of my involvement in this campaign, I’ve been steadily re-reading his stories over the past couple of months and have noticed that there’s a problem.

I’ve got no trouble recreating the look and feel of the 1920s – sources of research information and pictures are readily available on the internet and many a happy hour I’ve spent finding out the minutiae which will lend an air of historical verisimilitude to the world with which the players are interacting. I even have no problem with my characters, both PC and NPC smoking cigarettes.

No, what I’ve got a problem with is the degree to which the game itself and those who play it can ever hope to accurately recreate the world in which Lovecraft set his stories. Not the historical but the psychological and social world that he created.

That world is not the world that really existed at the time; of course, I’m not referring to the fact that there is no R’lyeh, no Cthulhu, no Great Race, no Mountains of Madness. I’m referring to the very concepts that powered Lovecraft’s vision.

This post is not the place to debate whether Lovecraft was racist – that’s another debate for someone else’s blog. What I’m interested in is whether it is possible for 21st century players and Keepers to get inside the mindset of someone who wrote perhaps eighty to ninety years ago and take on board and accept as normal the memes and tropes that he embodied in his work and which are taken as fact by those who inhabit the world that exists within that work.

Under siege

Lovecraft’s characters inhabit a world in which the white, intellectual Anglo-Saxon Protestant is under siege. The siege mentality pervades the narrative; the protagonists of the stories hold the line in an attempt (often vain) to stem the tide of an encroaching and threatening darkness. Those who stand against this tide are heroic if ultimately aware of the fact that doom is ineluctable. Those who work with the forces of darkness are the seething mass of miscegenated savages, their alien ways and unspeakable ceremonies truly terrifying to those who know what is out there. Lovecraft uses words such as brute, savage, creature, animal and of course mongrel to describe them and the stories take their cue from this particular vision.

He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. (Herbert West – Re-animator)

certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island.
(The Horror at Red Hook)

an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth,
(The Horror at Red Hook)

the prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked, it became manifest that something far deeper and older than negro fetichism was involved. Degraded and ignorant as they were, the creatures held with surprising consistency to the central idea of their loathsome faith.
(The Call of Cthulhu)

When we came to know the squatters better, we found them curiously likeable in many ways. Simple animals they were, gently descending the evolutionary scale because of their unfortunate ancestry and stultifying isolation. (The Lurking Fear)

Let’s look at this section of the Wikipedia entry on Lovecraft:

Though little known to his fan base, Lovecraft was familiar with the work of the German conservative-revolutionary theorist Oswald Spengler. Spengler's pessimistic thesis of the decadence of the modern West formed a crucial element in Lovecraft's overall anti-modern, conservative worldview. Lovecraft was also acquainted with the writings of another German intellectual who dealt with civilised decadence in philosophical terms: Friederich Nietzsche.
Lovecraft frequently dealt with the idea of civilisation struggling against more barbaric, primitive elements. In some stories this struggle is at an individual level; many of his protagonists are cultured, highly-educated men who are gradually corrupted by some obscure and feared influence.

The stories, set in the years just after the First World War, a war that was graphically portrayed as a battle of Good versus Evil, draw on this moral dichotomy and the taking of sides, albeit reluctantly to fight against that which seems too horrible to be allowed to live may well mirror the American attitude in 1917 – dragged into a war that they would rather not have joined. Those who returned from Europe were marked by a vision of hell as close to reality as could be possible. The influenza epidemic at the end of the war can only have confirmed to many that the alien, the outsider was coming, bringing with them this disease that would scythe through young and old alike.

As well as the emotional impact of the war on those who fought in it, there was also the geopolitical fallout that ensued. Communism, bogeyman of the political establishment had broken out of its manifesto cage and infected the minds of millions of Russians and, as far as the politicians were concerned, threatened to do so to the minds of British, American, European and other workers worldwide. The Palmer raids in 1919 and 1920 were a response to terrorism perpetrated by anarchists, linked in the minds of Americans with the menace of Bolshevism.

That the world of 1920 was not that of 1914 was painfully obvious to many – the old certainties had been overthrown and whilst it was not dead, the old social order had been badly wounded by the ruthless way in which obedience to authority, once the bulwark of the establishment, had been revealed to be one of the prime movers in sending millions to their deaths in Europe and beyond. There was no longer a sense that one’s social inferiors would accept their position in life merely because that was the way that it had always been. Another threat to the very people already terrified by the spectre of influenza and the Red scare.

Eighty or ninety years on, the Red scare has come and gone, social mobility has swept the old order away and science has, to a greater or lesser extent, brought epidemics under control with vaccines. Are these neuroses of Lovecraft’s world still the terrors that once they were?

The bleakness

In the 1920s, society was still vastly Christian, with a very particular, almost solipsistic view of man’s place in the cosmos and the universe as a whole. Indeed, the understanding of the cosmos, Einstein notwithstanding was very much more limited than we have today. As such, the notion of man as cosmologically insignificant in a vast, uncaring, indifferent universe would have filled people of Lovecraft’s era with a horror that seems baffling by today’s standards. The notion of almost immeasurable distances of time and space holds more fascination than horror for us in the 21st century and I view this aspect of Lovecraft’s works with a quaint interest rather than a shudder of terror.

That having been said, the bleakness does horrify some people. Here’s James Maliszewksi on it in 2008.

“Perhaps because of this, I find the bleakness of Lovecraft's imaginary creation truly horrific. Were the universe as he describes it reality, I have little doubt that I'd be driven to depths of despair the likes of which I've never experienced (and never hope to). I find Lovecraft's stark, uncaring universe a source of profound terror for me.

I suppose that horror, like comedy is subjective.

Allied with the bleakness is the futility of many of the protagonists’ efforts to combat the dark forces menacing them from the Beyond. Many of the stories end with a solitary narrator penning his final thoughts as the monsters close in or knowing that despite his best efforts, they are still out there and there is nothing that can be done.

Unknown horrors
Since the 1920s and 1930s, we’ve reduced the unknown areas on the map to practically zero. What we can’t get to, our satellites can see. The only mystery left is the ocean depths and even there, we are fairly sure about what isn’t, even if we don’t know what is. There’s no R’lyeh, no mysterious islands that might be there, it’s so remote. In effect, the word remote has become devalued. We can no longer look to the blank spaces on the map or the depths of the ocean for the lurking horror that may wake to destroy the planet. Instead, our eyes turn outwards to the stars, scanning the sky for those colossal (dare I say Cyclopean) lumps of rock which could arrive tomorrow to obliterate entire cities, continents or worse. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the thousands of asteroids out there has the name Cthulhu on it. As a parallel for indifferent, uncaring nemesis, a Doomsday Asteroid is right up there with the Great Old Ones.

I believe, although it is a subjective point of view, that the fears that gripped, informed and shaped the psyche of the post-war society that would have consumed Lovecraft’s work and been chilled thereby have long since faded from the public consciousness. To attempt to immerse oneself in that society, to replicate its mores and its nightmares is as much an experiment in imaginative acting as it would be to try and think oneself into the mindset of a mediaeval knight or man-at-arms for Dungeons and Dragons.

Yet if we remove, or fail to include the themes and aspects of the world of Lovecraft’s fiction that trouble us, that are deemed non-PC or towards which we feel a fundamental discomfort, are we in fact neutering the very powerhouse of the game itself? Are we playing a watered-down version of the game? Is it no longer connected to the fiction that gave it birth? And is this such a bad thing?

So what’s your take on the mindset of the Lovecraftian oeuvre and can we (or should we want to) get into it if we want a wholly realistic Call of Cthulhu game? What modern-day horrors, terrors and fears can we use to replace those of the 1920s and make our investigators that little bit more realistic?

Or do you disagree with me and believe that Lovecraft’s original horrors still have the power to truly terrify?

Let me know what you think - feel free to give my ideas a good kicking; I'm happy to have everyone's opinion on this and to have my own opinions challenged and changed.


  1. By weird happenstance, I happen to have posted briefly about Lovecraft moments ago.

    Any number of movements and debates in the US and Europe suggest that the perceived encroachment of "alien" elements on traditionally white Christian cultures is still very much a concern for many people who would describe themselves as being in the mainstream.

  2. I think they can be analogized to a degree. Western civilization is still perceived to be under siege by some segments of the population, not wholly without some supporting evidence.

    Religious fundamentally in both the West and elsewhere challenges rationality and the scientific worldview. Physics may challenge the very ideas of casuality--ironically making the universe completely irrational.

    Genetic engineering and computer science challenge the ideas of personhood and self, and raise body-horror bugaboos (shades of miscegenation).

    Then there's isolation in industrial societies, pollution, environmental collapse, drug abuse, etc.

    There's a lot to generate fear from. It's why horror fiction still sales. There are different fears than HPL's time, though a think the same primal issues are at their core.

  3. Interesting. This isn't something I'd considered before, but I'm going to have to think about it in depth.

    What I will say now is that the fears of Lovecraft's time may not be relevant nowadays, but there are other fears.

    Every day there's another story about some aspect of the oncoming environmental collapse. There's fear there, a fear that we might end ourselves through a casual disregard for the world around us.

    Then there's the rise of fundamentalism, whether it be Islamic or Christian. What drives people to take up these fanatical ideals?

    (You could link these. The world is in a state of collapse, so people flee to fundamentalism for comfort, and from there to the cults of the Great Old Ones.)

    For me, Lovecraft's stories are stories of nihilism and of the status quo being upended, and I think these still apply today, but they perhaps need to be approached in different terms.

    Sorry, that's a bit of a ramble, and isn't as coherent as I'd like, but I hope it makes some sort of sense.

  4. I'll gladly discard the more loathesome Lovecraft stories ("The Street", anyone? "Meduas's Coil"?) and observations, and keep the kind of horrors that can creep out anyone, not just hard-core racists. It's interesting to see liberal neo-Lovecraftians tackle questions of difference in modern Mythos tales, anyway.

  5. Wonderful post. I have a suggestion.

    Incorporate "news" into the game. Newspapers in particular. And have those papers emphasize elements of the unknown. "Man murdered and left in pieces in dark alley, no suspects yet" or "entire expedition to newly discovered island found floating adrift, beheaded to the last man, no heads found" Stuff like that. Reinforce the vulnerability of the players and the degree to which things are mysterious.

  6. To a degree you're correct, but also consider Mountains of Madness and Dunwich Horror. Dunwich Horror is a much closer fit to the CoC RPG as it is played than any of his other stories, and the themes you're talking about aren't there. Mountains of Madness also doesn't deal with Lovecraft's fears of civilizational rot due to foreign influences. I personally wouldn't worry about trying to recreate those fears, because CoC as a game is a lot more Scooby Doo than that. Flappers and prohibition are easier to deal with.

    So when you ask if we're neutering the game, or distancing it from its roots, that's really in the nature of the game. We're always playing Dunwich Horror, never Thing on the Doorstep, because in the game, we've always got the hope of victory.

  7. I started to respond, but realized my thoughts are going to wind up long enough to fill two large posts. I've started with how to analyze the types of horror in a Lovecraft story, which I hope isn't too dry and academic. I'll have to follow up with how to use that info to re-create the Lovecraftian atmosphere for modern day players.

    The short answer, I suppose, would be to either discard the horror elements that revolve around social strata (switching to madness and paranoia) or to translate them to modern-day social equivalents.

  8. It seems to me that, for this exact reason, Lovecraft is read today as fantasy/science-fiction rather than horror.

    Perhaps members of the Tea Party would read it in the original spirit?

  9. As a European, I find the Tea Party far more horrific than anything Lovecraft ever wrote.

  10. I think if you were to simply leave out the elements of racial hatred/fear it wouldn't spoil the game. There is still plenty to fear in the world in terms of what is unknown/unpredictable. More terrifying than monsters or strange beings from outer space is the dark nature within humans themselves.

    "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."
    Joseph Conrad

    As one of your players I'll say that you don't need to worry about putting fear into us though ;)

  11. Great post!!! I think if you remove the social context of these themes the archtypes themselves still have merit and are important to CoC. "Under siege" and "bleakness" are fundamental feelings that can crop up at the edges of any civilization - somewhere out there may be unknown forces attempting to disrupt the society that you were born in. Maybe those forces are coming from inside your own government. In the 21st century we are as assaulted by the risk of takeover of our fundamental way of life by corporate interests. How can anyone live in a world with television blasting "American Idol" and Justin Beiber at our children and not feel filled with bleakness? :)

    And on the "unknown horrors" front... while we have google-mapped out nearly every inch of our planet, I feel like there are still many unknown areas left hiding under rocks unturned. What horrors does the future of genetic engineering hold for us? Can humans engineer artificial intelligence with the ability to make our own feeble intellects obsolete? I saw a documentary recently about nano-robots being engineered at a national lab that can target specific types of cells and destroy them. Could these robots be reprogrammed to kill? Lets not even get started about space or nuclear missiles or our own planet Earth's precious resources such as drinkable water supply.... every day on our planet could be our last. If you dwell too long on any of these concepts you will scare yourself silly.

    I also think that the mechanics of CoC emphasize these themes that you have touched on. My goal for this campaign is not to kill monsters and take loot and power up... instead I'm trying to stay alive as long as possible. The sanity mechanic is a ticking time bomb that will slowly weaken my character over time, until eventually he will likely either go mad or be eaten by some horror. Our characters will begin to feel like they are both "under siege" and realize the bleakness of fighting against insurmountable evils. The heroic element is not that they will win... it is merely that they try to fight.

  12. I'm just going to repeat what so many others have said. There seem to be things that correlate, socially, between the early part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st. Kneejerk fear of socialism is back, race is still very much an issue in American politics and social life and the privileged do as they like while the rest of us cower in fear of losing our pay, our insurance benefits, etc.

  13. Another thing to keep in mind: although Lovecraft has a theme of miscegenation based on racist fears common at the time, he also has a theme of atavism based on shock at findings in evolution. Most people today pretty much accept evolution, but there's still a lot of mileage in fears about the buried bestial nature of humanity.