Disclaimer: Against my best intentions, this runs the risk of becoming disgracefully elitist, purist, or even (pardon my French) prescriptivist. I’ll do my best, but if I do accidentally err from the path of virtue, please be considerate. I’m only human.
The work of H.P. Lovecraft has, I believe, met with the same terrible fate as so many other instances of work with vision that had the simple misfortune of being genre-defining.
Just as befell Tolkien, Gothic Literature and the Bible (I’ll don my armour), popularity has reduced a rich body of work, full of creativity, commentary, thought, and a unique way of presenting all of these things, into a chassis bearing the same branding but with none of the machinery intact. And to be clear, that’s secretly fine. The merits of the originals remain, and the language gains a handy little term used to refer to something of superficial similarity. It’s just a little upsetting – for me, it’s not all that conducive to great fiction. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Fantasy has reached peak Lovecraft. From the characteristic works of one author, the skeins have spread, worming their way into a state of complete global saturation. Now we have a substantive, recognisably ‘Lovecraftian’ element in a whole slew of Sci-Fi/Fantasy’s major vectors. Images will be interspersed throughout, but let’s start off with Warcraft:
Now, I have a great appreciation for the works of my close personal friend Howard, so this widespread popularity is theoretically the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes to my blind idiot ears. My issue is that what is presented as, and is understood to be, ‘Lovecraftian’, really has only a passing similarity to the contents of this beauty:
Rather, what we are given is a potpourri of surface-level elements from H.P.’s aesthetic, with little to none of the theme and philosophy that gave these stories their distinctive spice in the first place. Generally, this means that where will be some outlandish tentacle creatures, some insanity, some unconvincing pretence at crypticity, perhaps some imagery of a cosmic nature, and almost certainly at least one instance each of the words “eldritch” and “abomination”. Finish your drink and then weep openly if the two appear next to one another.
Of course, this isn’t inherently bad. I enjoy all of those things greatly, and will respond with delight whenever I am presented with an outlandish tentacle creature (even if it’s just a small octopus). What I enjoy more, however, is being shown something that is actually about more than just the imagery being thrown about. Rogue One, for example, whilst perfectly enjoyable on its own merits, really didn’t communicate much to me apart from “Look at this Star Wars stuff”. I like looking at Star Wars stuff, and I liked watching Rogue One, but it didn’t give me the kind of full-bodied enjoyment that drives me to consume fiction in the first place. It’s a popcorn movie of a pure and noble breed. The same rules apply to Lovecraft-lite. There is nothing inherently wrong about it, but on its own it’s really just the co-option of Lovecraft’s language for what amounts to small talk, which feels like a wasted opportunity.
Magic: The Gathering
Lovecraft’s brand of horror, at least as I read it, is fundamentally about pessimism and bewilderment. Well, it’s fundamentally about being a set of enjoyable horror stories, but you get the idea. The strangeness and moral non-valence of his signature cosmic entities and weird scenarios are reflections of a society that has moved beyond traditional Manichaean narrative. He was writing at a time (and all this still applies today) when humanity’s ‘understanding’ of the universe was sufficient to make traditional sources of meaning like ethics, theism and humanism appear irrelevant, leaving the modernised intellectual living in a material world where nothing really mattered. At the same time, the best available (and only remaining) tool in the search for meaning, namely science, is clearly insufficient. As any self-aware scientist knows, the actual mystery of the universe is beyond its grasp, the most that can be achieved being a working approximation. There is (again, in my eyes) a reason why so many of H.P.’s inevitably unsuccessful protagonists are academics, and why his descriptions of the indescribable tend towards a scientific or anatomical tone. So, you find yourself in a universe where nothing is true except for comfortless objectivity, and even that doesn’t hold up to inspection. Enter the outlandish tentacle creature.
Dungeons, not to mention Dragons. Both of them! Wild.
What I see more and more of these days is a nominal attempt at the first two hundred and four of those words, followed by a whole lot of the last five. Pretty much as soon as the style was out of Howard’s hands, ‘Lovecraftian horror’ started trending towards something that was much more compatible with conventional sci-fi/fantasy storytelling. The next biggest name is probably August Derleth, who immediately set about introducing moral duality, heroic victories, and codification to a setting that was defined by the marked absence of precisely these things. The thematic backbone becomes lost as soon as you start offering anything more than intentionally unsatisfactory explanations and intentionally disheartening cynicism. But the temptation to do both of these things has proven inescapable, especially when it comes to the insertion of ‘Lovecraftian’ elements into existing settings in which they would not otherwise be congruous.
The Elder Scrolls
This proceeded until ‘Lovecraft’ was something that you could slot into basically any franchise for a slightly darker story arc, but one that is still more or less about heroes beating up on villains. Those villains just happen to be oozier and less human-like than usual, and maybe the eventual victory will come with a few additional question marks. And there will be at least one insane wiseman dishing out cryptic warnings.
The core of the matter is that Lovecraft created a compelling atmosphere and library of visual ideas that have deservedly gained a measure of prominence. However, the beating heart of his work, the struggle of accepting an apathetic and unknowable universe, doesn’t have nearly the same broadness of applicability, not to mention being conceptually more challenging, and so has fallen out of the modern conception of the genre that it conceived in the first place. What we have now is Lovecraft in taxidermy – the form remains the same, but the innards have been replaced with cotton. Which, to re-iterate, is all fine. Many of these stories are very good, and many of their tentacle creatures are very evocative. It’s just an enjoyable irony to me that somebody looking for a fresh shot of Lovecraft is probably better served staying away from anything Lovecraftian.
And, if nothing else, Lovecraft’s modern prominence has given us Bloodborne and some truly excellent death metal.