Sarah Newton (meme_machine) wrote,
Sarah Newton

The Cthulhu Conundrum - Writing Historical Fiction and RPGs (Part One)

Over the past few days I've finished a massive editing job on the upcoming Shadows Over Scotland supplement by Cubicle 7, for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG. It's my second time working on a historical Cthulhu piece, the first being The Apprentice, a 1920s Lovecraftian short story I wrote for the upcoming Tales Out Of Miskatonic University anthology by Mythos Press. Both of these experiences have given me a lot to think about with regard to writing period Lovecraftian fiction and RPGs.

Shadows Over Scotland looks to be a milestone for Cubicle 7: it's a lavish, 288-page hardback set in 1920s Scotland, filled with gorgeous source detail and heaps of suitably tentacular scenarios. By Stuart Boon, a Canadian Cthulhu aficionado and long-term inhabitant of Scotland, it's proved a real challenge and a learning experience, both in terms of exciting content, but also in terms of getting the balance right between historical accuracy and Maximum Game Fun. It's due out early August, hopefully just in time for GenCon.

The Apprentice was a similar experience, though personally, and from a writer's point of view, far more challenging. For this first of two posts, I'll begin there.

Let's be up front: writing 1920s Cthulhu fiction is artificial. Lovecraft, when he wrote, didn't think about the "period" he was writing in: he was writing in the modern day - even the thoroughly modern day - and his language, technological basis, and world view was imbued with the latest, best, and greatest in human thinking. His obsession with heredity and eugenics, his fear of atavism, his nihilism, his somewhat forced use of "proper" early 20th century American English, liberally peppered with slightly haughty archaisms, all came to him naturally as a creature of his time.

When we write period Lovecraftian fiction now, we try to deliberately blind ourselves to everything we've learned over the past 90 or so years. We ignore the Nazi eugenics nightmare, the knowledge of the Second World War, the social progress we've made since the Sixties and before. We immerse ourselves in a language and mindset that is no longer our own. If we're British, we even try to emulate not only American English, but the American English of the 1920s. It's a forgery - of the most intricate, deliciously delicate kind.

But you can't go too far down that road - and this is where the artifice is compromised. Lovecraft, for all his genius, had some pretty unappealing opinions from our 21st century perspective, and reproducing them in our Lovecraftian emulations leaves us open to accusations of all kinds of prejudice - racism, sexism, Anglo-Saxon supremacy, to name but a few. So we soften our Lovecraftianism; we edit out the unacceptable face of the Lovecraftian world view. We focus on the acceptable horror - the tentacled stuff which lurks in the shadows - rather than the *truly* disturbing stuff - the fact that the past, even the relatively recent past, was a thoroughly different country, with attitudes popular then which we'd find utterly repellent now.

So, in a sense, writing a truly "period Lovecraftian" story is impossible: we have to censor ourselves, and write something "acceptably horrific" to today's readers. Ultimately, we have to use our 21st century perspective to inform the concepts behind our faux-1920s fiction - otherwise it becomes irrelevant, an exercise in fakery, and ultimately unsatisfying, if not in utterly bad taste. The period Lovecraft fiction we write today is a simulation.

The Apprentice turned out to be a monstrous hybrid - a mongrel birth from a 1920s New England sire on a 21st century British dam. Perhaps that's what all modern Lovecraftian fiction has to be - and I wonder which bits of it Lovecraft himself would find most horrific, the tentacles in the shadows, or the Hideous Hybrid Futuristic Humans we've all become, claiming to be writing in his name, but in fact embracing some of the very ideas he so terribly feared?

Next week: Part Two - Shadows Over Scotland, and creating a Lovecraftian 1920s Scotland
Tags: cthulhu, cubicle, rpg, writing
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