Difficult to Lovecraft

Love-Cthulhu-T-ShirtIf you’ve spent any time in the hobby gaming community at all, you’ll have certainly noticed the recurring appearance of a monstrous creature called Cthulhu. Ranging from essentially “serious” adaptations of the source material, such as Call of Cthulhu or Arkham Horror, all the way to completely ridiculous appearances in Cthulhu Munchkin and Cthulhu Fluxx, there is no shortage of Cthulhu-themed and Cthulhu-skinned games in our hobby. In fact, as of this writing, Wikipedia lists no fewer than FIFTY games in which Cthulhu makes at least a cameo appearance. This is games alone, mind you—to say nothing of the scores of references to the creature and its surrounding mythos in film, television, music, and print. Clearly, geeks just love Cthulhu.

For those who don’t know, this Cthulhu is part of a pantheon of demi-godlike creatures known as the “Great Old Ones,” who recur in the speculative fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937). Having myself had zero knowledge at all of Lovecraft, his work, and of these creatures, except for the myriad passing appearances in tabletop games, I decided recently that I should educate myself on the subject. My goal was twofold: (1) to expose myself to Lovecraft’s work from the simple standpoint of literary appreciation, and (2) to hope to divine some understanding of exactly why the Cthulhu mythos is so absurdly popular in our hobby. The overwhelming majority of Lovecraft’s work is short-fiction, having been mostly published in pulp magazines during the ’20s and ’30s, and it’s from this short fiction that the Cthulhu mythos was largely assembled. Therefore I made my foray into Lovecraftian horror by way of an anthology of his work: Necronomicon. My thoughts and reflections follow.

lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft, ca. 1934

Thoughts on Lovecraftian Literature
Well, as the article’s title suggests, I ultimately found Lovecraft’s work… difficult to love. To be fair: my gripes are basically issues of personal taste and preference, and I try not to be unnecessarily harsh when it comes to matters of artistic style. I don’t intend to spend this entire article bashing the man or his work, and I promise there is some positive affirmation before the end. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. Nevertheless, having read in Necronomicon what I feel is a significant sampling of the depth and breadth of Lovecraft’s work, there are a few elements that really started to grate after a while:

The horrible, demoniac madness.

These are Lovecraft’s descriptors. All of them. Everything evokes horror. Or if not horror, then madness. Because everything is demoniac. And demoniac things are horrible and drive one mad. With madness and horror. Even mundane objects—things which really should evoke little or no emotion at all in either the character or the reader—are somehow demoniac. The demoniac draperies. It was horrible. It drove me mad. This begins to provoke the literary argument over whether it is “better” to use direct or indirect characterization, and whether the author should “tell” or “show.” I won’t take a side on this: I believe that both indirect and direct, as well as “telling” and “showing,” all have their roles in storytelling. I will say that, while wearing my own writer’s hat, I don’t mind telling the reader how the character feels, but I try not to instruct the reader as to how the reader should feel. And moderation is the key in all literary devices. In Lovecraft’s case, it wasn’t long before I was driven mad with the demoniac horror.

The racism.

Some literature stands the test of time, even when the views of the characters or the author don’t exactly manage to do the same. It doesn’t always require the piece to challenge social norms or advance liberal views, such as in To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s a fair degree of racial bias present in Moby Dick, for example, but it isn’t the point of the story, and it isn’t so much as to distract from the story or to become the story. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Lovecraft’s characters, whose personalities and views are largely indistinguishable from their author’s. These protagonists are all cut from the same mold: they are educated, New England white men. (They are him.) And they are surrounded by painfully stereotyped racial minorities, copied from the pages of Huckleberry Finn or from the pseudo-scientific articles of the 19th century that “justified” the White Man’s Burden. Lovecraft’s descriptive language unfalteringly compares Africans to apes or more primitive ancestors of humans.

I tried to ignore the “unenlightened” attitudes; I tried to keep my mind in the time and place of the author’s, but it proved extremely difficult. This was most true in one particular story called “The Rats in the Walls” (1924), which features as one of its central characters a black cat named “Nigger-Man.” My god. Of all things. And because the cat is a central player in the plot, his awful name appears in the text of this very short story a grand total of nineteen times. Worse than nails on a chalkboard, every single recurrence of the word was more horrible or maddening than anything else Lovecraft had written in his entire life. Cthulhu be damned.

The case of the missing story.

Necronomicon features 36… let’s call them chapters. I hesitate to call them “stories,” as that would imply some sort of plot arc, or maybe a conflict, or at the very least some character development. As it is, the most development any of Lovecraft’s characters experience is some sort of “descent into madness,” but it’s unclear what that looks like. All of the featurettes—including “The Call of Cthulhu” (which “started it all” in a sense and is definitely one of the best pieces in the collection)—reminds me of the latter half of Stephen King’s career and every single David Lynch movie I’ve ever seen: fantastic and powerfully captivating premise, completely unrealized.

One artist's illustration of a scene from "The Call of Cthulhu."

One artist’s illustration of a scene from “The Call of Cthulhu.”

The first impression I got was that the stories felt somewhat campy. The “surprise” endings were not so surprising; the “twists” not so twisty; the “horror” not so horrifying. I often imagined the narrator was some kid sitting at a campfire, inventing spooky stories with a flashlight beneath his marshmallowy chin. But I dismissed this thought at first, allowing that the reason Lovecraft’s work seemed cliché was that it was his work that inspired the cliché in the first place.  Still… even granting that these are “short stories,” there’s just something missing. The “conflicts” (as such) seem already resolved, even as they are exposed, since the narrator seems always to be recalling some past horror that drove some third character mad, and nearly did the same to the narrator as well (but of course, not quite, so he could live to tell). The villainous creatures, more often than not, seem to disappear into the shadows of reality and remain as invisible in the end as they were when they first manifested, and they never seem to pose any real threat to humanity. It would seem that the conflict structure is almost always “character versus self,” but since that conflict is too simply described as “madness” in almost every case, it’s very hard to be moved by anything that happens in the account.

Lovecraftian horror is often compared to nightmares. I’m not sure about how “nightmarish” it is, but it certainly does feel like a dream: you remember much of the imagery, and it’s often quite intriguing and sometimes frightening, but you still wake up not really knowing what the point was.

Thoughts on Cthulhu in Geek Culture
So in regards to my first goal (to expose myself to Lovecraft’s work), it might be easily taken from my remarks above that I absolutely hated it. This is not so. As I stated, despite my veritable tirade, these are largely preferential issues and do not—even for me—pigeonhole Lovecraft as a “terrible writer.” With the exception of the limited descriptors, I really did enjoy his prose. It has a cadence to it that is music to my ears and is one of the things that regularly attracts me to authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (I also love F. Scott Fitzgerald and just about everything Russian from these same decades.) Meanwhile, even though the stories didn’t ever seem to deliver on their promises, I have to admit that the promises were just so good. Maybe that’s why I’m so fundamentally upset about this whole thing: I just so badly wanted to know what happens next. (Isn’t this the signature of a good writer?)

From this lingering craving, I draw a conclusion to my second goal (to divine some understanding of exactly why the Cthulhu mythos is so absurdly popular in our hobby). Geeks love expansions. We love the idea of the “expanded universe”; we love cross-overs. A thing can be cool, but oh how much cooler is it when it manifests across diverse and largely unrelated stories. We like Marvel comics, but we love the Marvel Universe. We like Lord of the Rings, but we love the Silmarillion (and it isn’t even as interesting as the base story!). We even loved Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and precisely because we saw it overlapping into so many of his other projects. We loved it so much that even the extremely disappointing ending hasn’t discouraged us from buying the comic book adaptations or looking forward to the upcoming film adaptation.

coctwl_greenI think this is where Cthulhu has found his way into geeking and gaming culture. Lovecraft’s work, especially the Cthulhu mythos, is among the grandfathers of expanded universe/crossover material. The sheer potential for some awesome story is there, waiting to be realized. It’s exciting, the way the Dark Tower was exciting before an “ending” was written; the way the history of the Clone Wars was exciting before we were subjected to Jar Jar Binks; the way the conclusion to the Dune saga will always be exciting, because it will never truly be written. It would seem that the expanded universe is most exciting when it lives only as potential in our imaginations, and that “endings,” as such, run a higher risk of ruining our hopes than satisfying them. Through games, we get to create an infinite number of expansions to the various fictional universes we love, forever playing in those realms but never closing them off by way of some ending, satisfactory or not.  As valid as literature, cinema, television, and comics, gaming is storytelling. And while he wrote for only twenty years and died at the young age of 46, H.P. Lovecraft left us a rich vein of imaginative and unfinished stories—an endlessly expandable universe in which we can forever play.

As a hack writer myself, it makes me wonder whether “endings” are not over-rated: that maybe the greatest satisfaction lies in knowing the fans will never be sated, and that it could be folly to try.


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9 thoughts on “Difficult to Lovecraft

  1. Geoffrey, Just to offset your response to “Nigger Man” in “The Rats in the Walls,” I have to say something about the difference in the way you and I respond to the use of this term.

    I am old enough (retired in my sixties) to have lived during a time (late 50’s and early 60’s), when “Nigger” was still the politically correct thing to say instead of “Black” or “African-American.”

    As a kid in Indiana, I would hear my white uncle say to a “Black” hired-hand, “Well Joe, we’re going to need a couple more “Niggers” so we can finish this field… And nobody got offended, because that was the term used at that time.

    And in Lovecraft’s time, the proper term too, was “Nigger.” Think of “Nigger Jim” in “Huckleberry Finn.”

    Nobody in Lovecraft’s part of the world at that time would have used the terms that are now politically correct; and in the case of the cat in “The Rats in the Walls,” you have truly missed out on a very important aspect of the story.

    When H. P. Lovecraft was a young man, he had a cat, his most favorite and beloved cat (which died in 1904 when Lovecraft was about 14); and because this cat was all black, he named him his little “Nigger Man.”

    This was not out of hate, any more than my currently calling my black cat “Blacky” is.

    It was a name in keeping with the term for “Black” at that time, which was “Nigger;” nothing more or less.

    And when Lovecraft wrote “The Rats in the Walls,” he made his long-lost most-loved cat a leading character in the story, as a tribute to his love for him.

    So while you respond to mentions of “Nigger Man” in the story as greatly and repeatedly offensive, I, as a Lovecraftian cat-lover, find it endearing, that Lovecraft, nearly twenty years after the death of his favorite cat, “Nigger Man,” was still missing him so much, that he gave him a form of immortality, by making him a very important part of this story.

    Which means, that although Lovecraft was a racist, and a product of his place and time, there was at least one “Nigger Man” that he truly loved.

    So please soften your feelings to understand he was in the story from love, and not hate.

    Will Hart

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks very much for the perspective, Will. I definitely hear what you’re saying in general, and it’s nice to now know the personal story behind Lovecraft’s own cat. That was something I hadn’t known. It does “soften” my understanding a bit. And to be fair, I do recognize the stark difference in cultural norms and sensitivities across the generational gap here. It was just really hard on the ears of this Gen-Y member. I appreciate you reading and helping to paint a fuller portrait of this man and his work.

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  2. Matt Evans says:

    Nice article Geoffrey! I enjoyed it, though I do disagree slightly (not with the racism bit, that is pretty uncomfortable sometimes). The stories of Lovecraft are not scary because of what happens to the characters generally. It is the idea of “cosmic horror”, that humanity is meaningless in the context of the universe, that there are things that are impossible for the human mind to grasp, and that there are beings to which we are nothing more than ants.

    In Call of Cthulhu, the protagonists literally ram Cthulhu with a boat and do nothing, he/she/it merely returns to its rest of its own choosing. The horror is not what happens, but that Cthulhu might one day awaken and that there would be nothing humanity could do to stop it. In some ways, that threat of complete powerlessness is so set against what humanity wants to believe of itself, that there is nothing unconquerable, that the threat is so much more terrifying than actually experiencing that threat become manifest. Which is also why so many modern implementations of the Cthulhu mythos in video and board games fail to grasp what it is that makes the mythos so intriguing.

    I do enjoy dipping in and out of his worlds, primarily for the ideas rather than for the execution however. It is as you said, the promises are just so good! But I was also surprised by the way he rights and the vagueness of the stories. I am still working through the Necronomicon, and have been reading bits and pieces of it for the last 2 years! It’s certainly a comment on his writing that I have not worked through it faster.

    A final thought on why Cthulhu and the mythos is so widespread in other mediums is that it is an open source IP. There are no controls on who can use it, and so it is easy to produce and publish products set within his world. That exposes more people to it, and leads to wider acceptance when other products use that setting, and so on and so forth until you reach where we are today. It’s much like Zombies, an easy theme to use, and one that continues to spiral on through our hobby.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and adding those thoughts, Matt. I appreciate your take on it, and the idea that the important/scary part is just how puny we are. I’m reminded of the movie “The Blair Witch Project,” which so many people hated because it didn’t “deliver” (the same gripe I made about Lovecraft’s work). Meanwhile, I loved the movie, precisely because it got inside your head and was all mindgames. I suppose I need to view Lovecraft in that same light.

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  4. Greer nailed it! I enjoy the concepts of Lovecraft more often than his actual storytelling. In the same way I was fascinated with Stephen King’s “It”, i.e. the “deadlights” and the idea that if one were to see Itself in It’s true form one would go insane. I also feel the ending the of “The Dark Tower” would have been more satisfying if King hadn’t included the last chapter and simply ended the saga with Roland arriving at his destination. No narratives of his entrance into the Tower itself or the various encounters on its successive levels. Simply leaving the reader to imagine Roland’s fate at the top of the Tower. This is because the thrill of the quest itself, liberally peppered with the references to the King oeuvre, IS the thrill of reading this epic. One wonders if the story would have become even more iconic had King not lived long enough to complete it, a la Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” I feel Lovecraft’s work is dynamic in much the same way in that it transcends the confines of the short story and becomes part of something bigger. Certainly Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth must have felt compelled to expand on the Cthulhu Mythos for similar reasons.I do not condone the racism in some of his stories. When I read these epithets I am reminded of the timeline in which they were written as well as the Yankee white privilege Lovecraft grew up with. I guess I’ll end this comment with the fact that H.P. Lovecraft is more popular now then he ever was during his lifetime. Whether it be with Geek culture, or literary culture, his pulp tales have evolved into the popular culture because the reader’s imagination is compelled to visualize what is only hinted at with the cryptic lingo within (Eldritch horror, cyclopean architecture, etc.) Sheer supernatural, Gothic, Sci-Fi elements that make the reader uncomfortable yet eager for more.

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    • In regards to your comments on The Dark Tower, you will no doubt recall that King included a fairly lengthy “chapter” before that last one, admonishing anyone who wanted to read on to the end. He was giving “fair warning” and echoed your very same thoughts about the journey being the thing. Once again, we should have heeded the sign at the gate: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here!”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess I’m no better than Pandora. However, I must admit that I liked how the story is a never ending cycle. There is something enigmatic in the opening/closing text, “The Man In Black fled across the desert. And the Gunslinger followed.” It stands up to (and even supersedes ) the Star Wars prologue.

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