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Why can't we forget Lovecraft?

Never low on HP.

When HP Lovecraft wrote the definition of the genre he more-or-less invented, he did it with the understanding that weird fiction was always going to be a niche taste. In his 1927 essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, he declared that: "tales of ordinary feelings and events, or of common sentimental distortions of such feelings and events, will always take first place in the taste of the majority; rightly, perhaps, since of course these matters make up the greater part of human experience." Barely able to generate an income, chewed up and spat out by the pulp magazines, and finally, dying painfully of untreated stomach cancer ten years later, Lovecraft could reasonably have expected to be forgotten.

Except, he wasn't. Nine decades later, Lovecraft is everywhere, deeply embedded in the language of books, movies and - especially - video games. Upcoming survival horror Call of Cthulu from Cyanide is explicitly based on the Lovecraft short story, but his tentacled imagination of maddening otherworlds and insane entities informs Quake, Doom, Half-Life, Dead Space, Bloodborne (especially Bloodborne), and countless other titles. A Lovecraft who had somehow performed the eldritch feat of living to be 127, while holding onto all IP, would have cash reserves to make EL James look like the impoverished scion of a fallen family.

The only problem for our hypothetical immortal Lovecraft's copyright is that the Cthulhu mythos wasn't his work alone (Lovecraft never used the label himself; it was applied after he died). While he was alive, he collaborated with his friends and peers to expand his monstrous universe. After his death, they continued the work posthumously - August Derleth most notably, acting as both champion of Lovecraft's reputation and afterlife co-author, turning Lovecraft's unfinished manuscripts into completed stories. Old Ones, Dagon, Shogoths, Necronomicoms and the rest of it are inherently adaptable to new uses.

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That's partly because the point of Lovecraftian horror is that these are nightmares beyond human comprehension: if we can't know the motives of the Old Ones, then they can be put to almost endless purposes as antagonists. (Shub-Niggurath wants to invade the Earth in Quake? Sure, why not.) Lovecraft's predilection for opening portals to crazed dimensions or dumping his heroes into dreamworlds also gives level design some useful leeway: you can either have an infinite supply of freakish cannon fodder pouring in, or you can push the player out into whatever realm of the grotesque you care to invent.

When you see a scientist who's gone too far, seduced and maddened by the inhuman powers they command, that's Lovecraft. (Herbert West - Reanimator might be a do-over of Frankenstein, but it's a do-over with the emerging genre conventions of 1920s pulp: what use is one measly Frankenstein's monster in a video game, when Lovecraft's episode escalation can deliver zombie foes by the dozen?) When the story is doled out through secret occult texts, that's Lovecraft again. Some aspects of his aesthetic, though, are trickier to turn into gameplay. Dilapidated C19th coastal towns: can do. Protagonists who spend most of their time running away or mad: not so thumbstick-friendly.

The archetypal Lovecraft hero is a nerd - either an antiquarian or a man of science. Even when he writes a cop (Detective Malone in The Horror at Red Hook), he makes him a "Dublin University man". In At the Mountains of Madness, it's not soldiers who confront the penguin-fringed abyss, it's an unwitting research team from Lovecraft's fictional Miskatonic University in the invented city of Arkham. Fighting is rarely a consideration in Lovecraft; if the reader gets to see the signs of conflict, the humans have usually already been turned into smears. So while Dead Space's Isaac Clarke gets Lovecraft points for being an engineer (science!) and for being dragged into peril unwittingly, he loses them for competence.

He's also, being honest, a bit too blue-collar for Lovecraft, whose heroes tend to be of good East Coast stock - or seemingly good stock, even if their families are in the late stages of degeneration. Lovecraft, who spent the last of his family inheritance before he died, and whose father died of syphilis, had personal reasons for circling the theme of generational decline and troubling bequests. That's something that rarely filters into gameplay, although What Remains of Edith Finch turned the exhumation of a cursed family's history into a mechanic (and put a copy of the Necronomicon on the family's bookshelves for good measure).

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But his fixation with breeding was political too. When I ask Roger Luckhurst, editor of the Oxford World's Classics edition of Lovecraft's stories, why Lovecraft's influence is so enduring, he points out grimly that Lovecraft is "good for the times because he's a pathological racist." The impulse for Lovecraft fans here is usually to disavow the racism, or put it down to being a product of the times - and it's true, as Luckhurst says, that Lovecraft is "pretty much the same on the 'mongrel races' as Henry James was." Recently, New Weird writers such as Jeff VanderMeer have wrestled Lovecraftian tropes from the tendrils of his fascism. In Lovecraft's own writing, though, the obsession with race can't be unpicked from the horror: his nightmares turn on the moment that the quest for origins collapses into impurity.

Finding out that you're the product of cannibalistic human-farmers (Rats in the Walls), or miscegenation between humans and fish-like Deep Ones (Shadow Over Innsmouth), or a dread necromancer (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) is the more awful if you believe, as Lovecraft's characters believe (as Lovecraft himself believed), in your superiority by birth. Mixing-pot New York appears in Red Hook, as it appeared to Lovecraft when he lived there, as "the poison cauldron where all the varied dregs of unwholesome ages mix their venom and perpetrate their obscene terrors". But the mixing which so revolted him has always already happened in his stories.

Lovecraft's heroes, so invested in their status as the perfect human subject, go mad when they receive the knowledge of what they truly are. They are terrorised by the impossible logic of racism (we can be terrorised again in turn by the fact that Lovecraft wrote this story over and over again, and never considered that his white supremacy might be an unsustainable ideology). It's this horror in knowing that's the hardest thing for games to capture, which makes Bloodborne the more impressive: as you level up your insight bar in the game, you lose your sanity, and your resistance to damage. Understanding the world of Yharnham (sounds like Arkham, looks like Innsmouth) comes at a frightening price.

"The one test of the really weird is simply this," wrote Lovecraft: "whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of unknown shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim." No media is able to produce that sense of dread as acutely as games, which plunge you directly into the position of explorer in strange worlds, encountering horrors that can traumatise the human brain beyond sense. If it's disturbing to peer into the origins of games and see someone like Lovecraft - with his brilliant imagination and his heinous beliefs - that's because he's exactly the kind of monstrous, genius forefather that he wrote into his stories.