Friday, 10 April 2015

What makes a monster "Lovecraftian"? Part 1: Some thoughts

"Lovecraftian" is one of those adjectives that gets used a lot, but not in a way that is wholly consistent; I'm particularly thinking of its use to describe monsters. This is fascinating to me, because I think it's undeniably true that people love Lovecraft's monsters, but I think there isn't as much evidence that Lovecraft did. So why have his monsters been so successful and how do we translate this into better and scarier gaming?

Lawrence Schick once said that people become entomologists "because they like bugs." He was referring of course to Call of Cthulhu designer Sandy Petersen; there's a similar comment somewhere in the CoC literature about monsters being fascinating rather than repulsive, even really scary ones. I know I spent ages as a kid poring over my local library's Wayne Barlowe books, and people who grew up with D&D can no doubt tell you that they did the same with Monster Manuals (I grew up with games that tend to have villains, which is a slightly different principle from the monster). 

That leads us to a first definition. A Lovecraftian monster has: 
  • Tentacles
  • A bitchin' name that seems hard to pronounce but is pretty easy actually (e.g. "shoggoth"). 
It would be easy to sneer and dismiss this as missing the whole point, but actually I think it's only missing part of the point, and the part of the point it gets is fine. Tentacles are gross, formless masses of protoplasm are gross, and weird-sounding names make a big difference. 

Consider if you will: our heroes have battled their way through the faceless legions of Dark Lord Zergathrax, escaped the deathtraps of his torture palace and have finally confronted him in his ornate throne room. Zergathrax brandishes his staff and cackles madly. 

"Fools! Your victory is in vain! Soon the pulpy mass of the Ultash-glothq will ooze across the kingdoms of men!"

That actually does sound completely different and give a different feel from, say: 

"Fools! Your victory is in vain! Soon the armoured might of the Hellcrusher will rampage across the kingdoms of men!"

Even if the Ultash-glothq and the Hellcrusher have the exact same stats and are both defeated by the Amulet of Joyous Detachment, the resulting feel is actually quite different, even if the heroes stomp Zergathrax before he can release the thing and it never even appears in the game. So let's not hate on the gratuitous tentacle -- it has an aesthetic purpose. 

Now, you might object to calling this type of thing "Lovecraftian," since it is not really something that occurs much in Lovecraft's fiction. Or at least, not in the stories where what people are really excited about are the monsters. So let's take a closer look at some examples of Lovecraft's monsters and see what's up. For purposes of this discussion I am confining my scope to what weight consider monsters in a game -- so Nyarlathotep is out. Demons might be monsters in an RPG, but not The Devil so much.

Let's start with a couple of sort of outliers: the Old Ones from "At the Mountains of Madness" and the Great Race of Yith from "The Shadow Out of Time." I would say that, although they're monstrous and weird in terms of appearance, neither of these groups are monsters properly so-called. They're aliens, and they're presented in a very science-fictional way (especially the Old Ones). In fact, the human characters wind up empathising with them: 
Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!
Now, those stories also contain two proper monsters, the shoggoth in the case of "Mountains" and the flying polyp in the case of "Shadow." And the contrast between these monsters and the sf aliens is dramatic. Shoggoths are not men. Both the polyp and the shoggoth are deadly, unreasoning, physical threats. And I think it's telling that they're also much less described and discussed than the Old Ones or the Great Race. They don't need to be.

So these Lovecraftian monsters are almost forces of nature, natural disasters imbued with a certain simple malevolence. It's no coincidence that the shoggoth in "Mountains" is explicitly likened to an oncoming train. They have a primal terror about them, frightening not in the way a murderer is frightening but in the way waking up to find your house is on fire is frightening, or driving along a poorly-lit road in the dark is frightening. I don't think they care about the various professors they menace.

Now, if I'd asked you what makes a "Lovecraftian" monster, I do not think you'd have said "an unreasoning, unstoppable physical menace," right? But I don't think that the physical menace is what's scary about these creatures. It's that they can't be reasoned with. They're irrational. And the power of the irrational, uncaring, purely physical monster is much greater than the power of the rational human.

But obviously not all of Lovecraft's monsters are like that, and you wouldn't expect them to be: despite people wanting to describe "what the Mythos is about," the reality is that Lovecraft used similar tools -- weird monster names, old New England towns, the Necronomicon -- to achieve very different ends and therefore we should expect this creatures to differ from one another.

Let's take a look at another perennial favourite, the Deep Ones from "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." The Deep Ones are more like what you would call a monster race in a typical fantasy game, by which I mean they're a monstrous culture, with presumably laws and history and a religion and so forth. Arguably these types of monsters are harder to make scary, because having a social structure always makes you a little but human - like and relatable. 

And, I mean, they're fish-men. But that's not quite it, is it? Like, Deep Ones are creepy in a way that sahuagin and kuo-toa and whatever just aren't. Part of that is just Lovecraft's descriptions, the wrongness of them. I don't think Dagon is a very good movie, but you can't deny that it has a lovely Innsmouth, all physically decayed and grimy and full of people who just shamble and lurch everywhere.

So partly it's the descriptions of the creatures and the town. Partly it's also that Lovecraft is very good at conveying the weight and mystery, the scale and timelessness of the sea. All the fears that we have and all the symbolic associations that go with the sea are bound up in the Deep Ones. When they bring up gold from the bottom of the sea, you know it didn't come from anywhere good.

Aaaaand then there's the sex thing. Deep Ones interbreed with humans, suggesting that they're not that distantly related to us. But despite the name "hybrid" commonly used in the gaming literature, the creatures that result aren't half-human, half-Deep One. They age into their Deep-One-ness (usually); bad blood drives out good. Which is not exactly the most subtle metaphor ever. 

And of course this gives us two extra creep factors: the narrator discovering his own poisoned heritage a d the fact that the people of Innsmouth are at least kind of voluntarily mating with monsters in exchange for shabby, fish-smelling wealth. 

But racism or no racism, the Deep Ones pack a big horror wallop because they combine cold, alien, what-the-hell-there's-a-whole-world-I-never-knew-about revelation with oh-god-it's-everywhere personal-boundary violation.

Now, in most games you're only going to get one shot at the first of those horrors, and in a D&D game you're not going to get any, considering that after all there are already orcs and bugbears and whatever wandering around the landscape. And yet, I think it's possible to make a good Lovecraftian monster work. Part of this is because of the genre-mutability inherent in most games.

So come back next week when we explore how to incorporate Lovecraftian monsters into your game effectively -- and how not to.