121 Years of Sanity-Blasting

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

This past Saturday would have been horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s 121st birthday — had he made a deal with blasphemous otherworldly powers. Lovecraft’s influence has been wide, James Maliszewski notes, but superficial:

Every time a character in a story, movie, or roleplaying game encounters a blasphemous book, a slimy, tentacled horror, or teeters on the brink of insanity due to the horrible truths he has learned, we ultimately have HPL to thank.

Of course, many of these ideas predated Lovecraft or were further popularized by his imitators. Indeed, I think it likely that the vast majority of the stories and story elements deemed “Lovecraftian” are nothing of the sort, based as they are on very superficial readings of the Old Gent’s writings.This includes the Call of Cthulhu RPG, which, while a very fine game and one of my favorites, nevertheless owes an equal debt to August Derleth as it does to H.P. Lovecraft (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I’m sure some of this superficiality stems from the intellectual laziness to which we all are prone, but I think most of it has its origin in the difficulty in really coming to grips with the philosophy and worldview that underlie Lovecraft’s stories. HPL is sometimes called a “nihilist” or a “pessimist,” but I don’t think either label is an accurate one. The alien entities Lovecraft describes are not malevolent. They may engage in activities detrimental to man, but it is not through any ill will toward him, or at least no more ill will than when man inadvertently destroys a nest of ants when building a skyscraper. Lovecraft takes no pleasure in this reality; he does not celebrate it. He is completely indifferent to it, presenting it simply as a brute fact, albeit one with far reaching implications for man’s self-image.

That most of us should recoil from this fact is not surprising, as it runs counter to long-held beliefs about the place of man in the cosmos. That’s why, I think, so few of the works called “Lovecraftian” nowadays really deserve the sobriquet. I can count on one hand the number of books, movies, or RPGs that really embrace a Lovecraftian worldview and, even then, that worldview is often tempered with an instinctive hope for human transcendence that, to HPL, is utterly unwarranted. It’s little wonder, then, that pop culture has chosen to defang Lovecraft, reducing his conceptions to catch phrases and nerd totems rather than grappling with the worrisome possibility that he just may be right.

Speaking of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, Sandy Petersen, the creator, recently “reviewed” his own game:

I was such a fan of Runequest that I wrote to Greg Stafford, the president of Chaosium. Instead of putting me on the FBI stalker list, he encouraged me, and I published some articles and one book of monsters with him. Ultimately I proposed an expansion to Runequest in which the players could adventure in H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. Greg wasn’t interested, because he already had a guy designing a Lovecraft game set in the real world. Ack! This was like the holy grail to me, because I had been a Lovecraft fan since the age of 8, literally. (You can draw your own conclusions about my childhood.) I begged to be allowed in on the project, and then Greg dropped another bombshell — the other guy was dragging his heels, so Greg wanted to drop the whole project in my lap. Excelsior! Greg never even sent me the other person’s notes and writings, so I had to do the whole thing from scratch.

I had previously worked on a game I called American Gothic, which was basically horror set in the modern world. It had not gotten too far along, and used its very own RPG system which was, admittedly, much inferior to Basic Role Playing, which is what Greg demanded. He also demanded that I set the game in the 1920s, which is when Lovecraft wrote the stories.

Why the 1920s?
To me, Lovecraft was never about the era. His characters used cutting-edge technology, such as submarines, airplanes, and recording devices, and interacted with cutting-edge events, such as the discovery of Pluto, and 20th-century population conflicts and pressures. So the way I saw it, if HPL had lived in 1980, he’d have written about Jimmy Carter (my dream is a 1980 HPL story where we find out it wasn’t a giant swimming *rabbit* after all).

However, the good folks at Chaosium did not respect Lovecraft. Greg’s exact words were “HPL is a terrible writer.” That was mild, compared to some other Chaosium opinions. They were okay with having a fan like me design the game, because that way my love for Lovecraft would be in the rules. But on the other hand, the Chaosium folks wanted to enjoy playing the game I was going to design, and they wanted a “hook” to hang their fun onto. They chose the 1920s. In their games, they loved driving old cars, talking about zeppelins, flappers, the Weimar Republic and all that stuff. My own games usually didn’t reference the era at all, except peripherally. Yeah they were in the 1920s too, but they could just as easily have been set anywhere in the 20th century. A haunted house is a haunted house as far as I was concerned.

So Call of Cthulhu to this day is officially set in the 1920s, and has the big 1920s guidebook, with which I had little to do, except providing some monster stats (like for mummies and wolves and so forth). But that was the Chaosium thing.

The central driving mechanic of Call of Cthulhu is Sanity. This stat starts pretty high, then deteriorates over time. Though there are methods of raising it, usually you can tell how long you’ve been playing a particular investigator by how low it’s dropped. Lots of folks have told me how ingenious and revolutionary this concept was, and I’ve seen it adapted to many other games under many different names.

As such I’d like to take full credit for inventing it. But I can’t, alas. The original concept was published in an article for the Sorcerer’s Apprentice magazine, where the authors (whose names are published in other interviews of mine) suggested that the player be given a Willpower stat or some such thing, and if he saw something too scary, he could take a Willpower check, and a bad enough failure could reduce it permanently. Reduce it permanently?! This was what I hung my hat on. I took the fundamental idea, called it Sanity, made it the focus of the game, and instead of, on rare occasions, lowering this stat, I had almost every encounter and event reduce one’s Sanity, till player-characters could become gibbering wrecks, or even turn into GM-controlled monsters.

It worked like a charm. In the very first game I ever ran of Call of Cthulhu (long before the rules were finished), my players found a book which enabled them to summon up a Foul Thing From Otherwhere (a dimensional shambler) and decided to do so. At the moment they completed the spell, the players suddenly chimed in with comments like “I’m covering my eyes.” “Turning my back.” “Shielding my view so I don’t see the monster.” I had never seen this kind of activity in an RPG before — trying NOT to see the monster? What a concept. You may not credit it, but I had actually not realized that the Sanity stat, as I had written it, would lead to such behavior. To me it was serendipitous; emergent play. But I loved it. The players were actually acting like Lovecraft heroes instead of the mighty-thewed barbarian lunks of D&D.

I knew I was on to something and kept refining the Sanity mechanic, in conjunction with the people at Chaosium, until it reached its current state. One big change was that I had concluded that Sanity should only diminish, and never increase, and the folks at Chaosium thought that was too negative even for a game about Cthulhu. They were right, I feel. And after all, Sanity still trends downwards, so I got my way in the end. If anything it’s more agonizing for the players this way, because they are fooled into thinking they can work their Sanity back up. Ha ha.

The Monsters
Early reviews of the game took issue with my portrayal of the monsters and gods of the Cthulhu Mythos. (Well, at least T.E.D. Klein’s review did.) They wanted mysterious undescribed horrors, but I just wasn’t raised that way. Not after 7 years of D&D, anyhoo. So I wanted concrete stats and I got them. The biggest problem was that, of course, Lovecraft didn’t specify hardly any of his monsters. They had descriptors instead of names. “Hunting Horrors”, “Formless Spawn”, that sort of things. My response, pedestrian as it may sound, was to take those descriptors and turn them INTO names, plus adding a few extra monsters for good cheer. (Yes, the Dark Young are totally my invention. Now it can be told.) Turning the gods, like Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, into monsters went a little against the grain, but on the other hand, the wholly-materialistic Lovecraft kind of treated them LIKE big monsters. Cthulhu, for instance, isn’t really a god — he’s just a huge alien horror; high priest and ruler of his loathsome race. (And what is he a high priest OF? That’s never said.)

Speaking of superficial treatments of Lovecraft’s ideas, James Maliszewski actually recommends the new Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, which his kids have been watching:

I bring this all up because, in addition to its other fine qualities, many episodes of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated are loving homages to horror films or books, which makes them great fun to watch if you catch the references, as I do. A thoroughly delightful example of this was the episode entitled “The Shrieking Madness,” which concerns an octopus-headed creature known as Char Gar Gothakon, seen below.

Char Gar Gothakon is the creation of a professor at Darrow University by the name of H.P. Hatecraft, voiced by Jeffrey Combs.

Hatecraft claims that Char Gar Gothakon and his ilk are real entities that contact him in dreams and that he then spins into horror stories.

Some people scoff at this notion, including visiting lecturer Harlan Ellison (voiced by the author himself), deriding Hatecraft as a fraud.

This stance doesn’t find favor with one of Hatecraft’s biggest fans, a young man named Howard E. Roberts, whom Ellison humiliates at his appearance at Darrow University. Here’s Roberts, who looks nothing like any real world person, living or dead.

Char Gar Gothakon attacks the university several times, leading Hatecraft to eventually admit that Ellison is right and that he invented the monster with his own imagination rather than having been contacted by him. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the beast from attacking Ellison in a parking lot and nearly carrying him off.

I won’t say any more about the plot of the episode, since I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, though I suspect anyone who’s watched even a single Scooby-Doo episode should have no trouble unraveling the mystery.

The episode has found its way online, if you’re interested.


  1. Cruft says:

    Discovered him at about the same age as [Sandy Petersen]. Read all his tales. Hit about 12 and tried again but couldn’t stomach them. He had talent for concept but was a horrible writer. Too hysterical, too feminine. Just like syfi or Algernon Blackwood or Sherlock Holmes or acne. You can’t go home again.

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