A Philosopher's Blog

Into the Darkness: Finger Biter

Posted in Call of Cthulhu, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2017

The following is a podcast of my Call of Cthulhu adventure “Finger Biter” being run by Thomas Raley.

 

H.P. Lovecraft & Racism

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 6, 2015

HPL 2015Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game was my gateway drug to the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. His works shaped my view of horror and led me to write adventures and monographs for Chaosium. I am rather pleased that one of my creations is now included among the Great Old Ones. I even co-authored a paper on Lovecraft with physicist Paul Halpern. While Lovecraft is well known for the horrors of his Cthulhu Mythos, he is becoming well known for another sort of horror, namely racism.

When I was a kid, I was rather blind to the prejudices expressed in Lovecraft’s writings—I was much more focused on the strange vistas, sanity blasting beings, and the warping of space and time. As I grew older, I became aware of the casual prejudices expressed towards minorities and his special horror of “mongrel races.” However, I was unsure of whether he was truly a racist or trapped just expressing a common world view of his (and our) time. Which, to be honest, can be regarded as racist. Since I rather like Lovecraft’s writings, I was a bit disturbed as revelations about his racism began to pile up.

For the past forty years the World Fantasy Convention has given World Fantasy awards that take the form of a bust of Lovecraft. Nnedi Okorafor won a WFA in 2011 and was rather disturbed to find that Lovecraft had written a racist poem. While not as surprising as the revelation that Dr. Seuss  drew racist cartoons,  such evidence of blatant racism certainly altered my view of Lovecraft as a person.

As should be expected, there have been efforts to defend Lovecraft. One of the most notable defenders is S.T. Joshi, one of the leading authorities on the author. The defense of Lovecraft follows a fairly stock approach used to address the issue of whether or not artists’ personal qualities or actions should be relevant to the merit of their art. I turn now to considering some of these stock arguments.

One stock defense is the “product of the times” defense: although Lovecraft was racist, nearly everyone was racist in that time period. This defense does have some merit in that it is reasonable to consider the social and moral setting in which an artist lived. After all, artists have no special immunity to social influences. To use an analogy, consider the stock feminist arguments regarding the harmful influence of the patriarchal culture, sexist imagery, sexist language and unrealistic body images on young women. The argument is often made that young woman are shaped by these forces and develop low self-esteem, become more likely to have eating disorders, and develop unrealistic images of how they should look and behave. If these cultural influences can have such a devastating impact on young women, it is certainly easy enough to imagine the damaging impact of a culture awash in racism upon the young Lovecraft. Just as a young woman inundated by photoshopped images of supermodels can develop a distorted view of reality, a young person exposed to racism can develop a distorted view of reality. And, just as one would not hold the young woman responsible for her distorted self-image, one should not hold the young racist accountable for his distorted other-image.

It can be countered that the analogy does not hold. While young women can be mentally shaped by the patriarchal influences of the culture and are not morally accountable for this, people are fully responsible for accepting racism even in a culture that is flooded with racism, such as the United States in the 1900s. As such, Lovecraft is fully to blame for his racist views and his condemnation is justified. The challenge is, of course, to work out how some cultural factors can shape people in ways that excuse them and other shaping leaves people morally accountable.

Another reply is that this stock argument is a version of the appeal to common practice fallacy—a fallacy that occurs when a practice is defended on the grounds that it is commonly done. Obviously, the mere fact that a practice is common does not justify that practice. So, although racism was common in Lovecraft’s day, this does not serve as a defense of his views.

A second stock defense is that the artist has other traits that offset the negative qualities in question. In the case of Lovecraft, the defense is that he was intelligent, generous and produced works of considerable influence and merit. This defense does have some appeal—after all, everyone has negative traits and a person should be assessed by the totality of her being, not her worst quality taken in isolation.

While this is a reasonable reply, it only works to the degree that a person’s good qualities offset the negative qualities. After all, there are many awful people who are kind to their own pets or loved some other people. As such, a consideration of this defense would require weighing the evil of Lovecraft with the good. One factor well worth considering is that although Lovecraft wrote racist things and thought racist thoughts, there is the question of whether his racism led him to actually harm anyone. While it might be claimed that racism itself is crime enough, it does seem to matter whether or not he actually acted on this racism to the detriment of others. This, of course, ties into the broader philosophical issue of the moral importance of thoughts versus the moral importance of actions.

Another concern with this defense is that even if a person’s positive traits outweigh the negative, this does not erase the negative traits. So even if Lovecraft was a smart and generous racist, he was still a racist. Which is certainly grounds for condemnation.

A third, and especially intriguing stock defense against one moral flaw is to argue that the flaw is subsumed in a far greater flaw. In the case of Lovecraft, it could be argued that his specific racism is subsumed into his general misanthropic view of humanity. While there is some debate about the extent of his (alleged) misanthropy, this does have some appeal. After all, if Lovecraft disliked humans in general, his racism against specific ethnic groups would be part of that overall view and not racism in the usual sense. Many of Lovecraft’s stories (such as in “the Picture in the House”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, ‘the Rats in the Walls”, and “the Dunwich Horror”) feature the degeneracy and villainy of those of European stock. The descriptions of the degenerated whites are every bit as condemning and harsh as his descriptions of people of other ethnicities. As such, Lovecraft cannot be accused of being a racist—unless his racism is cast as being against all humans.

One counter to this is to point out that being awful in general is not a defense of being awful in a particular way. Another counter is that while Lovecraft did include degenerate white people, he also wrote in very positive ways about some white characters—something he did not do for any other ethnicities. This, it could be argued, does support the claim that Lovecraft was racist.

A final stock defense is to argue that the merits of artists’ works are independent of the personal qualities of the artists. What matters, it can be argued, is the quality of the work itself. One way to argue for this is to use an analogy from my own past.

Years ago, when I was a young cross country runner, there was a very good runner at another college. This fellow regularly placed in and even won races—he was, without a doubt, one of the best runners in the conference. However, he was almost universally despised—so much so that people joked that the only reason no one beat him up was because they could not catch him. Despite his being hated, his fellow runners had to acknowledge the fact that he was a good runner and merited all the victories. The same would seem to apply in the case of an artist like Lovecraft: his works should be assessed on their own merits and not on his personality traits.

Another way to make the argument is to point out the fact that an artist having positive qualities does not make the art better. A person might be a moral saint, but this does not mean that her guitar playing skill will be exceptional. A person might be kind to animals and devoted to the wellbeing of others, but this will not enhance his poetry. So, if the positive traits of an artist do not improve a work, it should follow that negative traits do not make the work worse.

This then leads to the concern that an artist’s personality qualities might corrupt a work. To go back to the running analogy, if the despised runner was despised because he cheated at the races, then the personality traits that made him the object of dislike would be relevant to assessing the merit of his performances. Likewise, if the racism of a racist author infects his works, then this could be regarded as reducing their merit. This leads to the issue of whether or not such racism actually detracts from the merit of a work, which is a lengthy issue for another time.

My own view of Lovecraft is that his racism made him a worse person. However, the fact that he was a racist does not impact the merit of his works—except to the degree that the racist elements in the stories damage their artistic merit (which is an issue well worth considering). As such, Lovecraft should be condemned for his racism, but given due praise for the value of his work and his contribution to modern horror.

 

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Skepticism, Locke & Games

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 25, 2015

In philosophy skepticism is the view that we lack knowledge. There are numerous varieties of skepticism and these are defined by the extent of the doubt endorsed by the skeptic. A relatively mild case of skepticism might involve doubts about metaphysical claims while a truly rabid skeptic would doubt everything—including her own existence.

While many philosophers have attempted to defeat the dragon of skepticism, all of these attempts seem to have failed. This is hardly surprising—skepticism seems to be unbreakable. The arguments for this have an ancient pedigree and can be distilled down to two simple arguments.

The first goes after the possibility of justifying a belief and thus attacks the standard view that knowledge requires a belief that is true and justified. If a standard of justification is presented, then there is the question of what justifies that standard. If a justification is offered, then the same question can be raised into infinity. And beyond. If no justification is offered, then there is no reason to accept the standard.

A second stock argument for skepticism is that any reasonable argument given in support of knowledge can be countered by an equally reasonable argument against knowledge.  Some folks, such as the famous philosopher Chisholm, have contended that it is completely fair to assume that we do have knowledge and begin epistemology from that point. However, this seems to have all the merit of grabbing the first place trophy without actually competing.

Like all sane philosophers, I tend to follow David Hume in my everyday life: my skepticism is nowhere to be seen when I am filling out my taxes, sitting in brain numbing committee meeting, or having a tooth drilled. However, like a useless friend, it shows up again when it is no longer needed. As such, it would be nice if skepticism could be defeated or a least rendered irrelevant.

John Locke took a rather interesting approach to skepticism. While, like Descartes, he seemed to want to find certainty, he settled for a practical approach to the matter. After acknowledging that our faculties cannot provide certainty, he asserted that what matters to us is the ability of our faculties to aid us in our preservation and wellbeing.

Jokingly, he challenges “the dreamer” to put his hand into a furnace—this would, he claims, wake him “to a certainty greater than he could wish.” More seriously, Locke contends that our concern is not with achieving epistemic certainty. Rather, what matters is our happiness and misery. While Locke can be accused of taking an easy out rather than engaging the skeptic in a battle of certainty or death, his approach is certainly appealing. Since I happened to think through this essay while running with an injured back, I will use that to illustrate my view on this matter.

When I set out to run, my back began hurting immediately. While I could not be certain that I had a body containing a spine and nerves, no amount of skeptical doubt could make the pain go away—in regards to the pain, it did not matter whether I really had a back or not. That is, in terms of the pain it did not matter whether I was a pained brain in a vat or a pained brain in a runner on the road. In either scenario, I would be in pain and that is what really mattered to me.

As I ran, it seemed that I was covering distance in a three-dimensional world. Since I live in Florida (or what seems to be Florida) I was soon feeling quite warm and had that Florida feel of sticky sweat. I could eventually feel my thirst and some fatigue. Once more, it did not seem to really matter if this was real—whether I was really bathed in sweat or a brain bathed in some sort of nutrient fluid, the run was the same to me. As I ran, I took pains to avoid cars, trees and debris. While I did not know if they were real, I have experience what it is like to be hit by a car (or as if I was hit by a car) and also experience involving falling (or the appearance of falling). In terms of navigating through my run, it did not matter at all whether it was real or not. If I knew for sure that my run was really real for real that would not change the run. If I somehow knew it was all an illusion that I could never escape, I would still run for the sake of the experience of running.

This, of course, might seem a bit odd. After all, when the hero of a story or movie finds out that she is in a virtual reality what usually follows is disillusionment and despair. However, my attitude has been shaped by years of gaming—both tabletop (BattleTech, Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, and so many more) and video (Zork, Doom, Starcraft, Warcraft, Destiny, Halo, and many more). When I am pretending to be a paladin, the Master Chief, or a Guardian, I know I am doing something that is not really real for real. However, the game can be pleasant and enjoyable or unpleasant and awful. This enjoyment or suffering is just as real as enjoyment or suffering caused by what is supposed to be really real for real—though I believe it is but a game.

If I somehow knew that I was trapped in an inescapable virtual reality, then I would simply keep playing the game—that is what I do. Plus, it would get boring and awful if I stopped playing. If I somehow knew that I was in the really real world for real, I would keep doing what I am doing. Since I might be trapped in just such a virtual reality or I might not, the sensible thing to do is keep playing as if it is really real for real. After all, that is the most sensible option in every case. As such, the reality or lack thereof of the world I think I occupy does not matter at all. The play, as they say, is the thing.

 

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Lessons from Gaming #2: Random Universe

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 22, 2014
Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game)

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My experiences as a tabletop and video gamer have taught me numerous lessons that are applicable to the real world (assuming there is such a thing). One key skill in getting about in reality is the ability to model reality. Roughly put, this is the ability to get how things work and thus make reasonably accurate predictions. This ability is rather useful: getting how things work is a big step on the road to success.

Many games, such as Call of Cthulhu, D&D, Pathfinder and Star Fleet Battles make extensive use of dice to model the vagaries of reality. For example, if your Call of Cthulhu character were trying to avoid being spotted by the cultists of Hastur as she spies on them, you would need to roll under your Sneak skill on percentile dice. As another example, if your D-7 battle cruiser were firing phasers and disruptors at a Kzinti strike cruiser, you would roll dice and consult various charts to see what happened. Video games also include the digital equivalent of dice. For example, if you are playing World of Warcraft, the damage done by a spell or a weapon will be random.

Being a gamer, it is natural for me to look at reality as also being random—after all, if a random model (gaming system) nicely fits aspects of reality, then that suggests the model has things right. As such, I tend to think of this as being a random universe in which God (or whatever) plays dice with us.

Naturally, I do not know if the universe is random (contains elements of chance). After all, we tend to attribute chance to the unpredictable, but this unpredictability might be a matter of ignorance rather than chance. After all, the fact that we do not know what will happen does not entail that it is a matter of chance.

People also seem to believe in chance because they think things could have been differently: the die roll might have been a 1 rather than a 20 or I might have won the lottery rather than not. However, even if things could have been different it does not follow that chance is real. After all, chance is not the only thing that could make a difference. Also, there is the rather obvious question of proving that things could have been different. This would seem to be impossible: while it might be believed that conditions could be recreated perfectly, one factor that can never be duplicated – time. Recreating an event will be a recreation. If the die comes up 20 on the first roll and 1 on the second, this does not show that it could have been a 1 the first time. All its shows is that it was 20 the first time and 1 the second.

If someone had a TARDIS and could pop back in time to witness the roll again and if the time traveler saw a different outcome this time, then this might be evidence of chance. Or evidence that the time traveler changed the event.

Even traveling to a possible or parallel world would not be of help. If the TARDIS malfunctions and pops us into a world like our own right before the parallel me rolled the die and we see it come up 1 rather than 20, this just shows that he rolled a 1. It tells us nothing about whether my roll of 20 could have been a 1.

Of course, the flip side of the coin is that I can never know that the world is non-random: aside from some sort of special knowledge about the working of the universe, a random universe and a non-random universe would seem exactly the same. Whether my die roll is random or not, all I get is the result—I do not perceive either chance or determinism. However, I go with a random universe because, to be honest, I am a gamer.

If the universe is deterministic, then I am determined to do what I do. If the universe is random, then chance is a factor. However, a purely random universe would not permit actual decision-making: it would be determined by chance. In games, there is apparently the added element of choice—I chose for my character to try to attack the dragon, and then roll dice to determine the result. As such, I also add choice to my random universe.

Obviously, there is no way to prove that choice occurs—as with chance versus determinism, without simply knowing the brute fact about choice there is no way to know whether the universe allows for choice or not. I go with a choice universe for the following reason: If there is no choice, then I go with choice because I have no choice. So, I am determined (or chanced) to be wrong. I could not choose otherwise. If there is choice, then I am right. So, choosing choice seems the best choice. So, I believe in a random universe with choice—mainly because of gaming. So, what about the lessons from this?

One important lesson is that decisions are made in uncertainty: because of chance, the results of any choice cannot be known with certainty. In a game, I do not know if the sword strike will finish off the dragon. In life, I do not know if the investment will pay off. In general, this uncertainty can be reduced and this shows the importance of knowing the odds and the consequences: such knowledge is critical to making good decisions in a game and in life. So, know as much as you can for a better tomorrow.

Another important lesson is that things can always go wrong. Or well. In a game, there might be a 1 in 100 chance that a character will be spotted by the cultists, overpowered and sacrificed to Hastur. But it could happen. In life, there might be a 1 in a 100 chance of a doctor taking precautions catching Ebola from a patient. But it could happen. Because of this, the possibility of failure must always be considered and it is wise to take steps to minimize the chances of failure and to also minimize the consequences.

Keeping in mind the role of chance also helps a person be more understanding, sympathetic and forgiving. After all, if things can fail or go wrong because of chance, then it makes sense to be more forgiving and understanding of failure—at least when the failure can be attributed in part to chance. It also helps in regards to praising success: knowing that chance plays a role in success is also important. For example, there is often the assumption that success is entirely deserved because it must be the result of hard work, virtue and so on. However, if success involves chance to a significant degree, then that should be taken into account when passing out praise and making decisions. Naturally, the role of chance in success and failure should be considered when planning and creating policies. Unfortunately, people often take the view that both success and failure are mainly a matter of choice—so the rich must deserve their riches and the poor must deserve their poverty. However, an understanding of chance would help our understanding of success and failure and would, hopefully, influence the decisions we make. There is an old saying “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” One could also say “there, but for the luck of the die, go I.”

 

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Using Tragedy to Define Horror

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 14, 2010
Cthulhu Mythos anthology
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Put roughly, Aristotle’s account of tragedy sets forth three main requirements for tragedy. The first is that the work is supposed to produce the emotions of pity and fear in the audience. Second, the main character must be not exceptionally good but is also not morally bad. The third involves the means by which these emotions are to be produced. Put simply, a person must pass from happiness to misery through an error in judgment. A work that meets these conditions can be considered a tragedy and one that excels at meeting them would be a good tragedy[i].  While this is an oversimplified account of tragedy, it does provide the model to be used in the discussion of horror.

As has been noted, the end of tragedy is the production of particular emotions. This is true of horror as well. As Lovecraft says,  “…we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point.”[ii]

While tragedies are calculated to produce pity and fear, works of horror are aimed to produce horror in the audience. While the feeling of horror might be regarded merely as a stronger form of fear, strong fear is more correctly known as terror.

The feeling of horror involves more than merely being terrified. It also involves more than being terrified by startling or gruesome things, such as those in Psycho or Seven. While such works are superficially similar to horror, they are, in Lovecraft’s view, works “of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”

What then is the true definition of horror? Lovecraft asserts that horror is  “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 outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” [iii] This definition seems reasonable for it captures an intuitive view of horror-that it is an emotion beyond merely mundane fear.  This feeling, then, is the true feeling of horror and is the feeling that the creator of true horror must aim for if she hopes to succeed.

Of course, it cannot be expected that a work must always produce a feeling of horror in everyone at all times in order for the work to fall within the genre of horror. This condition would be all but impossible to meet[iv]. Rather, one must say that a work would need to tend to produce such an effect in the audience.

But, it must be noted that the production of horror is not in itself a sufficient condition for the classification of a work as a work of horror. That this is the case can be shown in an analogy. Works of terror, such as Psycho, aim at creating strong fear in the audience. It is easy to imagine, for example, some people who are so absolutely terrified of deer that even seeing cartoon deer causes them to experience terror. Despite this, one would not classify Bambi as a work of terror. Similarly, simply because a work produces horror in an audience does not entail that it must be a work of horror. For it to be a work of horror, the horror must be produced in the right way. Before proceeding to the topic of the proper cause of horror, the nature of the characters in horror will be considered.

Aristotle notes that the main character in a tragedy cannot be exceptionally good. Seeing such a person meet a tragic fate would be odious and offensive-the audience would more likely feel anger and outrage rather than pity and fear. However, the main character must not be a bad person. Seeing a bad person meet a bad fate is more likely to satisfy the audiences’ craving for justice than to create pity and fear.  Ideally, the main character falls into a moral middle ground. Since most people fall into that category as well, their identification with the character is strengthened and hence so is the potential emotional impact of the work.

Thus, the nature of the main character can have a significant impact on the emotions produced by a work of tragedy. It is contended that the same holds true for works of horror. What remains to be determined is the ideal sort of character for horror.

It might be thought that the ideal character for horror is one who is exceptionally good. After all, seeing an exceptionally good character plunged into horror should make the audience’s feeling of horror that much greater. However, as in tragedy, choosing such a character is likely to backfire-the audience is likely to become offended when such a character experiences such horrible things. Further, since most people are not exceptionally good, the typical audience member would not identify closely with the character and this would tend to reduce the emotional impact of the work. Thus, the main character in a work of horror should not be exceptional good.

The matter of morally bad or defective characters is more controversial. In fact, it is something of a tradition for works of horror to focus on horrible things happening to bad people (often in retribution for their evil actions). For example, Tales from the Crypt, Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone often featured episodes that fit this pattern. While the audience might feel some sympathy towards the bad character and feel some horror at her fate, the badness of the main character would reduce the horror of the work. First, any feelings of horror would be tempered by the knowledge that the bad character at least partially deserved his fate. This would, as with a tragedy, reduce the emotional impact of the work-at least the emotion of horror. Such a work would be more of a morality play (or a tale of vengeance) as opposed to a work of horror. Second, since most people are not bad, the audience would most likely fail to identify closely with the character. This would likely result in some emotional distancing and hence the effect of the work would be lessened.

The ideal character for horror would seem to be the same as the ideal character for tragedy-someone who is neither exceptionally good nor bad.  First, It is more likely that the audience will be able to identify with such a character. This increases the likelihood of sympathetic involvement and such involvement can enhance the emotional impact of a work. Second, while the character’s involvement in the horrible events would be seen as at least partially undeserved, he would also be regarded as having some relevant flaws that contributed to his fate. This combination would enhance the emotion of horror. An excellent example of such a character is Charles Dexter Ward in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward[v]. Like many of Lovecraft’s characters, Ward is driven by his curiosity to dabble in forces best left alone and this choice leads to his destruction at the hands of a resurrected ancestor. The audience can rightly regard Charles as bringing on his horrible fate, yet also correctly see the fate as far more than he deserved.

Now that the nature of the horrific character has been discussed, the final matter to be addressed is the proper cause of the emotion of horror.

According to Aristotle, the tragic effect is brought about when the main character is brought from happiness to misery by an error in judgment. Because the character is not brought to her fate by depravity or moral badness, the audience can feel pity for the character and fear that they might meet a similar fate. Thus, the production of pity and fear by the appropriate means is the hallmark of tragedy.

In the case of a work of horror the goal is to produce the emotion of horror. As argued above, this must be done by the proper means. Not surprisingly, the main character must experience horrible events calculated to produce the effect of horror. As with a tragedy, the victim of horror typically undergoes a transition. In horror, this transition would take the form of a change from a state of normalcy to a state of horror. As argued above, this fate should not result from evil or depravity but from a flaw or flaws in a generally laudable character.

Such a transition also takes place in works of fear and terror: the main character is taken from the realm of the normal and brought into the realm of fear or terror. For example, the aptly titled Cape Fear and many Hitchcock films fit this mold.  The events and things that produce fear are generally well known. For example, “secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule”[vi] are all things that can create fear and perhaps even terror. However, it is contended that such things are not the stuff of horror. What then, is the proper genesis of horror?

According to Lovecraft, there are two key aspects to horror. First, “ A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present.”[vii]

Because people seem to naturally fear the unknown, unknown forces are quite effective in the generation of fear and terror. For example, an unknown party committing gruesome murders is a stock element in much film and literature. However, such works do not go beyond fear and terror. To get beyond mere fear and terror, something extra is needed. If the forces involved are both unknown and outer in nature, then this something extra can be present and the impact can go beyond fear and into horror.

Further, it is common for works of fear and terror to reach a resolution in which the nature of the forces is exposed. For example, the identity of the secret killer is revealed. If a work includes an explanation of events and the unknown is made known, then what might be called a “Scooby Do effect” occurs-the masks are removed and it is seen that nothing is as terrible or horrible as one might imagine. Put more precisely, almost no matter how terrible something is, once it is known it is somehow lessened and limited-at the very least one no longer worries that it might be something worse. The horrific effect is thus best served by leaving the unknown intact at the end of the work.

An excellent example of a work that meets this condition is The Haunting. The nature of the force (if there is in fact a force) is unknown-the mind is left in ignorance to speculate on the horror. Because one does not know what the force is, it could be anything…anything at all.  As such, the film is a very effective work of horror. Psycho is scary and is extremely effective at creating fear. But it is not a work of horror. Too much is revealed and the killer, despite his madness, is still just a man. And men, even madmen, are known to us.

Second, “there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain –a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”[viii] Just as people feel fear at which they do not understand, they also feel fear when they are vulnerable to a threat. The greater the threat and the greater the vulnerability, the greater the fear. If the vulnerability extends to the very foundations of the universe and the threat is extreme, the effect can go well beyond fear and into horror.

A person with a gun might cause fear, so too might a shark. We fear them because they are sources of danger to us. They are, of course, natural things. We are vulnerable to such things, but they too are vulnerable in mundane ways. Hence, we fear them but are not horrified by them. Creatures like wraiths, vampires, Shoggoths, demons, the thing and the alien are beyond the natural laws we accept. So are people with unnatural powers, like the girl named Carrie. They are not like us and seem to be exempt from the rules that govern us. As such, they can go beyond inspiring mere fear and terror. They can inspire horror.

As the examples show, the suspension of natural laws need not be supernatural in nature. While horror is traditionally regarded as involving the supernatural, works like At the Mountain of Madness, “Who Goes there?” and Alien show that horror need not be confined to the supernatural realm. This is hardly surprising-as technology and science grow into areas once dominated by religion, our demons will increasingly come from the icy void of space rather than the fires of hell.


[i] Naturally there are many other factors that go into the assessment of a tragedy but these considerations go beyond the scope of this work.

[ii] Lovecraft, H.P. . “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”H.P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horror Ed. Stephen Jones and Dave Carson. New York:Barnes & Noble Books,1993. 1-65.t, p.4.

[iii] Lovecraft p.3.

[iv] Under this requirement the only works of horror would be perfect works of horror-those that produce the emotion without fail. Only IRS forms are likely to meet such a requirement.

[v] Played by Vincent Price in the improperly titled The Haunted Palace.

[vi] Lovecraft, p.4.

[vii] Lovecraft, p.4.

[viii] Lovecraft, P.4.

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Once Men on Sale

Posted in Science by Michael LaBossiere on July 26, 2008

My science fiction/horror book for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, One Men, is now on sale.

You can buy it here.

Cthulhu Movie

Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on July 13, 2008

H.P. Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” is one of the best horror stories ever written. It has an excellent plot and is quite innovative. Unfortunately, people just cannot seem to avoid desecrating his works.

I was recently looking at the Rotten Tomato site and saw that Cthulhu is a forthcoming movie. The blurb is this: “Adapted from a story by H.P. Lovecraft. A Seattle history professor, drawn back to his estranged family on the Oregon coast to execute his late mother’s estate, is reaquainted with his best friend from childhood, with whom he has a long-awaited tryst. Caught in an accelerating series of events, he discovers aspects of his father’s New Age cult which take on a dangerous and apocalyptic significance.”

In this case, I must take “adapted” to mean “changed and desecrated in ways that would appall even a Great Old One.”

I can understand changing the time period to make it more appealing to modern audiences, but key elements of the story have been changed. First, the setting is different. This is important because the New England setting is actually a vital part of Lovecraft’s style of fiction. Read the stories and you’ll see why. Second, in the actual story, there is no estranged family plot. The work is a horror story. Throwing in the estranged family story serves to detract from the excellent plot of the real story. Third, the original story contains no tryst. From the photos, I gather that his friend is male and a gay love story has been added. I’m not opposed to gay love stories in movies that are supposed to about such things, but this is not in the original story at all. I cannot even imagine how adding a homosexual element to the story would improve it in anyway. Of course, I don’t like to mix sex/romance and horror, so I like the fact that Lovecraft keeps his focus on horror and doesn’t taint it with cheap sexuality. I suspect that inferior writers need to throw in sex in order to get attention. Lovecraft doesn’t need to do that-the quality of his writings stand quite well and do not need to be “tarted up.”

I fear that Cthulhu will be a horrid mess. When it comes to great stories, directors should just follow Peter Jackson’s approach in the Lord of the Rings: move the story to the screen without butchering it in the process.

Mainly, I’m just pissed that a great story is being dumped into the sewers.

Oh, Tori Spelling is in the movie. That speaks volumes.