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[GUEST POST] Jonathan L. Howard on The Appeal of Lovecraftian Horror

Jonathan L. Howard is a game designer, scriptwriter, and a veteran of the computer games industry since the early ‘nineties with titles such as the Broken Sword series to his credit. He is the author of the young adult novels Katya’s World and Katya’s War as well as the Johannes Cabal Comic Fantasy series, the latest book of which is Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute.

The Appeal of Lovecraftian Horror

By Jonathan L. Howard

Monsters, done well, are scary. Hordes of monsters, done properly, can be scarier. Organised hordes of monsters, done sensibly, can be scariest.

This, I think, is part of the attraction of Lovecraftian Horror in general, and the Cthulhu Mythos (you will note the use of capitals there, to impress you with the seriousness of the matter) in particular. There are vast, unknowable numbers of horrors ranged out there just beyond the dusk, and their organisation and goals are alien and beyond the comprehension of we poor mortals. All that matters to us when we have the poor fortune to encounter such creatures is that we tend to come off worst, physically, mentally, psychically.

Even if such an encounter is glancing enough not to destroy the human protagonist, it serves to shine a dim, flickering light into things Man Was (very literally) Not Meant To Know, both because humanity’s knowledge of them is a nuisance and a bother to the non-human agencies behind them, and because the human mind tends to shatter dramatically or sag and deform uncomfortably under the weight of such knowledge.

Here, then, is one of the great draws of Lovecraftian Horror – it is about secrets, and people adore secrets. They don’t even especially mind not knowing the main secret as long as a few peripheral secrets are revealed. For example,

  • Old man Crispin who lives by the toll road has been dead a while, and that man you see on the porch is actually a hundred and fifty pounds of closely packed alien fungus wearing his face.
  • The Brunton Expedition isn’t missing; it just found exactly what the Brunton family has been looking for since 1685.
  • Those dead mathematicians were clever enough to understand the Ensel Equation, but not clever enough to stop reading it when they felt the dimensions shift inside their own medullae, nor are they as dead as they now appear.

I just made these up, but I think you could reasonably spin an intriguing story off from each. Each story might more or less reach a conclusion that explains the immediate mystery, but none would approach the true heart of it, which simply put, is what kind of a universe do we live in that can permit such horrors in passing? These plots may lead to vast disruption on Earth, but the ramifications of them are cosmic in nature. We are nothing: blinded by the static; minds destroyed by the whispers between the stars. The only difference between us and bacteria is that a bacterium never deludes itself as to its importance.

Conspiracies feature prominently, from the goings on behind the surly front of the Whately family in “The Dunwich Horror” to the ghastly machinations of “evil-looking foreigners” (to quote the reflexively xenophobic Lovecraft) in “The Horror at Red Hook.” Conspiracies are a lot of fun – I have hatched a few in my time working on adventure games – and catnip to the inquisitive mind. For conspiracies represent a puzzle with a workable solution, even if in Lovecraft the innermost solution lies beyond the limits of human comprehension. If we could but penetrate the mystery then we would touch the face of a god. But, it would be a god that doesn’t tolerate being poked in the face by uppity humanity, and which often reacts with predictably hilarious results. “Hilarious” is used here in its most inaccurate sense.

None of which makes the presence of the secret any less exciting.

In these terms, the nucleus of Lovecraftian Horror is not perhaps what usually leaps to mind. It isn’t really about Deep Ones and Cthonians, Night Gaunts and Mi-Go. It isn’t even about Cthulhu. It’s about the sense that there is something behind the facade, something terrible and ancient that isn’t evil nearly so much as splendidly unconcerned with us as rational creatures. To it, we are at worst a nuisance. At best, cattle.

In many respects, for example, The X-Files was Lovecraftian Horror in all but name. Behind the patina of daily life lurked the intrigues of at least one huge conspiracy, scattering discordances across our mundane lives like water thrown from a tyre. Strange sciences, freakish mutations, agents of secret masters – human and not. These trappings could be from The X-Files or from Lovecraft. Indeed, there are role-playing games such as Delta Green and, to an extent, Night’s Dark Agents that directly and unapologetically pitch government agents against eldritch horrors.

For a more overt case, take John Carpenter’s film In The Mouth of Madness, an entirely Lovecraftian narrative with almost nothing in the way of explicit Lovecraftian references. Reality is a construct, we are disposable puppets that those outside manipulate to gain entry.

Thus, it is a bleak, hopeless cosmology, wherein understanding even a fragment of the greater truth will cinder the mind and invite the attentions of dread entities.

Naturally, I dabble in it for giggles. It’s the only sane thing to do.

2 Comments on [GUEST POST] Jonathan L. Howard on The Appeal of Lovecraftian Horror

  1. I read a bit of Lovecraft during college days; Mr. Howard’s overview reminded me of how gorgeously horrific it was. Makes me want to go out and get my mind cindered again. Thank you, Jonathan.

  2. Thanks for writing this piece. As Cthulu becomes a fandom icon, it also becomes a cliche by way of zombies. Besides that, it misses the point of what Lovecraft sought to create. As you said, the shadows beyond the mythos monsters is the real terror the both propels the story, provokes the reader and dooms the protagonists. Many works that claim to be Lovecraftian aren’t as successful because they are too caught up in the artifice of Lovecraft’s creation and miss the nuanced and unwritten parts of his view. As you wrote, there are other works that are much closer to the spirit of Lovecraft but have no explicit connection to his creations.

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