Attention conservation notice:RPGs, H.P. Lovecraft, J.G. Ballard, Nigel Kneale, passign mention of Charles Stross and related matters. Skip if these don’t interest you.
What follows owes a substantial debt to Matt Jones, for kick-starting a certain chain of ideas. This is still only half-formed in my head, but I want to try and get something set down while it’s still reasonably fresh in my head, so I’ve got a point to come back to later. This is liable to get a bit fractured, as I’m trying to weave together a few different strands into something coherent.
So: I have a minor obsession with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and I am a roleplayer and all round big nerd, but I have never had any interest in running or playing in one of the great classic roleplaying games, Call of Cthulhu. Roleplaying games, as I have wittered on about before, are, like any really good fiction, a tool to examine our modern human condition, either through use of the past, the never-happened, or the future.
Lovecraft falls down as a tool for this, by virtue of his era: too close to the present to really be 100% the past, not near enough to the present to be relevant – a modernist in a post-modernist age. (Just go with that one, OK?)
The idea of dragging Lovecraft’s squamous, rugose and pointlessly-adjectived horrors into the modern era is not a new one either – witness supplements like the faintly rubbish Delta Green, set in the late 90s, an X-Files-esque milieu, where the characters get mixed up with a government agency that is allegedly fighting the Elder Gods and Great Old Ones, but is actually a front for the Mi-go (the sentient fungi from Yuggoth from The Whisperer In Darkness). Where Delta Green falls down is that it mistakes “you can’t win/both choices are bad” moral-compromise horror for genuine alone-in-the-face-of-a-hostile-cosmos alienation. If there are sides, you can pick one, and you’re not alone, even if you don’t like your side.
Another strike against it, as far as I’m concerned, is that conspiracy theory is a very American form of fiction – it rather rests on the idea that the government is halfway competent, and is Out To Get You. British fiction tends to cast the government as hidebound, bureaucratic and barely-competent, but more or less decent, or, if it isn’t, it’s evil borne or selfishness, greed and corruption, rather than malevolence and hatred – Charles Stross’ Atrocity Archives/Jennifer Morgue series – a fusion of Lovecraft and various British spy thrillers – are a good example of that but Stross’ work to date has rather knocked the horror out of Lovecraft, in favour of comedy (although I hear rumour that the third book in the series is putting a lot of the horror back again, and I look forward to that).
So: straight Lovecraft doesn’t work for me. Conspiracy/spy thriller Lovecraft doesn’t really sit right, either. How, then, can I modernise Lovecraft in a way that I like?
H.P. Lovecraft, meet J.G. Ballard.
Two writers whose work deals with themes of alienation, the outsider, strange geometries and unnatural constructions, and the idea of landscapes as symbolic of mental states. One can draw a clear line from the “lonely and curious” country around Dunwich, with its “stretches of marshland that one instinctively dislikes” to Ballards’s High Rise which is “an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence”.
I’m not the first to make this connection – the ever-excellent Ballardian has an excellent trilogy of articles on the subject. But what Matt got me thinking about was adding Nigel Kneale into the mix.
Nigel Kneale, for the young, ill-educated, or just plain foreign among you, was a British TV writer from the 50s to the 90s, who was hugely influential in the development of modern television – his key creation, I suppose, is Dr Bernard Quatermass of the The British Experimental Rocket Group. If you need me to tell you who or what that is, there is something wrong with you, and I direct you to Google. Without Kneale and Quatermass, you would not have Doctor Who (for all Kneale disliked it), or an entire strain of British SF TV. (And I’d just note in passing that he was asked to write for the X-Files, but declined to do so.)
I am thinking of works like Kneale’s own Quatermass, or The Stone Tape, or other science-horror classics of my childhood like The Children of The Stones, works where the scientist/scholar hero (a common enough Lovecraftian trope) runs up against and barely-comprehensible horror, often in some out-of-the-way village, and in my head I’m coupling that with a period in which Britain is moving from the green idyll of the immediate post-war era into the Ballard’s concrete brutalism and warped sexuality. Matt and I were kicking the joke back and forth on Twitter this afternoon, the idea of Ballard and Alison and Peter Smithson leading something like UNIT or SHADO, writing terrible sigils on the British countryside, disguised as motorway junctions, prayerwheels of steel and concrete to bind ancient and evil gods under the british countryside, to prevent them spilling out of ailing collieries and disused iron foundries – the landscape as psychological mirror. Flash forward from this period to present day Britain, and suddenly there are chav cultists summoning things from Outside in the underpass, inbred subhumans going happy-slapping in county towns, and the the CCTVs on every corner that are part of our Orwellian nightmare architecture of control are there to watch for incursions of the Elder Gods, but trampling over the rights of everyone else in the process, the War On Terror made suddenly very literal indeed.
I think there’s mileage in this – either in a 60s era game, where you’re taking ancient myths of the land, and conflating them with horrors, to show the birth of modern Britain via what might be called a golden age of British design, or to run something in the present day, but the key is unquestionably Ballard’s treatment of landscape, media and technology as alienating factors.