Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Stages of Lovecraftiana

While my readings of Lovecraft's work (and I certainly haven't read everything he wrote, although I've read all of the "major" works and many of his "minor" works as well) made it obvious that Lovecraft didn't necessarily write with the same theme all the time. Reading retrospectives of Lovecraft will lead you to believe that Lovecraft's cosmic nihilism was his defining theme, but that was clearly not the case. In his own lifetime, Lovecraft's stories frequently fall into three "camps" or classes, if you will--this Dream-lands fantasy stories, his cosmic horror stories, and his weird science fiction stories. Many later commentators, collectors, publishers (and gamers) blur these distinctions and don't recognize them at all, resulting in the unfortunate mix-up of science fiction elements and black magic occult elements in the same body of work when really they don't belong together very well at all.

In a way, Lovecraft enabled this somewhat, by utilizing a lot of familiar backdrop details. This is the so-called "Cthulhu Mythos." In reality, it wasn't anything like a Mythos at all; it was a bunch of evocative names that Lovecraft recycled frequently, but not in any way consistently--for example, is the dreaded Plateau of Leng in Tibet, Antarctica, or not even on this earth at all? Some have tried to reconcile these three locations via bizarre theories, but really best (and in fact only reasonable) solution is that Lovecraft didn't really care where it was; it was a recycleable element that could be wherever he needed it to be for any given story.

Later Mythos writers--at least some of them--exacerbated this problem by trying to create fixed categories, organization, and logic to the "mythos." August Derleth was the first to try this quixotic attempt, which arguably misses the whole point, and since Derleth was also the co-founder of Arkham House, the publishing arm that kept Lovecraft in print over the years, his view waxed and the point of view of other mythos writers, who gradually moved on to other things, was eclipsed. Lin Carter's additions to the Mythos via the Xothic legend cycle even further bastardized Lovecraft's original intention, creating bizarre familial relationships between Great Old Ones (Hastur and Cthulhu are brothers? What?!)

Sandy Petersen, much as I love the guy, inadvertently didn't help at all either with the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game which attempted to fit various entities that showed up in some of the mythos stories (confusingly, using anything that came along written by nearly anyone that mentioned a Great Old One or used the word blasphemous or eldritch too many times in its text, regardless of how tenuous its connection to actual Lovecraftiana sometimes was) into categories, like servitor races, Great Old Ones (which were opposed to Elder Gods, etc.)

Somewhere in this rush to categorize and systematize was lost the original vision of Lovecraft's Yog-Sothothery; that it was really just a bit of an in-joke to him; a chance to recycle and re-use names that he liked that gave his stories an air and tone that he was trying to cultivate. Not that it's necessarily lost; Stephen King certainly got it when he referred obliquely to the plateau of Leng, rats in the walls, and other bits of esoterica, Neil Gaiman and Mike Mignola certainly know how to play along in the original "Lovecraft circle" way of doing things. But for whatever reason, gamers have tended to do the opposite; to take August Derleth and Lin Carter's direction and magnify it, almost.

Anyway, I'm just thinking Lovecraft lately, and am in the midst of reading (for the first time, actually) his story "The Mound" which was credited to Zealia Bishop, but ghostwritten by Lovecraft himself. This story is odd, because in many ways it uses elements of the Cthulhu mythos in unusual ways that are not always consistent with how they're otherwise presented... which is really my whole point anyway. Mythos elements were never meant to be fixed and categorized.

In any case, the section of my campaign setting called, unremarkably, the Forbidden Lands borrow a lot of names from Lovecraft; but for the most part, I'm only loosely using them as written. For instance, I have a Plateau of Leng, a Lake Hali, a Vale of Pnath, etc. in my setting, but they only vaguely resemble their Lovecraftian prototypes (well, those Lovecraftian prototypes were kinda vague themselves, anyway.) But the names are so evocative, and using them firmly establishes the tone that I'm looking for that I can't resist.

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