On the Nature of Lovecraftian Revelations

The discussions following upon my review of “The Watchers in the Sky” has inspired some thoughts on the nature of revelation in the works of Lovecraft and subsequent authors.

If we look at Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” we can see how many different ways Lovecraft both reveals and conceals knowledge.  Much of the knowledge we gain about the horrors of the mi-go comes via a scholarly recluse in the mountains of Vermont who believes he is being attacked by beings from another planet – hardly the most reliable individual.  Yet even Akeley appears a model of credibility when we begin to encounter a mysterious individual or cult stealing and even fabricating portions of his correspondence. Thus we are forced to rely upon the unreliable source when confronted with a source even more dubious.

Nonetheless, Lovecraft goes further than this.  Hints are made to mythology and folklore, whether real-life or as part of Lovecraft’s own pantheon.  When revelations do seem to come, they raise even more questions (These beings are giant mushrooms, essentially?  Can they really fly through space?  What are these more dubious stellar objects from which they come?).   When it comes to the worst of all of it, even our trusted narrator Wilmarth shies away from repeating some of the darkest secrets he learns – or believes he learns – from Akeley.  In brief, Lovecraft uses the revelation and concealment of information in numerous permutations that create a classic work of horror fiction.

I would say that, in the subsequent Mythos fiction, much of this has been discarded.  The Necronomicon, for instance, once a source of vague hints of the Beyond, becomes an inerrant and meticulously detailed text.  In some ways this is because of lack of Lovecraft’s vision on the part of the author, and in some ways it speaks of the necessity of taking what is essentially a sequel beyond the original story.

Much of this has also fallen by the wayside in Call of Cthulhu – but, as I’ve learned, it’s for a damn good reason.  An author of fiction can choose where to put our gaze, determining where we focus, what is revealed, what is hidden, what is glossed over, and what simply cannot be grasped.  Players in roleplaying games cannot be led in a similar fashion.  A hint or a quick leap over a topic can send the group off on a wild goose chase.  This is occasionally fun, but most often takes the group off the paths that will lead to what will hopefully be a satisfying game experience.  Some groups will find this appealing, but to have a game that will be fun for both the players and the Keeper, some of the complexity of Lovecraft’s vision – and the nature of real-life research – has to be cut.  This is a lesson that I’ve learned to my dismay in the early drafts of Fury.

I suppose this might be my way of saying that I’m starting to grasp “The Watchers in the Sky” and what it’s trying to accomplish within this particular medium a little better.

Published in: on April 8, 2010 at 12:07 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think I agree with the sentiment, but I’m not sure about the practicality of this. My take is that putting players into a situation where inexplicable things happen to them is well and good, to a point. Most of the best horror movies don’t rely on having good explanations for things: The Birds is a classic example of this – you know what’s happening, but not _why_. The practical problem is the level of frustration this can entail, both for the players and the Keeper… and it’s the Keeper I’d be more concerned about. After all, he is the one who has to set the stage for the players and if he doesn’t have sufficient information to do this effectively and consistently, the whole venture becomes shaky. Of course, the Keeper doesn’t have to reveal this knowledge, but I think his position is much stronger if he does know what’s going on and why.

  2. I wouldn’t agree that the Keeper needs to know the reasons behind a given supernatural manifestation to run it successfully. After all, there’s relatively little difference between “who knows what’s going on” and “the forgotten god Shuul-Goggoggoth re-enters the world”, when you get down to it. What the Keeper needs to know, in my opinion, is how to respond to the players’ actions. Any explanation is only necessary in so far as it meets that need.

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