Thursday, August 20, 2009

Happy Birthday, Ech-Pi-El

Had he not died of intestinal cancer in 1937 at the age of 46, Howard Phillips Lovecraft would turn 119 today -- an appropriately venerable age for the man who adopted the pose of an aged gentleman long before he'd attained such a status. As I noted last year at this time, Lovecraft's short life proved a remarkably influential one and nearly all of us in this hobby today are his creative heirs. It's hard to imagine what contemporary fantasy might be like if HPL's story of eldritch horrors and dread secrets hadn't attained the popularity they did after his death.

Of course, had Lovecraft lived longer than he did, I suspect contemporary fantasy's trajectory would also have been different. Influential though he is, Lovecraft is still very much a "back room" influence on most modern fantasy. That is, lots of writers of fantasy make use of Lovecraftian themes and elements, but very few of them employ anything like his cosmicism -- the belief that Man and his works are, in the great scheme of things, insignificant. That's hardly a good foundation for heroic fantasy in most people's eyes (though I disagree), which is why many gamers are content to call tentacled monsters "Lovecraftian" and not give a second thought to just what that adjective means.

There's nothing wrong with that approach, of course, and I'm as guilty of it as most. Partly that's because I don't share HPL's philosophy and partly that's because I can't deny the appeal of the Lovecraft "brand" even when it's utterly divorced from the worldview that gave birth to it. Still, I've often pondered what fantasy might look like today if Lovecraft rather than Tolkien -- or even Howard -- had had a greater direct influence over its development. Some of my thoughts on this question have informed my work on Shadow, Sword & Spell, the pulp fantasy RPG Richard Iorio and I have been writing. Others I've used as I developed Dwimmermount or worked on projects like The Cursed Chateau. In each case, I've tried to use Lovecraft's unsentimental attitude toward humanity as a basis for recasting heroism as more than just slaying dragons and seizing their treasure. That's not to say that such actions aren't heroic, but rather that they're not the only kind of heroism. Carrying on and doing the right thing after staring cold, hard reality in the face is heroism too and it's the kind that's all the rarer in a Lovecraftian world, since cosmicism often engenders despair.

As readers of this blog know well, I do share Lovecraft's love for the past, which is why I make a point of observing memorials to the individuals whose ideas have proven influential in this hobby. HPL is definitely one of the foremost members of the pantheon and we all owe him a huge debt. Here's hoping that more of us will grapple with his ideas and not just the means by which he conveyed those ideas. Amused though he might have been by it, I think Ech-Pi-El deserves to be remembered for more than just tentacles.


  1. I do believe I hear the sound of idiotic piping and the flapping of oily wings in the distance...

  2. I have to admit to being a bit of a Lovecraft snob. I really like his core philosophy, and think it's a little frustrating how modern Lovecraftian things are all so fundamentally non-Lovecraftian, being all about the name-dropping and the established secular demonic cosmology. I kind of feel like Kafka has more in common with Lovecraft than most modern Lovecraftian fantasy.

    That said, I really like the interplay between the Conan series and Lovecraft. I think one of the big reasons I love Conan so much is because I just see him as a Nietzschean hero in an uncaring Lovecraftian world. I think it gives a very specific kind of message, but I really think Lovecraft still has a lot to give fantasy as a genre.

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  4. Your post gets two fist pumps from me, JM.

    ; )

  5. Otsp:
    "I think one of the big reasons I love Conan so much is because I just see him as a Nietzschean hero in an uncaring Lovecraftian world"

    Drat, I was just about to say _exactly the same thing_ myself!

    Conan is the Nietzschean Value-Creator in HPL's God-is-Dead universe.

    On a different perspective though, Nietzsche, HPL and REH come across to me rather as asocial loner nihilists detached from the common bulk of humanity (who Nietzsche despised, of course). Most humans are quite capable of creating value for themselves through love - romantic, spousal, familial, friendship et al - without need to trample the jewelled thrones of the Earth beneath their sandled feet.

    I guess that's partly why in practice I've always tended to prefer Leiber's Fafhrd & Mouser, with their defining friendship, and to a lesser extent Moorcock's heroes with their adolescent romantic loves, to stone-cold Conan, a man complete unto himself.

    In Tolkien, God is not dead, of course, but he seems pretty far off, and again it is love, most notably the friendship-love in the heart of Samwise, that enables the triumph of good and the defeat of evil.

    There is no love in the worlds of HPL and REH. I always found that rather sad.

  6. Very interesting to see this, after the last blog I visited, which was honoring Gene Roddenberry's 88th birthday today....

  7. You can be heroic in a Lovecraftian setting but, of course, the point is that it is pointless! A bit of a conundrum!

    Still, I agree with you, James, that it makes for a great game setting. Even an avowed Catholic like Tolkien made it quite clear that he highly valued the pagan ideal of spitting in the face of inevitable defeat! That certainly would apply in a Lovecraftian need that little bit of non-Lovecraftian "sentiment" to make it work.

  8. One funny thing about HPL's world - there is actually plenty of mythos-butt-kicking going on! Characters in HPL stories are happy to fire torpedoes into the undersea Deep One lairs, or ram Cthulu amidships with their vessel, without being consumed by ennui at the inevitable pointlessness of it all.

    I guess that pre-1968 or so, that was just what a man did. Nobody questioned it, before Vietnam.

  9. Another funny thing is that the stories really aren't as uniformly, unremittingly bleak as they've been made out to be: some of the Randolph Carter stuff gets downright religious/mystical. There's a website that works through the unscreened aftermaths of adventure movies to show how the apparently happy endings actually lead inevitably to tragedy right after the credits roll (can't find right now) - some of HPL's stories seem like the reverse to me. It may be a horrible mistake to call up the dead from their essential salts in Charles Dexter Ward, but the human "essence" remains something like a soul. Yog-Sothoth may be an unsettling, uncongenial Greater Being, but isn't it always supposed to be terrifying to run up against the living God?

    ...that's pretty much why I'm a happy atheist, BTW.

  10. In "The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos" S. T. Joshi traces Lovecraft's evolution. In his early years, before he found his voice, he relied more on the visions of writers like Dunsany; his Dreamlands work shows this and is on the whole less cosmic. As his cosmicism (Joshi's term) developed, he turned more towards the bleak, uncaring universe model. There were odd throwbacks--"The Dunwich Horror" springs to mind--but by the time you arrive at "At the Mountains of Madness" you have the pure Lovecraftian, mechanistic, atheistic universe.

    All this was a long way of saying, I think people appreciate different stages of Lovecraft. Some like the more romantic, fantastic, early work. Others enjoy the pseudo-science fiction of later works (I am one of them). But there is certainly room in gaming for all sorts of Lovecraft's flavors.

  11. Wow. I had no idea.

    Mind you, I had scheduled today's Call of Cthulhu session a month in advance.

    That's some funky synchronicity.