Saturday, August 20, 2011

121

On this day in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born. It is no exaggeration to say that contemporary fantasy and science fiction would be very different today were it not for his unique imagination. Lovecraft's influence is so pervasive, even commonplace, that it often goes unrecognized. Every time a character in a story, movie, or roleplaying game encounters a blasphemous book, a slimy, tentacled horror, or teeters on the brink of insanity due to the horrible truths he has learned, we ultimately have HPL to thank.

Of course, many of these ideas predated Lovecraft or were further popularized by his imitators. Indeed, I think it likely that the vast majority of the stories and story elements deemed "Lovecraftian" are nothing of the sort, based as they are on very superficial readings of the Old Gent's writings.This includes the Call of Cthulhu RPG, which, while a very fine game and one of my favorites, nevertheless owes an equal debt to August Derleth as it does to H.P. Lovecraft (not that there's anything wrong with that).

I'm sure some of this superficiality stems from the intellectual laziness to which we all are prone, but I think most of it has its origin in the difficulty in really coming to grips with the philosophy and worldview that underlie Lovecraft's stories. HPL is sometimes called a "nihilist" or a "pessimist," but I don't think either label is an accurate one. The alien entities Lovecraft describes are not malevolent. They may engage in activities detrimental to man, but it is not through any ill will toward him, or at least no more ill will than when man inadvertently destroys a nest of ants when building a skyscraper. Lovecraft takes no pleasure in this reality; he does not celebrate it. He is completely indifferent to it, presenting it simply as a brute fact, albeit one with far reaching implications for man's self-image.

That most of us should recoil from this fact is not surprising, as it runs counter to long-held beliefs about the place of man in the cosmos. That's why, I think, so few of the works called "Lovecraftian" nowadays really deserve the sobriquet. I can count on one hand the number of books, movies, or RPGs that really embrace a Lovecraftian worldview and, even then, that worldview is often tempered with an instinctive hope for human transcendence that, to HPL, is utterly unwarranted. It's little wonder, then, that pop culture has chosen to defang Lovecraft, reducing his conceptions to catch phrases and nerd totems rather than grappling with the worrisome possibility that he just may be right.

Speaking as someone who does not think Lovecaft is right, I nevertheless wish that more effort was made, in books, movies, and games that lay claim to his legacy, to address the questions that he raises. That's my 121st birthday wish for him: that Lovecraft might be understood on his own terms rather than through lenses and categories alien to him. It's a tall order, especially given the vapidity of the term "Lovecraftian" these days, but I think it's a worthwhile endeavor nonetheless and a fine way to honor one of the forefathers of this hobby we all share.

25 comments:

  1. Whenever I contemplate the incomprehensible size of the Universe, I think HPL was right. The Universe deals with forces and influences far larger than we insignificant humans on a tiny speck of dirt. Even mulit-billion-star galaxies colliding doesn't register as significant.

    It's not that we can't do anything about it. With luck we'll have enough time to learn enough of the universe to avert inevitable destruction. It boils down to random circumstance. In HPL's stories that luck has expired which is why they are seen as nihilist. At the point he's writing, there is indeed nothing that can be done.

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  2. I tend to agree with Rob of the North and HPL. However, I don't see our relative insignificance as depressing, rather I see it as delightful condition, the ultimate end product of which is freedom.
    A beautiful day in summer is no less beautiful because it has to end and will soon be forgotten.

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  3. I often think about what Lovecraft would make of some of the inhuman events of the 20th century, had he lived to see them; how would that have affected his worldwiew and his writing.

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  4. I can see where Lovecraft is coming from, but on the other hand how significant do you really need to be?

    What could be called nihilism could also be called disappointed solipsism. Babies start out at the center of their own universe, and as they grow up they find its not the case. Some folks never get over that...

    A couple quotes from the opposite view:

    "I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content." - A better quote from Conan than the whole Nietschian "Crush da enemy." thing.

    "Don't take life so seriously, son. It ain't nohow permanent." - Pogo possum.

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  5. As we are it matters not that horrors beyond space and time are, as far as we know, non-existent because space as we do know it is far beyond what we can currently even begin to think about in full. Humanity as is, will eventually be crushed under the weight of eons passing whether we like it or not. The good news is that when the time comes we may not be as we currently are, stuck on one planet with a sun that by galactic time scale is approaching middle age where it will expand into a red star that will have engulfed our planet. Will a little more technology or something to kick start us(like our star about to consume us) and humanity will escape earths bounds and spread like a dandelion's seeds though out the cosmos till we cover all that we can. Honestly if nothing stops us it is likely we will become some emerging sentience's horrors beyond space and time.

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  6. Lovecraft's cosmicism is still a species (albeit an inverted one) of Romanticism; "The Silver Key" is the essential text. To the extent that his Romanticism diminishes in his later stories, letters, and writings, he becomes rather ordinary and less interesting. From a literary-philosophical point of view, it was probably for the best that HPL died young; had he lived to old age, he would have become more like Derleth and his imitators. (I know this is a sweeping judgment on my part -- I would have to write an entire book to defend it textually.)

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  7. What could be called nihilism could also be called disappointed solipsism.

    That is brilliant!

    I tend to want to see more people take more of a 'warts and all' approach to Lovecraft's work. The guy could politely be described as extremely eccentric --- and some aspects of his writing (like the racism) are showing their age. I love his stories and grew up with them; that does not mean that I will ignore or gloss over his world view on every subject. One of my relatives (rest his soul) had some pretty obvious prejudices against Italians; I don't think I 'dishonor' my relatives' memory by letting myself know that.
    I also don't think that Lovecraft was a great 'writer.' His stories are extremely enjoyable and will always be a part of my library, but he ain't no Joseph Conrad. HPLs prose is like a gooey butter cake in comparison to the solid whole grain wheat bread of Conrad --- both are enjoyable, but they are not 'equivalents.'

    AS far as the 'humanity being an inconsequential speck in the ocean of the universe,' I just hope we are not all that is. As a species we seem to have jacked this planet up so badly I think it would be best if we were not inflicted on the rest of the universe, but maybe I'm just a misanthrope and a traitor to humanity.

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  8. I think in some ways the "de-fanging" of Lovecraft comes from the following elements.

    1) I think Lovecraft's fans, and in particular the CoC game tended to make Lovecraft's horrors seem a bit too much overkill. Some of the Lovecraft fans were so elitist at the superiority to the creatures of the Mythos that at times it became a little too much. I suspect the "geek totem"s of Cthullu plushies are a reaction to that. (People forget the original squid-head was actually defeated by a boat).

    2) I also think geek culture in general tends to make light of commonly used tropes--it's why we have things like TV Tropes and MST3K, and I tend to get irritated by this attitude (on can say familiarity breeds contempt). (Most people outside gaming and SF fans wouldn't get those jokes).

    3) The setting of Lovecraft during his time was before a huge rise in technology and other things. In some ways, it dates the work, and modern interpretations of the mythos (IMO) don't have the same feel. When you see gaming authors try to come up with why Cthullu could withstand a nuke, or making them part of Cyberpunk, it loses something. Something just seems off when I read those interpretations.

    I think perhaps one of the best interpretations of Lovecraft's possible theme would be what the creators of Eclipse Phase did--instead of "slimy cosmic horrors", you have a hint of a great vast post-singularity alien intelligence that might just see us as insects, and having weapons that really stress the limits of human conceivability and psychology.

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  9. Lovecraft's cosmicism is still a species (albeit an inverted one) of Romanticism; "The Silver Key" is the essential text. To the extent that his Romanticism diminishes in his later stories, letters, and writings, he becomes rather ordinary and less interesting. From a literary-philosophical point of view, it was probably for the best that HPL died young; had he lived to old age, he would have become more like Derleth and his imitators. (I know this is a sweeping judgment on my part -- I would have to write an entire book to defend it textually.)

    FWIW, I (mostly) agree with what you say here, particularly about HPL's inverted romanticism. I'm less certain about what he'd have become had he lived, but I nevertheless find your thesis plausible but largely unprovable.

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  10. Cthulhu and his cohorts are just being diluted and reinterpretted over and over. similar to what has happened to Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. Or other literary icons like Sherlock Holmes for that matter.

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  11. Wow. Good post. On a less serious note, where does Xenogears fit in?

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  12. This might be a bit off topic, but the Color out of Space is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories because the color itself is just so strange, completely amoral operating outside of good and evil. Mankind's own inability to understand its physics dooms those around the area that is invaded. I think it really sums up his whole mythos without characterizing it in a malevolent form like the deep ones or Cthulhu.

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  13. "...pop culture has chosen to defang Lovecraft, reducing his conceptions to catch phrases and nerd totems rather than grappling with the worrisome possibility that he just may be right."--James Maliszewski

    That's just what pop culture does with everything. It focuses on only the most superficial aspects of a thing and ignores the rest.

    And even fans of things do it too. I know someone who's a huge fan of Star Trek, Doctor Who and LotR -- but what being a fan means to her is just knowing lots of trivia and collecting lots of stuff. To her, they're all just fun adventures with fun stuff. And she actually gets angry when anybody disrupts her fun by talking about anything you can learn from any of them.

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  14. On a less serious note, where does Xenogears fit in?

    I'm afraid I have no idea what this is.

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  15. Arthur C. Clarke's themes often include a universe much larger then we can conceivably comprehend. Between the inconceivably vast distances occasionally populated by forces so much larger than the tiny earth marble who can barely communicate with beings so small and insignificant as ourselves.

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  16. That's why, I think, so few of the works called "Lovecraftian" nowadays really deserve the sobriquet.

    The first Lovecraftian book I ever encountered was the Rand McNally World Atlas.

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  17. If you want a good interpretation of HPL, John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness gets that completely despairing atmosphere just right.

    As well, for a very depressing read, try Cthulhu's Reign.

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  18. I was going to say that about Carpenter's work, but that's more or less a pastiche/homage, not an interpretation of any real Lovecraft work.

    I wish "At the Mountains of Madness" had gotten the green light.

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  19. "Lovecraft takes no pleasure in this reality; he does not celebrate it. He is completely indifferent to it, presenting it simply as a brute fact, albeit one with far reaching implications for man's self-image."

    But he *did* write what he wrote. It's hard to believe any writer does not take pleasure in his work.

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  20. I always appreciate the way you point out the stupid commodification process going on when it comes to HPL. Perhaps we should be glad that this won't happen to CAS.

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  21. The Lovecraft Obama poster is a good idea but someone really needs to do a more labor intensive version. That one looks a little crappy.

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  23. (Removed my previous post because it was verbous and sucked. Sorry.)

    I respectfully disagree with the criteria of Mr. Maliszewski.

    (i) Lovecraftian entities are not malevolent, aren't they?

    Disagreed. Cthulhu, for example, is always chaotic evil, and so are the Deep Ones and Nyarlathotep.

    (1) are Lovecraft's works something more than slime and tentacles?

    Agreed.

    (2) did Lovecraft believe that mankind is not the centre of the Universe?

    Agreed.

    (*) was he right?

    I thing so.

    (3) does this believing permeate his works?

    Agreed.

    (*) is this believing scary?

    I don't thing so.

    (*) are Lovecraft's works scary?

    I thing so.

    (4) has been that believing downplayed by Lovecraft's imitators?

    Agreed.

    (5) is that believing central to his works?

    Disagreed! Lovecraft's works are the sum of many ingredients: sugar and spice and everything nice, some of which were accidentally added to the concuction.

    For example: racism is periferical to his spooky tales, but take it out and they don't taste the same. Now, you can scratch "racism" and replace it with "purple prose" or with "the '20s" or whatever, and the former phrase remains true.

    Defining what's in the core of the "Lovecraftian" recipe is irrelevant, because at the end of the day every ingredient matters. It's true that not every ingredient matters the same, but it depends of the reader's tastes: do you prefer sugar to spice?

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