There is a lot of discussion out there about what constitutes a Lovecraftian story. Mike Davis, editor of the Lovecraft Ezine phrases it very well on his web page, particularly in the discussions about movies. I will start by echoing, paraphrasing some of those statements, which are his interpretation of Lovecraft’s own statements, before going into the specific theme of this particular post (though the part one in the title lets you know I have more than one bit to go over on this concept, and it does eventually tie into keeper skillsets for the game) Lovecraftian is, essentially, a story theme underlying the plot that the universe is not a friendly place, that the laws of the universe are more complex than we do understand…and to some extent, more complex than we can understand. That there are places in our world where these less friendly laws are stronger than the laws we depend on. The Cthulhu Mythos stories and concepts are nestled in that concept, races, powerful entities, technologies and magics that are more interactive with that less friendly part of the universe.
I will say that this seems a very non-Einsteinian point of view, but is more inclusive of Einstein if you accept the postulate of parallel universes, which is very much in keeping with quantum mechanics (I promise, the babble will be short term here). It is also worth noting that Lovecraft actually did understand Einstein’s theories as far as they were publically known at the time. He just disagreed with the part about the rules applying universally across the entire universe…which actually anticipates quantum mechanics. I’m not saying that Lovecraft understood quantum physics as such, but that he was challenging the ability of humanity to grasp the full complexity of the universe.
There is also an implication (on which a good part of the game system relies) that ‘mere humans’ cannot retain their full sanity if they grasp the complexity of the universe. This begs a sidebar question that I will present, though I will leave it to readers to ponder (It is a subtext in my campaigns, but not part of any established canon). Given the advances in quantum physics, the greater understanding of the universe, the flood of modern accessible information, and the current sociological complexity and difficulties in interaction while shared understanding is becoming more available begs a question…can residents of the new millennium be considered sane by the standards of the humans of the Victorian Era, or the “Lovecraft Classic” era? Just a puzzler to consider.
The bulk of Lovecraft’s writings include the Lovecraftian subtext, but there are definitely different feelings to parts of it, some stories have more of this feel than others. Some of his writings are clearly works of fantasy, set in a mythic world strangely akin to the writings of Lord Dunsany or the sword and sorcery stories of Robert Howard. Even so they are clearly Lovecraftian pieces, and their strange parallel world built up its own existence even though they rarely cross referenced. The Cats of Ulthar, the Doom that Came to Sarnath, the Quest of Iranon are among these stories, and they depict a fantasy world that is exotic and mysterious but not directly connected to ‘our world’. At least not until Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, the tale in which he tied his fantasy world more firmly to the ‘nearly real world’ that the bulk of his fiction was set in. In spite of the fact that some of these stories are among some of my favorite of his, they are, to me his least Lovecraftian. They are also the stories from which the Dreamlands setting for Call of Cthulhu were drawn, an alternate universe that Investigators can explore by the Dreaming Skill as well as possibly finding occasional gates to physically transfer into that world.
The stories are good, but not horror stories in any general sense, though often the characters face dire circumstance and consequence in them. But it feels like a fantasy setting, and its connection to the ‘regular’ Lovecraft universe doesn’t really work for me. Additionally, there is an ongoing sense of something akin to the ‘dark justice’ of the old EC comics in these stories, people largely suffer when they act out of cruelty themselves. There are exceptions, notably Iranon, but overall, the people in his Dreamlands stories tend to ‘get as they give’.
Lovecraft’s writing style usually showed the Lovecraftian theme, but the Dreamlands stories were where it was least likely to apply, another part of the reason I have issues with the Dreamlands setting for the most part. So, part of the core question “what makes a story Lovecraftian” does not automatically include “written by Lovecraft”. Much of his writing can be included in the Lovecraftian concept, whether or not those stories tie into the Cthulhu Mythos directly. Examples of this include “In the Walls of Eryx” “Picture in the House” and “Cool Air”
A question comes up, was brought up, as i recall, by Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp as they tried to determine which of Lovecraft’s stories (and hence, which of his emulators’ works) qualified as stories of the Cthulhu Mythos, arguing that a story’s inclusion of just some vague reference may or may not put it in the Mythos depending on how significant that inclusion was; case in point, the Nameless City brings up ‘Abdul Alhazred’ for the first time and the infamous couplet. This argues for its inclusion. I remember one of them (not sure which), however, arguing against the inclusion of “the Hound” in spite of it being the first mention of the the Necronomicon, arguably the most popular of Lovecraft’s creations.
Ultimately, it is up to each reader when regarding Lovecraft’s own works to determine if it should be included in either Lovecraftian canon or the Cthulhu Mythos (though I think it is rare for one to be the latter without being the former as well.). Logic says that if this is hard to determine for his works, it should be harder to make that determination for the works of others. Strangely, it becomes easy to apply more criteria when we start looking at others’ works, so we can trim a bit more effectively, which I will start going into with the next post.