Monday, August 24, 2020

The Roots of Horror

H.P. Lovecraft
In the 1E AD&D DMG, Appendix N, Gygax identifies six authors as "the most immediate influences upon AD&D". Here I've ordered them in chronological order as per the "Period" listed for each on Wikipedia:

  • H.P. Lovecraft (1917-1937)
  • A. Merritt (1917-1943)
  • Robert E. Howard (1924-1936)
  • Fritz Leiber (1934-1992)
  • L. Sprague de Camp (1937-1996)
  • Jack Vance (1950-2009)

This past week we observed what would have been H.P. Lovecraft's 130th birthday. Lovecraft is, of course, now considered highly problematic for racial themes; it's common in some circles to consider him something close to taboo or beneath contempt. Simultaneously, however, we've seen this week the premiere of the highly-celebrated Lovecraft Country series on HBO, executive produced by Jordan Peele. Here I'll make a brief, amateur argument that Lovecraft is ultimately the closest thing we have to a root of the pulp tradition from which D&D grew.

Lovecraft is the earliest writer on the Appendix N list of "most immediate influences", with the exception of A. Merritt, with whom he had a contemporaneous start. Moreover, Lovecraft has clear documented, personal connections to almost all the other writers on this Core list (there is one exception, I think). Lovecraft and Merritt were mutually appreciative of each others' work, and met in New York City in 1934, upon which Lovecraft wrote in a letter:

It seems he had long known my work and held a very kindly opinion of it.  Hearing of my presence in NY he took steps to get in touch with me, and finally invited me to dinner at his club... I was extremely glad to meet Merritt in person, for I have admired his work for 15 years... he has a peculiar power of working up an atmosphere and investing a region with an aura of unholy dread.

The Skulls in Stars blog has a great article looking at Merritt's 1932 novel, Dwellers in the Mirage, whose cover featured a giant tentacled monster, the “terrible octopus-god Khalk’ru”, pretty obviously an homage to Lovecraft's Cthulhu, and commenting on similar cosmic phenomena, as well as the correspondence letter above. (Bonus: The "Mirage" in the story's title is a key part of the plot, and given that the Skulls and Stars author is a professor of physics and optics, he's well-positioned to write intelligently and clearly on that aspect.)

Almost all of the other Appendix N Core were in or connected in some way to the "Lovecraft Circle". Robert E. Howard wrote a letter to Weird Tales in 1930 praising Lovecraft's works; when the editor passed the letter on to Lovecraft himself, the two "engaged in a vigorous correspondence that would last for the rest of Howard's life". (Wikipedia).

Likewise, in 1936 Fritz Leiber "initiated a brief yet intense correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft, who 'encouraged and influenced [Leiber's] literary development'", which was only ended by Lovecraft's own death. Many of Leiber's stories in the first two decades of his career were connected to the Cthulhu Mythos, and much later he wrote several essays on Lovecraft in Fafhrd and Me. (Wikipedia)

L. Sprague de Camp is somewhat ambiguously in my list above, because in the Appendix N Core listing he appears as, "de Camp & Pratt", which connects further up on the page specifically to the Harold Shea series. This is now known as the "Compleat Enchanter" series, written by the pair of authors from 1940-1954. (And de Camp returned with some additional stories in the 1990's.) de Camp also famously wrote two full-length biographies of his forerunners: these being of Lovecraft and Howard. (Wikipedia)

Finally, we come to Jack Vance, who we all know to to be an essential contributor to the classic D&D thematic system. One thing I'll say in looking up dates here is that Vance did a masterful job of disguising how relatively recent and young of a writer he was; before I looked these dates up, I might have guessed he could have been the earliest one in the list. But instead, he was the only one still writing into the 2000's, and in fact was still active when I started this blog. (!) He's also the only member of the Core list of whom I couldn't find any direct connection to Lovecraft. (If you know of such, please post a comment.) (Wikipedia)

Obviously all the writers on the Appendix N Core list above are giants in their own right, and I certainly don't mean to say that they were in shadow of H.P. Lovecraft or anything like that. But it seems interesting how regularly generous he seemed to be with his time and correspondence, encouraging and nurturing other writers in the pulp field at critical moments in their careers. (Side note: Lovecraft, Merritt, and Howard even cooperated on a single story together in 1935, The Challenge from Beyond.)

More than once I've observed that for my D&D games, "No matter what my intention is at the outset, they always turn into horror at the end". Perhaps this is a fairly simple fact that the hobby is mechanically an outgrowth of wargames, and from the perspective of any single person involved, war is indeed horrible. Or perhaps it's an undergrowth of Lovecraftian tendrils connecting and nourishing almost all of the most important pulp authors that Gygax had in mind when he wrote D&D and AD&D. Is D&D ultimately a horror game at its deepest root? If one wanted to completely remove the horribleness, would it be viable for long-term survival?


22 comments:

  1. It does open the discussion. Do we leave the elements in, and risk that some see it as glorifying them? Or do we excise the, and run the risk of sanitizing/papering over the issues?
    I sure don't know the answers, but it is certainly something we should all have in mind when we craft our games.

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    1. I think it is hard for people to look objectively at a problematic work as art when the trauma it represents is still occurring in the world. When these things are no longer a source of pain, they can be looked at again objectively. Until then, I think it makes sense to leave those elements out of derivative works like modules, or subvert them, or at least hang a lampshade on them.

      For the works themselves, I don't believe in bowdlerizing them, but I think they should avoid highlighting them for a while if we can do so, and if we need to discuss them we need to acknowledge the problematic elements.

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  2. Great stuff - I was also thrilled to see "Lovecraft Country" come out, and am looking forward to viewing it.

    By the way, there's also an Edgar Rice Burroughs/H.P. Lovecraft connection:

    https://www.erbzine.com/mag11/1137.html

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  3. I have long wondered which of Lovecraft's stories that Gary read.

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    1. Good question. There's a bit of an insight from the old ENWorld thread: Col Pladoh (Gary) Monday, 12th May, 2003:

      "It has been many years since I've read the various HPL and associated stories, and I don't have the Chaosium collection, but I can say yes, I do generally enjoy the work of his "disciples." Can't recall who wrote the King in Yellow (Chambers?), but from that work to those of Derleith,
      Lumley, Clark Ashton Smith, Bloch, etal. the many stories help to form a more interesting whole in my mind. There is a long short story, "The Willows," whose author (whose name I've forgotten) was not a part of the HPL group that fits into the grand picture too.

      Just off hand, my favorites of HPLs are "Pickman's Model." "Rats in the Walls," and "The Lurking Fear.""

      I'm guessing that Gygax had pretty comprehensive coverage based on that.

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    2. I didn't know that quote... So Gary DID like CAS! "The Willows" was a favorite of HPL too (IIRC), although I prefer "The Wendigo" for D&D purposes.

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  4. I’d say any RPG that has undead is automatically a horror game, at least in part. I don’t like them myself, and don’t use them in games I’ve run. Necromancy carries too much baggage—Speak With Dead, for instance, implies the survival of souls in some kind of afterlife, which wedges too many mediæval ideas, and specifically Christian ideas, into what’s otherwise a very syncretic fantasy universe.

    There’s a lot of weak logic, too. If someone can survive death as an evil ghost, because of some unfinished vengeance say, why can’t they survive as a beneficent ghost? Antoni Gaudí haunting the Sagrada Familia and forever urging faster construction, so he can go on to his eternal reward? And if you can animate a collection of bones to carry a sword and attack your enemies, why can’t you just animate a suit of armour? Why are zombies easy and golems hard? Because, I suspect, you’re supposed to be animating a skeleton by raising the spirit of a dead person, who knows how to operate a human body. Or something like that—my point is that the undead are mostly Christian nightmares that don’t fit in every fantasy cosmology.

    Vampires, of course, are undead, but not necessarily spirits nor dead bodies animated by spirits—they can even be modelled as highly unusual life-forms that merely mimic humanity. You have to ditch the business with fearing crucifixes and holy water, but they make fine monsters without the spiritual background. A lich, similarly, can simply be the result of unnaturally extended life, supported by magic rather than organic function—no particular need for a sequestered soul in a storage object.

    But these are the intelligent, magical undead, and differ from the mindless walking corpses. Which is the other thing I don’t like about undead—that they’re mostly evil because the monster book says they’re evil, and because we find them disgusting. It’s a boring, mechanical kind of evil, and a lack of motivation implies a lack of story possibilities.

    So to return to the point, I think your banishment of the Cleric class is a good idea than could usefully be taken further. Ditch undead as well, and give all their powers a more rational, material basis, or a magical one, but non-spiritual, and apply them to new monsters or characters of your own devising. Then you have a non-horror D&D campaign, where there’s fear and desperation and loss, but none of the sick disgust that properly ought to accompany the undead. Absent that change, I’d say yes: D&D is inherently a horror game.

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    1. That's a very interesting take! As you say, some of those issues definitely overlap with problems that motivated me to remove clerics. I do keep undead basically as written, of course.

      I might say that you can point to a number of undead like: ghouls, wights, wraiths, spectres, and mummies as clearly having pulp, movie, and and LOTR precedents without a lot of Christian baggage included.

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  5. Vance owes more to Clark Ashton Smith than to Lovecraft, and although not credited in Appendix N, you can see CAS bubbling out of the "killer dungeon" ideas in the 70's, especially the wildly inventive underworld of The Seven Geases.

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    1. Yes! There is so much CAS in D&D... and so much D&D to be found in CAS. Abominations of Yondo, Empire of Necromancers, Isle of the Torturers all feel very D&D to me.

      Undoubtedly the greatest omission in the Appendix N.

      Why he isn't there is a mystery to me; I've recently heard someone (Tim Kask? not sure) say it was because CAs was too "adult", and the list was carefully chosen. Not that it makes sense... And IIRC one of his son's said the appendix N was whatever GG was reading at the time.

      I am betting is was an oversight, since Gygax mentions CAs in a quote in this page.

      Anyway, something that I was always curious about.

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    2. Agreed with that. Someone on Twitter yesterday asked for "best dungeon in literature" and I immediately responded with Mount Voormithadreth from The Seven Geases.

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  6. You’re quite right—barrow wights and mummies aren’t particularly Christian, but then I didn’t mean that as the main critique. It’s the business of immaterial souls surviving death that’s specifically religious, and not necessarily a good fit with any particular fantasy cosmology.

    I don’t care for its implications, especially since I have a whole different mechanism for a kind of immortality, in which people near the end of their lives pass on their most vital beliefs, insights, and understanding to young people, in a kind of magical ritual. It’s a central aspect of the campaign’s world-building, and it’s nonsense in a world where Raise Dead and Reincarnate exist.

    AD&D takes the whole immaterial-spirits business in another strange direction, too. Hell is apparently a horrid place where evil souls go to be punished…but it’s also an extradimensional space with native intelligent species who perform magic and fight with weapons, and who can be summoned to Earth as allies? What? Again, there’s a whole cosmology implicit in the very existence of demons and devils, never mind the numerous later variants based on alignment, including Evil Giant Frogs, which I can’t even.

    I love the way D&D gleefully incorporates monsters and magic from every conceivable mythology and storytelling tradition, including modern ones (Barrier Peaks), and I don’t mind a lot of the absurdities. Nonetheless I like the overall game world to make some kind of coherent sense—where it came from, how it works, what it means to be a conscious being trying to make a way in that world. The religious ideas of immaterial spirits and the afterlife impose a particular model on the world, that’s both unappealing to me personally, and difficult to square with the everything-is-true hodge-podge of other assumptions that underly so many other aspects of the game.

    For me, at least, it’s been fun to create equivalents of the various undead, but with different explanations of their powers. Muskies, from Spider Robinson’s novel Telempath, are a fun possibility; so are Ringworld ghouls, energy-draining Ice Vampires, and lots of other things. For that matter, my system of imprinting ancestral memories can create the equivalent of hauntings, complete with hallucinated ghostly images of one’s ancestors, triggered by circumstances they foresaw and you know nothing about. Lots of spooky ghostly fun, but without the philosophical baggage.

    /rant

    Hope that wasn’t too much blather. I agree that undead are mighty useful as monsters, especially with the terror of level drain added to their abilities. I just dislike the assumptions behind them. No criticism intended of GMs who use them.

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    1. Love the thoughtful take on that! Thanks for sharing it here. :-)

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    2. Now I just have to figure out how to attach my name to these comments. I’m Dominic Brown, aka Oxymetheus, and not especially trying to be anonymous. Just getting tired of having to create Yet Another Account for every interesting web site I follow. I look forward to more great OD&D thoughts from you—keep up the good work.

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    3. If you use Gmail, YouTube, or have an Android, you can log in using your Google account.

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    4. Thanks, Dan. I tried that right off the bat, and for some reason it didn’t work. (Probably the reason is that I’ve turned off or filtered out a lot of online tracking for the sake of privacy.) Let’s see if this comment shows up, when I choose to reply using my Google account.

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    5. Nope. Oh, well. Worth a shot. Thanks anyway. I’ll just put my name in future comments. I’ve been lurking here long enough—time I made some more helpful contribution.

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    6. Dominic, thanks again for the great comments and trying to play through with Google here!

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  7. Great post, thanks! I have never thought of HPL in relation to the rest of the writers in the appendix N, but it makes a lot of sense.

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  8. Interesting post as always Dan and interesting question. Frankly, appendix N never seemed more to me than a toss away list off the top of Gygax' head, and, as far as gaming is concerned, I couldn't care less what he or anybody else liked to read, or watch, or what their favorite TSR approved table snack was. There are some great authors there though and their visions can make some great D&D games.
    What matters is that the rules of the game function in all manner of mythic worlds with all manner of antagonists, but I think no matter the setting or the flavor, a D&D game will be a horror game. There are monsters, they are deadly, and they will find you.

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    1. Thanks! I won't try and argue, you're probably right that we give Appendix N more weight than it may be worth (like a lot of writings, actually). Somewhere there's an ENWorld quote where he says (paraphrasing), "oh, here's a bunch of other authors I can't believe I overlooked when I wrote that" and rattles off at least a dozen more.

      Definitely agreed that the game is ultimately a nightmare plunge against dark forces. Happened again for me on Friday night, e.g.: wizard PC winds up getting staff of power blown up by trap, dying and entombed, mind jars into object, takes over doppelganger to get out. Now a ravenous shape-shifting cannibal mind-reader. Took about one hour of play for that to happen.

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