“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” – “The Call of Cthulhu,” H.P. Lovecraft
My fascination with both board gaming and the fiction of Howard Phillips Lovecraft began at roughly the same time. A year or two out of college, video games were losing some of their appeal. As much as I enjoyed playing them, the thought that I was spending most of my leisure time locked inside a room alone and staring at a television or computer monitor was a little depressing. I’d grown up playing board games, and I knew they offered a level of personal interaction that video games just couldn’t match while still satisfying the game nerd in me. I also knew that my options weren’t limited to those mass market few that everyone keeps tucked away in the closet. Games like X-Men Alert, Shadowlord, and a friend’s dad’s copy of Avalon Hill’s classic Dune had captivated my imagination as a kid and exposed me to the wider world of designer board games. What I didn’t realize, however, was just how huge the hobby board gaming scene had become in my absence.
When I set out to find a new board game in 2008, I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and variety of the choices open to me. Even without access to a FLGS, hundreds of games were readily available online. Here and there I’d read a title that sounded familiar—Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne—but, for the most part, I was in unknown territory. A vast sea of wooden resource cubes, plastic miniatures, and colorful cardboard chits spread before me in every direction, and I had no idea where to begin. Then I stumbled across the wildly popular Arkham Horror, and there was no going back.
Heavily thematic, engrossingly complex, and cooperative to boot, Arkham seemed to encapsulate the immersive experience for which I was looking. Collecting trade goods or killing orcs just didn’t sound all that exciting next to teaming up with my friends as noir-inspired Prohibition era investigators working to seal eldritch portals to other worlds and prevent the awakening of horrors beyond human comprehension. Expansions with intriguing names like The King in Yellow and The Black Goat of the Woods sealed the deal. I jumped in with both feet, and my board game collection has been ballooning ever since.
Odd as it may seem to those of you who have played it, Arkham Horror was my gateway into the board gaming hobby despite its inaccessibility. Renowned for game length regularly surpassing 4 or 5 hours as well as an excess of fiddly and situationally specific rules, it nevertheless became my board game first love. The only consistent adult gaming group I’ve ever had formed around it, and, as it was one of the only games available to us, we played it virtually every week for months on end. To this day, I’ve probably played more games of Arkham Horror than of just about any other single board game.
All that time spent with Arkham subjected me increasingly to the concepts and properties of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction from which the game takes its inspiration. Going in, I had only the vaguest impressions of Lovecraft’s oeuvre. I knew the name and visage of his creation Cthulhu—kind of hard to miss the giant, cephalopodous monster all over the geek side of the internet—and I had some idea of the themes which Lovecraft explored, but the details of his work were a complete mystery to me. It was the allure of these unknowns, the mystique of the brief glimpses I would catch reading Arkham Horror’s encounter cards, that kept me playing the game and eventually led me to seek out Lovecraft’s prose. Fortuitously, not long after I began my earnest search for a respectable volume of his fiction, Barnes & Noble published an extremely affordable and exhaustive anthology collecting almost all of it. (While most if not all of his work has fallen into the public domain and is therefore legally available for free all over the internet, I prefer the tactility of an actual book whenever possible.) I devoured all 1,100 pages over a few long winter weeks. Not only did I find myself appreciating more than ever the multitude of references littered throughout Arkham Horror’s abundant flavor text, but I also discovered a new favorite author and an entire new realm of weird and speculative literature to which I had been practically oblivious.
A writer during the pulp heyday of the 1920s and ‘30s, H.P. Lovecraft is widely hailed as the father of modern horror. Whether or not that title is hyperbolic, his work does occupy a unique and formative place in the development of the genre. Enamored with and drawing from the macabre and supernatural content that characterized the likes of Poe and the imagination and mythical potency in the fantasies of Lord Dunsany (see Pt. 2), Lovecraft incorporated a unique blend of influences into his fiction that, while occasionally derivative, ultimately helped redefine the popular approach to horror. When he is at his best, the typical gothic scares of haunted ruins and ghostly apparitions are replaced by the paralyzing existential terror of a cold, uncaring universe.
Informed by the rapidly advancing scientific knowledge of his time, Lovecraft’s cosmos is vast, unfathomably ancient, and ultimately unknowable by the limited human mind. Occupied by truly alien and often ineffable intelligences, it is a reality encompassing strange other worlds and higher dimensions utterly beyond mortal ken. Even the Earth itself is no safe haven for mankind. Throughout the deep spans of geologic time, our world has been populated by numerous lifeforms from beyond the stars. The rise and fall of their civilizations and their wars for dominance have shaped the development of this planet, and even now they slumber, waiting in sunken, secret cities until the stars are right again for their return. The degenerate among us worship these elder gods with dreadful rites, experiencing incomprehensible visions borne from the dreams of the sleeping ancient ones. In the end, the current reign of humanity is little more than an improbable and very temporary phase; we are at best semi-intentionally engineered slave labor, more likely a fluke of extraterrestrial mishap and evolutionary chance. Our doom is inevitable. When the great old ones do return, humankind’s sanity will forever shatter, and our race will be annihilated. Perhaps most dreadful of all, however, is that we will not have an evil or even malevolent enemy to blame for our lot. Good and evil themselves, as arbitrary human constructs, will fade with us. Humanity’s fire will flicker and fail under the apathetic and amoral eye of beings (and a universe at large) wholly indifferent to our existence.
The power of Lovecraft’s mythos arises from its encapsulation of the growing scientific materialism and atheism that characterized the writer and his period. Even as a parade of astronomical discoveries was revealing a cosmos unimaginably large and inconceivably old, mankind was losing its sense of place in such immensity. If humanity really wasn’t the center of the universe after all, could its assumed existential exceptionalism stand? If every man, woman, and child that had ever existed lived and died on a single mote of dust floating through a small backwater in the black, godless infinity of space, what ultimate significance could human life possibly have? Sadly, in its haste to denigrate the religious trappings of bygone eras, the philosophy of that materialistic age had largely abandoned the language of myth that human beings have used throughout history to wrestle with questions of origin and meaning. By adopting an idiom embracing talk of transcendent deities, cursed relics, fantastic monsters, mystical journeys, and legendary history, Lovecraft was perhaps the first to articulate modern atheism as myth. Cthulhu and his star-spawned ilk are first and foremost (at least as far as I’m concerned) avataric representations of a purposeless cosmos with no vested interest in the fate of the human species.
Chipper, eh? At this point, I’d recommend a good board game with friends to distract yourself from the likely futility of life. Arkham Horror would not be my first choice. When we return, I’ll continue on a slightly lighter note.
Interested in reading Lovecraft, but not sure where to start? The following stories are a few of my favorites:
Next week, we’ll continue this post with a look at two other weird fiction icons who are closely tied to Lovecraft’s legacy: one an inspiration to him, the other inspired by him. See you there!