Mythos: The Alchemist

I’ve never read these very early stories before, my reading of Lovecraft having previously been limited to very famous stories like Call of Cthulhu and Shadow Over Innsmouth. As such, I can’t say for sure when Lovecraft is going to really arrive in proper Lovecraftian style, but I’m pretty confident that he’s going to need a few more years to cook from this 1908 story, written when he was 18 (Lovecraft had the decency to be born in the nice round numbered 1890, making it easy to determine his age as of the writing based on a story’s publication date).

According to Barnes and Nobles’ intro (no specific writer is named as near as I can tell), this story is Lovecraft trying his absolute hardest to be Edgar Allen Poe.

High up, crowning the grassy summit of a swelling mound whose sides are wooded near the base with the gnarled trees of the primeval forest, stands the old chateau of my ancestors.

You Remember Our House, Opulent And Imperial

I don’t even know how much I’m joking here. Red Hook Studio’s name is a slightly obscure Lovecraft reference, which means the parallel between the house described here and the one in Darkest Dungeon may be a fully intentional homage.

Continue reading “Mythos: The Alchemist”

Mythos: The Beast in the Cave

I really liked the note the previous post ended on, so I’m splitting this off into a second post for later in the same day. This is our examination of what Barnes and Noble considers to be Lovecraft’s first “real” story. There’s a few creative ideas with atrocious execution in the appendix at the back, like a story with grammar so poor it impairs readability but which contains a decent joke about some sailors finding a message in a bottle claiming to lead to buried treasure, which then turns out to be a prank. Neat and all, but not exactly a Lovecraft story, despite having been literally written by HP Lovecraft.

Fifteen-year old HP Lovecraft brings us the first “real” Lovecraft story, the Beast in the Cave, in which Lovecraft writes about being lost in a cave despite having never been in a cave in his life, having done considerable research on the subject in the library instead. I think this definitely qualifies the story as Lovecraftian.

The horrible conclusion which had been gradually obtruding itself upon my confused and reluctant mind was now an awful certainty.

Yup, definitely a Lovecraft story. This is the opening line, establishing that our protagonist was taking a tour in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, when he decided it would be fun to wander off from the group and go exploring alone. He is now completely lost and facing inevitable death, because of course he is.

Fifteen-year old Lovecraft, far from having not yet grown into his style, is so very Lovecraftian as to come across as parodic. He would evidently tone down the sesquepedelian loquaciousness later in life, and would become less enraptured with how horrifying his own stories were. He’s got that teenage affectation that using lots of really weird words must be how good writing works. Lines like this:

As I stood in the waning, unsteady light, I idly wondered over the exact circumstances of my coming end. I remembered the accounts which I had heard of the colony of consumptives, who, taking their residence in this gigantic grotto to find health from the apparently salubrious air of the underground world, with its steady, uniform temperature, pure air, and peaceful quiet, had found, instead, death in strange and ghastly form.

Would be out of place in a fan fiction only because there’s some actual interesting ideas underneath all the purple prose.

Our narrator is early on quite at peace with his imminent demise:

Hope had departed. Yet, indoctrinated as I was by a life of philosophical study, I derived no small measure of satisfaction from my unimpassioned demeanour; for although I had frequently read of the wild frenzies into which were thrown the victims of similar situations, I experienced none of these, but stood quiet as soon as I clearly realised the loss of my bearings.

However, after his torch dies and he is in total darkness, he has an encounter with some strange beast that, from its footfalls, seems to switch freely between quadrupedal and bipedal locomotion. Hearing it make a beeline for him, he gropes about for a weapon, finds some stray rocks, and tosses them at the approaching footfalls until one of them connects and the unknown creature falls. He then flees in a panic and finds the guide of the sightseeing group, who had come looking for him.

I ran to meet the flare, and before I could completely understand what had occurred, was lying upon the ground at the feet of the guide, embracing his boots, and gibbering, despite my boasted reserve, in a most meaningless and idiotic manner, pouring out my terrible story, and at the same time overwhelming my auditor with protestations of gratitude. At length I awoke to something like my normal consciousness.

This feels like the Lovecraft concept of horror in prototype: A certain and well-understood death at the hands of starvation doesn’t faze our protagonist, but one encounter with an unknown horror and he is reduced to literal gibbering. He recovers his senses pretty quickly, but still, he falls to his knees in gratitude upon rescue despite apparently having no fear of death in general.

With better access to light, the protagonist returns to the site of the confrontation to examine the creature he felled, and we get our twist ending.

Then fear left, and wonder, awe, compassion, and reverence succeeded in its place, for the sounds uttered by the stricken figure that lay stretched out on the limestone had told us the awesome truth. The creature I had killed, the strange beast of the unfathomed cave was, or had at one time been, a MAN!!!

That very fifteen-year old emphasis on the reveal is from the original.

I’m using the “Mythos” tag as a means of getting not only Lovecraft, but also August Derleth’s work in the immediate aftermath, sources of inspiration like Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow which were written before the Mythos, and much later modern addendums like FFG’s Arkham Files games (especially the Arkham Horror LCG, which is writing new stories in the same setting rather than being a vague remix of existing Lovecraft stories as most Arkham Files games have been) and the Lovecraftian Stephen King novels. By that categorization, the Beast in the Cave arguably doesn’t count. It’s definitely got Lovecraft’s style, but it’s not any kind of Mythos story. Someone just got lost in Mammoth Cave, survived off of rats and cave fish for however many years until their body was grotesquely adapted to their new environs, and then got killed by a panicked spelunker. No eldritch horror involved.

It’s in the Barnes and Noble collection, though, so I read it and now I’m writing a blog post about it.

Mythos: Let’s Get The Conversation About Madness Out Of The Way

I still intend to review Leaves of the World Tree, probably intermingling stories from that collection with stories from this one. But I really need to concentrate on reviewing whatever will get me posting again, and that means some kind of proper investigation where even if an individual work is bad, it’s part of an overall picture which is important even if I don’t particularly enjoy and do not recommend many or any of its component parts, and that means we’re going to start chipping away at the complete works of HP Lovecraft. I got one of those Barnes and Noble classics that contained, so far as I can tell, everything Lovecraft ever published and some things he didn’t, and I’m going to be going through that, hopefully alternating with Leaves.

I inaugurated a discussion about Conan with a post about how, although racist, the Conan stories were considerably less racist than Nazis would lead you to believe, because Nazis try to reframe practically everything that isn’t explicitly progressive as being secretly pro-Nazi. The most stand-out example of this is Nazi reinterpretations of the mildly anti-racist Lord of the Rings as secretly being pro-eugenics, despite Tolkien having explicitly gone on record to tell the actual Nazi Party to get bent.

In context of HP Lovecraft, though, although certain specific stories aren’t about race even though people think they are (Lovecraft had a lot of phobias), Lovecraft personally was barely less racist than actual Nazis. Now, he was less racist than actual Nazis, and it is still important to maintain perspective that, for example, Lovecraft was the kind of fellow who would marry a Jew because “she’s one of the good ones” rather than calling for total extermination. But for the most part, even if specific accusations of racism turn out to be sensationalism, Lovecraft is pretty much exactly as racist as you’ve been led to believe. Like, he once wrote a story where the real horror was that someone who is like one-sixteenth black was successfully passing as white. Not that there was some kind of fish-monster whose lineage was a metaphor for race-mixing, but that the big reveal is literally that the villain had a black great-grandparent.

That said, many of the tropes assigned to Lovecraft as core to the experience by his modern fandom are drastically exaggerated, in some cases to the point of being almost completely baseless. I’ve actually talked about this before, but only as a quick post articulating a pet peeve, so for purposes of proper analysis, I want to draw attention to three things commonly believed about the Mythos that are pretty much completely wrong:

-As the linked article suggests, Mythos monsters are not generally all that durable. Although Lovecraft’s protagonists frequently find themselves physically outmatched, this is because they are aging antiquarians, amateur home renovators, and underpaid clerks. Most Mythos creatures succumb just fine to a blast of dynamite or a shotgun scatter, Lovecraft’s protagonists just don’t have dynamite and shotguns. FFG’s Arkham Files games have a radically different tone from Lovecraft’s because they tend to star investigators who are actively confronting the Mythos and have made some effort to prepare themselves for that confrontation, but they’re not inaccurate to the general level of threat posed by the Mythos. People complain about how players in the Call of Cthulhu RPG rarely act in accordance with Mythos lore as though it were a fault in the adventures that GMs are running, and while I’m certain there are some GMs out there running dungeon crawls with a Mythos coat of paint on, Old Man Henderson is actually a perfectly reasonable protagonist for a story that’s about confronting the Mythos rather than being ambushed by it.

-People generally don’t go insane from contact with the Mythos. This has happened to  couple of Lovecraft’s protagonists, but nowhere near the majority, and that’s counting people who were institutionalized as insane for reporting the perfectly real Mythos encounters they’d had. When they do, it’s usually because they share a certain neurosis with their author, and we shouldn’t expect people with ordinary mental resilience to be so horrified. It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that all Lovecraft stories are about the same sheltered white guy going for a walk and being horrified to realize that a black person has moved into his neighborhood, but the basic sentiment is accurate: Many of the things that Lovecraft felt were so terrible that the human mind was better off not knowing they were real are things that many readers of this blog already believe are true and haven’t taken any particular SAN damage from. There’s nothing special about humanity, and our existence is actually quite small and insignificant next to the vastness of the universe, and it’s not currently clear whether we’ll ever expand past the tiny speck we’re currently locked on. Comforting? No. Madness-inducing? Also no. Some people do get really worked up about this kind of thing and are only able to function by ignoring it, but other people feel a brief moment of disappointment and then get on with their lives.

-The Mythos doesn’t always win. This is actually a common problem in any form of media: People are so used to seeing incessant victory that they treat any context in which the good guys even occasionally lose as one in which things are completely hopeless. A 50/50 win:loss ratio is treated as an inevitable death spiral rather than a closely matched battle, and 70/30 tends to be treated like a single slip could spell doom for our team, despite the fact that 70/30 win:loss ratio actually suggests that we’re winning handily and would have to bungle multiple encounters to lose the initiative. Lovecraft’s protagonists don’t have a 100% victory rate, and to a certain kind of grimderpy fan, that automatically means they must have a 0% victory rate. In the actual works by Lovecraft, you win some and you lose some.

With almost everything weird and different, the things which set a piece of media apart get exaggerated to the point of self-parody by fans, and sometimes, in the modern era, by creators who can react to fan communities in real time. So when we’re reading HP Lovecraft, we’re going to take a step back from the hype and bear in mind that, although Cthulhu lies dreaming beneath the ocean, the deep ones lurk in the waters of Innsmouth, and an invisible abomination the size of a barn lives in Dunwich, all three of those things were shot in the face until they died.

Writing Mediocre Books Is Hard

As the title says, writing mediocre books is hard. Not in the sense that writing books is so difficult that even writing a mediocre one is hard. I mean in the sense that my own stringently advocated strategy of favoring quantity over quality is actually more difficult than fussing with a book until every single chapter is individually an effective advert for my writing. For me, at least. I assume the guy writing Dungeon Born doesn’t have this problem.

I have two different books now that are struggling with middle chapters, and I recently read both of them and compared them not to the best moments of my own work, but to the best moments of other books I have read. Obviously, if we use all books I have read as a measuring stick, the problem only gets worse. But using individual other books I have read, it suddenly becomes clear that I am worried about nothing. The worst parts of my book are only slightly worse than the best parts of Awaken Online. They’re better than the best parts of Shipwrecks Above and, by extension, Succubus. The worst parts of my books are definitely better than the worst parts of perfectly successful books like Threadbare, and are no worse than the bog quest from Way of the Shaman. The worst parts of my book are about on par with the opening pages of Scourge of the Betrayer, and those actually are adverts for the author’s writing.

Why am I so worried about retaining readers when I’m already some nine chapters in? No one’s going to read a book that far and put it down because of one dud chapter. I know the chapter after is better, and while the one in the middle could definitely be improved, the amount of time I’ve sunk into improving it is  way past the point of diminishing returns. I’m clearly at the point here where I should just let some of the middle chapters be kind of lame and move on to finishing the actual story so I can get the good parts of the book out the door.

The State of the Blog

So, what’s up with the blog? It’s had real spotty updating lately.

Partly, the problem here is that I am very tired. My Kickstarter ventures simply aren’t working, and I’m trying to figure out what to do next. Various video and novel projects are getting poked at, and I’m constantly haunted by the fear that whatever I pick next will also be a total flop, and I will spend another 6-12 months of my life chasing something that ultimately won’t work. It’s really hard to do something when it feels like it will ultimately amount to nothing.

But there’s another problem: I’ve largely lost interest in the easiest source of content for this blog, the chapter-by-chapter book reviews. I’ve lost interest because I’m no longer using it as a means to improve myself as a writer. Rather than investigating a specific genre and getting some blog posts out of the process, the focus is now exclusively on writing blog posts. When reviewing LitRPG and Conan, I was invested in the research, in sating my curiosity as to what the fundamental tropes of LitRPG and the overall shape of the Conan story was, respectively. When reviewing these Humble Bundle books, there’s no greater thread through the stories I’m pursuing. Having discovered that Scourge of the Betrayer kind of sucks, it’s not clear what value there is in pursuing it further. There’s no investigation to complete, here.

Someone did send me a free .pdf copy of their collection of fantasy short stories, which was neat. It’s probably not the kind of thing that’s going to happen again, but having received the .pdf, I am going to at least take a stab at reviewing it. After that, I’m going to figure out a research project of some kind to pursue, rather than aimlessly reading whatever comes to hand, because the aimless thing just hasn’t worked at all. If nothing else comes to mind, I can just go back to Conan. Plenty water left in that well.

Majesty 1 vs. Majesty 2

Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim is one of my favorite video games. Years after the release of its northern expansion, it had a sequel, Majesty 2, produced by a different studio. The fandom did not like it very much. They claimed it had lost all the charm of the original. The specific complaints were both dumb and over-exaggerated (“they cut gnomes!” So what? They may have been a fun idea, but mechanically they were a trap option useful only in bizarre edge cases), but the general criticism is valid: Majesty 2 has shifted focus considerably from the original, and is more about irritating micromanagement of your heroes than it is about managing your economy.

In the original Majesty, you could build an unlimited number of marketplaces and trading posts, with the only restriction being that their costs rose sharply for each additional one constructed. In many quests, the ultimate goal is to survive long enough to get three marketplaces to level 3, at which point you are bringing in such a ludicrous amount of gold that your economy can power through virtually any opposition.

In Majesty 2, you are limited to a single marketplace and can only build trading posts on pre-designated spots. There’s a hard limit on how powerful your economy can grow, and it’s much more important to have huge hero hordes early on, so rather than balancing early defense and the foundations of an economy as in Majesty 1, in Majesty 2 you really just need to make sure you set aside enough gold for your marketplace from your starting pile while all the rest goes towards hero guilds. Once you’ve got your marketplace up and running, that income is mostly going to be recycled into more hero guilds and resurrecting dead heroes from graveyards.

Economy is less important, but unit management takes up the extra slack (once you get out of the interminable tutorial phase where you can build so few buildings that the game is largely spent staring at a screen waiting for your heroes to get on with it – the original Majesty had this same problem in its early levels). In the original Majesty, a single copy of each guild was more than sufficient to tame the wilderness, but in Majesty 2 even simple quests will demand 2 or 3 warriors’ guilds. Not only do you need to build more guilds, you also need to use the attack, explore, and welcome new additions of defend and fear flags to direct hero movement considerably more. Rangers will make some limited explorations of their own initiative, but explore flags are necessary to get them to locate dungeons for your warriors to raid. The game is less about setting up a town, bringing in some heroes, and letting them do their thing, with quest rewards being used only sporadically to prioritize their attention, and more about using reward flags to direct your heroes towards each and every goal you need accomplished like a less responsive version of StarCraft. The hands-off hero control is Majesty’s whole thing, that’s what makes you feel like you’re running the town in a fantasy RPG rather than playing some WarCraft knock-off fantasy RTS.

The game also leans a bit too heavily on the satire. The heroes, royal adviser, and other good guys come across less like genuine heroes who have some funny human foibles and more like selfish (albeit charming) cowards who pretend at heroism. It’s a not-bad imitation of the original game’s style, but it leans too heavily on the things that made Majesty stand out from the stock medieval fantasy setting, which led to it drowning out some of the important qualities of the stock medieval fantasy setting that the satirical elements relied on to function. Majesty 1 was charming because it was simultaneously very aware that they were the umpteenth video game to use this setting but nevertheless playing it mostly straight. Majesty 2 treats its setting a bit too much like a joke, though thankfully not to an extreme. It never gets hard to take the setting seriously at all, but it does frequently feel like your accomplishments are being trivialized a bit when the adviser implies that the heroic deeds you’re accomplishing are so much propaganda papered over a naked power grab.

Majesty 2 might not compare favorably to its predecessor, but it is ultimately still a fun game. Once I’ve finished playing all the content in Majesty 1, I can either play plot-free random maps forever, replay the exact same content over and over again, or I can play Majesty 2, and of those options, playing Majesty 2 is easily the most appealing.