Anti-Lovecraftean Horror

This is an idea that’s been living in my head for a few months now and I’ve tried to write about it a couple of times but for one reason or another I’ve foundered before getting all the way. Let’s see how this attempt works out.

Oh, and here’s a big, fat caveat: This is not an attack on people who like Lovecraft’s fiction or games based on it. However, I will make some claims that may make them seem icky, so be prepared for that. Also, if reading this makes you feel like you’re living in an anti-Lovecraftean horrorscape, I’m terribly sorry.

Another caveat is that I will use some ableist language with regards to mental health issues. I don’t think using quote marks is an escape clause, but I’m trying to discuss this in the words Lovecraft used to make my reasoning more clear.

I’m also a white dude talking about racism, so I may misstep. If so, I apologise in advance.

My final-not-final caveat is that I will have a bunch more caveats after the initial analysis.

This time I was provoked into action by this video on narrative tabletop games by No Pun Included. (For those who don’t know, NPI started out as a fairly typical, if high quality, boardgame review channel, but over the past year or so they’ve moved further into game criticism, a topic that is sorely underserved.) In it, they discuss the baggage roleplaying games and other narrative games, using the term broadly to include solo adventures like Fighting Fantasy and boardgames with narrative elements such as Arabian Nights or 7th Continent. In an aside, Efka mentions how the horrors Lovecraft depicted mirrored his own racism and other less than savory opinions.

This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about as well. The more I read of Lovecraft’s fiction - I’m currently working my way through his collected fiction, some of which I’ve read before - the more it seems clear to me that his horror is centered around his own fears as a racist, as a very privileged person who is in a precarious social and economic position relative to that privilege, and as someone whose parents were institutionalised.

Let’s tackle these in reverse order.

"Madness"
This is a powerful, recurring theme in Lovecraft’s writing, and perhaps the most common theme in derivative media other than Cthulhu himself. In nearly every boardgame based on Lovecraft’s work where you play a character, there is a risk of that character going “insane”, typically defined as turning evil, gaining phobias or otherwise being forced into irrational behavior, or just being removed from the game. Typically this happens as a consequence of encountering horrific creatures or situations, or attempting to use magic.

However, I would contend that in Lovecraft’s writing, this loss of rationality is intended less as a way to drive home just how horrific the horror that causes it is than a horror in itself. Lovecraft, quite reasonably, considering both his parents died after being institutionalised for exhibiting irrational behavior, feared “madness”.

Racial Purity
Apart from the many instances of overt racism in Lovecraft’s stories, this also shows up metaphorically. Themes of racial degeneration or various forms of miscegenation (using the term broadly and non-pejoratively) show up in many of his stories, though perhaps most clearly in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, where the protagonist is driven to insanity by the realisation that he is the product of an “impure” bloodline after his ancestors interbred with the Deep Ones. Since Lovecraft was a person who was considered an extreme racist in a time period when the “one-drop rule” was adotped as law in many states, I think it would be fair to connect these two threads.

Loss of Privilege
Lovecraft was raised as belonging to the socially extremely privileged group, deserving to rule the world. Yet he suffered (relative) economic hardship at a young age, which must have demonstrated to him that for all his believed superiority, his position was precarious.

I believe this can be connected to what is often used as the definition of cosmic horror in relation to Lovecraft, namely the discovery that in the grand scheme of the universe, humanity is insignificant; our position as precarious as Lovecraft’s own. Belonging to the highest tier of humanity matters little if humanity as a whole is irrelevant.

I think you could also argue that the previous two fears are connected to this, as his privileged position hinged on his race and his ability to keep his eccentricities within the socially acceptable limits. If it turned out that he would no longer count as white or if he succumbed to the same type of “madness” as his parents, he would quickly find himself in a very different situation.

Interlude
To be clear, I’m not claiming that any of this is original, or “true” in any absolute sense. It is merely my own interpretation, inspired by how others have explored these themes. (I highly recommend Zoe Bee’s three videos on Lovecraft, as well as hbomberguy’s video on how to adapt Lovecraft in the present.

Nor does this mean I that I think there is nothing of value in Lovecraft’s work. At least from a gamer’s perspective, I think he’s one of three most influential horror writers of the 20th century together with Clive Barker and Stephen King.

I also think it’s possible to look at his themes from a different perspective and use them as a lens to create a different kind of horror.

As a middle-aged cis-het white dude, I’m not going to pretend to be able to speak for anyone who lacks those privileges, so please take everything that follows as the musings of a middle-aged cis-het white dude trying to widen his perspective. If I misstep, please point it out so that I can improve in the future.

What’s the Opposite of Lovecraft?
By the interpretation I’ve presented above, Lovecraft’s fears are those of a privileged person who is very concerned with their privilege. So is it possible to look at these fears and find something on the other side, an inversion, something that perhaps speaks to the fears of someone who has other concerns.

Again - middle-aged cis-het white dude here. I may very well be talking out of my ass, but I think this is possible.

And to be perfectly clear, this is not an attempt to redeem Lovecraft as a person, or excuse the racism and other problematic elements in his stories. This is just me using his writing as a way to explore different themes in horror.

"We’re All Mad Here"
Lovecraft’s fear of loss of rationality is very individual: What does it mean to me if I “go mad”?

One way to invert this is to shift from the internal perspective to the external: What does it mean to me if everyone else “goes mad”? What does it mean if society “goes mad”?

(By the way, this is not meant to diminish anyone’s fear of failing mental faculties, just to be entirely clear about that.)

This, I think, is a fear that many of us, privileged or not, can relate to. I think all of us have seen examples of people in positions of power insisting against all reason that black is white and up is down, and large portions of the public going along with them. Whether they actually believe what they say is irrelevant in this case, as their actions are the real threat - which is better from thge perspective of creating effective horror, I’m not sure.

To me, this is a horror that speaks to empathy, as you see this irrational behavior having adverse effects on others, as well as to fears of personal safety.

Join Us
If we go by the interpretation I’ve presented above, Lovecraft’s fear of “impure blood” is based around privilege founded on external validation of his identity, that discovering his true identity would lead to a personal crisis as well as a loss of privilege.

One way to invert that would be to have external forces impose an identity on you that is different from what you yourself know to be your true self.

I’m sure you can see where this is going, but to be clear: Yes, I mean issues of gender identity and sexuality.

What’s the Inversion of an Inversion?
This leaves the third theme of cosmic horror interpreted as a metaphor for loss of privilege. Here I think one fruitful way is to look at what would cause such an upset of the social order. This could be identified in many different ways - progress, increased egalitarianism, democratisation - but I think the common theme is the tearing down of the arbitrary hierarchies of the past. (Is it ironic that in Lovecraft’s fiction this often happens by someone reading something, that knowledge is what brings about this change? I don’t know, but it feels like like it.)

The inverse of this would seem to be the creation of arbitrary hierarchies. Again, I’m pretty sure we can all think of examples of this: Hierarchies based on ethnicity, hierarchies based on gender, hierarchies based on nationality, wealth, and so on.

This is similar to the horror of social “madness”, though I think the two can be separated as the imposing of an arbitrary system of hierarchies can be done for rational purposes by people who are selfish and callous enough.

So Are You Saying…
…that anti-Lovecraftean horror is fascism?

I guess I am.* That’s not where I was when I started writing this, but yeah, I think that’s where I am now. A society based on irrational ideas with enforced identities and an arbitrary hierarchy founded on those identities? That sounds like fascism to me, and it definitely sounds horrific.

*And to be absolutely perfectly clear, I’m not saying Lovecraft was a fascist, or that Lovecraft fans are fascists, or that anyone who enjoys games based on his writings are fascists, or anything in that direction.

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Wonderful write-up. I think you’ve connected some very important dots

I don’t have much to offer write now while I let this digest but I would urge you and others to check out Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide. It is a story in the Lovercraft universe, told from the perspective of a descendent of the Deep Ones. It has a lot going on that ties in to what you just wrote. Spoiler free things: Innsmouth was raided by the US government, the residents captured and placed in concentration camps alongside Japanese citizens during WWII. The main character, having connections to the Deep Ones is in a precarious working relationship with the modern US government as she can dabble in magic that they cannot. The only reason she is allowed to exist freely is the commiserative feelings of her handler, a Jewish spy who is now being distrusted by his own government as they suspect he has dual loyalties to the newly created state of Israel.

There is a lot more going on there that I don’t want to spoil, but writing that all down I think something that might tie in to your thesis is part of Anti-Lovercraft horror is the power of community and interhuman (or nonhuman) connection against an alienation. Looking back on Lovercraft’s works, they are all deeply solitary stories; works about a single soul discovering truths that further isolate them from society. Either because they are privileged enough to seek forbidden knowledge or because society is secretly conspired against them (and by extension their race/privilege/family). Anti-Lovecraft horror would be about forces which seek to break apart community and to isolate people; to make them feel monstrous and othered by highlighting their differences and hiding their shared humanity.

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Just want to say that this is why I hang around on forums. For the rare occasions that a gem like this post pops up. Really well written that serves a clear agenda of how to continue. I subscribed to No Pun Intended, and golly: now I need to get my hands on Sleeping Gods. It struck something that I think have been missing in roleplaying games for long - where the default state of roleplaying game actions is to fail.

It’s one part of the video that really fascinated me in how well it explains why Lovecraft’s works … work: the thoughts that inspires Lovecraft is so alien to people that the reader feel a sense of wonder.

Sure, the language and using supernatural elements contribute to this as well.

Another thought popped up in my head, namely Tales From the Loop, where the characters are labeled “children” and therefor not listened to by the grownups. So, no. It’s not just gender and sexuality, it’s about having to deal with (break with or live up to) values that others have placed upon you.

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Quite a fascinating look at Lovecraft’s work, and how we might apply it in our gaming. Thank you all for these thoughts - there’s a lot to ponder here, and I’m sure I’ll come back to reread this!

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Winter Tide is GREAT. There’s either a book before or after it as well - by this point, maybe both.

Have you played Trophy or Cthulhu Dark yet? They’re both effectively play to lose games, and they’re delightful :smiley:

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Winter Tide sounds very interesting! My to-read pile keeps growing, but I’ll add it to my list of titles to check out.

I think you’re spot on with the individual vs. community thing, and this

Anti-Lovecraft horror would be about forces which seek to break apart community and to isolate people; to make them feel monstrous and othered by highlighting their differences and hiding their shared humanity.

is a much clearer expression of that than I managed to formulate. Thank you for that!

Another thought popped up in my head, namely Tales From the Loop , where the characters are labeled “children” and therefor not listened to by the grownups. So, no. It’s not just gender and sexuality, it’s about having to deal with (break with or live up to) values that others have placed upon you.

This is very true. I was going to put something in there about race as well, but I couldn’t formulate my thoughts on it well enough to make it a meaningful statement that wouldn’t be misunderstood without going on for at least a paragraph so I skipped it.

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Great thread, kudos!

Same CWs as in your post hold for this answer. Nothing groundbreaking here, really, just some food for thought.

I think that a workable anti-“Racial Purity” trope would be uniformity through contempt of individualism. This would work as a legitimate source of fear in some cultures better than others as glorification of individualism isn’t universal. There are likely several ways to get there.

There’s a set of mechanics that I feel aren’t explored well, one of them being characters regressing, instead of progressing, in the course of a game[1]. Imagine that you start with a character who’s stats are exceptional, but the world around you promotes - if not mediocrity - a boring averageness. You’re not going mad like Lovecraft’s characters would, but your getting blander and less capable to fit in. It’s never great if you’re the smartest person in the room.

Alternatively a mechanic could force collaboration on tasks between characters that ideally shouldn’t collaborate or prevent best character for the job to perform it. Let’s say that someone has to sneak from point A to B. Rules should force the most average person in the group to do that. For tasks where characters work together (e.g. barricading the entrance) the worst and the best character for the job would be forced to cooperate.

[1] I always wanted to design a heavily structured game in which scenes are heavily spread apart in time and with each aging sinks in with characters less and less capable as time goes on. But I’m not smart enough and I bet there’s already a game like that. :wink:

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There are some games (mostly from the 80s and early 90s) that have aging mechanics. I know some also have rules for how you need to practice regularly to keep your peak skills from dropping.

I’m a bit wary of the anti-individualism angle. To me that risks straying into the territory of simplistic anti-socialist propaganda or even Ayn Rand-type “great man” type “I am a super-great person but being forced to consider other people’s interests means I’m held back and reduced to their level”. (I don’t think that’s what you meant, but that’s where a game like that could end up.)

Discussing individualism in general is very tricky. Like, American society in general celebrates individualism in theory, but in practice there’s a lot of anti-individualistic focus on family, “community standards”, and similar concepts, often from the same people. Meanwhile, my home country of Sweden which doesn’t overtly praise individualism much is in practice a highly individualistic society (some would say to a fault), but that individualism is achieved through cooperative means. Basically, having a strong safety net means individuals are not dependent on their families or other private connections for their welfare so they are more free to express their individuality.

Which is not to say that being absorbed into a uniform collective isn’t an effective theme for horror, but I see that as mostly orthogonal to Lovecraft’s themes. I don’t think he’s concerned with individuality vs. collectivism as a theme (at least not in most of his stories), but they’re written from the perspective of an individual and deal with that individual’s personal experience. Even when the events concern a larger group of people, the story focuses on the protagonist’s feelings about those events or his anxiety about what could happen than the actual effects on other people or society.

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What a fantastic thread! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, @Anders!

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Your initial post was a wonderful way to kick off this thread, and I’m racking up lots to read and watch from the excellent responses.

I’m curious what you, and others, think about how Lovecraft Country addressed these themes. I had incredibly high hopes going in, and was loving where it was going for a long while…until it settled into a pretty standard tropey denouement. Not standard as in Lovecraft-standard, but falling back on the sort of bloodline obsessions and tricksy magical rules lawyering that (to me) squandered a lot of the show’s social commentary and transgressive qualities.

I’m bringing that show up not to force my own belated mini-review into this discussion, but because I feel like it presented both good and not-so-good examples of ways to subvert Lovecraftian horror, and relates (I think) to some of what you propose.

Specifically, I think that giving the white status quo a relative monopoly on magic was super compelling, and in line with your idea of anti-Lovecraftian horror as fascism.

But it also ejected the cosmic horror elements (on purpose, I think), replacing the classic mix of alien indifference and malignance toward humanity with a much rawer, personal, racial and ultimately familial conflict. Boy am I sick of the chosen one narrative, even when it’s tweaked here and there.

I’m not assuming everyone agrees with me about Lovecraft Country, at all, but enough preamble/throat-clearing. Here’s my question:

Do you think anti-Lovecraftian horror in gaming can or should still feature a struggle against enemies that are inherently alien and unknowable, or does subverting Lovecraft require a fight that’s closer to Lovecraft Country–more personal and recognizably human? Fascism, for example, only presents itself as calculating and free of pesky emotion, when really it’s all pettiness, grievances and rage. So can you pull off an anti-Lovecraftian horror game by, say, shifting cultists away from racist and classist “exotic” outsiders to figures with institutional power, or is retaining the idea of alien gods as bad guys just falling back into the same old quagmire?

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Excellent question! I don’t have a clear answer, but I’ll ramble a bit and maybe something useful comes out of it.

I mostly share your views on Lovecraft Country. I think the individual episodes were better than the overarching plot, probably? But I also don’t have the lived experience required to fully understand the subversions it does so it’s quite possible I’m missing parts that make it work better. I know I enjoyed it, and I’d like to see more things like it.

I don’t think there’s only one way to do anti-Lovecraftian horror. I think you can invert a particular trope in different ways, and much more so a set of tropes.

I think there’s still room for alien gods as part of an anti-Lovecraftean game, but my feeling is that if they are the ultimate source of evil that kind of makes the humans who follow them less responsible for their actions. On the other hands, maybe that could be used to draw a parallel to “I was just following orders”? Maybe the alien gods can’t make you do anything, or invade your mind and drive you mad, but that’s just such a convenient excuse, y’know?

Or maybe it’s the causality that is more important. I mean, there’s a difference between a cult forming around an alien entity that reveals itself to them, or just exists and doesn’t take notice, and a cult forming for the purpose of summoning an alien entity in order to impose their views on the world.

So maybe that’s it. The focus should always be on the humans, not the weird creatures or alien gods. They may exist, but they’re not the ones causing bad things to happen. Perhaps the key is to make them even more distant and alien than in Lovecraft’s works? They don’t cause things to happen, but humans may be able to draw on their power to do things.

I’m not sure, and it’s past my bedtime. Maybe I’ll have clearer thoughts tomorrow.

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So this plays out in a lot of the post-Lovecraft literature, I think. If you read something like Ruthanna Emry’s Winter Tide you get a subversion that says, “The monsters are people too!” It pushes back against Lovecraft by saying “There are no monsters, just people, you racist” but in doing so rejects the whole concept of cosmic horror. Lovecraft Country (the book, I only made it about three or four episodes into the TV show), does something similar, except it adds the caveat “and people can be monstrous.”

On the other hand, a book like Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom awknowledges the horror of the strange and unworldly, recognizes that the universe is bleak and uncaring and embraces it in the face of the racist hate. I think it’s a more powerful inversion.

I’ve played some fun “Alt-thulhu” games that do this well. I think Cat Ramen coined that term, and she’s really good at this. She wrote up her Kingsport setting for Monsterhearts as a stretch goal for the Gauntlet Codex Vol. 1 Kickstarter, and it’s amazing, though I’m not sure if it’s generally available. You can also read her write up of when she ran “Masks of Nyarlathotep” which really gets across the Alt-thulhu vibe: https://forum.rpg.net/index.php?threads/trail-of-cthulhu-the-post-modern-masks-of-nyarlathotep.703303/

I think her stuff mixes and matches the two approaches very effectively.

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