Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons

Advanced Readings in D&D: H.P. Lovecraft


In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.

Up this week is the spooky uncle of fantasy literature, H.P. Lovecraft!

Mordicai Knode: The Grand Old Master of the Order of Frighteners. High Priest of the Creeping Madness. Providence. Howard Phillip Lovecraft. I doubt anyone really needs us to sing the praises of Lovecraft (though I expect we’re going to, anyhow—and for that matter, I already have). I’m expecting that we’ll have plenty of criticism about the gentlemen in question; not just literary criticism (or basic writing critique: how many times do you really need “eldritch” and “squamous” in this story, Howard?) but actual you know, criticism. Still, the guy basically invented contemporary horror— besides splatter and slasher, I suppose— and you can’t really talk about him without a sort of gleeful enthusiasm. Or at least, I can’t.

Uncaring alien godthings and cults of fishpeople get all the attention, but the stories that stick with me are the ones that get a little more surreal. Don’t get me wrong: At the Mountains of Madness, Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innsmouth… there are a reason that these stories are at the forefront, as the juxtaposition of modern man with truly unknowable forces is a ripe category…the ensuing cosmic creepfest and insanity in response to a nihilistic and uncaring universe might be seen as Lovecraft’s thesis.

That said, for me it is the odder tales, like The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, that kick it up a notch. Hordes of cats, friendly conversations with cannibal ghouls, trips to the moon, evil ticklers, and terrifying plateaus that only exist in dreams? Yes please! I’m going to go on a limb and say that I see a little Randolph Carter in some of my favorite protagonists. Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, I’m looking at you, and while I’m hard pressed to say Dream of the Endless is like Carter, I wouldn’t hesitate to say with certainty that you can take a road from his palace in the Dreaming directly to the Plateau of Leng.

Tim Callahan: All right, this is going to be fun, because I have no idea what you’re talking about. Here’s the thing: I never read a single H. P. Lovecraft story before 2012.

How could that be? What is wrong with me?

Here’s how it happened.

I was aware of Lovecraft as a teenager, and I remember reading about him, and knowing that he wrote these weird horror stories that, in my mind, were like Edgar Allan Poe on drugs or something. I realize how ridiculous that sentence looks, trust me.

And by the time I would have actually wanted to read his stuff, I was a “serious” student of literature and I had heard that Lovecraft was a pretty terrible writer, prone to verbosity and sloppy plotting and, well, all kinds of atrocities of the sexism and racism variety. So that put me off Lovecraft and I just wasn’t much interested. I probably associated Lovecraft mostly with guys I knew who played Call of Cthulhu and seemed both smug and panicked at the same time, a far from attractive combination. But Lovecraftian references continued to pop up in the books and comics and movies I loved, and between our initial discussions about starting this Appendix N project and knowing that my ongoing Great Alan Moore Reread would culminate with Moore’s unabashed Lovecraft tribute series Neonomicon, I picked up a hefty tome of collected Lovecraft tales last year and read a few of the more famous ones in an admittedly cursory way. I read them like they were a school assignment rather than something I really cared about, so I need to go back and give them some more attention.

And I haven’t dipped into his lesser-known stuff at all. So here we go. I’m going to give you the power to shape my Lovecraft experiences and sharpen my focus on these stories. I’m off to read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath right now, and I’ll see you on the other side of the Plateau of Leng, whatever the heck that means.

Okay, thanks to the magic of internet time, I just finished reading it.

Wow. That’s like 90 pages of psychedelia, isn’t it? I see what you mean about the odd and the surreal. There’s one point where, in the midst of dense imagery of swirling towers and strange beasts and a difficult-to-grasp sense of ever-shifting reality where Randolph Carter is described not as riding a horse, but riding a zebra. Because zebras are freaky! It’s like Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel had kids and they turned out to be the two brothers who write and draw Axe Cop…in your nightmares.

MK: Man, I don’t think “…like Edgar Allan Poe on drugs” looks like a weird sentence, I think it looks like a great sentence. And not entirely inaccurate, either, as is “… both smug and panicked at the same time.” Except, you know, both of those things in the best way, rather than the worse way. I avoided “serious literature” and the bulk of Western Canon, since I wasn’t an English major at any point in my life, so my reading history is equally devoid of classics that are undoubtedly wonderful, as well, so no judgment here. While Lovecraft is, how do you put it, “prone to verbosity and sloppy plotting” he also has an intuitive knack for suspense and…existentialism? Which is an odd skill to have, existentialism, so kudos to Lovecraft for putting it to good use.

As for the racism and sexism, which is something we keep coming back to in this series…well, yes. You know what, I don’t like Michel Houellebecq as a novelist at all— quite the opposite in fact— but he wrote an essay called H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life that really gets into the fat and gristle of the matter, looking at a disenfranchised Lovecraft living in Red Hook, and how his prejudices flourished. At how his sort of usual upper class racism really turned into something awful; Houellebecq argues that it happened as a sublimation for his frustration and general impotence, and I find it pretty convincing.

Not that it excuses anything, by any means; mostly I just want to encourage everyone to read H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, as it provides a good background context for Lovecraft’s oeuvre and posits that Lovecraft’s writing is fundamentally a rejection of money and sex. An acknowledgement of Materialism as a philosophy and a horrible reaction against it. For that matter, I think it provides an argument for why I don’t like Houellebecq, who embraces and glorifies the petty, disgusting corners of the world. The same misanthropy, but from two entirely different angles. I only read the first few issues of Neonomicon (after adoring The Courtyard) and I sort of got the impression that it was a little more in Houellebecq’s vein.

Okay, so what is next, Tim? Colour Out of Space? The Music of Erich Zann? Oh! The Shadow Out of Time?

TC: That Houellebecq essay! I remembered reading that, but then I looked it up and realized that I read the October 2004 issue of The Believer with the excerpt of the essay, as part of McSweeney’s promotion of their soon-to-be-coming full-length translation of Against the World, Against Life. I’ve never read the complete, super-long essay, then, but just the excerpt, and now it looks like the book is out of print and pricey.

I unearthed my copy of that desperately old Believer issue, with the giant, smiling head of John Kerry on the cover, back from the days when the 2004 election was looming and it looked—at least to Heidi Julavits and her crew—that the senator from Massachusetts had a chance to overtake George W. Bush and win the presidency. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Houellebecq quotes Lovecraft’s Arthur Jermyn in his essay in that very issue: “Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which makes it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.”

Even in the brief excerpt, Houellebecq nails the essence of Lovecraft, and rereading it makes me wonder why I didn’t read Lovecraft stories in 2004. Surely the essay would have encouraged me to explore Lovecraft’s work. I don’t remember why I didn’t, but I’m guessing that reading the essay allowed me to think, “oh, Lovecraft, got it. Don’t need to actually read the guy. I get it. As much as can be…um…gotten.”

I was wrong, of course, which is always the case when you substitute reading about something for the actual experience itself. (And, hey, that doesn’t mean we don’t want everyone to stop reading our Gygaxian reread series, but we’d love it if you read our conversations and the actual books too!)

Because it doesn’t matter if you understand that Lovecraft deals in the unknowable and an overwhelming sense of despair and dread. What matters is that when you read his stories, you feel it. Reading Lovecraft fills you—well it fills me, at least—with that sense of uncertainty and dread and anxiety. I don’t know about “smug and panicked,” but I certainly understand the panic.

And what’s perhaps creepiest of all, as I sit here and pretend to be a Lovecraft expert after only reading a few stories (including The Shadow out of Time), is that Lovecraft seems less like a storyteller and more like a historian or an archeologist of the cosmically terrible. He’s in touch with forces beyond our reckoning and he’s conveying that truth to us. That’s the game he’s playing as a writer, but he’s damn good at it.

MK: It sounds like you “get” Lovecraft plenty if you can feel that anxious nihilism in your gut. Like a butterfly made of strange colors and fungi, trying to flutter its way out of your body. That is the spirit!

Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.


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