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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.