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‘Call of Cthulhu’ Shows We Need to Move Past H.P. Lovecraft Once and for All

Aside from his history of racism, Lovecraft’s ideas are so saturated they’re no longer interesting fodder for horror games.

by Matthew Gault
Nov 1 2018, 1:00pm

Deep below the moldering husk of the Hawkins Mansion, as I creeped closer to the cultists chanting obscene words in a dialect not meant for human mouths, I had a revelation. A profound truth shattered my mind, leaving me reeling from its spiteful certainty. Gibbering, I lay on the ground, my limbs flailing like dumb tentacles as I waited for the cultists to drag me towards their eldritch altars. I knew then what even these devoted cultists did not: H.P. Lovecraft and the whole Cthulhu mythos is played out garbage.

I didn’t want to have this revelation and I especially didn’t want to have it while playing Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game, a new first-person horror game developed by Cyanide Studios and adapted from the 1981 roleplaying game.

I’ve been reading Lovecraft and his derivatives since I was a teenager. Horror fiction, my favorite genre, exists in his shadow. The consequence of that is, now some 20 years after first reading Lovecraft, I know all his tricks by heart and I’m growing weary of them. In addition to Call of Cthulhu, The Sinking City—another Lovecraft-sourced game—is coming out in March. Searching for “Cthulhu” on Steam returns more than 1,000 results. You can buy Cthulhu-shaped slippers online. I own a pair.

But there are good reasons to dump Lovecraft beyond over-saturation of the source material. Lovecraft was a racist who was terrified of women. Call of Cthulhu is not an overtly racist or misogynist game, but the problem with Lovecraft is that the latent themes of xenophobia are inescapable in his work. Many of his stories, including Call of Cthulhu, include thinly veiled references to cultures and people Lovecraft found alien and objectionable. To ignore that as Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game does, to not even attempt to reckon with it, is a misstep. The result is a drearily familiar narrative culled from deeply toxic material without anything interesting or productive to say about it.

Call of Cthulhu
Image: Focus Home Interactive

Call of Cthulhu is set just after World War I and follows private detective Edward Pierce as he tries to solve a mystery on an island off the coast of New England. Pierce, a former soldier is haunted by his memories of the war, drinks too much, and uses sleeping pills to block out the nightmares. The case at hand involves hunting down a famous artist known for her grotesque and macabre paintings. When Pierce first gets to the Hawkins Mansion, he finds the inhabitants aren’t too happy that he’s there. There’s also an asylum on a hill, and mysterious hints abound that something strange is going on. This makes for a suitably creepy atmosphere, but it’s all a bit too familiar for anyone with even a passing interest in Lovecraft.

Still, I liked the gameplay in Call of Cthulhu. It’s set in first person and mostly involves Pierce talking to people and searching for clues. It’s a detective game with small RPG flourishes, so Pierce earns investigator points which you can use to upgrade different stats that make it easier for him to gather information from his surroundings and talk to people. “Spot hidden,” for example, reveals new clues that wouldn’t otherwise be there, “medicine” allows Pierce to make more informed judgments about crime scenes, and the “occult” stat increases his grasp of the Lovecraftian mythos.

There’s some light shooting and forced stealth sections, but Call of Cthulhu is mostly a game about talking to people and looking for clues. I enjoyed it, but I also got the feeling that my choices didn’t really matter and that the points mainly helped fill in the blanks of by-the-numbers Lovecraft story. And that story is a problem—it’s the problem.

About an hour in, I knew how everything would play out. I won’t bother spoiling it here because, if you’ve ever read a Lovecraft story or played a game or watched a show derivative of his work—such as True Detective—then you know exactly what’s in store for Pierce. There’s an asylum, a cult, eerie voices, and the distant call of strange deities. Call of Cthulhu is fine, it’s just that Lovecraft has lost its magic. Even for the uninitiated, the story will feel stale because horror fiction has been regurgitating Lovecraftian tropes for decades. You’ve seen this all before.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” Lovecraft wrote in Supernatural Horror in Literature. He was right, but after years of knock offs and reprints, nothing in the Cthulhu mythos is scary anymore. The monster’s ability to inspire cosmic dread is diminished when The Washington Post runs a satire piece where Cthulhu comes out for Trump.

Image: Focus Home Interactive
Image: Focus Home Interactive

The other problem with Lovecraft is that he’s deeply and horrifyingly racist. Even for a person of the time—Lovecraft was born in 1890—Lovecraft’s views were extreme. The Shadow Over Innsmouth implies that miscegenation with Pacific Islanders lead to the deterioration of hearty New England folk into fish people. The Horror at Red Hook is a paranoid catalog of thriving turn of the century New York City culture as viewed through the hateful lens of an unapologetic racist.

Lovecraft grotesquely cataloged the fears of white 20th century Americans, but he also gave us a language that we still use to talk about cosmic horror—dread in the face of an unknown and unknowable universe. At his best, he helps us articulate the dread that comes from realizing how small humans are in the grand schemes of things. At his worst, he’s an overwrought and paranoid racist.

His legacy is important, but ultimately, we need to move past it.

There’s a whole new generation of writers and artists who have taken his themes and done it better, and mostly without all the baggage. The first season of True Detective is the biggest and flashiest example. But there’s also The Ballad of Black Tom, Lovecraft Country, Alan Moore’s Providence, the work of Thomas Ligotti, and the books Caitlín R. Kiernan. These are the writers and artists who’ve picked up Lovecraft’s torch and made it work while acknowledging the horror of the man who created it.

Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game feels tired and cliched, a game from an era when reintroducing Lovecraft to pop culture in the form of a video game was a novelty. It exists simply for Lovecraft fans to be able to recognize and point to references about the Hounds of Tindalos. If we have to have more Cthulhu games, then I’m more interested in one without the obvious sign posts, and that have something to say about its deeply complicated origins.