Friday, April 23, 2010

Lights in the Darkness

August Derleth catches a lot of flak among Lovecraftian purists and, I think, understandably so. It was largely Derleth, after all, who took HPL's disparate extra-terrene entities and welded them together into what we today call the Cthulhu Mythos (despite Derleth's own stated preference for the "Mythology of Hastur"), a creation that was every bit as alien to Lovecraft's own conception of them as they were to life on Earth. It was Derleth too who layered onto the Mythos a Manichean worldview that pitted the "good" Elder Gods against the "evil" Great Old Ones (as well as a Christian-derived notion of the Old Ones having "fallen" in their primordial rebellion against the Elder Gods). Consequently, Derleth's name is muttered as a curse by those who prefer their cosmic horror undiluted with pedestrian notions like hope or faith in the future.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, because, while preparing to review Lovecraftian Tales from the Table, I re-watched video interviews with both Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen, in which both game designers reflected on the creation of Call of Cthulhu. Stafford noted that one of the very few changes made to Petersen's original manuscript was the addition of a way to regain Sanity after having lost it in order to prevent them game from becoming too depressing to play. Meanwhile, Petersen, when asked why Call of Cthulhu has remained so popular after all these years replied that it's because of the game's "optimism."

Now, "optimism" is not a word one normally associates with a game like Call of Cthulhu, where most characters are likely to end up dead or insane. However, Petersen explains himself by noting that Call of Cthulhu allows us to play ordinary people who, through their actions, manage to hold off Armageddon for just one more day. I definitely think there's something to this perspective, as it's one I largely share. On the face of it, Call of Cthulhu ought to be a bleak, nihilistic game and it could easily have been so. But, in my experience, Call of Cthulhu is in fact one of the most unambiguously heroic RPGs ever written -- a game where people little different than you or I risk loss of life and sanity to give mankind another small chance at survival.

Second, I bring this up because I was recently reading a collection of Robert E. Howard's "Mythos fiction" last week. The particular volume I own was edited and introduced by Robert M. Price. I often don't think much of Price's interpretations of Lovecraft (or indeed of many things), but I was intrigued by something he wrote in his introduction to the story "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth."
Howard's tales of heroic adventure, whether Sword-and-Sorcery or Lost Race stories, sometimes make reference to the Cthulhu Mythos, even though they are not really "about" the Mythos. This is because Howard's fiction proceeded from the dark inner cosmos of his own mind and the fictive universe in which he set his tales are an externalization of that inner Sheol. His heroes, even when victorious, as they almost always are, are not merely bottling up the anomalous inkspill of evil which has momentarily put a crimp in a pleasant picnic-world of reality. No, Conan's victories, or Solomon Kane's, are like that of the most pessimistic Lovecraftian anti-hero in that they are but temporary reprieves from the ineluctable fall of universal darkness. Contrary to the anti-Derlethian stereotype, a good-versus-evil plot is by no means incompatible with Lovecraftian nihilistic cosmicism. [italics mine]
Leaving aside Price's comments about Howard, it's his last sentence that really struck me square in the face. Thinking about it, I believe Price is correct; there is nothing inherently incompatible about a "happy ending" of sorts in a Lovecraftian-inspired tale. Looking even to HPL's own stories, you'll find that some, such as "The Dunwich Horror" and even "The Call of Cthulhu," conclude on comparatively positive notes, the "inkspill of evil," to borrow Price's evocative phrase, being blotted for the time being. That perspective is at the root of the optimism Sandy Petersen sees as key to Call of Cthulhu's lasting success -- its ability to present confrontations with a dark and uncaring cosmos that paradoxically confirms the enduring value of human heroism and self-sacrifice.

There's little question that Derleth was heavy-handed in his lightening of Lovecraft's cosmic horror, often to the point of parody. Nevertheless, I think it's fair to say that, without the framework provided by Derleth's approach, a RPG treatment of Lovecraft's work probably would have been the depressing affair Greg Stafford mentioned in his interview and certainly not the mainstay of the hobby it became. I think the same is true of RPGs based on other genres. I've never been a big fan of "dark" stories unleavened by even a glimmer of hope. Bleakness for its own sake holds no appeal and I instinctively shy away from media, including RPGs, that seem to revel in it. In fact, it's an instinct that, ironically, only seems to grow stronger as I get older.

The rediscovery of the pulp fantasy roots of Dungeons & Dragons -- and therefore the hobby -- has increased interest in sword-and-sorcery fiction, which many people, mistakenly in my view, see as necessarily bleak. As with cosmic horror, though, there's no necessity for it. From my perspective, S&S is distinguished more by its personal focus than any putative bleakness, which is to say, the struggles of individuals in a world of magic and monsters rather than the epic contests of nations, peoples, or worlds. Indeed, much sword-and-sorcery fiction is surprisingly optimistic, even upbeat, rather than bleak. There is often an attention to realism (or at least verisimilitude) in S&S fiction, but that hardly entails bleakness unless one already views reality in unrelentingly negative terms. Conan's gigantic melancholies were, after all, counterbalanced by his gigantic mirth and so too can sword-and-sorcery fiction -- or roleplaying games that looks to them for inspiration.

46 comments:

  1. I haven't read much HPL, but I have played CoC. I agree that it is a tremendously heroic game. My character willingly sacrificed himself to save the other heroes. He had no choice. No magic armor, no spells, no resurrection magic. It was a real sacrifice and that's often missing in other heroic genres -- there's often a 'reset button'. Well written piece. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have never cared much for cosmic struggles of "good" and "evil," either fictional or religious, because they strike me as simplistic and suitable largely only for children. I find the idea of a God, gods, Powers That Be, far more horrifying than a vision where existence has no intrinsic meaning and there the individual is free to give it whatever meaning he wants. Because of this I would say Cthulhu is more heroic than most games because you are not a soldier playing for one team of the other, but an individual who makes a choice to act on his own, for his own reasons and his own convictions, without a cosmic Father Figure or Figures to back him up.

    ReplyDelete
  3. For what it's worth I believe L. Sprague de Camp used the term heroic fantasy for what is now typically known as sword & sorcery.

    ReplyDelete
  4. There is a section in the Call of Cthulhu book which explicitly rejects the Derlethian good/evil aspect of the Mythos, even using the terms "black hat" and "white hat" as I recall. I'm not sure if it was there in the beginning, but it's certainly there as of 5th edition.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Derleth was a bad writer. His tales were uninspired and his plots so similar to Lovecraft.In one word: boring.

    If I wanted read about fallen evil gods and benevolent goods I would read the Bible...

    ReplyDelete
  6. I really don't see your point here.

    Because the writers of CoC mistakenly chickened-out in representing their source material honestly and without apology (see Thomas Liggotti), some nigh-forgotten non (anti?)-author that may have inspired them to do so deserves more of our respect than we ever guessed?

    No.

    In spirit, I really applaud your recent cross-media inclusiveness, but this may be a bridge too far. Next think you know, you'll want us to contrast Tower of the Elephant with this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conan_the_Adventurer_%28animated_series%29

    S&S fans are flexible, but not to no end.

    If there is an authorial hell, Derleth is shoveling the shit of those who shovel the shit of those few real writers confined to the very lowest levels.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Good men struggle against evil. Evil will eventually win - the Human Race will one day pass away - but Not Today.

    What's bleak about that?

    The games I do find too depressing to play are the adolescent "revel in evil" ones like Vampire and its antecessor NightLife, the similar "revel in Fascism" Warhammer 40K mythos, and the "nothing you do makes any difference" approach common in Midnight.

    By contrast Call of Cthulu is not that diferent from the Lord of the Rings, as per Aragorn in Return of the King movie:

    "There will come a time when the courage of men fails. But not today. Today we fight!"

    ReplyDelete
  8. With the caveat that pastiches should never be placed anywhere near the originals in "authority", I have always considered pastiches an unabashed good and wondered why so many fans feel the need to dump on them.

    I don't read deCamp Conan, or Howardian Cthulhu for material to somehow supplant the original stories, any more than I read a Star Trek novel to wipe the shows from existence.

    Rather, I read them because it's one more Conan story than I would have gotten to read otherwise.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Though I certainly consider myself an anti-Derlethian (I refer to his "interpretation" of, really his creation of, the mythos as the Derlethian Heresy), one should never forget his role in establishing Arkham House and thus ensuring the survival of HPL's legacy. I think Grandpa would be both frustrated with and proud of little Auggie, as he sometimes referred to his youngest and most devoted disciple.

    ReplyDelete
  10. If there is an authorial hell, Derleth is shoveling the shit of those who shovel the shit of those few real writers confined to the very lowest levels.

    @Mistretta - I'm sure in retrospect you can see the irony in the way you expressed that sentiment...

    ReplyDelete
  11. to hold off Armageddon for just one more day

    Isn't this exactly what James Bond and other movie superheroes do? A threat to The Proper Working of the World comes up, so they must neutralize it and restore the status quo until next time. If they failed then the world would collapse but they don't. The difference between the "one more day" conception and movie Bond's idea of what he does is one of length of perspective: he never looks beyond the current adventure/girl.

    I think the real difference between CoC and the superhero genre is the power and reach of the PCs (duh), expressed as their chances of getting to both the head villain and the next adventure. Superheroes always cut straight to the central threat in 90 minutes, they know that when they defuse the bomb they're done for now, and they always reset to their full potential by the next go around (but me no buts about long series - I'm talking movies here). CoC characters cannot see the whole world and therefore suspect that other threats are going unfaced elsewhere. And they frequently don't live to see the resolution, but have to have faith that the other participants in their relay race will also do their part to get to the finish. In that regard they're more social than superheroes: they rely on a big society to supply those other rare individuals who will help.

    This plugs into another conversation about functional (not abstract or theological) meanings of good and evil for RPGs, where good maps onto social/solidarist and evil maps onto anti-social/atomistic. CoC characters are not tigers (like Bond) but ants, they have to act socially in order to survive, to co-operate and rely on each other in order to face down threats. The threat of "the time when the stars come right" is the dissolution of social solidarity - a Hobbesian war of all against all - which would mean the loss of the PCs' (and humanity's) chief advantage or basis for resistance.

    Working from this thought, it occurs to me that having Derlethian "good" Gods around risks diluting the heroic potential for PCs, while the "bad" Great Old Ones should not be presented as forming a society (because that's our trick). I don't think HPL ever showed his horrors as anything other than individual, sui generis threats/anomalies/colours. Maybe sometimes they take the form of swarms, but you don't really get team ups between multiple cosmic horrors that threaten in multiple different ways, do you? That seems important to me, and is exactly what stands to be lost when you organise all these disparate weird things into a mythos. You resolve them not only into a many-faced threat but also into a community. And then you have the community of humanity facing the community of monsters, and of course, humanity is the weaker, while the monsters must, by implication, have their own functional "good."

    ReplyDelete
  12. @S'mon: "and the "nothing you do makes any difference" approach common in Midnight."

    Common, but not universal, and I don't think Midnight is actually built to play hopeless--the hope is all personal. The guy who wrote Midnight (1st ed), Jeff Barber, is a buddy of mine, and he's a HUGE Call of Cthulhu fan who plays in exactly the vein we're talking about. When we playtested it it rapidly became all about small struggles for individual integrity/friendship/fellowship in the face of the inevitable triumph of universal evil.

    word verification: blightic (any of a number of diseased biting and stinging crawlies...)

    ReplyDelete
  13. For what it's worth I believe L. Sprague de Camp used the term heroic fantasy for what is now typically known as sword & sorcery.

    He did and I don't think, as a term, that there's anything wrong with it. My qualm is more that De Camp's conception of "heroic fantasy" wasn't something that either interests me or that I think applies to the stories of Conan (to which he first applied the term). He described heroic fantasy as depicting a world "where all men are strong, all women beautiful, all life adventurous, and all problems simple." That's pretty far removed from what Howard and those who follow in his tradition wrote.

    ReplyDelete
  14. There is a section in the Call of Cthulhu book which explicitly rejects the Derlethian good/evil aspect of the Mythos, even using the terms "black hat" and "white hat" as I recall. I'm not sure if it was there in the beginning, but it's certainly there as of 5th edition.

    That section has been there since 1st edition.

    ReplyDelete
  15. The black hat/white hat reference is not advocating anti-heroism, but instead "realistic" heroism.

    CoC is, if not inherently heroic and positive, quite certainly inclusive of it.

    And, I think those who would so blackly dismiss Derleth are completely losing site of the fact that without him, Lovecraft's work could have been lost, or at the very best, as obscure today as Harold Lamb's.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I really don't see your point here.

    Apparently not

    Because the writers of CoC mistakenly chickened-out in representing their source material honestly and without apology (see Thomas Liggotti), some nigh-forgotten non (anti?)-author that may have inspired them to do so deserves more of our respect than we ever guessed?

    That's not what I wrote. (And I don't think Chaosium "chickened out" with CoC; a game based too closely on the source material would likely have been unplayable)

    If there is an authorial hell, Derleth is shoveling the shit of those who shovel the shit of those few real writers confined to the very lowest levels.

    That's grossly unfair to Derleth. His HPL-inspired fiction is almost entirely without value, true, but his Holmes pastiches are surprisingly good and his Sac Prairie stories are true works of literature, recognized as such during his lifetime.

    Moreover, whatever his sins in misrepresenting Lovecraft, they're of a largely different sort than those of, say, L. Sprague de Camp. Derleth was an over-enthusiastic fanboy with genuine affection for Lovecraft and even his worst hackwork tales make that clear. I'd never argue -- and did not in this post -- that Derleth's interpretation of Lovecraft was correct, but I think it's rooted in an understandable revulsion at the bleakness one can derive from HPL's stories. I don't counsel the use of full-bore Derlethianism after the manner of Laban Shrewsbury but a slight injection of it is a not unreasonable way to make Lovecraft's vision a bit more suitable for gaming in my opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  17. By contrast Call of Cthulu is not that diferent from the Lord of the Rings, as per Aragorn in Return of the King movie:

    I prefer Galadriel's reference to fighting "the long defeat" myself, but the point is the same.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I have always considered pastiches an unabashed good and wondered why so many fans feel the need to dump on them.

    Probably because most of them are terrible and distort the conception of the source material. This has clearly happened with Conan, for example, and it has, to a lesser extent, happened with Lovecraft.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I think Grandpa would be both frustrated with and proud of little Auggie, as he sometimes referred to his youngest and most devoted disciple.

    Precisely. Derleth's sins arise from having been too enthusiastic in his devotion to Lovecraft rather than having held him in contempt as De Camp did Howard. Both men clearly misunderstood the writers whose legacies they seized for themselves, but Derleth at least made HPL's unexpurgated texts available alongside his own Mythos fan fiction, making it possible for others to approach Lovecraft on his own terms if they so wished (and many did).

    ReplyDelete
  20. Working from this thought, it occurs to me that having Derlethian "good" Gods around risks diluting the heroic potential for PCs, while the "bad" Great Old Ones should not be presented as forming a society (because that's our trick).

    I'm not a fan of the portrayal of the Elder Gods as any more than indifferent to humanity, but I'm also not a fan of much of treating Lovecraft's pseudo-mythology as a unified whole. The very idea of "the Cthulhu Mythos" on which so much of the popular understanding of Lovecraft depends, vitiates his creative vision. Nevertheless, I don't think there's any necessity to treat Lovecraft-inspired stories or games as bleak "you all go insane and die" affairs. There is room for individual heroism and sometimes living just another day is itself a great victory. That was my main point in this post.

    ReplyDelete
  21. CoC is, if not inherently heroic and positive, quite certainly inclusive of it.

    Heroism need not always result in the hero riding off into the sunset with his best girl by his side, but I think too many people revel in bleakness, using it as an excuse to demonstrate how hardcore they are in not flinching in the face of the pointlessness of human existence. Lovecraft's tales aren't generally like that and I think there's value to remembering that many of his stories involve the protagonists "saving the day" by stopping the rise of R'lyeh or preventing the summoning of Wilbur Whateley's twin.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Fascinating points.

    I have a question to James and the rest of the intrepid posters here;
    Has anyone read R.E.H.'s 'unfinished' work, "Ghor Kin-Slayer" that Necronomicon Press printed? The myriad of authors who did each chapter, including Moorcock & Lumley, play quiet heavily both with Howard's Hyborian world and the Cthulhu Mythos. I'm curious as to the opinions and thoughts of The Grognard's Mob.

    ReplyDelete
  23. For me, Howard & Lovecraft are a perfect match. The fact that both corresponded and delved into each others stories is well documented.

    Where they differed was fantasy and science fiction. Lovecraft was much more of a gothic writer drawn into pulp. Whereas, Howard, I feel was a pulp writer drawn into fantasy & science fiction.

    This is what creates the difference between the purist and the pulp motifs that people who play CoC. The game is a mishmash and is increasingly becoming more so. I welcome the additions that Liggotti and some of the new Mythos writers would bring to the game. But, right now, Chaosium is still recovering from their blue book blight and have handed the reigns over to the Indys...which have done some really interesting stuff. Cthulhu Britainia is certainly not Chaosium but damn interesting CoC. Similarly, Goodman has taken the Pulp and ran with it. Time will tell if this will change the original game...but now with the fragmentation into Trail & BRP CoC & Savage World camps...it is anyone's guess what will happen next.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Agreed: I don't think that sword and sorcery is bleak at all. Just as Conan had his "gigantic mirths," Fafhrd and the Mouser's ability to laugh in the face of death actually had sorcerous significance. (Adept's Gambit.)

    Sword and sorcery fiction is about personal struggles... certainly sometimes with exotic or operatic backdrops, but personal nonetheless.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Lovecraft's tales aren't generally like that and I think there's value to remembering that many of his stories involve the protagonists "saving the day" by stopping the rise of R'lyeh or preventing the summoning of Wilbur Whateley's twin.

    Precisely. Also your reference to the "long defeat" is spot on.

    The real-world concept of T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien waging something of a "rearguard" effort against an outnumbering tide of deconstruction and decay also fits in very well, which is probably why they wrote, in a variety of ways, of the paradox of victory in the inevitable face of death.

    Lovecraft of course could not adopt at least something of this viewpoint, or else all his stories would have been very brief indead.

    The Case of Charles Dexter Ward becomes "How We Destroyed Dr. Willet," The Dunwich Horror becomes "The Rise of the Wonderful Whateley Boys" and the original CoC story itself is written in an unspeakable tongue and opens, and ends, with three infamous words:

    "Call me Cthulhu..."

    ReplyDelete
  26. This reminds me of how someone once described the "Kult" RPG to me: "It's like Call of Cthulhu, but without that sense of hope." :)

    But, in my experience, Call of Cthulhu is in fact one of the most unambiguously heroic RPGs ever written -- a game where people little different than you or I risk loss of life and sanity to give mankind another small chance at survival.

    I couldn't agree more, though it's a tough concept to get across to most people, who see only the "go insane and die" part of CoC. Even if you strip away the last bits of Derleth's influence, one can still "fight for good" against the nihilism that Lovecraft imbued his works with: In a meaningless universe, the Investigator's motives and actions give their lives some meaning, no matter how brief and, ultimately, futile.

    God, I love Coc. :)

    ReplyDelete
  27. Delta Green is a perfect example to me of how Call of Cthulhu can be played "heroically". It's all about foiling the plans of the Great Old Ones and evading their minions and putting off your likely gruesome end for just one more day. Additionally, there's lots of gunfire, which lends a certain pulp action aspect that's lacking in a traditional CoC '20s game. The original CoC for me was always too investigative in orientation, which to me adheres a little too closely, if anything, to Lovecraft's stories to make an enjoyable game IMO.

    ReplyDelete
  28. XDPaul, that's genius, thank you. And now I really want to read that book. Does it have a whole chapter devoted to the whiteness of the Worm?

    ReplyDelete
  29. @ James (RE original post): Very nice post, good insights. I agree and also find myself relaxing much of my nihilistic perceptions as I get older, too. Perhaps Howard and Lovecraft would have also, had they lived long enough!
    : )

    ReplyDelete
  30. Two points:

    I actually find Price's comment to be one of the less useful insights he's written, as it elides the difference between survival through conflict and a good/evil dichotomy.

    I'd also say that "The Call of Cthulhu" isn't a great example of optimism - as with "The Shadow over Innsmouth," the horror has been put out but a personal tragedy still unfolds. I think that the optimistic attitude is much more a product of the RPG than the original fiction. Not that I disagree with such a view, though - it's likely necessary to run an ongoing game instead of bleak one-shots.

    ReplyDelete
  31. "In a meaningless universe, the Investigator's motives and actions give their lives some meaning, no matter how brief and, ultimately, futile."

    Brief and futile can be heroic, but the key factor is that the investigators' faith in "the good" is purely arbitrary, delusional, and a function of their own tragically limited ability to encompass Reality. There may be no ultimate Meaning, and if there is, it may be far, far beyond their own limited abilities to apprehend.

    The key revelation is that the swatting of mosquitoes that land on one's forearm and briefly irritate is, to them, the grandest and most cosmic evil.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Probably because most of them are terrible and distort the conception of the source material. This has clearly happened with Conan, for example, and it has, to a lesser extent, happened with Lovecraft.

    Distort it to whom? I see you complain about pastiches all the time.

    Do pastiche Conan fiction somehow distort your image of Conan?

    And most of the people I see complain about pastiches are more like you, rather than the poor confused souls.

    Most of them seem blissfully UNCONFUSED in fact.

    Most readers of Conan comics just know they like Conan, whatever they think that is. And if they enjoy it, who cares?

    You? because they're not having the "real experience"?

    Again- pastiches are great for what they are. They aren't the "real experience". But they can be good.

    And really, looking at the guys writing Conan pastiches- Roy Thomas, de Camp, Lin Carter, Robert Jordan, Harry Turtledove- these are NOT pikers desperate for work.

    They are NOT in this to put their own stamp on anything with the possible exception of de Camp (who is the only pastiche writer I think really deserves harsh criticism).

    They're in it because they love Conan, just like us, and would like to see new Conan, just like us (most of us).

    And of course, Howard himself was a pastiche writer. And his Cthulhu stuff was very different from Lovecraft's, just as all the Conan pastiches are different from him.

    He wasn't out to "distort" anything either. He just had a different voice, a different style.

    Like pretty much all writers.

    ReplyDelete
  33. "And really, looking at the guys writing Conan pastiches- Roy Thomas, de Camp, Lin Carter, Robert Jordan, Harry Turtledove- these are NOT pikers desperate for work."

    Yeah--but they *are* pretty terrible writers. Carter was a great editor, at least. But oof, what a bunch of hacks as writers.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Has anyone read R.E.H.'s 'unfinished' work, "Ghor Kin-Slayer" that Necronomicon Press printed?

    No, I haven't, although I intended to at one point and then just never bothered to hunt it down. Necronomicon Press was MIA for a long time, but I think they're back now, so I may have to grab a copy, if it's still available.

    ReplyDelete
  35. God, I love Coc. :)

    Now there's an ironic comic, given the subject matter of this post :)

    ReplyDelete
  36. Brief and futile can be heroic, but the key factor is that the investigators' faith in "the good" is purely arbitrary, delusional, and a function of their own tragically limited ability to encompass Reality. There may be no ultimate Meaning, and if there is, it may be far, far beyond their own limited abilities to apprehend.

    I think you're correct that this was more or less what HPL was intending, but I've always found it ironic that he himself had a powerful attachment to people, places, and times that suggested that, however much he tried, he couldn't quite live out the conclusion to this worldview. For a man whose writings proclaimed the utter insignificance of human concerns, he devoted a lot of emotion and mental energy into arguing in favor of certain of them as superior to others.

    ReplyDelete
  37. He wasn't out to "distort" anything either. He just had a different voice, a different style.

    Like pretty much all writers.


    De Camp was perfectly capable of telling his own -- often excellent -- stories. Why did he feel the need not just to tell more stories about Conan in "a different voice" but to ensure that that different voice would never, if he had anything to do with it, be disconnected from REH's actual work? I don't think you quite grasp the magnitude of De Camp's simultaneous denigration of Howard (as a man and as a writer) and elevation of his own hackwork as equal to that of REH.

    I have nothing against pastiche if it's done well and after the fashion of the original, which is supposed to be the goal of writers working in pastiche. The problem is that De Camp set a standard for Conan that showed little regard for Howard's writing or character and has made it an uphill battle to get the original material to be viewed on its own merits. Even now, you will read newspaper stories that call Conan a "comic book character" or suggest that the 1982 film was his first appearance. That is what pastiche does and it's a problem.

    ReplyDelete
  38. The problem is that De Camp set a standard for Conan that showed little regard for Howard's writing or character and has made it an uphill battle to get the original material to be viewed on its own merits.

    Yes, I agree. I did say de Camp is the one pastiche writer of Conan tales that deserves harsh criticism and mostly it's the book we wrote about Howard, Dark Valley Destiny that earns him that criticism from me.

    ReplyDelete
  39. Yes, I agree. I did say de Camp is the one pastiche writer of Conan tales that deserves harsh criticism and mostly it's the book we wrote about Howard, Dark Valley Destiny that earns him that criticism from me.

    His biography certainly is terrible, but how many people actually read it? Far more people, I suspect, read his and Lin Carter's bastardizations of REH's original texts, which were placed alongside their pastiches (and those of a few others), creating a "saga" of stories that has forever colored the way Conan has been viewed and treated by others. Despite the valiant efforts of many over the last 10-20 years and the publication, for the first time in many years, of the complete, unaltered texts of Howard's Conan stories, for most people Conan is the diluted, faintly ridiculous character De Camp and Carter turned him into and that's a shame.

    There are good Conan pastiches -- Karl Wagner's, for example -- but they're the exception rather than the norm. I'm not opposed to pastiches as such, but De Camp set so many bad precedents for what a Conan pastiche should be that I fear he's poisoned the well forever.

    ReplyDelete
  40. Hey Mal! et al... Some great comments regarding this entry. My time is very limited these days, so I might be overly succint...

    Mal's take on Auggie is the right one, IMO. A fanboy run wild. A bit more like Lin Carter than LSdC. However, he shared with Ol' Spraguey the utter inability to grasp the fundamentals of the works which he pastiched.

    De Camp tainted the well. There is no argument against it. I can post links to a hundred REH Forum posts from Conan readers who say that they really had a hard time keeping what was REH straight from LSdC's pastiches. That was exactly how Sprague (a VERY intelligent person with a firm grasp of literary niceties) wanted it.

    Auggie's case is a different matter. Just as Sprague couldn't wrap his brain around REH's world-view, Derleth, not for lack of trying, just couldn't do so with HPL's legendarium. There ARE instances in HPL's tales where something like a Manichaeian world-view are possible ("The Dunwich Horror" is an excellent example), but Auggie took all of that WAY too far.

    Howard once said to HPL in a letter (I paraphrase) that he saw existence as a caged wolf biting against the iron bars of the universe. Another time, REH asserted that all that can be done in life is to bite the heel that stamps in one's face.

    The main difference between REH's and HPL's fictional universes is how their protagonists react to realizing the cosmos' indifference to their existence.

    Deuce

    ReplyDelete
  41. I feel compelled to commment on this, as I'm reading Lovecraft at the moment, that I do not see this optimism in his work at all. The curious case of Charls of Dexter Ward, for example, is very bleak, with its principle hero losing his sanity, the man who is the focus of much of the story being lynched by a mob and his modern descendant perhaps becoming possessed by his terrible and distant ancestor. The fact that a plot of some kind is indeed stopped really doesn't matter... it's not made clear what this plot would do if it were to ever reach fruition as those involved in it are already mad anyway... so it may have achieved nothing but their own demise had it gone ahead unchallenged.

    Not to be rude to anyone here, but I do wonder how much of the original source material is read. I don't find any cause for optimism in the Call of Cthulhu either, which essentially says be careful what facts you put together as a truly horrifying picture might emerge from them, the discovery of which might make people around you think you are insane and you'll be dealt with accordingly.

    ReplyDelete
  42. Not to be rude to anyone here, but I do wonder how much of the original source material is read. I don't find any cause for optimism in the Call of Cthulhu either, which essentially says be careful what facts you put together as a truly horrifying picture might emerge from them, the discovery of which might make people around you think you are insane and you'll be dealt with accordingly.

    It's true that Francis Thurston makes such an assertion, but it's also true that the stories he relates include one in which a Cthulhu cult is eliminated in Louisiana and R'lyeh -- and Cthulhu along with it -- is once again sunk beneath the waves. Do these events mean mankind is safe forever? Of course not, but neither do I think the story asserts that doom is a certainty. Thurston appears to believe it is, but his mind is also clearly unhinged by the implications he draws out from what he has learned. Is he right? Who can say?

    I am sure Lovecraft himself wouldn't have hesitated to say that the eventual extinction of mankind before the Great Old Ones was inevitable, but that's not the only conclusion one can legitimately draw from a text whose narrator is clearly unreliable. There is room, however slight, for a less fatalistic interpretation and it's one on which many an RPG treatment of HPL's ideas depends, I think.

    ReplyDelete
  43. You're quite right, of course, that there is room for such an interpretation for a game, my point of view is stemming from the original works themselves, which I find to be thrilling reads but not for any heroism contained within as I've yet to really find any. To me, the stories are asking the questions of 'what if superstitions were real' and setting that up in a framework that makes it so. I see the subjects of the stories as being victims of their own curiosities that, even if survival is won, their minds are lost. Lose-lose. I strongly suspect Lovecraft's real point is that ignorance is bliss.

    I've not played the Cthulhu RPG's but think it might be fun to, I fondly remember an old Gamebook called Where the Shadows Stalk which is a somewhat Lovecraft-esque where you play a paranormal investigator that can indeed save the day but risks going mad trying to. Anyways, just some thoughts, your own analysis are fascinating as ever.

    ReplyDelete
  44. It's a mistake to believe that HPL had this unremittingly bleak approach that shows through in all his stories. Not only do his protagonists often triumph, at least termporarily, against the evil, but the later stories in his life have the alien become surprisingly humanized and not necessarily even evil anymore. There are strong elements of that in At the Mountains of Madness which starts off creepy, but which then turns into a rather prosaic ethnologue of the Elder Things.

    Also,

    They are NOT in this to put their own stamp on anything with the possible exception of de Camp (who is the only pastiche writer I think really deserves harsh criticism).

    Not just because of his true pastiche work; his pseudo-pastiche work smacks of pretentious snobbery too. By this I mean his "Pusadian Age" as his take on the Hyborian Age; his "Krishna" series as his take on Barsoom, etc. In his foolish attempts to "get those series right" he completely missed the point, and failed to realize what made them successful in the first place. Who wants to read Conan or John Carter in a dry, lecturely tone from some smug guy who's trying to show off how he thought through the logic of these stories more than the original authors did?

    I agree 100%; de Camp is an author I have little patience with. Lin Carter was also a spectacularly unskilled writer in most respects, but his honest, earnest fanboyism of his subject matter is infectious nonetheless.

    ReplyDelete
  45. but I've always found it ironic that he himself had a powerful attachment to people, places, and times that suggested that, however much he tried, he couldn't quite live out the conclusion to this worldview.

    That's a pretty poor false-dichotomy. I don't think the universe gives a tinkers damn about us or anything we do but I care about things and so I act.

    The realization that the universe is a cold impersonal petri-dish of physical laws and matter and that man is nothing more than a clever ape does not logically entail that one should sit in a corner and wait for death.

    Your comments will eventually be forgotten and all record of them destroyed with the decay of long millenia but that is not reason why I shouldn't act on my emotional and intellectual need to correct you.

    So it is that simply because lovecraft understood the ultimate futility of action doesn't make his actions to preserve or improve those things that he cared for while existing.

    ReplyDelete
  46. It's funny; I just read "Becoming Shakespeare", by Jack Lynch, and it strikes me that a lot of the above response is similar to the response to the 17th and 18th century's need to perform rewritten and "improved" versions of Shakespeare instead of the originals.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.