culled from deeply toxic material without anything interesting to say
December 22, 2019 7:07 AM   Subscribe

I think we’re all set on Lovecraft games for a while [VG24/7] “And before I start, let me just say that I’m not talking about Lovecraft’s racism which, let’s be honest, is real bad. The dude was racist. He was like my mom in a foreign country racist. This isn’t an argument about whether or not Lovecraft was just “of his time.” Better people have had that argument and I’m not here to cancel Lovecraft. Rather, I want to talk about H.P. Lovecraft games. I think we’ve got enough for a while. But we have to be honest with ourselves: Cthulhu isn’t scary anymore. At this point, he’s a cartoon villain like Darth Vader or, I dunno, Ursula the Sea Witch. I don’t know why Ursula came up in my head, but let’s go with it. The point being that, as an audience we know Cthulhu is supposed to be scary, but because we’re so familiar with him as a concept, he’s not actually scary. Literally nobody is afraid when they see Cthulhu pop up on screen. The whole purpose of cosmic horror is to be confronted by something so vast and incomprehensible that our minds break. [...] And that shit just isn’t happening anymore when I hear the word “Necronomicon.” It’s just a brand now.”

• 2019: The year of cosmic horror games [AV Club]
“Isn’t it strange that a branch of fiction should thrive so fully when its most prominent emissary has been widely ostracized for his odious politics? Yet the influence of H.P. Lovecraft, and the numerous writers inspired by his work, persists, nowhere more so than in video games—to the extent that one could engage solely with titles that traffic in overt references to their works, and still amass an impossible-to-exhaust backlog in the process. It’s getting so out of control that multiple opinion pieces have been written calling for developer restraint in regards to pumping out games in the genre of what’s generally referred to as “cosmic horror”—not due to concerns about Lovecraft’s racism, but to stem oversaturation in the market. [...] Building on earlier anthropological work, psychology professor Sheldon Solomon has conducted a series of experiments linking our fraught political moment with a kind of existential dread, the feeling that “we are ultimately no more significant or enduring than turtles or turnips.” Such pessimism on a cosmic scale is undoubtedly the defining sentiment of the last decade, a byproduct of rising inequality, precariousness, and the growing unaccountability of massive corporate entities shaping our daily existence, while operating outside the realm of our understanding or our control.”
• Games really need to fall out of love with Lovecraft [Eurogamer]
“I'm not keen on mincing words on this one. H.P Lovecraft was a racist and before you go making an argument for separating the art from the artist, let's be clear on another point: so are his stories. They encompass other problematic elements too, of course - misogyny, homophobia. Right down to their core, right down to the very themes that recur throughout his works, you'll find the hateful perspective he had of the world: the ignorance of someone who viewed anything unlike himself with revulsion. While he drew inspiration from works predating him, what Lovecraft gave to the genre of cosmic horror was his hate. Which is now video games' problem. For decades video games have been regurgitating the themes, plots and aesthetics of his stories with not one ounce of scrutiny. The half-breed monsters that embody the very essence of Lovecraft's revulsion, the troubled white male heroes that contain his arrogance and his gross simplification of mental illness are recreated in video games with no subversion, no critical thinking. In doing so they are breathing life, again and again, into Lovecraft's hate. At least Bloodborne had the decency to suggest that its protagonist could be the real villain of the story.”
• We don't need any more Lovecraftian video games for a while [Gamecrate]
“I understand Lovecraft's appeal. I've read dozens of his stories and listened to hundreds of episodes of the excellent H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. I've seen adaptations of his works performed live, and I've been to NecronomiCon. This isn't about Lovecraftian horror not being interesting and effective, and this isn't even about Lovecraft's personal racism (which only The Sinking City has really grappled with in any interesting way). This is about all the flavors of horror that gaming has barely explored at the same time it's been squeezing every last drop of ichor from H.P.'s bones. We've had enough octopus gods and creepy fish people for a while - let's use 2019's Control as a jumping off point for more exploration of the new weird. Let's move beyond the sanity meter and explore real psychological horror with more games like Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. And if you're looking for scares that would feel fresh and relevant and acutely horrific in 2019, how about games based in ecological horror?”
• ‘Call of Cthulhu’ Shows We Need to Move Past H.P. Lovecraft Once and for All [Vice]
“Lovecraft grotesquely cataloged the fears of white 20th century Americans, but he also gave us a language that we still use to talk about cosmic horror—dread in the face of an unknown and unknowable universe. At his best, he helps us articulate the dread that comes from realizing how small humans are in the grand schemes of things. At his worst, he’s an overwrought and paranoid racist. His legacy is important, but ultimately, we need to move past it. There’s a whole new generation of writers and artists who have taken his themes and done it better, and mostly without all the baggage. The first season of True Detective is the biggest and flashiest example. But there’s also The Ballad of Black Tom, Lovecraft Country, Alan Moore’s Providence, the work of Thomas Ligotti, and the books Caitlín R. Kiernan. These are the writers and artists who’ve picked up Lovecraft’s torch and made it work while acknowledging the horror of the man who created it. Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game feels tired and cliched, a game from an era when reintroducing Lovecraft to pop culture in the form of a video game was a novelty.”
posted by Fizz (106 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
It was all over when Cthulhu bedroom slippers became available.

I've wondered what would be sufficiently scary for modern people. Monsters in the mind, perhaps.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 7:11 AM on December 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


I can't be the only person for whom the first mental image on hearing the word cthulu nowadays is this. Completely defanged, worthless in a horror context.
posted by Dysk at 7:12 AM on December 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


3-D rendering these Things in a video game is to completely miss the point. Even ASoIaF dropped the ball for me when its dragons needed to eat cattle. Cattle? Really? How many? How often? How soon would owning three dragons become a liability versus a benefit? A year? Three months?

Taking the unknown out of these unknowable creatures kills them faster than a magic sword, a stake through the heart or a silver bullet.
posted by SoberHighland at 7:23 AM on December 22, 2019 [24 favorites]


I'm not exactly one to talk given that I published a not-Lovecraft-but-definitely-inspired-by-Lovecraft boardgame a few years back. (minor defense: it was lovecraftian noir, combining pulp noir detective with cosmic horror, and did not involve anything that looks like Cthulhu :) )

But: I tend to agree here. With videogames in particular, I'm honestly not sure a game since Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (GameCube, 2002) has done much that has been super interesting with the concept that was notably different from if it had just been a riff on something more like Doom (hell invasion) or Half-life (alien invasion). I feel like it takes a lot of work in art design and game design to do anything with it that allows it to be more than just a novel (not really novel anymore) skin on existing mechanics.
posted by tocts at 7:29 AM on December 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


I've wondered what would be sufficiently scary for modern people. Monsters in the mind, perhaps.

The stuff that True Detective Season 1 tapped into, from the minds of Thomas Ligotti & Robert Chambers, combined with the kidnapping of young children and all the horrors inflicted upon them. THAT is terrifying to me. Taking fictional horror and using it to establish a cult that allows for sexual assault/abuse, misogyny, racism, and greedy capitalism that provides individuals an opportunity to engage in these behaviours, these are the things that frighten me most. Like, Jeffrey Epstein is devil/cthulhu incarnate, only 100x worse.

All that being said. The games that truly frighten me these days are games like Resident Evil 7: biohazard. That game is an example of what I wrote up above, it's about a very bizarre family that has indulged in the worst parts of itself. It's a more southern gothic horror. It's horror that lurks underneath and is tainted as they are just human enough to pass. They're humans but corrupt and damaged and yet they still are enough of their old selves that it brings you into that uncanny feeling. It gives me goosebumps.
posted by Fizz at 7:29 AM on December 22, 2019 [18 favorites]


I'm not sure that these are the right times for the works of HPL. Howard was all about the collapse of reason and science in the face of Cosmic Truth. Now that so many folks are ready to embrace "fake news" and eagerly accept it as their new Gospel, have we "[gone] mad from the revelation or [fled] from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age?" Is Twitter a manifestation of Nyarlathotep, a mountain of madness from which the Crawling Chaos enters our heads?

“The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy."

Is Lovecraft too relevant, now?
posted by SPrintF at 7:31 AM on December 22, 2019 [21 favorites]


I know they're predominantly talking about video games here, but I also think we may have reached Peak C'thulhu when it comes to TTRPG's as well.
Chaosium's Call of C'thulhu is the flagship, and it's having a bit of a renaissance, but the days of just throwing your investigators up against a few cultists, conjuring some monsters, having a few battles, and then everyone dies should be over and done with.
It's boring, it's been happening since the game's introduction in 1981, and the times are changing.

I think there is more to be mined here, and the focus should be real world (as opposed to cosmic) horror.
(Stygian Fox has some amazing modern time scenarios that are chilling to read, much less play) and there's soon to be a new Kickstarter for a game that focuses on the horror stories of M.R. James.
I welcome a changing of the guard and a true renaissance in horror RPG.
posted by Bill Watches Movies Podcast at 7:32 AM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


gross simplification of mental illness

If you're looking at assigning responsibility for the way mental illness is dealt with in Cthulhu Mythos related games, Sandy Petersen should at least get a mention, rather than solely pointing at the source material.
posted by zamboni at 7:35 AM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Cthulhu is all about Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. It's about the idea that truly understanding how the universe works would drive us mad.

Well... that's our world now. If you want to send yourself hurtling towards the edge of gibbering insanity, there's a plethora of subjects out there that will satisfy that urge, all as close as your nearest internet connected device. Quantum mechanics is good for that lovely frisson of 'the underpinnings of the universe are deeply bizarre and inscrutable.' If you're more in the mood for sheer shrieking existential horror, start looking into current papers on climate change. Body horror? The health effects of climate change will make you want to crawl out of your skin.

These days the idea that the universe is controlled by vast unknowable conscious entities to whom we are less than ants would be kind of reassuring. At least there's a chance they might be reasoned with, bargained with, even defeated, unlike the laws of physics which are stubbornly immutable.

It takes a lot to be scarier than the real world these days.
posted by MrVisible at 7:38 AM on December 22, 2019 [12 favorites]


the idea that the universe is controlled by vast unknowable conscious entities to whom we are less than ants would be kind of reassuring

Share and enjoy.
posted by flabdablet at 7:42 AM on December 22, 2019 [9 favorites]


I wrote this story back in 1993-1997 because Cthulhu wasn't scary any more (because: bedroom slippers?!?) and it turns out that, oh, look, you can make Cthulhu scary again if you just link him to something that really has inalienable cosmic dread vibes. ("A Colder War" is explicitly a sequel to "At the Mountains of Madness", and turned out to be a dry run for what later evolved into the Laundry Files. You're welcome!)
posted by cstross at 7:43 AM on December 22, 2019 [107 favorites]


I would imagine the number of cthulhu related projects is only going to get worse as the cloud over the Lovecraft copyrights clears up, not better.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:51 AM on December 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


I'm with SoberHighland; making something like Cthulhu concrete and rendered in a game ruins it. For me that's always been true specifically of Cthulhu, ever since I saw the first pulp novel cover with the giant squid monster. Giant squid monsters aren't scary, they're comical. Alan Moore put the bullet through the head of that kind of monster anyway.

The scary Lovecraft is the stuff in your mind, the stuff not quite described. Nyarlathotep, for instance. Or any scary campfire story where you don't ever give the boogeyman enough flesh to be known. Lovecraft devolves into self-parody sometimes, as in The Colour out of Space, which I love but come on "the colour was almost impossible to describe" is not great writing. But often the indescribable is the best part his stories.

You want modern horror in games? I think Death Stranding hit the mark pretty well. The BTs are creepy, both in concept and in execution in the game. Some of the other ideas are even more horrifying, like the use of BBs (well explored in the story) and their stillmothers.
posted by Nelson at 7:58 AM on December 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


People are way scarier than a made up demonic horror. Open up the daily newspaper, turn on the television or just browse a site and you can stare at some of the truly horrible shite that humans are capable of.

Do it the next day and discover that yesterday’s events seemed like a practice run.

How can Cthulhu even compete against that?
posted by drivingmenuts at 8:12 AM on December 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


I do think the Weird Fiction/Cosmic Horror thing can still have legs, it just needs to not be retreading and referencing the tired Lovecraft mythos. Just look at authors like China Mieville, or TV shows like Stranger Things. You have to do your own thing, you can't have the horror of unknowable evil with familiar tropes and characters.

I'd say Hollow Knight, while not really horror, it's definitely playing with an adjacent aesthetic. It works precisely because it isn't Lovecraft for the nth time.
posted by Dysk at 8:12 AM on December 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


The fear comes from the unknown--the sense of something unseen. The horror comes from something revealed that was there, unseen, before--it can also include the intimation of more unknown, more fear and more horror to come.

Fear is a wet thump from a basement. Horror is the realization that you have a basement --let alone one that issues wet thumps--when you didn't think you did. Horror isn't seeing a bunch of maggots squirming--it's seeing a sad, dead bird, looking closer in pity, and then seeing the writhing mass underneath.

Video games can get that right when they do atmospherics right--you have to build a world that you can upend, but we're not more used to immersive games that mess with the rules of the world.
posted by pykrete jungle at 8:13 AM on December 22, 2019 [17 favorites]


For every game where Cthulhu or some equivalent tentacle thing is the villain there are like ten where it turns out the real monster was mental illness, and that's something I'm even more tired of. What I would give for a straightforward game about a straightforwardly supernatural horror and not have it turn out that the monster is actually PTSD or schizophrenia.
posted by Pyry at 8:15 AM on December 22, 2019 [6 favorites]


all this talk of abysmal horror and whatnot can't help but remind me of an unspeakable horror I stumbled upon only yesterday via the unfathomable dimensions of the Youtube algorithm ...

The Green Slime (1968)
posted by philip-random at 8:21 AM on December 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


I've wondered what would be sufficiently scary for modern people. Monsters in the mind, perhaps.

This is the best piece of existential horror media I've seen this decade.

As to the overall point of the post - I dunno. I'm becoming increasingly resistant to "I'm bored of this type of game, so no one should play/produce it anymore"-style commentary. There's always going to be a leading edge of people who are sated with X. It's fine for other people who showed up later or whatever to encounter and enjoy X.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:24 AM on December 22, 2019 [19 favorites]


There's only 1 Lovecraft boardgame that can drive you literally mad and that is playing Arkham Horror with ALL the expansions....
posted by Pendragon at 8:26 AM on December 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


This is the best piece of existential horror media I've seen this decade.

Episode One of that is a monster movie, working all the tropes. The fact that it's mostly factual only plays to the horror of where we were, thirty-three plus years ago. Thus driving home the point that the horror of where we currently are is old news anyway.
posted by philip-random at 8:29 AM on December 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


So I would actually disagree and say that we haven’t been able to make good Cthulhu games since the graphics and expectations have gotten a lot bigger and more complicated, and the expectations of Things Being Perfect such that madness can not be done interestingly.

One of the games I loved a lot was VtM: Bloodlines, which allowed you to play as a Malkavian. And if you did, things changed throughout the entirety of the game. Different audio, different visuals. It was really interesting. But also, a lot of what happened differently came through text based choices that didn’t have to be rendered.


I would play the fuck out of a game that didn’t let you manage your sanity with potions or rest or anything like that - where the things you saw, depending on what you saw and how you handled them, drove you so mad that you couldn’t trust what you saw and heard on the screen, and you knew that it was the result of your choices. Where you saw flickering shadows on the faces of passerby and didn’t know if it was real and they were a monster coming to kill you or it was just your broken perception of the world. That would be scary as fuck for me who worries about that all the time. But they’ll never do it because the graphics it would take to fundamentally alter the game experience in a gradient way depending on the time someone went cosmic-horror mad and where they did it would be incredibly hard and cost an enormous amount of money to do.

So maybe now isn’t the time, but it’s not because they’re boring, just because they’re done badly.
posted by corb at 8:30 AM on December 22, 2019 [18 favorites]


All the kids are into SCP for their cosmic horror these days.

Where Lovecraft reduced direct contact between human institutions and the cosmic horror, SCP focuses on an institution devoted to containment. The closest Lovecraft got to human institutions that had ongoing contact with the cosmic horror were religious cults, and they themselves weren't the central focus the way the SCP Foundation is. SCP will describe the exact procedures for containment and allow you to dwell on how inadequate that feels.
posted by RobotHero at 8:31 AM on December 22, 2019 [22 favorites]


There's this black fluid deep under the earth, somehow summoned out of the dead and consolidated essence of the world's life as it was hundreds of millions of years ago. After humanity discovered it we were granted strange and hitherto unimaginable powers.

But we were enslaved by it. Everywhere we go, everything we do, wear, eat, our communication, our distractions and pleasures, our politics and wars, all are inextricably bound to the black fluid. It's accumulating in the bodies of dolphins and in our own. Scraps of its derivations litter the marianas trench and the north pole.

And it's killing us. And it's killing everything. We know that the black fluid will soon render the planet uninhabitable to human life except for small refugia at the polar regions, in caves, on mountaintops. We know the seas will rise and boil and turn dead, and that most of the USA will soon be unsurvivable for at least half the year for any warm blooded animal larger than a toaster.

There's nothing we can do now. The ancient poison is in our politics, in our identity. Beings who say that more CO2 would be good for the planet now own the world.

That's why we don't need fictional eldritch horror-gods.
posted by Rust Moranis at 8:33 AM on December 22, 2019 [160 favorites]


So I would actually disagree and say that we haven’t been able to make good Cthulhu games since the graphics and expectations have gotten a lot bigger and more complicated, and the expectations of Things Being Perfect such that madness can not be done interestingly.

I think there's something here. I am very much not a Lovecraft Mythos person (it's just never really resonated for me) but Darkest Dungeon took the concept and made some really interesting mechanics and a genuinely creepy feel with a very, very lo-fi art style. If it had been less stylized I think it would have worked a lot less well.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:36 AM on December 22, 2019 [7 favorites]



That's why we don't need fictional eldritch horror-gods.


I think you just argued very well otherwise. The fiction helps us to grasp the reality, like noticing something in a mirror, somewhat distorted, that is hard to see looking at the thing straight on, the vastness of it being overwhelming. Nicely put.
posted by philip-random at 8:39 AM on December 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


There's this black fluid deep under the earth

You mean white fluid, right? Because I just can't get enough of The Stuff.
posted by Nelson at 8:42 AM on December 22, 2019 [13 favorites]


The Digital Antiquarian took a deep dive on Lovecraft a few years ago, covering his pretty pathetic existence before going into the Call of Cthulu tabletop RPG.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:44 AM on December 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


Doesn't Jordan Peele have a Lovecraft-inspired show coming out? He's got enough credibility with me that I find myself looking forward to that, even as I agree wholeheartedly with all of the Lovecraft-is-played-out arguments above.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:48 AM on December 22, 2019


There's always going to be a leading edge of people who are sated with X. It's fine for other people who showed up later or whatever to encounter and enjoy X.

Sure, but anyone coming late to it will have all the X that already exists to show up late and enjoy. Do we need it to be new X for people to come late to?
posted by Dysk at 8:57 AM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Sure, but anyone coming late to it will have all the X that already exists to show up late and enjoy. Do we need it to be new X for people to come late to?

In terms of market forces, maybe not. In terms of creative endeavors, it's entirely beside the point. Video games in particular often occupy a weird space between the two - I think maybe in terms of "what will the market bear?" then yeah, maybe Cthulu is out. In terms of "What can a weird indie dev team explore in a new and fun way?" then there isn't any area that is too played out.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:01 AM on December 22, 2019 [3 favorites]




There’s still interesting new takes on Lovecraft coming out. Ruthanna Emrys’s novels Winter Tide and Deep Roots being prime examples (that I’m surprised haven’t been mentioned yet). But they’re interesting precisely because they challenge and overturn Lovecraft’s racism— the main character is a Deep One who survived being in a US government internment camp in the 1930s and is chosen family with a Japanese family who was imprisoned in the same camp during World War II.

Also, I agree that ecological horror video games would be interesting... like imagine games inspired by the Southern Reach trilogy!
posted by overglow at 9:09 AM on December 22, 2019 [10 favorites]


Doesn't Jordan Peele have a Lovecraft-inspired show coming out? He's got enough credibility with me that I find myself looking forward to that, even as I agree wholeheartedly with all of the Lovecraft-is-played-out arguments above.

Based on Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. The book was an incredible work, and the first Lovecraftian thing I found scary since forever.

The victims are not weird isolated loners. They are people with families and things to lose. They are also African-Americans in the late '40s US, so they are still isolated and will not be believed and are surrounded by a universe that is not just indifferent but actively malevolent. A black man going into a rural 1940's New England town is scary even if you don't find it filled with fish people.

Another aspect of this setup that I liked was the way Lovecraft himself is so obsessed with ancestry and bloodlines but in point of fact all the WASP creeps in his books are no good to their flesh and blood ever. Ruff centering his stories around a black family that you'd actually be proud to be a member of is, I hope, pissing off the rotting corpse of Lovecraft.

The dude was racist. He was like my mom in a foreign country racist.

Haven't met the author's mom but I'm pretty sure he's more racist than that. You get people claiming you need to understand the time the author lived in, but I understand that time and Lovecraft was so racist even by the standards of the day.
posted by mark k at 9:25 AM on December 22, 2019 [17 favorites]


Also, I agree that ecological horror video games would be interesting... like imagine games inspired by the Southern Reach trilogy!

I mean, this is a game that exists: Atomicrops. It's like Stardew Valley combined with the Southern Reach trilogy and some bonus toxic radiation/mutations. It's a bit TOO shootery for my tastes. But it looks really cool.
posted by Fizz at 9:26 AM on December 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


The stuff that True Detective Season 1 tapped into, from the minds of Thomas Ligotti & Robert Chambers, combined with the kidnapping of young children and all the horrors inflicted upon them. THAT is terrifying to me.

Careful, the monkey's paw will curl up a finger and we'll get 2 decades of Qanon themed games.
posted by Reyturner at 9:28 AM on December 22, 2019 [6 favorites]


If you're looking for cosmic horror Ligotti style, then Paratopic (walkthrough video - obvious spoilers, but watching a minute or so gives a good sense of the game) might be up your alley. You're a nameless protagonist in a decaying urban environment tracking down a bizarre series of tapes while slowly going mad. Short, but very atmospheric thanks to the low poly 3D look.

Another option is DUSK, which is a fast paced (and also low poly 3D) FPS in the mold of Quake or Blood. It's obviously lovecraft inspired with the protagonist infiltrating a cult that worships a cosmic horror that's been dredged up from a backwoods mine. The cult also appears to have been partially inspired by real-life racist secret societies, and calls back more to True Detective or folk horror like Field in England in terms of theming than Lovecraft. Especially in the trippier later episodes. Its two big influence, Quake and Blood, are also cosmic horror games that each do things pretty different from Lovecraft (both are more Gothic horror, even if they have tentacled baddies and cultists).

Bloodborne is pretty obvious, because it pulls its Lovecraft reveal early, and is about so much more (like werewolves), but still my favorite. It's such a huge improvement over Lovecraft that it's really amazing, and may be permanently killed other Lovecraft stuff for me. I think the main improvement is that you're the outsider in Lovecraft, and the mainstream society (basically: London near the start of the industrial revolution) is the abomination. Or as it was said upthread,

There's this black fluid deep under the earth, somehow summoned out of the dead and consolidated essence of the world's life as it was hundreds of millions of years ago. After humanity discovered it we were granted strange and hitherto unimaginable powers.

That's the plot of Bloodborne.
posted by codacorolla at 9:36 AM on December 22, 2019 [10 favorites]


I mean, this is a game that exists:

That's like the opposite of horror though.
posted by Dee Grim at 9:36 AM on December 22, 2019


There's this black fluid deep under the earth [...] we were enslaved by it

Wrap your squamous digits around Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani, “described by editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer as a fusion of “Lovecraftian horror and Middle Eastern history with occult war machines and the US ‘war on terror.’” Also as an atlas of demonology and a philosophic grimoire.
posted by inire at 9:37 AM on December 22, 2019 [9 favorites]


Copyright plays an interesting role in the "Lovecraft-as-genre" phenomenon. Because Lovecraft's stories were either published before 1923, or probably never had their copyright renewed, they are in the public domain in the United States. And because Lovecraft died in 1937, they are in the public domain in the EU and in other regimes where copyright expires 50 to 80 years after the author's death.

This makes the Lovecraft mythos one of the rare pieces of twentieth-century culture that is not owned by anyone. For most other works from the same time period or later, these sorts of transformative uses are simply illegal. If we hadn't effectively killed the public domain, our art and entertainment could draw on more diverse sources today.
posted by mbrubeck at 9:53 AM on December 22, 2019 [27 favorites]


That's like the opposite of horror though.

True, Atomicrops is more like a dungeon/shooter/farming sim that exists in a ecological nightmare dystopia. A different kind of horror altogether. I think I got so focused on the idea of ecology, that I forgot the horror elements aren't really there for Atomicrops. Anywho.
posted by Fizz at 9:54 AM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


It was all over awesome when Cthulhu bedroom slippers became available.
posted by gurple at 10:01 AM on December 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


There’s a whole new generation of writers and artists who have taken his themes and done it better, and mostly without all the baggage. The first season of True Detective is the biggest and flashiest example. But there’s also The Ballad of Black Tom, Lovecraft Country, Alan Moore’s Providence, the work of Thomas Ligotti, and the books Caitlín R. Kiernan. These are the writers and artists who’ve picked up Lovecraft’s torch and made it work while acknowledging the horror of the man who created it.

I really enjoyed The Ballad of Black Tom, and I've got Lovecraft Country lurking on the shelf so I'll get around to giving it a go one of these days.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:03 AM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Fizz: It does look like a super fun game though, me being a fan of both Stardew Valley and twin-stick roguelikelike shooters
posted by Dee Grim at 10:06 AM on December 22, 2019


I’m thinking about the concreteness of the average model of a Lovecraftian god-tier entity in a game, and the aggressive “these are indescribable” flavor of the average description of a Lovecraftian god-tier entity in a story. And I think I have some ideas of places you could go: make them entities that inhabit more spatial dimensions than we do, give them the same essential weirdness and seeming disconnectedness-yet-relatedness that a two-dimensional creature would see if you stuck your fingers through their universe. Bits come and go, parts come apart and change and come back together, there’s a definite overall consistency you can begin to put together if you watch it long enough but that requires thinking in ways the human brain is simply not designed for.

But yeah, it’s time to move on from borrowing HPL. In all media. He’s played out.
posted by egypturnash at 10:14 AM on December 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


make them entities that inhabit more spatial dimensions than we do, give them the same essential weirdness and seeming disconnectedness-yet-relatedness that a two-dimensional creature would see if you stuck your fingers through their universe.

And they can watch you from outside our universe without you knowing they're there and they can touch the inside of your body without going through your skin. That is horrifying.
posted by heatherlogan at 10:20 AM on December 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


Funnily enough I've been getting deep into Lovecraft this year (how's your year going?) and am really hungry for more. Or more specifically, into the Call of Cthulhu RPG and cosmic horror and all the amazing fiction inspired by Lovecraft. (Lovecraft Country really recommended, I also thoroughly enjoyed The Fisherman by Langan.)

I think what resonates with me is the idea of scale (time, space, distance, size) that is incomprehensible for humans. I think it was actually a metafilter comment about a previous discussion of Lovecraft that pointed out that during his lifetime, the scope and scale of the universe was really opening up and his fiction reflects that. He also happened to be afraid of anyone not white, male and highly educated in the West which his writing also reflects.

I think of it as basically the fictional version of this Kurzgesagt Existential Crisis playlist. The Great Filter is a concept that is profoundly Lovecraftian.

To bring it back around to video games, I think Outer Wilds taps into some of that terror of scale and being lost in the infinite of the cosmos. Observation and Control tap into some of the similar feelings if through a slightly more scifi bent. Dropping Cthulhu with a lifebar into your game is definitely not the way forward: as soon as it's something you can fight, it's something you can defeat and the point is that any victory is ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

I think there's a lot to explore in this idea and games are a big enough medium now to allow for all kinds of experiences without there being a need for this type of "everyone stop trying to do X" hot take.
posted by slimepuppy at 10:21 AM on December 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


Well... that's our world now. If you want to send yourself hurtling towards the edge of gibbering insanity, there's a plethora of subjects out there that will satisfy that urge, all as close as your nearest internet connected device.

And that is the real reason we had to close the megathreads!

/rimshot
posted by Meatbomb at 10:22 AM on December 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


If you're looking at assigning responsibility for the way mental illness is dealt with in Cthulhu Mythos related games,

Yeah, most of the games that do “Lovecraftian madness“ don’t map onto his stories very well. While some of his early stories have a pretty lurid treatment of insanity, mostly drawn from Poe, his narrators are far more likely to faint than “go mad,” much less develop a random phobia (the police detective from “The Horror at Red Hook” notwithstanding). It’s worth remembering that Lovecraft got to watch both his parents die in a sanitarium, so I expect he had complicated feelings about it.

One problem of any cosmic horror game is that, if there are effective combat mechanics, fear kind of drains away. When I’m running horror TTRPG sessions, I usually focus on stories where the horror can’t be directly fought. Most players seem to like it.

The “Mythos” itself is too cozy now — one of Lovecraft’s more effective tricks was including a couple of real, but obscure, elements and then one fictional one. The real items, for those who bothered to investigate them, made the fictional items seem more real. Now games and stories these days tend to include a ton of fictional items, which just seems fictional. It’s hard to make familiar properties really scary, although collections like Cassilda’s Song and The Private Life of Elder Things show that it can be done. I’m more impressed with writers like Gemma Files, who build their own mythologies, than most writers who try to recycle Lovecraft’s specific figures and trappings.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:31 AM on December 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


Copyright...

I was discussing with a friend that we should start making awesome derivative wizard of oz board games, maybe playing with the (sadly apocryphal) "oz as fiscal policy parable" theme.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:31 AM on December 22, 2019 [6 favorites]


But yeah, it’s time to move on from borrowing HPL. In all media. He’s played out.

I think we're starting to see that shift in the form of folk horror.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:32 AM on December 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


Seconding overglow's comment about Winter Tide (and its recent sequel) taking both the moving parts and the scale of the mythos and doing interesting things with it.

Shooters, sneakers, platformers, on they go - whatever mythos balances cheap or least IP encumbered with familiar and recognizable will fuel games because they're largely a marketing investment. It's a rare and well written game that incorporates themes from its source material into gameplay effectively.

As an aside on insanity, recall that before motorcars were common many opined that traveling faster than twenty miles an hour would melt people's brains and drive them mad. This meat body, for all its failings, is actually pretty resilient to external unknowables and aberrations of learned norms.
posted by abulafa at 10:48 AM on December 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


I like "Litany of Earth" and Winter Tide a lot, but they aren't especially horror, unless you count the US government as a horror element.

"Litany of Earth" has the Deep Ones as a persecuted minority, but Winter Tide has them as people with a complicated history. No one has completely clean hands in that novel.

Mandrake by Susan Cooper has xenophobia increasing so that anyone who's not with their own kind will get mobbed and killed. As I recall, several explanations are floated, but the cause isn't settled. Unfortunately, this has become a rare book.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 10:56 AM on December 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


How played out is Cthulhu? I'd say it's "they came out with a cliched ordinary-high-school-boy-surrounded-by-cute-girls anime in 2012 where the gimmick is that all the cute girls are Lovecraftian eldritch horrors" played out.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 10:57 AM on December 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


And if you're looking for scares that would feel fresh and relevant and acutely horrific in 2019, how about games based in ecological horror?

I just finished reading JG Ballard's The Drowned World, and it is pretty scary how prescient it is with sea levels rising and vegetation burning away. I'm immediately left also thinking how the dark psychological horror in the work would be great source material for other creative efforts that touch upon this subject matter — games and film, especially.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:02 AM on December 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


Good post, though I think the overall point is near completely incorrect. The many comments above that are explicitly either “let’s cancel Lovecraft”or “how on Earth are people interested in Lovecraft, who is tired and canceled” miss the extent to which all things Cthulhu really have become both mainstream and popular. The cosmic horror quotient may have fallen off for Ol’ Tentacles for those of us well familiar with him, but obviously not for newcomers.

More broadly, CoC and its descendants did D&D-ify the Mythos. The TTRPG-ing of it created a thing that was essentially apart from Lovecraft’s vision. An ancient red dragon would be awe-inspiring and terrifying in reality, but they’re generally just good XP in most RPGs. When you’re statting the Great Old Ones (yes, yes, Deities and Demogods, etc.), you’re creating something that’s largely going to be apart from terror. The spread of that approach into other games, sequels, etc. is a logical extension of it, same as dragons, IRC’s, etc.

cstross and others have managed to smuggle horror back into the Mythos post-multiplication of modes. I enjoy this personally, but it’s deepened the layers of what it means to cancel Cthulhu and kin. Which one and which mode? In practice, I think some articles on the Internet about canceling Lovecraft games is interesting, but ultimately sound and fury signifying... not much. I <3 TRUE DETECTIVE, any number of contemporary authors’ takes on the Weird, etc., but people pretty clearly want their tentacles, eldritch lore, and all the rest of it.
posted by cupcakeninja at 11:22 AM on December 22, 2019 [6 favorites]


Well, it's about time. Laura Miller wrote a dissection of Lovecraft for Salon nearly fifteen years ago that covers the same ground:
The truth, however, is that hardly any reader finds Cthulhu frightening. In fact, by all indications, the public is very fond of the creature. You can check in regularly at the Cthulhu for President site ("Home Page for Evil"), purchase a cuddly plush Cthulhu or behold the adventures of Hello Cthulhu, a cross between Lovecraft's "gelatinous green immensity" and the adorable, big-eyed Sanrio cartoon character. Sauron never inspired this kind of affection.
She also points out that, stylistically, HPL was simply not a very good writer. He had good ideas, which often got seized on by better writers willing to look past HPL's bigotry and florid excesses. (Stephen King, who is cited by Miller as saying that HPL's work is "best read by teenagers and other people 'living in a state of total sexual doubt'", was influenced by HPL throughout most of his career--the "todash monsters" of the Dark Tower saga were explicitly Lovecraftian; Alan Moore's last major comics work, aside from finishing up The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, was one that knit all of HPL's major works together.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:39 AM on December 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


I’m thinking about the concreteness of the average model of a Lovecraftian god-tier entity in a game

Oddly, the current run of the Hulk comics (Immortal Hulk) does a good job of avoiding this. The new Hulk is cunning and cruel, and it's quite unclear what he's capable of, physically or psychologically. The comic is unpredictable, but in a way that never seems arbitrary.

Hulk's antagonists explicitly try and fail to figure out rules that will make the story rational and predictable. (what makes the Hulk transform? what exactly are his powers? what motivates the Hulk?) That's how most horror monsters lose their teeth. Think of the difference between Alien and Alien vs. Predator; once the audience comes to expect acid blood and incubation there's nothing left to fear but jumpscares.

Hulk has gone back to his roots as a horror monster, and has become much more unsettling than anything with a stat sheet.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:43 AM on December 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


More broadly, CoC and its descendants did D&D-ify the Mythos.

For what it’s worth, Peterson resisted giving the various gods and titans stats — that was an editorial decision. Some of the other Lovecraftian TTRPGs refuse to do so, which I think is wise. Cthulhu Dark has a fine combat system — “fight a monster? You die.”
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:43 AM on December 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


This is the best piece of existential horror media I've seen this decade.

Agreed on the HBO Chernobyl series. We just started watching it this week, and I'm very impressed on multiple levels. As horror it's so well done!
-rising sense of dread. Hildur Guðnadóttir's music and the overall sound design (clickclickclick) play a key role, as do the actors, mostly trying to control themselves from showing their mounting terror.
-bouts of gore (the poor firefighter, becoming the Incredible Melting Man)
-continuous glimpses of bodily decay and death
-people forcing themselves into situations of likely damage and death
-a sense of confusion and unknowability, as characters struggle to understand what's happening to them. Chunks of graphite are almost numinous in their mystery and dread.
-the Soviet state as shambling, insidious, transhuman god-bureaucracy-monster
-expansion into space: the potential of killing Eastern Europe and/or Asia
-expansion into time: the specter of the damage continuing for years, decades, centuries
-plus little touches, like this amazing painting in a waiting room's background

How does that appear in a game?
posted by doctornemo at 12:48 PM on December 22, 2019 [8 favorites]


When I named my hideous cat "Cthulhu" all my internet friends sighed and rolled their eyes because that was so old and predictable; meanwhile, none of my analog friends got the reference. I think there are legions of people who have never heard of Lovecraft, or at least have never read him.

I also have a problem with his "indescribable" monsters, but the reason Cthulhu isn't scary is that he is described sufficiently so as to be physically impossible rather than horrifying. I'm most happy with the 5-symmetric creatures in "At the Mountains of Madness" although they are also physically impossible (at least for interstellar flying) and not scary. I just reread "Mountains" in a Modern Library Classics edition with a foreword by China Mieville which is worth the price of the paperback.
posted by acrasis at 12:57 PM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


I don't like horror as a genre. I don't like being scared. I read most of the Cthulhu mythos as a teenager and... was not scared of them. (I now own a glow in the dark baby Cthulhu.)

So there are vast powerful alien beings that aren't friendly to mankind and may actually be hostile, not exactly towards us but because hey, there's this planet full of resources they intend to use, and there's these... bugs that talk... who sometimes get in the way of their use of resources. Squash bugs, go back to doing whatever unfathomable elder beings from beyond the 8th dimension do.

This was a fascinating concept for me, but it wasn't scary. I suspect a lot of the "fear" in Lovecraft's stories, and the early derivatives, was based on the notions that "nonhuman sentience is inherently frightening" and "humans are masters of the world, so if it turns out they're not, that's frightening." Since I'd already read plenty of science fiction, these were neither new nor scary ideas to me.

I don't play Cthulhian video games (because I am terrible at anything that involves timed jumping or shooting moving targets), but a lot of the pitches I've seen for them are "be an investigator, discover Eldritch Horror... AND KILL IT!!" The elder beasties are shown as no more dangerous than your average werewolf; you just have to figure out that they're what's causing the random deaths, gather up the resources it takes to kill them, and apply resources as needed. Doesn't matter whether that's "get the rune-enhanced holy water to melt the cultist temple" or "dynamite the conclave to disrupt the summoning spell;" even if the result is "Cthulhu is sent back to sleep" instead of "Cthulhu is destroyed," the point is, elder beasties are no longer killing townsfolk.

I suspect the whole notion of "hostile sentient powerful being" is no longer particularly scary. Writers and game designers who want to use that in their scary content, need to add something: helplessness (e.g. Animorphs, wherein the hostile aliens have taken over an unknown amount of human society), or environmental danger (if they're not stopped, the planet will be destroyed), or - and this can work well - inability to trust your perceptions: if you can't be sure whether a particular situation involves aliens vs your imagination, that's scary.

But adding unreliable narrator features to a video game is hard. Adding bigger and more grotesque monsters is easy.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:13 PM on December 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


I don't disagree with the premise, but it makes me sad. Problematic origins aside, there was (still is?) a lot of potential in that kind of HPL cosmic horror that hardly anyone has explored well. I had high hopes for the latest crop but Call of Cthulhu bored me into abandoning it and Sinking City sounds the same, much as I'd like to support Frogwares I may just skip it.

Agreed with tocts on Eternal Darkness, one of the very few well done takes on the genre (and still quite playable and enjoyable in emulation if you don't mind chasing it down). Frictional's Amnesia also. Darkest Dungeon seems promising but I've only just started it. Some of the earlier games in the genre were quite good; the original Alone in the Dark seems like a polygonal mess now but it was creepy as hell at the time. Thanks to the lack of graphics, I think Anchorhead holds up well (as I imagine would Lurking Horror if you could find it). Sadly not much else.

(cstross! I loved the Laundry Files, thank you)
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 1:21 PM on December 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


I've been thinking a lot about Lovecraft lately. I've been meaning to make a FPP on a cool little YouTube series called Ask Lovecraft for a while now, which gets to heart of the man, in all ways except one, really. Whenever a question comes up about his racism, another character, a "P.H. Lovecraft," purporting to be H.P.'s brother, comes up to answer it instead. (I take this to be dramatic license.) He's portrayed by Leeman Kessler in a way that acknowledges his racism without depicting it, which is as probably as good as HPL deserves on this front.

I've been meaning to post Ask Lovecraft for several months now, because it's good and gives one a good sense of him and how he'd react to modern times (Kessler is an excellent performer). The thing is, you can absolutely discard all of HPL's racism and still have a fairly complete individual, and in most other respects he was actually pretty forward-thinking. I have read some accounts that he was working himself out of his racism late in life; I have had that contradicted by other accounts, though, so, who knows?

He was an amateur scientist; he was an atheist and rationalist; he generally was empathetic so long as your race aligned with his--and yes, that's not great. Lovecraft wrote tens of thousands of letters in life, he was an obsessive correspondent and he might well be the author, in the end, of whom the greatest amount of his work survives, the all-time champ, because he wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, not stories, but letters, to anyone who would write him, and on flyers and any scraps of paper he could find. I have not read more than a handful of those; they're available in great collected volumes. Presumably the mystery of his racism and whether it was depleting or entrenching at the end of his life is in there, somewhere, although I assume it came from his grandfather, because where else could it have come from, really?

It is worth noting that, as mentioned above, Lovecraft had a pretty crappy life, and he was powerless for pretty much all of it. His mother died when he was young; his father died in an asylum before she did. Despite a promising childhood where he was an avid reader and even had his own fanzine dedicated to astronomy (a local observatory let him use their telescope), his childhood dreams of attending university were dashed when his grandfather's business interests collapsed. He had to move out of his childhood home and in with a couple of aunts, which is where he was, but for frequent trips, until the end. His writing in life was only of interest to pulps and people who'd hire him as an editor or ghostwriter. He died of stomach cancer, probably due to malnutrition, at the age of 46.

All of this stuff about him and his works and his monsters and his ideas that you see now, that you've been seeing for over two decades now, that's all cultural re-evaluation. The current backlash is cultural re-re-evaluation, so hey, at least he's not losing anything he had in life. The backlash about his creations, well, it was bound to happen considering their surge in popularity lately. Even South Park has had Cthulhu by now, who ended up as kind of a flunky of Cartman's, and I can't think of any greater depths to which he could fall than that.

On the Call of Cthulhu tabletop game, it is true that Lovecraft's monsters lose something when put into numerical format. (One of the several alternate Lovecraftian TTRPGs, Trail of Cthulhu, specifically doesn't do that. I seem to remember WotC's D20 edition of Call of Cthulhu didn't either, which is an interesting choice considering it ran on the same system as D&D 3.5.) But it's also worth remembering that those numbers were often impossibly high, and the devil, or rather the blasphemous horror, is in the details: Cthulhu has extremely high armor (basically damage reduction), and doesn't die when a ship driving through him depletes him of hit points, but just reforms 20 minutes later; avatars of Nyarlathotep, when "defeated," always transmogrify into an even worse form before departing, specifically to cause sanity loss. The numbers mostly just give a sense of scale. Anyway, a strong argument could be made that HPL's works would not be nearly as popular as they are now without the influence of the game. It has been a huge cultural ambassador for Lovecraft's works, and most editions before current 7th included the complete text of the short story "The Call of Cthulhu" right there as the first chapter.

The Sanity rules in the game Call of Cthulhu are of that game's many little brilliance, modelling the slide into madness of a Lovecraft protagonist very well. I have always had a problem with how the game depicts the results of that madness, though. Whenever a character in our game has a bout of madness, there's always a ton of flipping through rules. Really, the problems with insanity in Call of Cthulhu can be resolved easily: if a player goes insane, decide whether they: flee in horror, faint on the spot, go into a berserk rage and makes dangerous decisions, mistake their friends for monsters or the monsters for friends, or embrace the Mythos and starts doing weird things. That's six options; roll a six-sider. There, now no one will pick up the fear of bees from seeing a ghoul.

Back to Lovecraft: in the end he was still a racist. The current age has revealed its ravages are all too with us, no matter what thought in past decades. Lovecraft was of a time where one could be racist kind of "recreationally," almost harmlessly, or so they may have told themselves at the time. But now we see the fruit of all those years of impotent muttering about the Blacks or Jews or Romany or Irish or Arabs or Indians or others: those mutters are heard and remembered by folk who one day won't be so impotent, and with the power to do terrible things. Lovecraft, in fact, lived in the last age where anyone could pretend racism didn't really matter--he died in 1937, right before World War II hit, and we all, but not he, got to see what horrors a really committed racist with a whole nation behind him could do. I don't think he would, or could, have held onto his beliefs in the face of that, but then, who knows? Anyway, I'm still not sure if I'm ever going to post Ask Lovecraft.
posted by JHarris at 1:30 PM on December 22, 2019 [16 favorites]


Yeah, Eternal Darkness doesn't just throw more grotesque stuff at you, it actively messes with you (the character) and you (the player). This can be as subtle as thinking something is there and it isn't, to as overt as like, finding yourself walking upside-down on the ceiling. In the most extreme cases, the game starts messing with the player in very meta ways; I won't spoil them all, but suffice to say, it scared the shit out of me when someone in my house was suddenly messing with my TV volume when I was home alone, only to realize that this was the game simulating TV volume graphics and such, reaching past the character to fuck with me personally.

It's that kind of thing I don't feel like has been done a ton more since, or at least not as effectively.
posted by tocts at 1:30 PM on December 22, 2019 [9 favorites]


I've been slowly playing through Bloodborne, which draws heavily from Lovecraftian tropes even if it isn't a direct adaptation of Lovecraft. And what's interesting to me is that it's not scary, although it has has the classic Lovecraftian "horror" elements: eldritch horrors, body horror, madness.

Instead, it is more mysterious, mystical, and grim. Not of the revelations are frightening, and I don't think that they were intended to be. This works a lot better for me than something trying to be frightening with these tropes.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:51 PM on December 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


Wrap your squamous digits around Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani, “described by editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer as a fusion of “Lovecraftian horror and Middle Eastern history with occult war machines and the US ‘war on terror.’” Also as an atlas of demonology and a philosophic grimoire.”

I came along to mention Cyclonopedia. It's a strange, barely readable book, but it gets the tone of "world goes mad as it is devoured by cosmic gods of chaos (which are really world-scale economic/technical/psychological processes under other names)" perfectly. This piece ("Cyclonopedia: Petro-Polytics and Tellurian Lube") sums it up pretty well:
Maybe oil is the return of the repressed, using humanity, using the capitalist economy, as a parasite uses its host, to get free from the earth and to exert power within the atmosphere, to hasten the “tellurian omega” (when the earth is finally consumed within a dying, expanding sun). To hasten the warming of the earth to make the earth a bit more like the sun, and to move the earth beyond this chapter of its history — the anthropocene — via the extinction of its host-animals.
...

That's the plot of Bloodborne.

I'm pretty sure Hidetaka Miyazaki has read Cyclonopedia. Actually, all his games seem to revolve around this theme - for the last couple of weeks my city has been covered in smoke from the nearby climate-change-fueled bushfires that's so thick and toxic that you basically can't go outside (and it seeps into buildings, so inside isn't much better), and it's starting to feel a bit like we're living inside the demonic fog from Demon's Souls. Our political system seems to be going in more or less the same direction.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:08 PM on December 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


>Even ASoIaF dropped the ball for me when its dragons needed to eat cattle. Cattle? Really? How many? How often? How soon would owning three dragons become a liability versus a benefit? A year? Three months?

But that's what Martin promised us!

"Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy?"
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 3:33 PM on December 22, 2019 [6 favorites]


We need to make war to feed our dragons before we become food for our dragons would be a pretty good set-up though.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 3:47 PM on December 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


It would be scarier if, when faced with an unfathomable cosmic horror, the POV switched to your face, and the mechanics of the game were such that you needed to endure the experience without losing your mind completely by hitting the right sequence of buttons or whatever. Just your face, slowly transitioning from awe to fear to deranged, helpless terror.
posted by grumpybear69 at 4:01 PM on December 22, 2019


In recent memory, Sunless Sea did a fair job of invoking nameless incomprehensible horrors for me, though only incidentally; though the writing is sufficiently spooky and the situations your character finds themselves in bizarre and unsettling enough in themselves, nothing can compare to the dread you feel after running the gamut of terrors-from-beyond at sea (sorry: at zee) and then trying to limp home with the barely-sane remnants of a bloodthirsty, raving crew trying to bash down your door and toss you overboard while you lose your grip on your own stability every passing second and then oh god a giant crab shows up and tries to rip your whole ship apart (I'VE GOT BIGGER PROBLEMS GIANT CRAB). Some of the experiences in the far north of the map, in particular, really did make me feel like we had collided with something large, angry, and Not to Be Messed With in general, and we were barely clinging on after that encounter.

While Bloodborne did this on some occasions, hacking the cosmic horror into a pile of giblets was always an option (and, in fact, you usually had to in order to proceed), which lessened the effect somewhat.
posted by lorddimwit at 5:24 PM on December 22, 2019 [6 favorites]


I should add something, I think, about how scary Lovecraft stories are, which is, not to much. For me, that's always been more feature than bug.
I don't like most horror movies, I hate being scared, and depictions of gore rapidly nopes me right out of a movie or sorry. I like Lovecraft stories because they're more creepy than outright scary. The point of his stories isn't that there is a scary monster that wants to eat you, it's that human kind really ain't all that, when you get down to it.
But if you want more of a scare, the one Lovecraft story that really scared me was The Music Of Erich Zahn. It's not long, and it's probably among the best stories he ever wrote. Maybe try it?
posted by JHarris at 5:25 PM on December 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


Not of the revelations are frightening, and I don't think that they were intended to be. This works a lot better for me than something trying to be frightening with these tropes.

The vibe I got from Bloodborne was largely one of a European pogrom, featuring an obsession with blood purity, and people transforming into literal monsters. If we no longer find that horrifying, perhaps it's the fault of reality rather than fiction =(
posted by pwnguin at 5:31 PM on December 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


The "dragons eating cattle" thing is why I have such a hard time enjoying most science fiction. With any fiction, there's always a willing suspension of disbelief within the reader. In fantasy fiction? The author can wave their hand and say "because magic"; in science fiction, the authors almost always try to explain things. If not everything, they often try to explain a lot of things, which ultimately leads me down the path of thinking too deeply about interstellar travel, or whatever.

Science fiction usually tries to flatter the reader by incorporating some level of science that can be grasped. And (it seems) the audience appreciates this kind of self-satisfaction of "getting" the "sciencey" concepts. It comes off as sleight of hand to me that this usually leads to "science gobble-ty-guck", and I feel like I'm being tricked. That just never leads to a satisfying place for me... I almost always end up feeling uncomfortable. Sure, all those aliens have bilateral symmetry, and some equivalent of vocal chords, and have learned English... except they DON'T have emotions! or whatever.

I admit this is my own personal tic. Tell me the dragons exist somehow between planes of magical existence, and CAN feed on cattle, but only do so as a way of imparting fear into our hunter-gatherer pea-brains or whatever.

Don't try to make me take your bullshit seriously. Same goes for Lovecraftian horror.
posted by SoberHighland at 5:37 PM on December 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


You know, as long as we're probing all the depths of Lovecraftian horror to the point where 'are we overdoing Lovecraftian horror' is now apparently a subgenre of gaming news, I'd like to point out that there's a whole aspect of Lovecraft's writings that's gone entirely untapped.

Lovecraftian fantasy.

Specifically, the Lovecraftian dreamlands. You know, beyond the gates of the silver key. Talking cats. Gibbering night gaunts. The stories are spooky, but more fantastic than terrifying. Given a deft hand on the script, they'd make for a hell of a high-end TV series or an amazing open-world RPG.
posted by MrVisible at 5:50 PM on December 22, 2019 [11 favorites]


“Cthulu isn’t scary any more because I can’t imagine myself in a state where the horror is plain to me.” Brave stuff. Lovecraft is so popular currently that you’ll take a lot of collateral damage dragging him. cstross has done a good job elaborating H. P.’s mythos for the modern mind.

I can’t comment on the original game theme since after an experiment with Dungeons and Encyclopedias in grad school I realized gaming—like sports—would always be terra incognita to me.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:11 PM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Personally I prefer Clark Ashton Smith.
posted by Liquidwolf at 6:19 PM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Even ASoIaF dropped the ball for me when its dragons needed to eat cattle. Cattle? Really? How many? How often? How soon would owning three dragons become a liability versus a benefit? A year? Three months?

Ann McCaffrey goes into this in great detail in the Pern series, if you are really interested.
posted by Quonab at 6:22 PM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Reading the thread, I keep coming back to China Miéville's Theses on Monsters, which covers a lot of what has been said, in a very Mieville way.


1.
The history of all hitherto-existing societies is the history of monsters. Homo sapiens is a bringer-forth of monsters as reason’s dream. They are not pathologies but symptoms, diagnoses, glories, games, and terrors.

2.
To insist that an element of the impossible and fantastic is a sine qua non of monstrousness is not mere nerd hankering (though it is that too). Monsters must be creature forms and corpuscles of the unknowable, the bad numinous. A monster is somaticized sublime, delegate from a baleful pleroma. The telos of monstrous quiddity is godhead.

3.
There is a countervailing tendency in the monstrous corpus. It is evident in Pokémon’s injunction to “catch ’em all,” in the Monster Manual’s exhaustive taxonomies, in Hollywood’s fetishized “Monster Shot.” A thing so evasive of categories provokes—and surrenders to—ravenous desire for specificity, for an itemization of its impossible body, for a genealogy, for an illustration. The telos of monstrous quiddity is specimen.

4.
Ghosts are not monsters.

5.
It is pointed out, regularly and endlessly, that the word “monster” shares roots with “monstrum,” “monstrare,” “monere“—”that which teaches,” “to show,” “to warn.” This is true but no longer of any help at all, if it ever was.

6.
Epochs throw up the monsters they need. History can be written of monsters, and in them. We experience the conjunctions of certain werewolves and crisis-gnawed feudalism, of Cthulhu and rupturing modernity, of Frankenstein’s and Moreau’s made things and a variably troubled Enlightenment, of vampires and tediously everything, of zombies and mummies and aliens and golems/robots/clockwork constructs and their own anxieties. We pass also through the endless shifts of such monstrous germs and antigens into new wounds. All our moments are monstrous moments.

7.
Monsters demand decoding, but to be worthy of their own monstrosity, they avoid final capitulation to that demand. Monsters mean something, and/but they mean everything, and/but they are themselves and irreducible. They are too concretely fanged, toothed, scaled, fire-breathing, on the one hand, and too doorlike, polysemic, fecund, rebuking of closure, on the other, merely to signify, let alone to signify one thing.

Any bugbear that can be completely parsed was never a monster, but some rubber-mask-wearing Scooby-Doo villain, a semiotic banality in fatuous disguise. It is a solution without a problem.

8.
Our sympathy for the monster is notorious. We weep for King Kong and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, no matter what they’ve done. We root for Lucifer and ache for Grendel.

It is a trace of skepticism that the given order is a desideratum that lies behind our tears for its antagonists, our troubled empathy with the invader of Hrothgar’s hall.

9.
Such sympathy for the monster is a known factor, a small problem, a minor complication for those who, in drab reaction, deploy an accusation of monstrousness against designated social enemies.

10.
When those same powers who enmonster their scapegoats reach a tipping point, a critical mass, of political ire, they abruptly and with bullying swagger enmonster themselves. The shock troops of reaction embrace their own supposed monstrousness. (From this investment emerged, for example, the Nazi Werwolf program.) Such are by far more dreadful than any monster because, their own aggrandizements notwithstanding, they are not monsters. They are more banal and more evil.

11.
The saw that We Have Seen the Real Monsters and They Are Us is neither revelation, nor clever, nor interesting, nor true. It is a betrayal of the monstrous, and of humanity.
posted by blahblahblah at 6:46 PM on December 22, 2019 [16 favorites]


On the Dreamlands (which this phone tried to correct to "The Stretchmarks"), there is a whole alternate seeing to Call off Cthulhu that takes place there, and some weird scenarios set there. I've run a few. One problem with it is that it takes from some of the same source material as D&Ditself, pulp fantasy, although a much weirder strain. And a lot of Lovecraft fantasy derives heavily from the writings of Lord Dunsany,which Lovecraft readily admitted in life. And, the major work of Lovecraft fantasy, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, was completely unpublished during his life, only seeing print due to the efforts of August Derleth. Because of this, alot of places in the Dreamlands are little more than names, and running a Dreamlands game is very demanding on a Keeper, requiring a much higher level of creation and improvisation than other games. One could, indeed probably should, borrow liberally from authors like Borges and Calvino to help fill in the gaps.
posted by JHarris at 7:09 PM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


There's only 1 Lovecraft boardgame that can drive you literally mad and that is playing Arkham Horror with ALL the expansions....

As much as I love the aesthetics of AH, from an actual playability standpoint, the horror for me came from realizing that it fell somewhere between the tax code and the Talmud, with far too much reference and interpretation to ever become fully immersive.

And it took 45 minutes to set up.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu really hit the sweet spot for me for look/feel and elegantly designed, absorbing play. One of the best cooperative games that I've played, period. As an added bonus, when we finally beat it, it was late at night in an isolated, ramshackle 200+ year old farmhouse deep in the West Virginia countryside. Real Lovecraft Country, and one of my most memorable boardgaming experiences.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:21 PM on December 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


a kind of existential dread, the feeling that “we are ultimately no more significant or enduring than turtles or turnips.” Such pessimism on a cosmic scale is undoubtedly the defining sentiment of the last decade, a byproduct of rising inequality, precariousness, and the growing unaccountability of massive corporate entities shaping our daily existence, while operating outside the realm of our understanding or our control.

It's too late this year, but I think I have next year's Christmas card message.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 7:47 PM on December 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


People are way scarier than a made up demonic horror. Open up the daily newspaper, turn on the television or just browse a site and you can stare at some of the truly horrible shite that humans are capable of. [...] How can Cthulhu even compete against that?

I don't think I could disagree more, but mostly because I think that characterizing Lovecraft as "made up demonic horror" is way too reductive. At its best, Lovecraftian horror isn't about a bug eyed monster jump-scaring you. It's the realization that humanity... everyone you've ever known, everyone that has ever existed, everyone you love and everyone you hate, are a meaningless, insignificant, and fleeting speck of nothing which has no impact on the universe and will not be missed or remembered when they or you are gone and which will likely be utterly destroyed by forces most of us cannot recognize much less comprehend or resist.

So it's basically perfect for today.
posted by Justinian at 7:50 PM on December 22, 2019 [13 favorites]


im ok are you guys ok?
posted by Justinian at 7:52 PM on December 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


I'd say modern horror, now exiting the neighbors-turn-against-us zombie/trump phase, would be more like "Brazil" than Lovecraft.

A fly gets jammed in a printer and creates a typographical error, resulting in the incarceration and accidental death during interrogation of cobbler Archibald Buttle, instead of renegade air conditioning specialist and suspected terrorist Archibald Tuttle.
...
However, this "happy ending" is a delusion: in reality, he is still strapped to the chair. It is implied that he has been lobotomised by Jack. Realising that Sam has descended into blissful insanity, Jack and Mr Helpmann declare him a lost cause and leave the room. Sam remains in the chair, smiling and humming "Aquarela do Brasil".

posted by lon_star at 8:07 PM on December 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


The thing is, what frightens one generation won't necessarily frighten another. Fear is a product of its time.

As Charles Stross pointed out a lot of what lead to Lovecraft's cosmic horror was the sudden expansion of the age and size of the universe. And to the modern audience that's old hat. Yup, 14.5 billion years old and about that many light years across with trillions of stars, so? We're so used to it that it just doesn't scare us.

I'd argue we're also looking at the political realities of Lovecraft's time. While the naked colonialism that impelled Wells to write War of the Worlds had largely settled into absorption and early stage rebellion rather than expansion, the idea of those older, more powerful, civilizations it's easy to imagine out there colonizing Earth was valid.

These days rather than worrying about the interstellar equivalent of the Dutch East Indies company coming by and demanding we turn over our resources, we've been wondering about the Fermi Paradox. Those hypothetical ancient civilizations seem to not exist

Much worse, from the standpoint of valid cosmic horror, our grip of physics has shown that barring some breakthrough into basically magic interstellar travel is going to be so expensive and energy intensive that the idea of interstellar war seems absurd regardless of the tech differences involved.

Plus of course the question of why you'd bother since any resources acquired in a different solar system would need to be lugged back to your own system, which would require building an entire interstellar travel infrastructure over here then spending centuries pushing a load of a few paltry tonnes of [insert element here] back home. Why bother?

We could easily envision an alien matrioshka brain that sees us as inconveniences to whatever schemes it may have for our solar system, but envisioning it putting the effort into actually sending even a simple Von Neumann probe seems difficult. Anything it might want, again, is centuries of travel away and the energy involved in shipping back any significant amount of mass is so preposterous that it just doesn't work.

Another factor might be that we're facing more immediate and well known worries. Who needs to fear Cthulhu coming back when we've got the alt-right, climate change, and the continuing looming threat of global nuclear war? We've done such a good job of being our own threat that we just don't need Cthulhu.

What scares us today is us, not looming terrors from beyond space and time.
posted by sotonohito at 8:11 PM on December 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


I've often thought of Peter Watts as the 21st century real-world Lovecraft, complete with posthuman body horror, inscrutable aliens, and nihilism. He even has non-traditional vampires! His work manages to take upon the same qualities, creating a sort of Singularitarian form of cosmic horror, without resembling Lovecraft's style at all.
posted by Apocryphon at 8:35 PM on December 22, 2019 [11 favorites]


World War II hit, and we all, but not he, got to see what horrors a really committed racist with a whole nation behind him could do

Andrew Jackson
posted by maxwelton at 8:48 PM on December 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


Even in WWII alone there were multiple nations led by committed racists, and nations led by non-committed racists who engaged in racist actions.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:15 PM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


It's too late this year, but I think I have next year's Christmas card message.

That's it, stay optimistic.
posted by bongo_x at 9:31 PM on December 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


Yup, 14.5 billion years old and about that many light years across with trillions of stars, so? We're so used to it that it just doesn't scare us.

That's not because we're used to it, but because we don't think about it.

Andrew Jackson

Ah, a good point, but it hadn't really been thought of as such in Lovecraft's time.
posted by JHarris at 11:19 PM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Racist Lovecraft is more relevant than ever; the same xenophobia and white supremacist attitudes he held are alive and well. I'm surprised the Horror at Red Hook hasn't been revamped and rebranded for the Trump 2020 campaign. Has there already been a plot where Lovecraft is the bad guy making deals with the Great Old Ones to clean the foreigners out of Providence yet?
posted by benzenedream at 1:09 AM on December 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


I've often thought of Peter Watts as the 21st century real-world Lovecraft, complete with posthuman body horror, inscrutable aliens, and nihilism. He even has non-traditional vampires! His work manages to take upon the same qualities, creating a sort of Singularitarian form of cosmic horror, without resembling Lovecraft's style at all.

I thought I was already pretty jaded, but then I read Blindsight and lost a couple of layers of comforting illusion that I had never even suspected were there. The problem I have with most "Lovecraftean" fiction is that the supposedly vast unknowable galaxy-spanning cosmic horrors always seem to fit into the human scale a little too well, always seem much more interested in humankind than they really should be - Lovecraft's original version included. Not the scramblers!
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:31 AM on December 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


We've done such a good job of being our own threat that we just don't need Cthulhu.

I'm sure there would be an Amazon warehouse management or delivery driver supervision job available to any eldritch horror that found itself at a loose end, if it could persuade HR to waive the retirement age policy.
posted by flabdablet at 3:50 AM on December 23, 2019


More broadly, CoC and its descendants did D&D-ify the Mythos. The TTRPG-ing of it created a thing that was essentially apart from Lovecraft’s vision. An ancient red dragon would be awe-inspiring and terrifying in reality, but they’re generally just good XP in most RPGs. When you’re statting the Great Old Ones (yes, yes, Deities and Demogods, etc.), you’re creating something that’s largely going to be apart from terror. The spread of that approach into other games, sequels, etc. is a logical extension of it, same as dragons, IRC’s, etc.

Much as I love Call of Cthulhlu, it isn't an easy game to play -- for some reason, it's easier to role play as an elf wizard than it is as a 1920s dilettante, because it's just close enough to modern times that failing to phrase things in period slang breaks the suspension of disbelief (not to mention the era's omnipresent racism and sexism).

But I massively enjoy its variant -- also published as a standalone game -- Delta Green. It's set in the modern era -- just like Lovecraft's original stories were, at the time, so the setting is more accessible, and characters can more easily be be women or people of color. It's basically a Cross between CoC and The X-files, in that the characters are assets of a government conspiracy whose missions are 1) pushing back (very much indeed not preventing) the inevitable apocalypse when They awake and b) keeping the American public in the dark about the horrors that lurk.

For one thing, the game makes quite clear that entities like Cthulhlu Itself are way beyond the characters' capabilities. (If one of the military characters requisitions something heavy like a rocket launcher, and the game master lets you have it, it's time to get really scared, as it means it'll likely be useless). By ratcheting down the threat level, the horror atmosphere is intensified. It also explores the stresses the characters endure simply by taking up that twofold mission.
posted by Gelatin at 4:25 AM on December 23, 2019 [5 favorites]


I think what's being missed is that this is persistent *because* it's not really frightening. Because people rarely want to be scared by horror-themed games. They might want jump scares, they might want to cozily surround themselves with the motifs (a Gothic manor!Tentacles!), but very few people have an appetite for actually being horrified by horror. The things that cause us real fear are simple: pain, death, losing self and agency, and having these things visited upon people we care about or significant populations. It's easy to embrace HPL because of the rhetorical sleight of hand around approaches to his work, which is magic-realist and pulp dressup around fairly standard sources of existential anxiety that, by and large, we successfully cope with.

Hell, I'm not sure HPL even intended many of his stories to be scary. They were "weird tales." His protagonists who lose their minds are usually specifically noted to have some psychological vulnerability. I think the non-frightening nature of HPL is an unspoken source of popularity for his body of work.
posted by mobunited at 4:30 AM on December 23, 2019 [15 favorites]


Glad to see the original Alone in the Dark mentioned, as it isn't just a good example of lovecraftian horror done right, it's also the OG survival horror game. It's a mess of a game by todays standards - ways to get stuck in the progression with no way to fix it (which could be viewed as a feature by some), frustrating and unresponsive controls, and definitely dated visually - but it had an atmosphere that absolutely nothing else matched, and it was a cryptic game in an era before widespread FAQs, so you spent a lot of time looking for clues in the game. One of the things I remember best was looking through books in the library and after reading several innocuous books, coming across one that was rendered in glyphs - as you flipped through it, it suddenly cut away to showing your character levitating in the air and then being bent in a very unnatural position, then a cut to to black with a cracking sound, and game over. Doesn't seem like much by todays standards - but it was so unexpected at the time, and stuck with me for a while. The fact that you didn't know it was happening until it was way too late is what really made it - you were too immersed in trying to make sense out of the book. It made me very hesitant to interact with things in the game unless there was a good reason to do so - and the fact that most of it happened off screen was what sold it so much.

And as many others have mentioned, Eternal Darkness was the only other game along these lines I enjoyed. Again, frustrating controls, but the sanity mechanics were done so very very well, and there's a lot of horrific implications in the game that make you wonder if what the characters perceive is actually what's happening in the game world. The thing that blew my mind about that game was I went into it being fully aware of the fact that the game would screw with you, as pretty much every single publication spoiled that loudly and often, and it STILL succeeded in surprising me most of the time. It's up there with FISSION MAILED from MGS2 in terms of screwing with the player, if not beyond.
posted by MysticMCJ at 8:58 AM on December 23, 2019 [6 favorites]


what if cthulhu but too much
posted by speicus at 2:55 PM on December 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


Mobunited put into words what I've been grappling with. I deeply enjoyed two pieces of Lovecraftian fiction this year--Edgar Cantero's Meddling Kids and The Magnus Archives. But it wasn't because they were scary. They weren't, really. Unsettling, at times. They've made me nervous, looking out the dark window. But not scared. I enjoy being a little on edge, I don't like to be frightened. That's the appeal--just that tiny little spike of adrenaline and anxiety, just enough to disquiet you. Small enough to cope with easily. I've always said I don't enjoy horror, but I have found I like spooky and unsettling. I associate Lovecraft with the latter more than the former, though I admit I've read none of his original works.
posted by brook horse at 4:53 PM on December 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


what the fuck is this thread! it's Christmas!!

MetaFilter: That's it, stay optimistic.
posted by MiraK at 5:58 AM on December 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


I thought of a few others that do non-Lovecraftian cosmic horror to good effect:

Without trying to spoil too much that's not already pretty common game knowledge, Doki Doki Literature Club flirts with cosmic horror in a way that doesn't have much at all to do with Lovecraft.

Night in the Woods uses a cosmic horror type underpinning to the emotional story of the main character, who's dealing with uncertainty in her mental state.

Dishonored's character of The Outsider, and the cosmology around the whales all have elements of cosmic horror - essentially a giant uncaring universe that sometimes provides humans great power at great cost.

The niche RPG Maker game Space Funeral did a... weird, jokey, kind of gross form of cosmic horror, not dissimilar from Undertale that followed it conceptually.
posted by codacorolla at 2:10 PM on December 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


I know I'm way late to the game here but I just want to point out that if we want to move past fiction born of racist attitudes as the basis for games and other fiction, we might want to take a hard look at Lord of the Rings. It doesn't take much to see that it is deeply informed by his Imperial British culture and the general history of Europe, even if there is nuance in the details, both of the story and Tolkien's writings about them, that muddy the waters.

Nonetheless, it casts the Men, hobbits (the small folk, little folk, who aren't seen much these days = general Victorian benevolent faerie beings), elves (other European folklore beings), and dwarves (ditto) living in the north west by the ocean as the good guys vs the bad guys who come from the southeast (you know, the general direction the Crusaders went, fitting pretty well right in the same general area as the Ottoman Empire) as well as both the south (from which came, well, this) and the east (where the Mongols came from and briefly wrecked a lot of Europe). That's pretty rough on the face of it, and it was written in the lead up to World War 2 and then after. (Of course, you could also look at it as Germany being southeast of England, but reading it that way isn't really that much better, if relatively understandable in light of his life experience and the current historical circumstances.)

Tolkien said a lot of stuff that shows a commendable attitude toward race. From the above linked article: "Christine Chism mentions the issue of racism in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, where she distinguishes accusations as falling into three categories: intentional racism, unconscious Eurocentric bias, and an evolution from latent racism in Tolkien's early work to a conscious rejection of racist tendencies in his late work.."
He seemed to grow and evolve on the subject. Even still, the equation of the greedy dwarves with the Jewish people is pretty rough, which happens in the Hobbit, written in the early 30s. And note: the earliest quote in the Tolkien on racism section where he really renounces racism is from 1938. The year after Lovecraft died. How many years did Lovecraft have over Tolkien? Well, two.

Do the racist underpinnings of Lovecraft's fiction do more damage than the many problematic aspects of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, because Lovecraft's racism was more explicit and overt? What if Lovecraft hadn't died in misery in 1942 because he was never healthy to begin with and lived in poverty most of his life (as opposed to Tolkien, who survived WW1 and went on to become a professor at Oxford)? Would he have had a chance to reach a "a conscious rejection of racist tendencies in his late work.."? Cosmic horror took a while to get going, but its current popularity in the face of the approaching, barely understandable disaster of climate change, wrought by awful artificial intelligence made up of ourselves (corporations) is actually pretty understandable, and the litany of well received recent stories tackling Lovecraftian themes from other, less racist directions, or otherwise responding to Lovecraft's racism with explicit art, make it seem like at least some people have something interesting to say, even if games haven't gotten there yet.

On the other hand, Tolkien long ago spawned the genre of epic fantasy, which has brought with it plenty of retrograde shit, culminating in the immense popularity of the genre's most elaborate deconstruction" Game of Thrones. Dark, gritty, borderline nihilistic, full of rape, probably worse about race than LotR, and ending with a pretty overt rejection of democracy of the people and continued rule by the nobility, who have been messing up Westeros non-stop for generations, which is a really bad thing to be even have the vaguest appearance of endorsing in an era where a billionaire is in third place in the contest to replace a "billionaire" in the White House and the "billionaire" just pushed through crazy cuts to the Estate tax so that our surfeit of billionaires who aren't doing anything to stop climate change can make sure they can pass on even more of their immense wealth to their undeserving children. Has Lovecraft been more toxic for our culture than Game of Thrones? A lot of people just think giant monsters are cool and never even get deep enough to see the racism, or only see it later (hey, hi) and are horrified when they realize. How many people have decided to be more comfortable with the idea that men just kinda rape women all the time as a result of HBO running a prestige drama full of rape? I mean, a rapist is in the White House.

Like, I'm totally down with saying we're all set on Lovecraft games for a while, especially when so many are bad and/or bland. I'm just saying have a little perspective about what exactly is toxic material and where it comes from.

(Though I honestly never enjoyed Lovecraft's fiction as much as I have overt subversions of the cosmic horror genre into dark action, where we can, in fact, figure out how to beat the Old Ones when they wake up. I would like to see more games where you're, say, using biomecha made out of shoggoths to punch Cthulhu in the face. Let people with the Innsmouth Look be the only people who can pilot the biomecha, like the Children in Evangelion, and part of the game can be them dealing with the reactions of normal people in the world and with fighting the slow transformation into something alien. I feel like someone could have "something interesting to say" with that.)
posted by The Sockpuppet of Vecna at 3:53 AM on January 7 [2 favorites]


I've tried and failed to find a really elegant way of putting this, but am I the only one who thinks that the interesting bits of Lovecraft - the cosmic horror, the unknowable dread, that sort of thing - are much better served these days by Lynch and Frost's Twin Peaks? Especially the 2016 revival and particularly the legendary Episode 8.
posted by Grangousier at 9:30 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Not to be a Tolkien apologist, as I am neither informed enough invested care enough to be, but I'd argue that the Haradrim and Easterlings were, at least, tangential bad guys that were more like allied henchmen than the hordes of orcs that the good guys slaughter. Not to mention those enemies were led by two villains who were formerly of the same cloth as the good guys, or higher powers aligned with the good guys. It's not so much a tale of the good vs. the Other, so much as the good vs. the corrupted. So while Tolkien is replete with all sorts of racism, at the very least it's not a straight-up coded retelling of a Christian crusade or clash of civilizations. At least based on my limited understanding of the setting.

I do think that it's a bit of a stretch to draw a direct line from Tolkien's work to GoT (specifically the HBO show). The Lord of the Rings might have kicked off epic fantasy, but generations of writers have filled it in. It's sort of blaming the Reagan administration's embrace of weaponizing space on Philip Wylie or Philip Francis Nowlan. One might as well imagine a world where pirate fiction got really big and influenced pop culture and ended up having negative ramifications because some seapunk (or other offshoot subgenre) television show or movie made it socially normalized for an American president to issue letters of marque to naval mercenaries.
posted by Apocryphon at 5:13 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


Shh! Don't give him any more ideas!
posted by Grangousier at 2:47 AM on January 11


but am I the only one who thinks that the interesting bits of Lovecraft - the cosmic horror, the unknowable dread, that sort of thing - are much better served these days by Lynch and Frost's Twin Peaks? Especially the 2016 revival and particularly the legendary Episode 8.

Those ideas are much larger than any one series or episode. Also, Lovecraftian horror is of a particular mode: actual demons and good/evil imagery have no place in true cosmic horror, which for all the cults it features is not actually religious, and makes a particular point that all its "gods" are just incredibly powerful alien beings.

We're in the waning days of the thread, so I figured I'd mention one particular thing I believe about Lovecraft's work. I've heard it said by some that part of what makes his stories work, in a way, is his racism, that his xenophobia and fear of other races feeds into his work and empowers it. There definitely are some Lovecraft stories that are racist in nature, particularly the Horror of Red Hook, which few would say is among his best.

I would like to be clear that I don't think this is true. I don't think Lovecraft's racism somehow improves his stories. I think everything that can be said to be good about Lovecraft and his writing could have happened completely without his attitudes towards other races and cultures. There's some exoticism in there, yes, but that is generally in line with his time and the market for which he wrote. The true horror, and enjoyment, of Lovecraft is in the idea of a bizarre universe that doesn't care about human-kind, to which we are basically ants. You don't have to have odious views of any particular humans either to write or enjoy that. Indeed, I think Lovecraft's racism actively harms his work: what is the point of thinking Africans or Asians or Jews are degenerate if in the end neither them nor us actually matter? All zeros are equal.

I still think, if Lovecraft had survived, that he would have worked himself out of his views. I think there are indications of that in some of his stories, like, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, for its distasteful depictions of its fish people, ends with its protagonist realizing that he's descended from them, and in the end coming to see the wonder of their undersea cities, and that they are his birthright. But he died young, and so we don't really know what he would have done.

But, because Lovecraft, in life, encouraged others to use his creations and signifiers in their own work, his mythos has taken on a vitality and adaptability that he himself never had. Now we can have stories about sympathetic Deep Ones if we like. We can take objects that he found horrifying, yet fascinating, and not make them about horror, or even write stories about put-upon eldritch entities having to deal with infestations of human-ants in their home dimensions. We can use his good ideas and throw away his bad ones, and not think twice.
posted by JHarris at 6:43 AM on January 13 [3 favorites]


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