I would fight H.P. Lovecraft.

That’s my answer to the old Fight Club question, ‘which historical figure would you fight?’ Forget Lincoln, forget Gandhi. If I could have my pick, it’d be H.P.L.

Now, I’m going to lay out the case for my choice, but keep in mind that the point here is to show that there exist means of satisfying this desire, even if the man is dead. I’m talking about Lovecraft-themed games. The best of them is Arkham Horror, a series of board games set in fictional towns invented by Lovecraft. The latest expansion, Innsmouth Horror, went on sale just last month. The genius of these games is that they make losing fun”"and losing to Lovecraft is the ideal way to beat him.

An author from Rhode Island, Lovecraft died in 1937, penniless and in in near-obscurity, the latter due largely to the fact that he wrote for horror pulps. Pulp magazines defined pop culture back then and made rich men of the most successful of their writers. Lovecraft was not among them. Horror had a bad name, and he wrote a particularly odd and unpopular brand of it, which we’ve come to call weird fiction.

His stories convey a dread of otherness never before achieved in literature. Strangeness is their achievement. Lovecraft disdained humanistic themes and humanoid horrors. Ghost stories and sex-crazed axe-murderers turned him off. He favored confrontations with inhuman threats, with things truly alien, and he delivered the goods.

Naturally, he drew his alien terrors effectively by grounding them in exquisite historical, genealogical, and architectural detail. In his work, weird entities traveled across time and space to find a home in Lovecraft’s New England, a place of ancient secrets, tangled landscapes, and withering populations. In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” one of his few masterpieces and the basis for the newest Arkham Horror game, Lovecraft transforms the town of Gloucester, MA into a paragon of weirdness. An odd dialect, crumbling Georgian steeples, and the careful tracing of family trees make Innsmouth, a town inhabited by half-breed fish-frog people, credible. It’s not just that Innsmouth is Gloucester, that Arkham is Salem, that Dunwich is Wilbraham, and Kingsport is Marblehead, but that they are deeply these places. Lovecraft gets the names right; they ring true. His work reads like the crossing of‚  an almanac, a tour guide, and a comic book, with the dry facticity of the first two belying the bizarreries of the last one.

Lovecraft’s technique appealed greatly to other pulp writers, if not much to pulp audiences. Over the years since his death, this division has remained. Artists, writers, directors, and musicians love his work, take inspiration from it, and allude to it frequently. Pretty much anytime you come across a book of forbidden knowledge, a tentacled monstrosity from the Outer Dark, or a village of degenerates, you’ve found an homage to the Gentleman from Providence. Still, hardly anybody reads his stories. The omnipresence of Lovecraft today”"doesn’t it seem like like every contemporary horror boasts a tentacle and a cult?”"comes from his influence over the creative class, rather than popularity among the masses.

The masses may have something there. As all horror writers do, Lovecraft enlarged and aggravated his own fears in his work, and he had an overwhelming fear of anything that deviated from the world he had known as a child. As a boy, he belonged to Providence’s gentry, a blanched agglutination of Anglo-Saxon Protestants. As he grew older, his family’s fortunes dissipated, immigration drastically changed the demographics of the North East, and he consumed himself with his reading of science and scientific exploration. Lovecraft became poor, racist, atheist, and obsessed with the way science diminished the importance of humanity”"and thereby his own importance, of which he had been much convinced.

As a result of all this, his fiction has three principle fixations, three sources of horror: rural folk, non-Anglos, and the sea, with the latter being the most fundamental. In Lovecraft’s mind, oceanic vastness and the weirdness of aquatic life”"octopi, frogs, molluscs”"represented the ultimate outcome of all learning: to learn is to become cognizant of one’s smallness and to confront things utterly unlike oneself. For him, to meet a Portuguese stevedore or a backwoods farmhand was as outrageous an affront to his sensibilities as coming face-to-mesoglea with a giant jellyfish. His racism erupted from an immediate, visceral repugnance toward the unfamiliar, and this sentiment dominates his work.

Seen in this light, we can read Lovecraft’s stuff only with the hope that his protagonists”"mainly, sniveling, priggish, dandified white boys clearly standing-in for the author”"will come to a bad and slimy end as soon as possible. In Arkham Horror, we get to participate in this narrative. The game not only imparts an atmosphere authentic to Lovecraft, an achievement in itself, but also redeems the Lovecraftian tale by permitting us to take pleasure in the endless re-gobbling of the Lovecraftian protagonist. Let’s turn, then, to these games , to see how they both appropriate this literature and turn it against itself.

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About The Author

Ray Huling is a freelance journalist living in Boston. He writes about games and quahogs.

One Response

  1. Donal

    Kind of convinced me to give it a whirl. I would have liked to know a bit more on mechanics, (that you may have seen as pedestrian information, such as setup time, as the box pic looks huge, learning time (how well it fares with 2 players, (just me & the missus).


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