Earlier this week, Eurogamer ran a piece suggesting we should all ditch Lovecraft because he was a horrible, racist person.
H.P. Lovecraft died eighty years ago, in 1937, and there’s no question that he had some… questionable personal opinions and beliefs. Some of them can be explained away as “of his time”, where other viewpoints are somewhat harder to justify. And I have no intention of defending the man here; the best and easiest way of dismissing most of these claims is that the man has been a long time dead, and whatever his viewpoints – and whatever you think of them – it’s not like the man is around to ram them into your face.
His work, however, remains as popular and as important to modern horror as ever. And whilst some of his own writing is long-winded (I like it!) and some of his heroes also have some… interesting viewpoints, most modernist Lovecraftian work is not directly sourced from his works, rather they are referential, utilising those remarkable ideas and building it into a more modern context.
Of course, it should be noted that in spite of our modernist love of Lovecraft, it’s likely most haven’t even read a single Lovecraft work. Some of his work is unparalleled in what it does; drenched in the macabre, steeped in darkness, heightened by the mood to deliver some outstanding moments of genuine horror… and yes, some of his work can read more as fan-fiction of the previous good pieces, missing the key ingredients and feeling more as a parody than a genuine work in the same literary tome. Lovecraft was a weird man and his work is… let’s be fair and call it “inconsistent”, because that’s a nice word that to me kind of fits into it.
Yet despite this, Lovecraft remains one of Horror’s most influential and persistent voices.
In the near-century since Lovecraft began, the world has changed remarkably and there’s no doubt that the modern world we live in would have seemed high-fantasy to anyone from the early 1900’s. But the Lovecraft canon is surprisingly flexible, as it taps into fears of the unknown and afflicting people who aren’t perfect, and have an innate darkness. This is for me why the Lovecraft Mythos continues to develop and change a century on; for all our scientific and technological progress, not to mention our cultural and political shifts, there is a constant in that human beings are not perfect – we are flawed, we have weaknesses, we have fears. It is in these constants that the Cosmos can touch us, taint us and ultimately destroy us. No man or woman is without their shadow. We can all be touched, and we can all be changed.
It’s also worth mentioning that a key pillar of Lovecraft’s work was about sin; punishing crimes indefinitely, inherited, passed from generation to generation. That hundreds of years later, we can still be judged by the actions of our ancestors, still be held responsible and liable for events that we either have no responsibility for or even recollection of. That there is no escape and punishment is eternal, repetitious and gruelling, forcing us to apologise and grovel for forgiveness no matter how society has attempted to repent.
That might explain why Lovecraft is still culturally relevant.
It’s not what Lovecraft said that lingers so in our cultural zeitgeist, but rather the implication and the underlying darkness. As I said before, for all the obsession with Lovecraft it’s highly unlikely that many fans of Lovecraftian Horror have sat down to actually read any H.P. Lovecraft (and it’s been a long time since I had to read any as well). We’re not drawn to his work, we’re drawn to his curious overarching mythos. We’re drawn to the Ancients, and the darkness, in much the same way many in Lovecraft’s works are. Like moths to a flame, we seek the dark, we seek answers to mysteries that may never truly be solved and even if we found those answers, can we say that we wouldn’t be fundamentally different in the wake of such knowledge?
Two of the Game Industries most name-checked Lovecraftian-style takes aren’t even really based on any Lovecraft work.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a cult-classic, and firmly entrenched in the ideals of Lovecraft rather than any of his literature. Alex Roivas uncovers a two-millennia old plot to call forth an Ancient One, and the story as told by the flesh-bound Tome of Eternal Darkness spins through the ages, through Roman Centurions, Cambodian Lore, France during the age of the Franciscans, World War One, England and modern-day America. The tone is always a nod to Lovecraft, at times even blatantly ripping it off, but it is not Lovecraft. It is a facsimile, and a remarkably good one when you consider this was a Nintendo Gamecube exclusive. It uses many of the core tenants of Lovecraft. It looks like Lovecraft. But it isn’t.
Then there’s Bloodborne, which again borrows heavily from Lovecraftian principles without actually being of Lovecraft. A story of a fallen civilisation, repeating the same mistakes that destroyed the one that preceded it, dooming the populous and ultimately requiring a “cull” (“The Hunt”) when the situation became somewhat untenable. Hunters would require Blood Ministration to increase their strength, but the Blood is in itself the root cause – the blood of an ancient, warping men into beasts, so hunters would invariably need to be hunted in a never-ending vicious circle. And other Ancients are also at play here; twisting and influencing events for their own ends, which is why the deeper the player delves into Yharnam, the more fantastical and twisted it becomes as hidden influences become obvious, and realities and dream-like planes converge into a near-seamless whole. Insight, one of the currencies, influences this in subtle ways. The more insight you have into this world, the more these influences make themselves known and apparent.
There are a couple of Call of Cthulu games directly based inside the Lovecraftian mythos; but the only one loosely tied to the actual literature is Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth, which is only loosely based on an H.P. Lovecraft work titles The Shadow over Innsmouth. Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land is only generally inspired by the mans works, and the upcoming new Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game (though why they’re using this idea of “official” is beyond me) appears to be an entirely new story founded in the mythos.
Of course, there are many other games with a Lovecraftian influence; Magrunner, a mostly overlooked Cyberpunk attempt at taking on Lovecraft. Darkest Dungeon – a hugely popular indie survival horror (I think we can still call it that) with heavy Lovecraftian flair. Even The Awakened, an attempt a decade ago to marry Sherlock Holmes with H.P. Lovecraft. But on the whole, again, these are influenced by those themes – they’re not part of the canon.
So if we’re to avoid anything directly Lovecraft, we’re missing a grand total of possibly one game, and even there – Dark Corners of the Earth isn’t a word-for-word retelling, it’s more a reimagining, so whether that counts or not is worth considering. Hardly an “extensive” list of video games, is it? And as for SOMA, what the writer of the original article suggests – seems this person forgot that SOMA is built on the HPL Engine, so-named because the developers were big fans of… you guessed it… H.P. Lovecraft. Le whoopsies!
Which kind of brings me to a conclusion of… what exactly is Lovecraftian Horror?
It’s a curious question but I propose this defence of that query; if it’s not based on any direct literature, then it’s not really Lovecraft is it? But we can’t deny that his monsters, the wider implications of his dark universe and his opinion and reflection of humanity has had a deep impact on horror (it’s largely more prevalent in movies). We use him, we source him, we name-check him, but “Lovecraftian Horror” is today hardly based in or on anything written by Lovecraft. Just the monsters, the ancients, the darkness. Broad concepts he helped create, sure, but many of the finer points have long since detached from anything the man wrote.
If it was rebranded, would it make any difference? I’m not sure how you’d rebrand it, but it is distinct enough today from the original works of Lovecraft that it almost seems like an homage than anything rooted in literature and pulp fiction going back a hundred years. We’ve so thoroughly changed it and twisted it for our modern-day consumption that at times, even reading classic H.P. Lovecraft appears more like fan-fiction. It’s alien, it’s weird and it doesn’t always feel like it belongs in the same category.
But perhaps that is a good thing; Lovecraftian Horror isn’t Lovecraft-style Horror. We’ve merely taken the fundamentals of his work and over time created a much more interesting thing. Literature is at its best when it has room to grow, to breathe, to develop and evolve. The same goes with ideas. After a century of change, after decades of growing interest and adaptation and evolution of the wider mythos, isn’t it maybe time to consider that what we call “Lovecraft” today is perhaps no longer even in the same solar system as the mans works – which even in his day weren’t that highly regarded by many.
Indeed, whatever the mans beliefs and faults, there’s no question that he suffered for his art. He lost much, it never made him in any way rich, and even his death was cruel and unusual – ultimately starving to death as a consequence of intestinal cancer, a fate that has the ring of a greater cosmic irony. Many ridiculed the man in life, and it’s only since his death – like any serious artist, let’s be honest – that Lovecraft has had any greater influence.
I don’t know what Lovecraft would have made of how we interpret his work today, or the many pieces influenced by his work, or of the world today. It’s impossible to know. It’s also kind of foolish to try and make that case. It’s hard to win a hypothetical argument of that nature. But I think even if the Lovecraft name were lost to time, I don’t believe his monsters would be. They’re powerful in their own right that they supersede anything he did. And people make money today from all of this, when the man himself essentially died destitute – he made so little on his work that he had spent his entire inheritance by the end just paying basic expenses.
What we have today is a complicated and wonderful horror universe that speaks to us not because of any underlying political nastiness, but because at the very root of it is a human desire to seek the dark, and to understand it – to comprehend the incomprehensible. Also tentacles. Lots of tentacles.
What he left us with was his ideas – not his ideals.
That’s why, to me, Lovecraftian Horror works. And will continue to work, long after we all journey into the great dark.