MIT and GUE (or, The Annotated Lurking Horror)


We have a fair number of games and events still to cover in the ongoing history of Infocom that’s been biting such a good-sized chunk out of this blog for so long, but the end is slowly heaving into sight. The same was also true, albeit in a less certain and more intuitive way, for those actually at Infocom at the time of The Lurking Horror‘s release. The winds of the industry were quite clearly blowing against them, and even if they could manage to eke out another hit or two it wasn’t at all clear how they could remake themselves to conform to the new order in the longer term. Meanwhile some of the Imps were beginning to wonder what the point of surviving as a developer of interactive fiction might be anyway. They knew how to make rock-solid text adventures in their traditional style, but they didn’t quite know how to advance beyond that. Given that they were unlikely to ever make a better game in that traditional style than Trinity, and that their players had proved unreceptive to their one attempt to radically upend the formula with A Mind Forever Voyaging, that was a problem. Infocom wasn’t populated by the sort of people who are comfortable just reworking the status quo year after year.

All of these feelings must have fed into David Lebling’s decision to set his game for 1987 at a lovingly recreated MIT, known as GUE Tech in the game. With commercial pressures threatening to crush an Infocom that had long since lost control of their own destiny and artistic ennui threatening to crush the Imps’ souls as well, it was nice to think back to the simpler days at MIT where it had all begun as just another hacking exercise, where that original mainframe Zork had represented for Lebling and his earliest co-Implementors something so inspiring and genuinely new under the sun. By way of honoring those feelings, I thought we could also take one last lingering look back along with Lebling today. I’d like to take you on a guided tour through The Lurking Horror‘s MIT… oops, GUE. If you haven’t played this one before, or if it’s been a while, feel free to play along with me. I won’t solve the puzzles for you — although a little nudge here and there may be in the cards — but I will tell you a bit more about what you’re seeing. For what follows I’m hugely indebted to Janice Eisen (MIT Class of 1985), a Patreon supporter who not only pays me for each of these articles but all but did my job for me when it came to this one by sharing her own experiences of life at MIT as it was then and presumably still is today. So, come along with Janice and me and let us tell you a little about the place where Infocom began.

Whether you’re playing along or not, the map found in the center of the GUE Tech brochure that accompanies The Lurking Horror is well worth referring to now and throughout this tour. It roughly corresponds to the heart of the real campus, albeit with some important differences that I’ll be explaining when we come to them. If you’re feeling particularly motivated, you may also want to pull up MIT’s official campus map for comparison purposes. To orient yourself, know that the Great Dome is found on Building 10 on that map.

G.U.E. map

We start our adventurous evening one dark and snowy winter night in GUE Tech’s so-called “Computer Center,” which corresponds to MIT’s Building 13 (an ominous start, no?).

Terminal Room
This is a large room crammed with computer terminals, small computers, and printers. An exit leads south. Banners, posters, and signs festoon the walls. Most of the tables are covered with waste paper, old pizza boxes, and empty Coke cans. There are usually a lot of people here, but tonight it's almost deserted.

A really whiz-bang pc is right inside the door.

Nearby is one of those ugly molded plastic chairs.

Sitting at a terminal is a hacker whom you recognize.

Know first of all that this is not the place where so many future Infocom staffers worked throughout the 1970s, and created Zork near the end of that decade. That work took place on the leased top floor of the nine-story Building 47. Standing some distance to the north of the campus core, Building 47 is described by Steven Levy in his seminal Hackers as “a building of mind-numbing dullness, with no protuberances and sill-less windows that looked painted onto its off-white surface.” It still looks about the same today, and houses MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering and Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies among other tenants. Building 13, meanwhile, is not and never has been earmarked as a computer center; it houses the Material Sciences and Engineering Center among others.

That said, the description of the place, unholy mess included, is very typical of the computer labs that were and are scattered all over the campus. The hacker who inhabits it alongside us is certainly worth a look.

>examine hacker
The hacker sits comfortably on an office chair facing a terminal table, or perhaps it's just a pile of old listings as tall as a terminal table. He is typing madly, using just two fingers, but achieves speeds that typists using all ten fingers only dream of. He is apparently debugging a large assembly language program, as the screen of his terminal looks like a spray of completely random characters. The hacker is dressed in blue jeans, an old work shirt, and what might once have been running shoes. Hanging from his belt is an enormous ring of keys. He is in need of a bath.

It’s instructive to compare this depiction of a prototypical hacker — i.e., practically Richard Stallman in the flesh — with Michael Bywater’s “horrible nerd” from Bureaucracy. Lebling, while certainly not blind to his character’s annoying eccentricities, also shows a knowing familiarity that borders on affection. Bywater… doesn’t. Particularly knowing on Lebling’s part is the hacker’s typing ability, or if you like the lack thereof. Hackers have always looked on proper ten-fingered typing as a sure sign that the person in question is not one of them.

Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman

I trust I’m not giving too much away if I mention that that “enormous ring of keys” will become a critical part of the game. Strange as it may sound, keys, the more exotic the better, are in fact a status symbol at MIT. Keys imply knowledge of and access to the labyrinthine tunnels and cubbyholes that riddle the campus. “Roof-and-tunnel hacking,” something we ourselves will be indulging in on this snowy night, has always been a popular pastime at MIT, tolerated if not officially condoned by the administration and campus police — tolerated not least thanks to the fact that, contrary to The Lurking Horror‘s GUE Tech brochure, no known deaths can be attributed to the practice. Janice told me the the story of joining a “very unofficial student-run tour of the roofs and tunnels” as a freshman. After making their way down a creepy old steam tunnel, they popped out through a grating in a sidewalk right in front of a campus policeman. “You’re not supposed to be in there! Go back the way you came!” he ordered, leaving them no choice but to scurry back down the tunnel. One can imagine a self-satisfied character like our hacker here leading just such a tour, flaunting his knowledge and his enormous ring of keys before the newbies.

The word “hack” itself originated at MIT, where it originally implied both campus explorations of the sort just described and the sort of clever and usually elaborate practical jokes in which MIT students, once again with the tacit acceptance of the campus police and administration, have always indulged. In time anything done in an original, clever, and/or cheeky way came to be called a “hack.” By the 1960s it was being applied to computing at MIT, to the burgeoning culture of unrepentant oddballs who spent their lives trying to make these strange new machines run better, faster, and smarter. As former MIT hackers got jobs in private business and accepted postings at other universities, the usage became universal.

But we do have an assignment to write, so let’s see what we’re up against.

>examine assignment
Laser printed on creamy bond paper, the assignment is due tomorrow. It's from your freshman course in "The Classics in the Modern Idiom," better known as "21.014." It reads, in part: "Twenty pages on modern analogues of Xenophon's 'Anabasis.'" You're not sure whether this refers to the movie "The Warriors" or "Alien," but this is the last assignment you need to complete in this course this term. You wonder, yet again, why a technical school requires you to endure this sort of stuff.

Many an MIT student over the years has doubtless wondered the same thing. Like all accredited American universities, MIT conforms to the “balanced person” ideal of education, which demands that each student take a smattering of humanities and other subjects outside her major during her first year or two at university. Derided as the requirement often is, I tend to feel we could use more balanced people in the world today. The collision between technology and the humanities at MIT in particular has yielded some fascinating results, such as Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck and Nick Montfort’s work in many areas of computational creativity.

Buildings at MIT are, with only a few exceptions, referred to only by their numbers, and the same holds true for courses; thus the “better known” in the passage above is literally accurate. The prefix of “21” does indeed correspond to the Department of Humanities at MIT.

Let’s turn to that “really whiz-bang pc” and see if we can get to work.

>examine pc
This is a beyond-state-of-the-art personal computer. It has a 1024 by 1024 pixel color monitor, a mouse, an attached hard disk, and a local area network connection. Fortunately, one of its features is a prominent HELP key. It is currently turned off.

It’s a bit odd that The Lurking Horror refers to this machine as a PC at all; it’s obviously a workstation-class machine, generally considered a different species entirely from the more humble PC during the 1980s. Not only is this computer far beyond what would have been available to Lebling during his time at MIT, it’s also far beyond what the average student even in 1987 could hope to have at her disposal. It appears to represent a 3M workstation, a term first coined by Carnegie Mellon University professor Raj Reddy in the early 1980s. More of an aspiration than a practicality at that time, a 3M machine demanded at least 1 MB of memory, a display consisting of at least 1 million pixels, and a CPU capable of processing at least 1 million instructions per second. While a few such machines were available by 1987 and others were in the offing — after leaving Apple in 1985, Steve Jobs founded NeXT with this very specification in mind — very few were likely to be at the disposal of ordinary students looking to write Classics papers. Back in Lebling’s day, almost all of the work at the Laboratory for Computer Science was being done on text-only terminals — no mouse, no hard disk, no color, and for that matter no pixels that didn’t form textual characters — attached to a central DEC PDP-10. Indeed, this was largely the way that an increasingly anachronistic Infocom was still working in 1987. Nowadays, of course, a Raspberry Pi blows right past most of the 3M specification and just keeps on going for orders of magnitude afterward.

Let’s login, shall we?

>turn on pc
The computer powers up, goes through a remarkably fast self-check, and greets you, requesting "LOGIN PLEASE:". The only sound you hear is a very low hum.

>login [you'll have to figure this out for yourself]
The computer responds "PASSWORD PLEASE:"

>type [this too]
The computer responds "Good evening. You're here awfully late." It displays a list of pending tasks, one of which is in blinking red letters, with large arrows pointing to it. The task reads "Classics Paper," some particularly ominous words next to it say "DUE TOMORROW!" and more reassuringly, a menu box next to that reads "Edit Classics Paper."

>click menu box
The menu box is replaced by the YAK text editor and menu boxes listing the titles of your files. The one for your paper is highlighted in a rather urgent-looking shade of red.

The “YAK” text editor is an obvious reference to Richard Stallman’s GNU project, an attempt to create a completely free and open-source operating system that he began at MIT in 1983. One of the tools Stallman brought to the GNU project at its founding was his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink text editor Emacs, a great favorite with hackers to this day. After years of uncertain progress, the utilities developed by Stallman and others for GNU were merged with Linus Torvalds’s new Unix-like kernel in the early 1990s to create the operating system known as “Linux” today — or “GNU/Linux,” as Stallman would undoubtedly correct me. The first two letters in the name of The Lurking Horror‘s YAK editor were and are very common in hacker acronyms, standing for “Yet Another.” As for yet another what in this instance… your guess is as good as mine.

Stallman was at MIT throughout the 1970s, but he worked for the other half of MIT computer research’s split personality, the AI Laboratory rather than the Laboratory for Computer Science. (The names were of little relevance, with the latter often conducting AI research and the former often wandering far afield from it.) His path doesn’t seem to have crossed those of the future Infocom crowd with any great frequency, especially given that the Laboratory for Computer Science always had the reputation of being the more pragmatic and commercially oriented of the two groups. He would have held Infocom in contempt for attempting to market their innovations. Never one to hold back his opinions, Stallman liberally bestowed epithets like “fascist” on those who defied his “free as in freedom” hacker ethics by, say, trying to install a reasonably secure password system onto the campus computer systems.

I’ll leave it to you to read the paper, which turns out to be something very different than expected, and to talk with the hacker about it; be sure to appreciate the “explosion in a teletype factory” line, one of the best Lebling ever wrote. Afterward let’s have a look in the kitchen.

This is a filthy kitchen. The exit is to the east. On the wall near a counter are a refrigerator and a microwave.

Sitting on the kitchen counter is a package of Funny Bones.

>open refrigerator
Opening the refrigerator reveals a two liter bottle of Classic Coke and a cardboard carton.

>x carton
This is a cardboard carton with an incomprehensible symbol scrawled on the top.

>open carton
Opening the cardboard carton reveals Chinese food.

A joke among MIT hackers had it that the four basic food groups were caffeine, sugar, salt, and grease. What with caffeine and sugar getting pride of place even on that list, the infamous switch to the New Coke formula in 1985 hit them particularly hard. When the Coca-Cola Company bowed to popular demand and reintroduced the old formula as “Coke Classic” just a few months later, many hackers latched onto the theory, since disproved, that it was all a big conspiracy to switch out real sugar for high-fructose corn syrup in their favorite drink.

The connection between hacking and Chinese food is just as longstanding. A Chinese menu is a system of flavor combinations that’s infinitely intriguing to a certain kind of mind, and thus MIT hackers have been haunting Boston Chinatown since the late 1950s. Many bought Chinese-English dictionaries in order to translate the Chinese menus that were normally only given to Chinese patrons; these were always much more interesting than the safe choices reserved for English speakers. Yes, sometimes the results of the hackers’ culinary experiments could be vile, but other times they could be magnificent. In a sense it didn’t really matter. It was all just so interesting, yet another fascinating system to hack.

A favorite of the future Infocom staffers, as it was of many MIT hackers, was a place called The House of Roy, presided over by the inimitable Roy himself, whose sense of humor was surprisingly in sync with that of his favorite non-Chinese patrons. I love this anecdote from a regular customer:

We asked for tea and Roy (we think this was the family name) told Suford she would be allowed to go into the kitchen and make it for us. When she returned she informed us that the kitchen was ruled over by a large tom cat. (“Did you pet him?” “No, he was on duty.”) When we queried the owner his response was that the cat kept down vermin and was safer than chemicals. We asked about the Health Inspector and were told “cat cleaner than Health Inspector.”

Roy had only recently died at the time that The Lurking Horror was written, his beloved restaurant closed. Lebling pays tribute to this lost and lamented MIT institution by including it as the only nonfictional “Favorite Hangout” in his GUE Tech brochure.

If we put the Chinese food in the microwave for far too long — don’t try this at home without saving first! — we get an interesting description when we look at it again.

>x chinese food
This is a carton of radioactive Szechuan shrimp. Lovely red peppers poke out of the sauce.

The association of microwaves with nuclear bombs, and particularly the now ubiquitous slang to “nuke” one’s food, would appear to be another MITism that has entered the larger culture. Janice remembers hearing the slang during her time there as an undergraduate in the early 1980s, yet online etymologies claim its first documented use dates from 1987, the very year of The Lurking Horror.

At this point I’ll leave you to do something for the hacker and get something from him in return. Once you’ve taken care of that, let’s head for the elevator to begin to explore the rest of the campus.

This is a battered, rather dirty elevator. The fake wood walls are scratched and marred with graffiti. The elevator doors are open. To the right of the doors is an area with floor buttons (B and 1 through 3), an open button, a close button, a stop switch, and an alarm button. Below these is an access panel which is closed.

>x graffiti
"'God is dead' --Nietzsche
'Nietzsche is dead' --God"

The elevator doors slide closed.

"Tech is hell."


The nickname of simply “Tech” in reference to MIT is like many traditions there in that it goes back one hell of a long way. Between its founding in Boston in 1861 and its move across the Charles River to Cambridge in 1916, MIT was more commonly referred to as “Boston Tech” than by its official name. In student parlance part of the nickname stuck around even after the move.

“I.H.T.F.P” is another phrase with which all too many students are casually familiar. Sometimes described as the university’s unofficial motto, it stands for “I hate this fucking place.” Much as so many come to cherish their time at the university, the graffiti highlights a fact that can often get lost amid descriptions of all of the assorted traditions and tomfoolery (often one and the same) that go on at MIT: the fact that it is indeed, as Infocom’s GUE Tech brochure says, “a high-pressure school.” In fact, it’s the most demanding STEM university in the world. For decades there have been dark jokes among the student population about suicide, along with suspicions that the actual suicide rate is not being accurately reported. How’s that for a spot of horror?

Let’s take the elevator down a floor — be sure to check out that access panel first! — and then head out to the street.

You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.

Smith Street
Smith Street runs east and west along the north side of the main campus area. At the moment, it is an arctic wasteland of howling wind and drifting snow. On the other side of the street, barely visible, are the lidless eyes of streetlights. The street hasn't been plowed, or if it has been, it did no good.

Massachusetts winters can be every bit as brutal as the one described here; they’re as much a fixture of life at MIT as any other tradition. As for the streets themselves: MIT’s Vassar Street is slyly replaced here by Smith Street, Smith being another of the “Seven Sisters” of prestigious, historically female liberal-arts colleges. Just down Smith Street to the east is an innocuous-looking “temporary building” with one hell of a story to tell.

You push your way into the comparative warmth of a laboratory.

It is pitch black.

>turn on flashlight
The flashlight clicks on.

Temporary Lab
This is a laboratory of some sort. It takes up most of the building on this level, all the interior walls having been knocked down. (One reason these temporary buildings are still here is their flexibility: no one cares if they get more or less destroyed.) A stairway leads down, and a door leads north.

There is a metal flask here.

>get flask

Temporary Basement
During the Second World War, some temporary buildings were built to house war-related research. Naturally, these buildings, though flimsy and ugly, are still around. This is the basement of one of them. The basement extends west, a stairway leads up, and a large passage is to the east.

This rattletrap of a structure corresponds to the real MIT’s now long-gone Building 20, one of the most storied places on the campus. It was built quickly and cheaply in 1943 to house vital wartime research into radar. The expectation was that it would be destroyed as soon as the war was over. But, with postwar attendance booming thanks to the G.I. Bill and research space at a premium, no one quite got around to it for more than fifty years. Building 20 was a famously ramshackle place, showing ample evidence of its cheap and rushed construction. Walls were made of exposed plywood; ceilings were hidden above a tangle of pipes and wiring; floors were treacherously uneven; the roof leaked; windows never really fit right, and had a disconcerting habit of falling off entirely; the whole structure creaked alarmingly in the winds that blew right through its interior. It was sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter, and coated with a litigator’s wet dream worth of asbestos and lead-based paint. Yet the people who worked inside it loved the place, dubbing it their “plywood palace.”

Building 20

Building 20 would be of great historical importance were it only for the World War II research that went on there. Research into radar was funded almost as lavishly as the Manhattan Project, and was even more important for actually winning the war; “Radar won the war, and the atom bomb ended it,” goes the old saying. Much of that war-winning effort was centered right here.

But that was only the beginning. In later years countless other groups moved in and out of Building 20, doing important research into physics (an early atomic accelerator was built here, as was the world’s first atomic clock); linguistics (Noam Chomsky worked here for many years); neurology (Jerome Lettvin’s pioneering experiments on the relationship between the eyes and brains of frogs took place here); acoustics (Amar Bose, founder of Bose Corporation, worked here). Researchers loved Building 20 precisely because it was such a dump. They could feel free to drill holes in walls for cables — or knock them down entirely for that matter — and do plenty of other things that would require reams of paperwork and several safety reviews and months of bureaucratic wrangling to do anywhere else.

Most fascinating of all for our purposes, Building 20 is also Ground Zero for hacker culture. During the late 1950s it was the home of the Tech Model Railroad Club, about half of which consisted of typical train enthusiasts and half of which were there for the intrinsic interest of the plumbing, so to speak: all those wires and switches and diodes found underneath the big tables that supported the track layout. Much of the vocabulary they developed remains with us to the present day: a bad design was “losing”; a broken piece was “munged” (“mashed until no good”); unnecessary extra pieces were “cruft”; and, yes, a “hack” was a particularly clever technical feat, and “hacking” was… you get the idea. This diction and, even more importantly, the way of thinking behind it was transferred into a new field when a former TMRC member and current MIT professor invited some members to have a go at a new toy: a home-built something called the TX-0, one of the first transistorized computers and one of the first designed to be programmed and operated interactively rather than functioning as essentially a huge static calculating and collating machine. Several of the men who had helped design it went on to form Digital Equipment Corporation, donating the very first complete prototype computer they ever made, of their debut PDP-1 model, to MIT for more TMRC alumni to swarm over. Thus cemented, the links among DEC, MIT, and hacker culture persisted through the heyday of the original PDP-10 Zork and on into the 1980s. Infocom’s own aging PDP-10, on which The Lurking Horror itself was written, was just one more testament to the durability of those links.

Building 20 was demolished at last in 1999 to make room for the Stata Center, a massive slab of postmodern architecture, sort of a 21st-century Sagrada Família, that was opened in 2004. In the tradition of its predecessor, the Stata Center has been plagued by leaks, plumbing problems, and structural failures since its opening. Perhaps a ghost or two lives on?

The Lurking Horror departs from reality in giving its version of Building 20 a basement and an underground connection to the central buildings of the campus. In the game’s defense, visitors to Building 20 often remarked that the ground floor was so dank and dark that it felt like a basement. For reasons that have been lost to history, MIT chose to label that ground floor, normally Floor 1 in the university’s nomenclature, as Floor 0, as if it was indeed a basement. Just after the building was demolished in 1999, a student hack stuck an elevator in the midst of the rubble leading to a “previously hidden” subbasement stretching five stories below ground-level, presumably home of some top-secret and quite possibly nefarious government research. Aliens, anyone? These days the joke is that Building 20 is actually still standing, but hidden behind an invisibility field — perhaps a gift of those same aliens?

At some point you’ll meet an urchin skulking about down here in the basement.

>x urchin
This is an urchin. He's a youngish teenager wearing a ski hat, running shoes, and a bulky, suspiciously bumpy, threadbare parka. He's jumpy, and looks suspiciously at you.

I’m going to spoil things just to the extent of telling you that what he’s carrying beneath his parka is a pair of bolt cutters. It appears that this fellow is a bicycle thief, a consistent plague on the MIT campus since time immemorial. Kids like this one who hang about, usually for shady purposes, are indeed known as “urchins” in student parlance. When their crimes get particularly blatant, “urchin alerts” are sent out to the affected areas to warn students and faculty to keep a close eye on their valuables.

At this point you’ll likely want to do something about those old pallets off to the east and then do a bit of exploring in that direction. When you’re ready, let’s go all the way west and down the stairs to the subbasement, and then squeeze northwest through the crack.

This is a tiny, narrow, ill-fitting room. It appears to have been a left over space from the joining of two preexisting buildings. It is roughly coffin shaped. The walls are covered by decades of overlaid graffiti, but there is one which is painted in huge fluorescent letters that were apparently impossible for later artists to completely deface. On the floor is a rusty access hatch locked with a huge padlock.

>read graffiti
It reads "The Tomb of the Unknown Tool."

The Tomb of the Unknown Tool is a real place at MIT, and another semi-legendary one at that. Legend has it that long ago there was an MIT student who was trying to study — to “tool” in student parlance; similarly, the noun “tool” is a dismissive term for a good, conventionally diligent student — but couldn’t because of all the loud parties in his dorm. So he found a little cubbyhole far underground, filled with heating and air-conditioning pipes and ducts, and made it his home, eating there, sleeping there, and most of all tooling there in peace. The unknown tool himself was long gone even by the time Lebling first arrived at MIT in the late 1960s, but his legend lives on. Always an early destination of aspiring roof-and-tunnel hackers, the real Tomb is situated in roughly the same location as the one that’s found in the game. And its walls are indeed covered with graffiti left behind by the many who have visited.

Tomb of the Unknown Tool

The Lurking Horror is actually not the first game in which Lebling referred to the Tomb of the Unknown Tool. The original PDP-10 Zork includes a “Tomb of the Unknown Implementors,” with graffiti of its own that says to “Feel Free!”

In that spirit, feel free to go through the hatch here and explore even deeper. When you’re ready, let’s go southeast from the Tomb, up twice, south to the Infinite Corridor (which we’ll come back to in just a moment), and finally west into the great outdoors again.

Mass. Ave.
This is the main entrance to the campus buildings. Blinding snow obscures the stately Grecian columns and rounded dome to the east. You can barely make out the inscription on the pediment (which reads "George Vnderwood Edwards, Fovnder; P. David Lebling, Architect"). West across Massachusetts Avenue are other buildings, but you can't see them.

The Rogers Building

We’re now standing at the front door to MIT. The address of the imposing building that stands here, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, is the official address of the institution as a whole. Erected in 1939, the Rogers Building (Building 7) gets its name from that of MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers. It also bears his name on its pediment, although no “Architect” is credited.

Massachusetts Avenue is the only MIT street name that remains unaltered in the game. That it shows up in abbreviated form as the location name is not accidental; it’s universally pronounced “Mass. Ave” by students.

But it’s cold out here, no? Let’s go back inside.

Infinite Corridor
The so-called infinite corridor runs from east to west in the main campus building. This is the west end. Side corridors lead north and south, and a set of doors leads west into the howling blizzard.

There is a plastic container here.

There is a largish machine being operated down the hall to the east.

The Infinite Corridor during MIThenge.

The Infinite Corridor during MIThenge.

The Infinite Corridor is another source of much MIT lore. It’s the longest university corridor in the world, stretching east from the Rogers Building under the Great Dome and across the pre-World War II heart of the campus to Building 8 — a distance of 825 feet. One of the most celebrated events at MIT is the so-called “MIThenge,” when twice per year the sun shines just perfectly into the corridor to illuminate it down its entire length. If all that wasn’t enough to ensure the Infinite Corridor’s notoriety, many fondly remembered hacks have also taken place here. A popular theme for decades had been to deck out the Corridor like a highway of one sort or another, often complete with lane markings, road signs, and billboards.

>get container

>x container
It's a plain plastic container with something written on it. The plastic container is closed.

>read container
"Frobozz Magic Floor Wax (and Dessert Topping)"

The joke above isn’t quite original, and for once it’s not an MIT-specific in-joke. It harks back to a classic skit from the very first season of Saturday Night Live, in which Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase bond over Shimmer, a floor wax and dessert topping. One can imagine Lebling laughing at this around the same time he was working on Maze War at MIT, the world’s first networked multiplayer first-person shooter which he helped create almost two decades before Doom.

Moving down the Infinite Corridor to the east, we come upon a maintenance man.

A maintenance man is here, riding a floor waxer.

The maintenance man’s presence is a very subtle shade of in-joke. MIT’s housekeeping and custodial staff tended to do their work in the middle of the night, when the campus was largely deserted. Hackers like Lebling and company, however, tended to keep exactly same sorts of odd hours, another tradition that stretched all the way back to the days of the TX-0; “legitimate” users always kept that machine booked during the day, leaving it available only during the nighttime for the likes of the Tech Model Railroad Club. Hackers were often the only students that the janitors and housekeepers ever actually encountered, and some surprising and kind of sweet friendships formed thanks to the forced proximity between these very different walks of life.

This particular maintenance man, however, definitely doesn’t want to be our friend. I recommend that you deal with him now, if you can. If you’ve been dutifully gathering up the stuff you come across, you should have everything you need. I’m going to go south from the center of the Infinite Corridor, but you don’t want to follow me to where I go next unless you save first because the door will lock behind us, and for once our master key won’t open it (a rather pointless bit of cruelty on the whole, although to his credit Lebling does warn us).

Great Court
In the spring and summer, this cheery green court is a haven from classwork. Right now, the majestic buildings of the main campus are almost invisible in the howling blizzard. A locked door bars your way to the north.

We’re standing now at the center of the original 1916 Cambridge campus, designed by architect William Welles Bosworth. This court was also known as the Great Court at the real MIT until 1974, when it was renamed Killian Court after former MIT president James Rhyne Killian. Despite the rechristening, the old name stuck around for a long time, especially among folks like Lebling who were here before the change. MIT architecture in general is noted for its complete disharmony, a riot of mismatched buildings that seems to include at least one example of every American architectural school of the last century along with plenty of bland beige buildings with no discernible style at all. This original part of the campus, however, is coolly neoclassical, the lushly manicured central court bordered by trees, the buildings on either side forming arms that seem to bid the world to enter, much like St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s here, the only really bucolic place on campus, that commencement ceremonies are held every year.

Killian Court

Back inside — and assuming you’ve dealt with the janitor — let’s go up, up, up, all the way to the very tiptop of the Great Dome. You’ll need to solve a puzzle or two to manage it, but I’m sure you’re up to it.

You scramble up icy surface of the dome, almost slipping a few times, but finally you make it to the top.

On the Great Dome
This is the very top of the Great Dome, a favorite place for Tech fraternities to install cows, Volkswagen Beetles, giant birthday candles, and other bizarre objects. The top is flat, round, and about five feet in diameter. It's very windy, which has kept the snow from accumulating here. The only way off is down.

In the exact center of the flat area is a bronze plug.

Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

Despite interlopers like the Stata Center, the Great Dome, referred to affectionately by students as “the center of the universe,” still stands as the most enduring architectural image of MIT. As the game has made evident, just getting up here at all is a major feat of roof-and-tunnel hacking. For the even more ambitious, it’s also the ultimate location for an MIT hack (in the practical-joking sense, that is). Over the years a police cruiser, an Apollo Lunar Module, a Doctor Who phone box, a self-propelled solar-powered subway car, and a living cow have all appeared up here. The Great Dome has been coated with tin foil and has been turned into R2-D2, Tolkien’s One Ring, a giant cupcake, and a Halloween pumpkin, while the lights that illuminate it at night seem to change color constantly to celebrate one occasion or another. One of the earliest and most legendary of the Great Dome hacks occurred in 1959, when a complete working Volkswagen was torn down, carted up to the Dome, and reassembled there in the course of one long night.

A fire engine perches on the Great Dome.

A fire engine perches on the Great Dome.

After you’ve investigated thoroughly up here, let’s get back to ground level and go east to the end of the Infinite Corridor. Going north, we pass through the Nutrition Department.

Fruits and Nuts
This is the central corridor of the Nutrition Building. The main building is south, and a stairway leads down.

The MIT Nutrition Department is indeed referred to with a certain contempt as “Fruits and Nuts” by hackers. (Think back to those four basic food groups…)

Going down the stairs here and then southeast takes us to the basement of the Brown Building. Let’s go up to the lobby and outside again.

Brown Building
This is the lobby of the Brown Building, an eighteen-story skyscraper which houses the Meteorology Department and other outposts of the Earth Sciences. The elevator is out of order, but a long stairway leads up to the roof, and another leads down to the basement. A revolving door leads out into the night.

You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.

Small Courtyard
This courtyard is a triumph of modern architecture. It is spare, cold, angular, overwhelming in size, and bears a striking resemblance to a wind tunnel whenever the breeze picks up. Right now this is true of the whole campus, though. A huge mass lurks nearby, and an almost featureless skyscraper is to the north.

>x mass
You see nothing special about it.

Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

Green Building

GUE’s Brown Building stands in for the real MIT’s Green Building, which is even taller, a full 21 stories and almost 300 feet. Built in 1964, it’s yet another architectural outlier in this campus full of outliers, not only the only structure of its kind at MIT but also the only one in Cambridge; no other building there comes close to its height. As such a blatant violation of MIT and Cambridge’s normal philosophy of “horizontal continuity,” its construction was greeted with considerable controversy, not to mention outrageous rumors about the methods used to circumvent Cambridge’s normal building laws. The first tenants found that its height and proximity to the rest of the campus created a sort of artificial wind tunnel, the breeze coming off the Charles River getting so amplified that on blustery days it was impossible to even open the doors. Luckily, there were also connecting tunnels (like the one we just came through) leading to other buildings, preventing a change in the weather from trapping people inside. The original doors were eventually replaced with revolving doors. These largely alleviated one problem, but, as the description from the game relates, the courtyard remains a remarkably unpleasant place, particularly in winter.

Not really one of MIT’s more beloved buildings for all of these reasons, the Green Building’s height and general prominence on campus have nevertheless made it a target for hacks to rival the popularity of the Great Dome. For almost as long as the Green Building has existed, it’s been a Halloween tradition to throw dozens or hundreds of pumpkins down from its roof. In 1974, a professor and some of his students launched a concerted effort to operate the world’s largest yo-yo from the roof of the building, but for once this ambitious hack never quite worked out. Since the advent of cheap LED lighting, the Green Building has taken on a new role as a massive billboard telling the world what MIT students are thinking about at any given time. In 2012, students made the national news by turning it into the world’s biggest game of Tetris, inviting passersby to have a go for all of Cambridge to see. (No pressure!)

The Big Sail

The undefined “huge mass” that Lebling describes is a sly dig at another polarizing structure that sits before the Green Building, Alexander Calder’s monumental slab of modernist sculpture The Big Sail. When it was erected just a year after the Green Building itself, conventional wisdom had it that its primary purpose was to alleviate the wind-tunnel effect. But campus officials insisted that, no, this… whatever it is… exists only for aesthetic purposes. Oh, well… what better spot for a Big Sail than a wind tunnel? It does look a bit like one of Lovecraft’s horrid winged creatures might, at least if you squint just right, so I suppose it makes a good fit for the game.

The Green Building really does house, among other departments, many of MIT’s Meteorology and Earth Science facilities. In that respect its controversial height has been a blessing: the roof supports much meteorological and radio equipment used in various experiments. Let’s head inside and up there now.

Top Floor
This is the top of the stairway. A door leads out to the roof here, and you can hear the wind blowing beyond. There is a sign on the door.

>read sign
It says "NO ADMITTANCE!" In smaller, hand-written letters below, it says "This means you!" and below that in different handwriting, it says "Who, me?"

>unlock door with key
The door is now unlocked.

>open door
You push the door open, revealing a windswept, snow-covered roof. Frigid wind whips snow into your face.

When Dave Lebling was at MIT, he used to make his way out to the roof of the Green Building through a fire door that was much like this one. Its sign read, “Positively No Admittance, Opening Door Sounds Alarm.” The first student to trepidatiously push it open found that it did no such thing, and thus was yet another interesting space opened for exploration.

Let’s head onward, shall we?

You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.

Skyscraper Roof
A low parapet surrounds a small roof here. The air conditioning cooling tower and the small protrusion containing the stairs are dwarfed by a semitransparent dome which towers above you. The blowing snow obscures all detail of the city across the river to the south.

>x dome
The dome is large and semitransparent. It's made of some sort of milky-colored plastic. It dominates the roof. You can climb up to the entrance via a short ladder.

Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

You push your way into the welcoming warmth inside.

Inside Dome
You are inside a large domed area. The dome contains equipment that makes it clear it is a weather observation station. For some reason, it also contains a small peach tree. Wind whistles outside, and snow blasts against the semitransparent material of the dome.

Something smashes against the glass of the dome! You turn and see a dark shape clinging to the outside of the structure.

As you can see from the picture of the real Green Building, its roof supports a large dome much like this one, full of meteorological equipment, albeit one that is opaque rather than transparent. Lebling insists, however, that there was once another dome that was semi-transparent like this one. Further, he insists that there really was a tree inside said dome, although he’s not sure that it was actually a peach tree. No one he asked seemed to have any idea who put it there or what its purpose was. Mysteries like this aren’t particularly unusual at MIT. Incomprehensible equipment from one esoteric research project or another positively litters the campus, often stashed in the very out-of-the-way corners that make roof-and-tunnel hacking so enticing.

Given that, why not a burgeoning temple to an eldritch god as well? Let’s head for the last stop on our tour, The Department of Alchemy — as soon as you’ve investigated the dome thoroughly and dealt with that inconvenient monster, that is. Afterward, you want to go back down to the basement, up into Building 8, and south from the eastern end of the Infinite Corridor.

Chemistry Building
This corridor is lined with closed, dark offices. At the south end of the corridor is a door with a light shining behind it. There is something written on the door.

>read door
Painted on the door, in calligraphy indistinguishable from any other door at Tech, is the phrase "Department of Alchemy." You always used to wonder what was behind that door.

Department of Alchemy door

As was the case with the Tomb of the Unknown Tool, you may be surprised to learn that the Department of Alchemy is a real place at MIT — or, at any rate, that this Department of Alchemy door is real. Like in the game, it’s inside the Department of Chemistry, an example of a hack dating back many decades that was just too good to ever unhack. And, again like in the game, the real door conceals a laboratory. But the people inside do not attempt to summon blasphemous creations from the Beyond, at least as far as anyone knows.

Inside the door you’ll find a tricky — and very dangerous! — sequence awaiting you. You definitely want to save before this one, as you’re probably about to get sacrificed a few times before you get it all sorted. When you do (get it all sorted, that is), you’ll have a class ring at your disposal.

>x hyrax
The G.U.E. Tech class ring is a gold ring depicting a hyrax eating a twig. Such rings are familiarly known as "brass hyraxes."

MIT class ring

The actual MIT class ring shows, for some reason, an alleged beaver eating a twig. But it looks more like a rat, and is thus commonly referred to as a “brass rat.”

And at this point we’ve largely seen the sights in The Lurking Horror that relate back to MIT. But there’s still lots of puzzles to solve and a blasphemous evil to defeat, so I’ll leave you to it. Remember the four basic food groups — particularly the first — when you get tired, and remember that Hollywood Hijinx isn’t the only Infocom game that evinces a certain fascination with elevators. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour. If you have, I’m pretty sure there are a couple of virtual tip jars around here if your scroll to the top and look to the right. Good luck!

(If you’d like all of these annotations and more in a succinct form, feel free to download the gloss of the game that Janice Eisen so kindly prepared for me. This document was the basis for much of what I’ve written above. The Lurking Horror itself is available for purchase along with most of the other Infocom games as part of an iOS app.)


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The Lurking Horror

The Lurking Horror

Given the demographics of many readers of H.P. Lovecraft, not to mention players of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, it was inevitable that the Cthulhu Mythos would make it to the computer. The only real surprise is that it took all the way until 1987 for the first full-fledged digital work of Lovecraftian horror to appear. That it should have been among all the Imps of Infocom Dave Lebling who wrote said work is, on the other hand, no surprise. The most voracious and omnivorous reader of all in an office full of them, Lebling was also the only Imp with deep roots in the world of tabletop RPGs; he had to have been aware of Sandy Petersen’s game even if he had never played it.

Running neck and neck as he was with Steve Meretzky for the title of most prolific and recognizable Imp, Lebling was pretty much given carte blanche to choose his projects. Thus his rather vague proposal, for a “kind of H.P. Lovecraft game set at a kind of MIT-ish place,” was all that was needed to set the ball rolling. Not that, even discounting Lebling’s track record, there was a lot of risk in the proposition: horror, while relatively uncommon in adventure games to date, was a fictional genre with obvious appeal for the typical player, and Lovecraft was as good a point of entry as any. Indeed, the graphical adventure Uninvited, which had thrown a bit of Lovecraft into its blender along with lots of other hoary old horror tropes, was doing quite well commercially at the very instant that Lebling was making his proposal. Horror was a perfect growth market for adventure authors and players tired of fantasy, science fiction, and cozy mysteries.

The Lurking Horror‘s title inauspiciously harks back to “The Lurking Fear,” a story from Lovecraft’s Edgar Allan Poe-aping early years that’s not all that fondly regarded even by aficionados. “The tempo increases imperceptibly from sluggish to slow” over the course of the story, and “the awful crescendo of terror that we have been promised is more of an anticlimax,” writes Lovecraft biographer and critic Paul Roland. Ah, well… at least it has a great title, as well as a gloriously cheesy opening line that comes perilously close to “It was a dark and stormy night”: “There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear.”

The game casts you as a freshman at “GUE Tech,” a stand-in for MIT. It’s the end of the term, and your twenty-page paper on “modern analogues of Xenophon’s ‘Anabasis'” is due tomorrow. Lebling cleverly updates the classic Lovecraftian setup of a scholar coming upon a strange and foreboding document in an archive somewhere for the computer age. As you try to work on the paper inside the computer center, alone but for one occasionally helpful but usually infuriating hacker, you find that a strange file has replaced your own, a combination of “incomprehensible gibberish, latinate pseudowords, debased Hebrew and Arabic scripts, and an occasional disquieting phrase in English.” Your directory has somehow gotten mixed up with that of the “Department of Alchemy,” says the hacker. You’ll have to go down there to see if they can help you out. If you first help him out with a little problem of his own, he’s even kind enough to provide you with a key that will open most of the doors down there. And so you set off into the bowels of the university, deserted thanks to the blizzard raging outside on this dark winter night, all the while trying not to think about all the students that have been disappearing lately. Down there in the basements and steam tunnels you’ll encounter the full monty: a zombified janitor; a blood-encrusted sacrificial altar; hordes of rats running who knows where; an insane scientist trying to summon creatures from the beyond; lots of slime and general grossness; and, at last, the tentacled beastie at the heart of it all, who seems to be worming his way into the campus’s computer network to do… well, we’re never quite sure, but chances are it’s not good.

This last is The Lurking Horror‘s one really original contribution to Mythos lore, mixing it up with a bit of William Gibson-style cyberpunk; Neuromancer, another book Lebling had to have read, was the talk of science fiction at the time. The mash-up here anticipates a whole sub-genre (sub-sub-genre?) of stories, even if The Lurking Horror doesn’t do a whole lot with the premise beyond introducing it.

But then much the same thing could be said about the game’s relationship to Lovecraft in general. While most of the surface tropes are present and accounted for, most of the subtext of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror — humanity’s aloneness in a cold and unfeeling cosmos, the utter alienness of the Mythos that places it beyond our conceptions of good and evil, the sheer hopelessness of fighting powers so much greater than ourselves — is conspicuously absent. Likewise the actual creatures and gods of the Cthulhu Mythos; the only proper name from Lovecraft to be found here is that of the author himself, appearing as the name of a file on your computer by way of credit where it’s due. At the time that Lebling was writing the game, Arkham House was still emphatically claiming copyright to Lovecraft’s works, and companies like Chaosium who made use of the Mythos were paying licensing fees. Although Arkham’s claim would eventually prove dubious enough that Chaosium and others would drop the license and continue business as usual without it, it was likely copyright concerns that prompted Lebling not to name names. Unlike many computer games that would follow, The Lurking Horror also evinces no obvious debt to the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG beyond the bare fact that both are games that build on Lovecraft’s writings. It’s all enough to make me feel a little embarrassed about the two-article buildup I’ve given this game, afraid that this article might now come across like the mother of all anticlimaxes. I can only ask you to be patient, and to know that those last two articles will pay off in spades down the road, when we encounter games that dig much deeper into Mythos lore than this one does.

The Lurking Horror

Even the language of The Lurking Horror doesn’t quite ever go all-in for Lovecraft in all his unhinged glory. While Lebling gets some credit for using “debased” in an extract I’ve already quoted, there’s not a single “blasphemous” or “eldritch” to be found. Part of the ironic problem here, if problem it be, is that Lebling is just too careful a writer — too good a writer? — to let his id run wild in a babble of feverish adjective in that indelible H.P. Lovecraft way. Consider for example this scene, which finds you peering down through a manhole into a pit of horror.

>look in plate
You peer through the hole, shining your light into the stygian darkness below. The commotion below is growing louder, and suddenly you catch a glimpse of things moving in the pit. Without consciously realizing you have done it, you slam the panel shut, reeling away from the source of such images. Now you know what has been done with the missing students...

Lovecraft would doubtless describe this scene as “indescribable,” and then go nuts describing it. Lebling throws in a Lovecraftian “stygian,” but otherwise much more elegantly describes it as indescribable without having to resort to the actual word, and then… doesn’t describe it. His final line is more subtly chilling than anything Lovecraft ever wrote, a fine illustration of the value of a little restraint. Lebling, it seems, subscribes to the school of horror writing promoted by Edmund Wilson in his famous takedown of Lovecraft, which claims the very avoidance of the overwrought adjectives that Lovecraft loved so much to be key to any effective tale.

Perhaps of more concern than Lebling’s failings as a 1980s reincarnation of Lovecraft is the fact that The Lurking Horror, despite some effectively creepy scenes like the one above, ultimately isn’t all that scary. As I noted in my review of the simultaneously released Stationfall, I find that game, ostensibly another of Steve Meretzky’s easygoing science-fiction comedies, far more unnerving in its latter half than this game ever becomes. The default house voice of Infocom is a sly tone of gentle humor, an unwillingness to take it all too seriously. Just that tone creeps into a number of their more straight-laced works, this one among them, and rather cuts against the grain of the fiction. And in this game in particular one senses a conflict in Lebling that’s far from unique among writers following in Lovecraft’s wake: he wants to pay due homage to the man, but he’s also never quite able to take him seriously. At times The Lurking Horror reads more like a Lovecraft parody than homage, a line that is admittedly thin with a writer as ridiculous in so many ways as Lovecraft. Even more broadly, it sometimes feels like a parody of horror in general. The disembodied hand whom you can befriend, for instance, not only doesn’t feel remotely Lovecraftian but is actually a well-worn trope from about a million schlocky B-movies, played here as it often is there essentially for laughs. After striking an appropriately ominous note at the very end of the game, when an egg of the creature you’ve finally destroyed apparently spawns and flies off to begin causing more havoc, Lebling just can’t leave it at that. Instead he closes The Lurking Horror with a bit of macabre slapstick that’s more Tales From the Crypt than Call of Cthulhu.

>get stone
You pick up the stone. It has a long jagged crack that almost breaks it in half. As you pick it up, you feel it bump to one side. Then, as you are holding it in your hand, something pushes its way out through the crack, breaking the stone into two pieces. Something small, pale, and damp blinks its watery eyes at you. It hisses, gaining strength, and spreads membranous wings. It takes to the air, at first clumsily, then with increased assurance, and disappears into the gloom. One eerie cry drifts back to where you stand.

Something rises out of the mud, slowly straightening. The hacker, mud-covered and weak, staggers to his feet. "Can I have my key back?" he asks.

But the most important reason that The Lurking Horror doesn’t stick to its Lovecraftian guns is down to the other, perhaps even more interesting thing it also wants to be: a tribute to MIT, the university where Infocom was born and where Dave Lebling himself spent more than a decade hacking code, eating Chinese food, and exploring roofs and tunnels.

In choosing to look back with more than a hint of nostalgia rather than to gaze resolutely forward, The Lurking Horror was part of a general trend at Infocom during these latter years of the company’s history, part and parcel of the same phenomenon that saw Steve Meretzky bringing back Floyd at last for Stationfall and, after five years without a Zork, the Imps suddenly pulling out that old name that had made them who they were twice in the space of less than a year. By 1987, with sales far from what they once were and their new corporate overlords at Activision understandably concerned about that reality, a sneaking suspicion that they may be nearing the end game must have been percolating through the ranks. Thus the desire to look back, to appreciate — and not without a little wistfulness — just where they’d been. Lebling himself, meanwhile, was fast closing in on forty, a time that brings a certain reflective state of mind if not a full-fledged crisis to many of us. Whatever else it is, The Lurking Horror is also a very personal game for Dave Lebling, by far the most personal he would ever write.

Since I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve found myself growing more and more skeptical of parser-based interactive fiction’s ability to handle elaborate plotting worthy of a novel or even a novella. The Infocom ideal that was printed on their boxes for all those years, of “waking up inside a story,” was, I’ve come to believe, always something of a lost cause. In compensation, however, I’ve come to be ever more impressed by how good the form is at evoking a sense of place. Despite the name we all chose to apply to our erstwhile text adventures long ago, which I’m certainly not going to try to change now, architecture or landscaping may provide better metaphors for what interactive “fiction” does best. (It’s for this reason, for the record, that I’ve long since backed away from trying to painstakingly define “ludic narrative,” and moved away from an exclusive focus on digital storytelling for this blog as a whole.)

Given all that, I’m particularly fascinated by games like this one that embrace that great — greatest? — strength of the medium by letting us explore a real place. For all of the interactive fiction that’s been made during Infocom’s heyday and after, that’s been done surprisingly little. Only three Infocom games, of which this is the second, attempt to recreate real or historical places. I find The Lurking Horror particularly interesting because the landscape of MIT that it chooses to show us is so personally meaningful to Lebling, turning it into a sort of architecture of memory as well as physical space. I really want to do this aspect of the game justice, and so I have something special planned for you for next week’s article: an in-game guided tour of GUE/MIT.

For now, though, I’ll just note that The Lurking Horror is a worthwhile game if also a somewhat schizophrenic one. The comedy cuts against the horror; the Lovecraft homage cuts against the MIT homage. There’s a lot that Lebling wants to do here, and the 128 K Z-Machine just isn’t quite enough to hold it all. It’s one of the few standard-sized Infocom games that I find myself wishing had been made for the roomier Interactive Fiction Plus format. Still, nothing that is here is really objectionable. The puzzles are uniformly well-done, even if, oddly given that this game came out so close on the heels of Hollywood Hijinx, some of them once again revolve around an elevator. (I suspect a bit of groupthink, not surprising given the collaborative nature of Hollywood Anderson’s game). And the writing is fine, even if it does feel slightly strangled at times by the space limitations. The Lurking Horror feels a little like a missed opportunity, but it wouldn’t feel that way if what’s here — especially its recreation of MIT student life — wasn’t compelling already.

Infocom had high hopes for both Stationfall and The Lurking Horror, these two simultaneously released games of seemingly high commercial appeal written by their two most prolific and recognizable authors. The pair inspired the last really audacious promotional event in Infocom’s history — indeed, their most expensive and ambitious since the grand Suspect murder-mystery party of two-and-a-half years before. For the 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago — yes, that era-capping CES again — they rented the Field Museum of Natural History for hundreds of guests, as they had each of the two previous years, and sprung for a local rock band to liven the place up. This time, however, they also hired the famed Second City comedy troupe, incubator of talents like Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, to come in and perform improvisational comedy (“InfoProvisation”) based largely on Infocom games. From The Status Line‘s article on the event, complete with great 1980s pop-culture references:

Through a hilarious sequence of skits using very few props (a couple of chairs and a piano), the audience saw a computerized dating simulator, roared at a romance between a next-generation computer and a piece of has-been software, met Stationfall’s Floyd, visited GUE Tech, and even had the opportunity to affect the course of a scene or two.

In a tribute to the best-selling Leather Goddesses of Phobos, three vignettes, set in a singles bar and interspersed throughout the program, showed real-life versions of the three playing modes. Tame would have made Mother Teresa proud, but by the time they went from suggestive to lewd, it was enough to make Donna Rice blush.

Steve Meretzky (second from left) and Dave Lebling (second from right) ham it up with Second City.

Steve Meretzky (second from left) and Dave Lebling (second from right) ham it up with Second City.

Steve Meretzky and Dave Lebling even got to join the troupe onstage for a few of the skits. (This must have been a special thrill for Meretzky, who, judging by his love for Woody Allen and for performing in Infocom’s in-office productions, had a little of the frustrated comedian/actor in him, like his erstwhile writing partner Douglas Adams.)

But If the Second City gala harked back to the glory days of Infocom in some ways, the present was all too present in others. The new, cheap packaging was hard for fans to overlook, as was the fact that the principal feelie in The Lurking Horror, a packet of “rattlesnake eggs,” had nothing to do with the game. It looked like something that someone in marketing had just plucked off the discount rack at the local novelty shop — which was in fact largely what it was, as was proved when the final package came out with an equally inexplicable rubber centipede in place of the eggs; apparently it could be sourced even cheaper. The Second City event did get a write-up in newspapers all over the country thanks to being picked up by the Associated Press, but, alas, seems to have done little for actual sales of Stationfall and The Lurking Horror, neither of which reached 25,000 copies. For the regular CES attendees who, whether fans of Infocom’s games or not, had grown to love their parties, this final blowout and its underwhelming aftermath was just one more way that that Summer 1987 edition of the trade show marked the end of an era.

Infocom, however, still wasn’t quite done with The Lurking Horror. A few months after all of the Chicago hoopla, a new version of the game, released only for the Commodore Amiga, reached stores. This one sported digitized sound effects to accompany some of its most exciting moments, a first for Infocom and the first sign of an interest in technical experimentation — not to say gimmickry — that would increasingly mark their last couple of years as a going concern. In this case the innovation came directly from an Activision that was very motivated to find ways to spruce up Infocom’s product line. But, unlike so many of Activision’s suggestions, Infocom actually greeted this one with a fair amount of enthusiasm.

It all began with a creative and innovative programmer named Russel Lieblich, who had come to Activision after spending some time at Peter Langston’s idealistic original incarnation of Lucasfilm Games. During the Jim Levy era Lieblich had been allowed to indulge his artistic muse at Activision, resulting in the interesting if not terribly playable commercial flops Web Dimension and Master of the Lamps. That sort of thing wasn’t going to fly in the new Bruce Davis era, so Lieblich, a talented musician as well as programmer, retrenched to concentrate on the technical aspects of computer audio, a field where he would spend much of his long career in games still to come. Of most relevance to Infocom was the system he developed for playing back digitized sounds recorded from the real world. Infocom had a playtester play through The Lurking Horror again, making a list of everywhere where he could imagine a sound effect. Lebling and others then pruned the list to those places where they felt sound would be most effective, and sent the whole thing off to Lieblich to hack into the Amiga version of the Z-Machine interpreter. At least a few other machines were theoretically capable of playing short digitized sounds of reasonable fidelity as well — the Apple Macintosh and IIGS and the Atari ST would have made excellent candidates — but sound was only added to the Amiga version, an indication of just what an afterthought the whole project really was.

As afterthoughts go, it’s not bad, although the fidelity of the sounds isn’t particularly high even by the standards of other Amiga games of the day. I doubt you’d be able to recognize “the squeal of a rat,” “the creak of an opening hatch,” or “the distinctive ‘thunk’ of an axe biting into flesh” — that’s how The Status Line describes some of the sounds — for what they’re supposed to be if you didn’t have the game in front of you telling you what’s happening. Still, they are creepy in an abstract sort of way, and certainly startling when they play out of the blue. While hardly essential, they do add a little something if you’re willing to jump through a few hoops to get them working on a modern interpreter. Whether the addition of a handful of sound effects was enough to make Amiga owners, madly in love with their computers’ state-of-the-art audiovisual capabilities, consider buying an all-text game was of course another matter entirely.

Next week we’ll put Lovecraft to bed for a while (doubtless dreaming one of his terrible dreams of “night-gaunts”), but will take a deeper dive into the other part of The Lurking Horror‘s split personality, its nostalgic tribute to MIT and student life therein. If you haven’t played The Lurking Horror yet, or if you have but it’s been a while, you may want to wait until then to join me on a guided tour that I think you’ll enjoy.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Thanks again, Jason! Other sources include: the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; The Status Line of Summer 1987, Fall 1987, Winter 1987, and Winter/Spring 1988.)


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Patreon Security Breach

As some of have probably already heard, there was a recent security breach on the Patreon website. Apparently a mirror of the site that was intended for testing and development purposes was left exposed on the Internet at large and hacked. Data dumps of the whole thing are already out there on the usual torrent sites. Patreon claims — and I have no reason to doubt them — that no credit-card numbers or other financial information was exposed. Password hashes were stolen, but were encoded in such a way that it would take a staggering amount of computing power to crack any of them. Your email address and possibly your home address, if you provided it to the site, were stored in the clear as I understand it, and thus likely have been compromised.

I’m very, very sorry about this, as I’m sure is Patreon as well. They’re doing a great service that’s made a big difference for my life and for this blog, but they’ve been growing fast and obviously some things just got away from them. As for the people who do this sort of thing… I just don’t get it. Why not create something instead of tearing things down all the time?

At this point the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, so there’s not much to be done other than to change your password on Patreon, as well as anywhere else you might have been using the same password. If the damage is limited largely to lists of names and email addresses, it’s not so bad as these things go I suppose. If I hear more, and certainly if I have any reason to suspect it’s worse than that, I’ll let you know.


Lovecraft on the Tabletop

Call of Cthulhu

Sandy Petersen first encountered H.P. Lovecraft in the most perfect way imaginable. Poking around his father’s library as a boy in the 1960s, he came upon a battered old paperback called The Dunwich Horror and Other Weird Tales. It was an Armed Forces edition of Lovecraft, one of many hundreds of titles printed cheaply on pulp paper and distributed for free among the soldiers and sailors fighting in World War II. Petersen had no context for the book — no knowledge of the man or his times, no preconceptions whatsoever. There were just the stories. With their strange diction and their sinister air of otherworldliness, they might as well have been dropped into his father’s library from outer space. Petersen felt like one of Lovecraft’s many gentleman-scholar protagonists, encountering a musty old tome that offers a gateway to another world. It was the perfect book at the perfect age, and he was well and truly smitten. Lovecraft remains his favorite author to this day.

It wasn’t as easy to be a Lovecraft fan in those days as it is today. Most of his works were available, if at all, only in editions from the tiny independent publisher Arkham House. Petersen spent years hunting down the stories and learning about the man, treating each new piece of the puzzle as a revelation. And then there came a new obsession: Dungeons and Dragons.

During his first year at Brigham Young University in the mid-1970s, a friend introduced him to the brand new game via a copy of the rules he’d borrowed from one of his professors. Petersen was as immediately smitten with Dungeons and Dragons as he had been with Lovecraft. He soon graduated from player to Dungeon Master, the leader of his little troupe of role-players. With a friend named Steve Marsh, he designed a Dungeons and Dragons variant that Marsh named American Gothic:

By this he meant a fantasy campaign taking place in the modern era, with only a little magic, and most monsters stemming from ’50s horror movies and modern horror literature. I actually started this campaign and went to the trouble of detailing all the possible types of scenarios that could exist, and made up some special rules for combat, experience, and so forth. This campaign was short and abortive, but the things I learned from it planted the seeds for later work.

American Gothic was derailed by Petersen’s group’s love for an all-new RPG that was released in 1978 by a former board-game specialist called Chaosium. It was called RuneQuest.

At a glance, one could easily dismiss RuneQuest as just another me-too fantasy RPG chasing after Dungeons and Dragons players. Look closer, however, and it started to get a whole lot more interesting. RuneQuest games took place in a lovingly detailed world called Glorantha, which Chaosium’s president Greg Stafford had begun slowly elaborating almost a decade before Dungeons and Dragons even existed. Whereas Dungeons and Dragons took place in a vague “lazy medieval” pastiche of Tolkien and popular fantasy, Glorantha was classical in spirit, drawing heavily from Greek and Roman society and mythology. In the spirit of Homer, this was a game where even high-level characters could be killed with a single blow; hit points did not automatically increase when a character gained experience. Like the very first competitor to Dungeons and Dragons, Flying Buffalo’s Tunnels and Trolls, RuneQuest‘s rules fixed many of Dungeons and Dragons other inexplicable aspects, like the way that armor somehow made a character more difficult to hit instead of absorbing damage when she was hit. Most intriguingly of all, it replaced Dungeon’s and Dragons‘s system of inflexible character classes with a menu of skills from which the player could choose to truly create her own character her own way. And it was all executed intuitively and elegantly, in marked contrast to Dungeons and Dragons‘s mishmash of systems that could make it feel like about five different games stuck together. It was all so new and different that RuneQuest is occasionally still described as the first “second-generation” tabletop RPG. Petersen and company fell in love immediately.

Indeed, Petersen himself, who was now pursuing a graduate degree in zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, without much enthusiasm, was so smitten that he wrote to Stafford personally, asking if he could contribute to the game. A number of magazine articles and a supplement containing new monsters for the game followed. Then came the moment that, in light of Petersen’s twin passions, just had to arrive: he proposed an expansion for RuneQuest that would move the setting from Glorantha to the so-called “Dreamlands” of H.P. Lovecraft, site of a series of lightly interconnected fantasy stories heavily inspired by British fantasy progenitor Lord Dunsany. These tales were and remain far from the most popular of Lovecraft’s stories among fans and casual readers alike, but Petersen thought they’d be perfect for the RuneQuest ruleset.

Chaosium turned him down, delivering the surprising but exciting news that they already had not just a rules supplement but a whole new horror-themed RPG in the works. It would be largely an exercise in Gothic horror taking place in the late nineteenth century, but would nevertheless include the possibility of encountering the Cthulhu Mythos as well. They had already negotiated rights to the stories from Arkham House. (In later years, when it became clear that Arkham’s copyright claim to Lovecraft’s work wasn’t quite as ironclad as they might have wished it was, Chaosium would quietly drop the license whilst continuing to play in the Cthulhu Mythos.) The game was to be designed by an old hand in the RPG community, whose brother had introduced him to the hobby after playing in one of Dave Arneson’s original games of proto-Dungeons and Dragons. But despite its pedigree, Dark Worlds was delivered very late and in what Chaosium judged to be a very unsatisfactory state. With, as Lynn Willis of Chaosium would later describe it, “bad feelings and confusion” all around, the relationship fell apart — whereupon Greg Stafford recalled Sandy Petersen, who was so desperate to be involved in a ludic tribute to his literary hero that he’d offered to do absolutely anything to help, even if that meant just copy-editing or play-testing. Stafford now gave him much more than that to do, tossing the whole project into the lap of one astonished and delighted young zoology student. Zoology soon fell by the wayside entirely as he embarked on the career he continues to this day: that of game designer.

Greg Stafford (center) and Sandy Petersen (right), with Tadashi Ahara, editor of Chaosium's in-house magazine Different Worlds.

Greg Stafford (center) and Sandy Petersen (right), with Tadashi Ahara, editor of Chaosium’s in-house magazine Different Worlds.

The story of the development of this tabletop RPG of Lovecraftian horror, soon to be renamed Call of Cthulhu, is one of the more fascinating and inspiring case studies in the annals of gaming history. The end result reverberates to this day not only through the world of tabletop gaming but also through its digital parallel. Therefore I’d like to take some time today to look at just what Petersen and his friends at Chaosium did and how they did it.

The great Sid Meier has often advocated starting a game design from its fictional or historical topic rather than beginning with a set ludic genre. His early masterpiece Pirates! provides an excellent example of how productive such an approach can be. Sandy Petersen was considerably more restricted when starting to work on Call of Cthulhu — he needed to deliver something that was recognizably a tabletop RPG at least somewhat in the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons — yet there’s nevertheless much the same spirit of directed innovation about his process and his end result.

If there’s a literary model for the structure of Dungeons and Dragons and its many derivative works, including even Chaosium’s innovative RuneQuest, it must be that most seminal of fantasy novels, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins starts off weak and vulnerable, sets off on a series of grand adventures culminating in a showdown with a dragon, and finally returns home a stronger and better little hobbit. In the book he lives happily ever after, while in games he more likely heads off again to do something even more remarkable and get even stronger. Still, the general comparison holds. This is gaming as Algeren self-improvement — or, if you like, the ultimate power fantasy. There’s of course a reason that this model held and continues to hold such sway over both tabletop and computerized RPGs: it’s damn fun. Everyone loves the feeling of accomplishment that comes with new hit dice, new spells, new magical equipment. Everyone loves trouncing a monster that just a few levels ago would have trounced you. Yet this mode of play is totally at odds with the spirit of Lovecraft’s fiction. Novice designer that he was, Petersen realized this only slowly, as a project that had first struck him as “relatively easy” for a devotee of the Cthulhu Mythos like himself turned into something that left him “appalled.”

He turned back to Lovecraft’s stories, analyzing how they were put together and how they made him feel as a reader. He then asked how he could create those same feelings in his players. Most importantly, he asked what there was about horror that made it different from high fantasy or giddy adventure, and thus what should distinguish his game of horror from all the RPGs that had come before it.

How can I make the mood of a fantasy role-playing game match the mood of a modern horror story? I needed spooky happenings to get the player chilled, I needed black horrors that would chill the minds and blast the souls of the intrepid investigators, and I needed to make sure that the game did not degenerate into a slugfest or simple matching of power against power.

Lovecraft presents no comforting narratives of self-improvement. His is a deterministic universe where intentions matter little, where even the cleverest and strongest are often doomed by the whims of a malevolent fate. Assuming they survive at all, Lovecraft’s protagonists invariably end up psychologically scarred for life if not actually insane — certainly not eager to count up their newly acquired hit points and set off to do it all again. How to recreate this feeling of near powerlessness within the framework of a game that people would actually want to play? This was Petersen’s challenge.

The core of his response was Call of Cthulhu‘s sanity — or, perhaps better said, insanity — system, a brilliant innovation that is justly still celebrated today for advancing the RPG’s potential as a story-making engine. Like so many brilliant innovations, it wasn’t entirely born of its creator’s own ideas.

Looking through an RPG magazine called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice one day, he came upon an article by Glenn and Phillip Rahman that offered the beginning of an attempt to adapt the Cthulhu Mythos to Tunnels and Trolls. It outlined a “willpower” statistic. If a character saw something particularly horrifying, she would have to make a willpower check to avoid running away in terror. Fail badly enough and her willpower score would be permanently reduced. The article came and went in the world of Tunnels and Trolls without making much impression. But when Petersen read it it hit him with the force of a revelation. Call of Cthulhu characters could have a “sanity” statistic that would be difficult or impossible to increase but all too easy to decrease. Knowledge of the Mythos, in many ways the very object of the game, would, almost paradoxically, have the important side effect of costing a character sanity. Once a character went insane, she would revert to the control of the “Keeper,” Call of Cthulhu‘s equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons‘s Dungeon Master, quite possibly to suddenly make life much more difficult thereafter for the rest of the players. Meanwhile the player whose character had just gone insane would have no option other than to roll up another. If nothing else, the system would ensure that the lifespan — sanity-span? — of most characters in Call of Cthulhu who persisted in their investigations would be quite short. Thus weak, inexperienced characters would remain the norm. If your Call of Cthulhu characters manage to improve more than once or twice before insanity or death get them, you’re quite probably playing it wrong. Call of Cthulhu is lethal by design.

When Pettersen first tried the system on real players, he himself was shocked at how effective it proved to be in evoking the spirit of Lovecraft.

My players found a book which enabled them to summon up a Foul Thing From Otherwhere (a dimensional shambler) and decided to do so. At the moment they completed the spell, the players suddenly chimed in with comments like “I’m covering my eyes.” “Turning my back.” “Shielding my view so I don’t see the monster.” I had never seen this kind of activity in an RPG before – trying NOT to see the monster? What a concept. You may not credit it, but I had actually not realized that the Sanity stat, as I had written it, would lead to such behavior. To me it was serendipitous; emergent play. But I loved it. The players were actually acting like Lovecraft heroes instead of the mighty-thewed barbarian lunks of D&D.

The deadliness extends well beyond the sanity system that stands as the game’s most central innovation. Chaosium had extracted the core mechanics from RuneQuest to create their “Basic Role-Playing” engine, a house system meant to power all of their future games, including Call of Cthulhu. Thus Petersen’s new game already came equipped with an unusually gritty and lethal combat system. “Investigators are not fighting machines,” he wrote in the rules. He further made sure that all of the various Mythos gods and creatures would be suitably overpowered in comparison to the players’ characters. As he’s often noted since in interviews, the least dangerous opponent you’re likely to encounter in the game is a cultist, who’s pretty much just like you. Thus the the best you can hope for is even odds, and as far as going toe to toe with the likes of Cthulhu himself… forget about it. There’s an old axiom among Call of Cthulhu players that if a scenario ever comes down to gunplay you’ve probably already lost. It’s the first RPG in history whose combat rules are used as often as not when the players are just trying to get the hell away from something, not to kill it. In making the characters so fragile, so human, Call of Cthulhu can prompt a connection between players and characters that other games can never hope to achieve. Death, injury, and insanity mean something in this game.

Petersen replaced combat as the main focus of Call of Cthulhu with investigation, even going so far as to officially name the players’ characters not “adventurers” but rather “investigators.” This shift was thanks to a quality in Lovecraft’s stories, seemingly so resistant to becoming conventionally fun games, that actually makes them unusually suitable for ludic adaptation in comparison to most works of horror. At heart, many of Lovecraft’s stories are mysteries. The story “The Call of Cthulhu,” Petersen’s game’s namesake for a very good reason, is a perfect example. Its protagonist is an academic who, after coming upon some curious documents among his recently deceased grand-uncle’s papers, slowly ferrets out layer after sinister layer of a global conspiracy of evil. The classic mystery structure is, as I’ve described in a previous article, a perfect setup for a ludic narrative. The real story in a mystery is fixed, leaving the game designer only to provide for the more manageable, almost purely logistical scenario of its uncovering, whilst leaving the player with an obvious goal: to learn more, to solve the puzzle that is the mystery. For this reason mystery stories and games were often intertwined well before the arrival of Dungeons and Dragons or computerized adventure games: R.A. Knox’s ten rules of good practice for designing the game that with the reader that is a classic mystery novel; the Baffle Book of solve-em-yourself mystery stories by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay; the classic board game Cluedo; the Crime Dossiers of Dennis Wheatley and J.D. Links, proto-RPGs that captivated players four decades before Dungeons and Dragons. In a sense Call of Cthulhu would merely continue an already long tradition.

As the first full-fledged RPG to do so, however, it was also unique. With combat so lethal and as often as not pointless, other skills came to the fore. Call of Cthulhu became the first and quite possibly still the only RPG where “Library Use” is one of the most valuable skills one can have. Many other skills are equally cerebral: “Accounting,” “Archaeology,” “Law,” “Linguistics,” “Geology,” “Zoology”; the list goes on and on. Playing Call of Cthulhu is a nuanced, intellectual exercise in comparison to its antecedents, a process of ferreting out information and piecing together clues that forces a real engagement with the story and the setting that most games of Dungeons and Dragons lack. Given the nature of the Mythos, it would be quite the stretch to call Call of Cthulhu “non-violent.” Yet it was certainly a different and in its way a more realistic take on violence than had been seen in RPGs before. Violence here is horrifying, as it should be. It’s also swift and deadly and deeply damaging to characters’ psyches as well as their bodies, just as it is in reality. Call of Cthulhu feels like a game for grown-ups, a game capable of producing real drama. Petersen himself notes that “no one’s impressed when a Dungeons and Dragons party kills a werewolf, but when you face off against such a fearsome beast in Call of Cthulhu and survive, it’s a tale worth retelling.” An official Chaosium description of the game further emphasizes just how markedly it departed from all that had come before:

There are no material rewards for those who choose to risk their lives and minds discovering the eldritch horrors hidden in the darkest corners of the world. There are no caches of treasure that await discovery by fearless and intrepid explorers, nor does fame and glory come to those who should defeat some being from “outside.” Those individuals who would speak publicly of what they have learned will soon find themselves ridiculed or even worse. Exploring the Cthulhu Mythos is a more or less solitary pursuit, small groups of adventurers only rarely coming into contact with others who may have some knowledge of the Mythos’s secrets. Even these individuals are usually unwilling to speak too freely of what they know and some, having lost their minds, may prove to be actual worshippers of the hideous Other Gods or Great Old Ones. Those who would choose to learn too much about the Mythos are driven mad, anyone gaining near complete knowledge losing all of his sanity permanently. The only motivation to continue the exploration of these mysteries is that of human curiosity; a desire to know the truth, regardless of the cost. This motivation is common to both the players of the game and the protagonists of the stories.

As Petersen tells the story today, Greg Stafford, Lynn Willis, and the other principals at Chaosium had “contempt” for Lovecraft as a writer, considered him a “hack.” An idealistic take on this might be to say that they were, like many others — myself included — more intrigued by the idea of the Mythos and its potential than thrilled with its actual execution under Lovecraft’s hands. But even that may be too generous a spin. Petersen claims that, eager to find a competitive edge in the increasingly crowded field of RPGs, Chaosium’s strategy at the time was simply to make games in as many viable preexisting literary worlds as possible. During the first half of the 1980s, the strategy also yielded a game called Stormbringer that took place in the world of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy hero Elric, one playing in Larry Niven’s Known Space setting, and another based on the ElfQuest line of comics. There was also a supplement that let players of many fantasy games adventure in Robert Aspirin’s much-loved Thieves’ World milieu, and one that would have similarly opened up the world of Fritz Leiber’s Fahfhrd and the Gray Mouser stories had TSR not wrested the license away at the last minute. None of these efforts represent quite as radical a re-imagining of the RPG as Call of Cthulhu, but all did contribute in their own way to bringing more sophistication and storytelling nuance to the form.

In the case of Call of Cthulhu, the folks at Chaosium found a task that they could approach with almost as much passion as Petersen did the core rules. Lynn Willis in particular put a great deal of time and energy into “A Sourcebook for the 1920s,” an entirely separate book included along with the core rules in the box. It’s an interesting document even for those with no real interest in playing the game to which it’s attached, including along with maps of the world as it then existed treatises on crime and law enforcement, on (non-fictional) cult activities, on travel by air and rail and sea (complete with typical timetables), on money and prices, on important historical personages. Chaosium had largely originated the idea of the elaborate RPG sourcebook with RuneQuest‘s world of Glorantha, but the one included with Call of Cthulhu, built as it is from the real world, feels qualitatively different. Petersen has since been dismissive of Chaosium’s efforts to ground the game so thoroughly in Lovecraft’s own times, saying that what is important is the horror, not the setting.

The Chaosium folks wanted to enjoy playing the game I was going to design, and they wanted a “hook” to hang their fun onto. They chose the 1920s. In their games, they loved driving old cars, talking about zeppelins, flappers, the Weimar Republic and all that stuff. My own games usually didn’t reference the era at all, except peripherally. Yeah, they were in the 1920s too, but they could just as easily have been set anywhere in the 20th century. A haunted house is a haunted house as far as I was concerned.

If he’d had his druthers he’d have placed the game in the (then) present day of circa 1980. This, he says, would “let the keeper take more for granted about the world and not get caught up in details such as ‘Were there trans-Atlantic flights in the early 1920s?'” Personally, though, I think the game benefits enormously from the efforts of Willis and company. The setting is for me a huge part of the game’s murky personality — but then, I’m the sort who gets genuinely curious whether there in fact were trans-Atlantic flights in the early 1920s. (The answer, for the record, is that there weren’t, unless you were Charles Lindbergh. Late in the decade you could book passage on a zeppelin, if you had the means.)

While the gist of the rules themselves would remain very true to Petersen’s original design, Chaosium did tinker here and there in the interest of playability. Most notably, they dialed back Petersen’s brutal sanity/insanity system just slightly by making it possible in some circumstances to regain lost sanity points, and by introducing the idea that some forms of insanity might be only temporary. It was a fine line to walk, remaining true to the spirit of Lovecraftian horror while not creating a game that just felt too futile, pointless to even bother playing. Despite his fearsome reputation, Lovecraft did occasionally allow his protagonists small victories. For instance, the labyrinthian hell beneath New York in “The Horror at Red Hook” is sealed off with concrete at the end of the story, although it’s strongly implied that this represents at best a stopgap. Similarly, “The Colour Out of Space” returns whence it came in the end — even if, ominously, it also seems to leave a small part of itself behind. Chaosium’s tweaks let Call of Cthulhu capture the feel of these small victories, a feel not so much of triumph as of having briefly delayed the inevitable, having kept the cosmic evil at bay for a few more months or years. Petersen, to this day a notoriously lethal Keeper, predictably thought that Chaosium’s tweaks went too far. Once again I disagree; I think they add just enough hope to make each new battle against the Mythos feel worthwhile. Lynn Willis:

Dark endings may be effective ways to end short stories, but they do not work for fantasy role-playing — nobody enjoys seeing their characters always crushed, impaled, drained, sliced, throttled, and otherwise made corpses without relief, and neither is it much fun to have investigators staggering from catatonia to amnesia to stupefaction without much chance to do more than shrug.

That said, the game remains insanely (ha!) deadly in comparison to most of its competition, and Call of Cthulhu thus remains a tough sell for many players. Many simply loathe the bleakness of its premise. Others point to what they see as a fundamental design flaw: the fact that the insanity system directly motivates players not to want to follow through on the ostensible goal of the game, that of learning more about the Mythos so as to better combat it. It’s hard to really argue against the truth of this statement. The question must be whether the narrative texture provided by these two competing motivations is more important than Call of Cthulhu‘s merits (or lack thereof) as a piece of traditional, fair game design. Even among fans, Call of Cthulhu seems to work best in fairly small servings. Certainly long-running campaigns of the sort that are common to Dungeons and Dragons are quite rare in the world of the Mythos. In some ways almost as much an artistic experiment as an attempt to create a likable, playable game, Call of Cthulhu‘s very structure has always limited its appeal.

Released in late 1981 with relatively little fanfare, Call of Cthulhu proved to be a steady seller if never quite a spectacular one. Chaosium supported the game lavishly, particularly for the first several years after its release, which marked a very good period commercially for the company in general. Some of the scenarios and supplements they released have become almost as iconic as the game itself. Benefiting from the fortuitous release of the hugely popular movie Raiders of the Lost Ark just a few months before Call of Cthulhu, much of this material leaned rather heavily on pulpy globe-trotting adventure at the expense of the horror, a development that Petersen always to a greater or lesser degree decried. Yet it’s also hard to argue with some of the results, especially given the element of campy fun that’s always been such a big part of Lovecraft’s own appeal as a writer. Perhaps most legendary of all the Call of Cthulhu supplements is something called Masks of Nyarlathotep by Larry DiTillio, a scenario so huge it needed to come in a box all its own to hold its 450 pages or so worth of detail along with all of its maps and other goodies. No one else in tabletop or digital games at the time was implementing scenarios of this scope and complexity. Sure, it felt at least as much like Indiana Jones as Lovecraftian horror, but, what with opportunities to travel around the world battling cultists in lovingly evoked 1920s versions of New York, London, Egypt, Kenya, and Shanghai, who could really complain? (Well, Petersen to some extent could…) Compare this with the typical Dungeons and Dragons adventure module of the day, which consisted of 20 to 30 pages mapping out the bare tactical challenges of a dungeon and its inhabitants, with all of a paragraph or two giving the players a reason to explore it. Many players found the grand international tapestry of adventure woven by Masks of Nyarlathotep and scenarios like it more compelling than the Cthulhu Mythos itself, resulting in a whole new sub-genre of RPGs focusing on pulpy inter-war adventures rather than horror.

The Masks of Nyarlathotep

After spending some years with Chaosium in the 1980s, working on Call of Cthulhu and other games, Sandy Petersen migrated to the digital realm, a move he frankly acknowledges to have been precipitated by the hard fact that there’s a hell of a lot more money in computer than tabletop games. We’ll likely be meeting him again in future articles in his new role as a designer of computer games. Chaosium, however, stayed the course and stuck to the tabletop, a decision that brought more downs than ups after the company peaked in influence and commercial success sometime shortly after 1984, the year of Masks of Nyarlathotep. Despite nearly going under on multiple occasions, Chaosium has straggled on right to the present day, sometimes as a “real” business with a few full-time employees, sometimes as little more than a hobby. Call of Cthulhu is the only game they’ve maintained continuously in print throughout that period, often as the only game in their catalog. Its influence and reputation have always outstripped its actual sales, but it remains a classic example of game design, eminently worthy of study by designers writing for the computer as well as the tabletop. In the latter realm, some more recent systems like Trail of Cthulhu by Pelgrane Press have attempted to create a more playable, forgiving version of a Lovecraftian RPG, while other systems, like the long-lived The Arkham Horror, have tried to do the same as board games. (Not having played any of these games, I can’t speak to their success.)

But, this site being The Digital Antiquarian rather than The Tabletop Antiquarian, I’d like to conclude this article not with an exhaustive history of the later years of Chaosium or Call of Cthulhu or its many paper-and-cardboard heirs, but rather with the real point of this side trip to the tabletop: the immense and too-often overlooked shadow that that original tabletop Call of Cthulhu casts over so much computer-gaming history that follows it. Many computer games, beginning with Infocom’s The Lurking Horror (subject of my next article), were inspired to a greater or lesser degree by Call of Cthulhu‘s example to also play with the Mythos. Some adopted a great deal of their tabletop progenitor’s structural underpinnings. The Hound of Shadow, for instance, developed by the appropriately named Eldritch Games and released in 1989 by Electronic Arts, is practically an unlicensed computerized version of Petersen’s design, complete with a set of suspiciously similar skills to choose from.

Yet almost more interesting, and probably even more important, is the role that Call of Cthulhu played as a proof of concept showing that it could be just as captivating to play someone weak and alone and afraid as an almighty world-conquering hero. Alone in the Dark, the urtext to a whole new gaming genre that became known as survival horror, put that premise to good use in 1992. Just to further underline the association, it also plays with the Mythos, being loaded with references to Lovecraft’s works and lore. Other perennial survival-horror series, like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, later built on Alone in the Dark and by extension on the original Call of Cthulhu, often losing the explicit Lovecraftian references but retaining always the delicious horror of being all alone and very nearly powerless in a cold, unforgiving world. Suffice to say that this is a thread that we’ll be coming back to from time to time just as long as I continue to write these articles for you. Credit where it’s due, then, to Sandy Petersen and Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. Games just don’t get much more influential than this one.

(Sources: the book Designers and Dragons Volume 1: The 1970s by Shannon Appelcline; Different Worlds of February 1982, July/August 1985, and January/February 1986; interviews with Sandy Petersen by Matt Barton, The Gentleman Gamer, Yog-Sothoth, and The Escapist; Petersen’s own “review” of his game on RPG Geek; Grognardia’s post on “The Prehistory of Call of Chtulhu“; Places to Go, People to Be’s history of RPGs. Plus my own memories, alas from long ago now, of battling eldritch horrors with my friends. Thanks, Sandy!)


Posted by on September 25, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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The Campy Cosmic Horror of H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft

If you look at the way critics describe Lovecraft … they often say he’s purple, overwritten, overblown, verbose, but it’s un-putdownable. There’s something about that kind of hallucinatorily intense purple prose which completely breaches all rules of “good writing”, but is somehow utterly compulsive and affecting. That pulp aesthetic of language is something very tenuous, which all too easily simply becomes shit, but is fascinating where it works.

– China Miéville

One of Lovecraft’s worst faults is his incessant effort to work up the expectations of the reader by sprinkling his stories with such adjectives as “horrible,” “terrible,” “frightful,” “awesome,” “eerie,” “weird,” “forbidden,” “unhallowed,” “unholy,” “blasphemous,” “hellish,” and “infernal.” Surely one of the primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words — especially if you are going, at the end, to produce an invisible whistling octopus.

— Edmund Wilson

So that was what these lekythoi contained; the monstrous fruit of unhallowed rites and deeds, presumably won or cowed to such submission as to help, when called up by some hellish incantation, in the defence of their blasphemous master or the questioning of those who were not so willing?

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”

H.P. Lovecraft is what people like to call a “problematic” writer. For many, the quote just above is all they need to know about him: a jumble of wild adjectives seemingly thrown into the air and left where they fell, married to a convoluted tangle of dependent clauses, all ending in a non-sequitural question mark. Lovecraft’s more fervent admirers sometimes say that he is a “difficult” writer, whose diction must be carefully unpacked, not unlike that of many other literary greats. His detractors reply, not without considerable justification, that his works don’t earn such readerly devotion, that they remain a graceless tangle even after you’ve sussed out their meaning. And that’s without even beginning to address the real ugliness of Lovecraft, the xenophobia and racism that lie at the core of even his best-regarded works. Lovecraft, they say, is simply a bad writer. Full stop.

Well, they’re mostly right. Lovecraft is in most respects a pretty bad writer. He is, however, an otherwise bad writer who somehow tapped into something that many people find deeply resonant of the proverbial human condition, not only in his own time but perhaps even more so in our own. Despite his clumsy prose and his racism and plenty of other sins, his stature has only continued to grow over the decades since his death in poverty and obscurity in 1937 at age 46. This man who himself believed he died a failure, who saw his work published only in lurid pulp magazines with names like Weird Tales and never had the chance to walk into a bookstore and see a book of his own on the shelf, now has a volume in the prestigious Library of America series. His literary influence, at least within the realm of fantastical fiction, has been almost incalculable. Stephen King may have sold hundreds of millions more books, but it’s Lovecraft who’s most often cited to be the most influential single practitioner of horror fiction of the twentieth century. In popular culture too he’s everywhere, from 1979’s classic science-fiction thriller Alien to 2014’s critically acclaimed first season of True Detective. The alien monstrosity Cthulhu, his most famous creation, now adorns tee-shirts, coffee mugs, and key rings; you can even take him to bed with you at night in the form of a plush toy. For a lifelong atheist, Lovecraft has enjoyed one hell of an afterlife.

Perhaps most surprising of all is Lovecraft’s stature as one of the minor deities of ludic fictions, living on a plane only just below the Holy Trinity of Tolkien, Lucas, and Roddenberry. He was an avowed classicist who found the early twentieth century far too modern for his tastes, who believed that he’d been born 200 years too late. He disliked technology as much as he did most other aspects of modernity, wrote in an archaic diction that was quite deliberately centuries out of date even in his own day, and in general spent his entire life looking backward to an idealized version of the past. Yet there’s his mark stamped implicitly or explicitly all over gaming — gaming with its cult of the new, its fetishization of technology, its unquenchable thirst for more gigabytes, more gigahertz, more pixels. It’s a strange state of affairs — but, then again, one of the Holy Trinity itself was a musty old pipe-smoking Oxford professor of philology who was equally disdainful of modern life.

At any rate, we’re just getting to the point in this little history of gaming where Lovecraft starts to become a major factor. Therefore it seems appropriate to spend some time looking back on his life and times, to try to understand who he was and what it is about him that so many continue to find so compelling.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born his parents’ first and, as it would transpire, only child into comfortable circumstances in Providence, Rhode Island, on August 20, 1890. His father was a traveling sales representative for a local silversmith, his maternal grandfather an entrepreneur and industrialist of considerable wealth and influence. The specter of madness, destined to hang constantly over Lovecraft’s own life as it would that of so many of his fictional protagonists, first raised its head when he was three years old: his father had a complete nervous breakdown on a sales trip to Chicago, likely caused by syphilis. He never recovered his sanity, and young Howard never saw his father again after his breakdown; he died in an asylum within five years.

Lovecraft’s mother was also of what they used to call a “nervous disposition,” alternately encouraging, coddling, smothering, domineering, and belittling him. Still, life as a whole was pretty good for much of his childhood. Mother and son lived with his grandfather and two aunts in a rambling old house with a magnificent library and a cupola outfitted as his personal clubhouse, complete with model trains, armies of lead soldiers, and all the other toys a boy could want. While he showed little interest in children his own age and they in turn showed little in him, Lovecraft would come to remember his childhood as the best period of his life. The family treated him as a prodigy, indulging his interests in chemistry and astronomy and clapping heartily when he read to them his first stories and poems — and, it must be said, not without reason; one of his poems, a gloss on The Odyssey composed when he was just seven years old, consisted of 88 lines of meticulously correct iambic heptameter.

But then, on March 24, 1904, came the event that Lovecraft would always reckon the greatest tragedy of his life. His grandfather died on that date, leaving behind a financial situation that proved, thanks to a recent string of losses by his business interests, far worse than anyone in his family had anticipated. Lovecraft and his mother were forced to move from the spacious ease of the family homestead, which had come complete with a retinue of liveried servants, into a cramped little duplex, where they’d have to fend for themselves. The young Lovecraft, already extremely class-conscious, took the decline so badly that he considered suicide. He compensated by claiming ever more stridently, on the basis of little real evidence, to be the latest of a long line of “unmixed English gentry.” Given his already burgeoning obsession with racial and familial purity, that was a wealth far more important than mere money.

Despite his prodigious childhood, Lovecraft’s academic career petered out anticlimactically. For some years he had hoped to become an astronomer, but when the time came to think about university he elected not to even attempt the entrance exam, fearing that his math skills weren’t up to the test. Avoiding the stigma of failure by not even trying would continue to be the pattern of much of his life. Arrogant yet, as arrogant people so often are, extremely insecure at heart, he preferred to adopt the attitude of the wealthy gentry of old whom he so admired, waiting in his increasingly shabby ivory tower for opportunities to come to him.

His academic career was over before it had really begun, but Lovecraft considered workaday employment to be beneath him. He lived until age 28 under the thumb of his mother, subsisting on the slowly dwindling remains of his grandfather and father’s inheritances and the largess of other family members. His principal intellectual and social outlet became what was known at the time as “amateur journalism”: a community of writers who self-published newsletters and pamphlets, forerunners to the fanzines of later years (and, by extension, to the modern world of blogging). A diligent worker who was willing to correspond with and help just about anyone who approached him — a part of his affected attitude of noblesse oblige — Lovecraft also had lots of time and energy to devote to what must remain for most practitioners a hobby. His star thus rose quickly: he became vice president of the United Amateur Press Association, the second largest organization of its kind in the country, in 1915, and its president in 1917, whilst writing prolifically for the various newsletters. His output during this period was mostly articles on science and other “hard” topics, along with a smattering of stilted poetry written in the style of his favorite era, the eighteenth century. He also began the habit of copious and voluminous letter writing, largely to fellow UAPA members, that he would continue for the rest of his life. By the time of his death he may have written as many as 100,000 letters, many running into the tens of pages — a staggering pace of eight or nine often substantial letters per day in addition to all of his other literary output.

By the time he was serving as president of the UAPA, his mother, always high-strung, was behaving more and more erratically. She would run screaming through the house at night believing herself to be chased by creatures from her nightmares, and suddenly forget where she was and what she was doing at random times during the day. She was quite possibly suffering from the same syphilis that had killed her husband. At last, on March 13, 1919, her family committed her to the same mental hospital that had housed her husband; also like her husband, she would die there two years later after a botched gall-bladder surgery. Lovecraft was appropriately bereaved, but he was also free. Within reason, anyway: unable to cook or do even the most basic housekeeping chores and unwilling to learn, and having no independent source of income anyway, he wound up living with his aunts again.

Around the same time, he began to supplant his nonfiction articles and his poetry with tales of horror, drawing heavily on the style of his greatest literary idol, Edgar Allan Poe, as well as contemporary adventure fiction, his family’s history of madness, and the recurring nightmares that had haunted him since age six. While the quality of his output seesawed radically from story to story during this period, as indeed it would throughout his career, he wrote some of his most respected tales in fairly short order, such as “The Music of Erich Zann” and “The Rats in the Walls.”

That last story in particular evokes many of the themes and ideas that would later come to be described as quintessentially Lovecraftian. An aging American industrialist chooses to retire to his family’s ancestral home in England. He builds his new family seat on the ruins of the old, a place called Exham Priory which was abandoned during “the reign of James the First” when one of the sons murdered his parents and siblings and fled to Virginia to found the current branch of the family tree. Three months after these events, as local legend would have it, a flood of rats had poured forth from the derelict building, devouring livestock and a few of the villagers. Since then the site has been one of ill repute, never occupied or rebuilt and avoided conscientiously by the locals. Dismissing it all in classic horror-story fashion, our elderly hero rebuilds the place and moves in, only to be awakened night after night by the sound of thousands of rats scurrying behind the walls, rushing always downward toward an altar in the cellar, a relic from an ancient Druidic temple that apparently once existed on the site. Working with some associates, he finds the entrance to a secret underground labyrinth beneath the altar, where his ancestors practiced barbaric rites of human sacrifice and cannibalism; it was apparently his discovery of and/or attempted initiation into the familial cult that led that one brave son to murder his family and flee to the New World. Alas, our hero proves not so strong. The story ends, as so many Lovecraft stories do, in an insane babble of adjectives, as the protagonist goes crazy, kills, and eats one of his comrades. He is telling his story, we learn at the end, from the madhouse.

Many Lovecraft stories deal similarly in hereditary evil and madness, the sins of the father being visited upon the helpless son. That seems paradoxical given that he was an avowed atheist and materialist, but nevertheless is very much in keeping with his equally strong belief in the power and importance of bloodlines. There are obvious echoes of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” in “The Rats in the Walls” — so obvious that Lovecraft, admittedly not exactly the most self-aware of writers, could hardly fail to be aware of them. Yet I think a comparison of the two stories also does a great deal to point out the differences between the two writers. Poe focuses on inner, psychological horrors. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it’s his protagonist’s guilt over a senseless murder he himself committed that leads him to hear the beating of his victim’s heart under the floorboards of his house, and that finally drives him mad. Whatever else you can say about his plight, it’s a plight he created for himself. But the evil in “The Rats in the Walls” is an external evil in the face of which psychology is meaningless, guilt or innocence irrelevant, and the narrator helpless. Lovecraft brings us to shudder not for his characters, who are so thin as be impossible to really care about, but for humanity as a whole. Nihilism on this cosmic scale was something new to horror fiction; it’s the bedrock of his claim to literary importance.

Lovecraft’s big break, such as it was, came in 1923 when one of his young proteges told him of a new paying magazine called Weird Tales that was just starting up and was thus eager for submissions. Why, they asked, didn’t he submit some of his stories?

The letter that Lovecraft attached along with his initial submission of five stories finds him still affecting the persona of an English gentleman of leisure who likes to amuse himself with a bit of scribbling now and again, who doesn’t really care all that much whether Weird Tales is interested or not.

Having a habit of writing weird, macabre and fantastic stories for my own amusement, I have lately been simultaneously hounded by nearly a dozen well-meaning friends into deciding to submit a few of these Gothic horrors to your newly founded periodical … I have no idea that these things will be found suitable, for I pay no attention to the demands of commercial writing … the only reader I hold in mind is myself …

The magazine did accept all five of them for the handsome fee of 1.5 cents per word, beginning a steady if far from lucrative relationship that would last for the rest of Lovecraft’s life. Weird Tales would remain always far from the top of the pulps, selling a bare fraction of what the biggest magazines like Argosy All-Story Weekly and Black Mask sold. Yet even among its stable of second-tier authors Lovecraft was not particularly prominent or valued. In over a decade of writing for Weird Tales, he wasn’t once granted top billing in the form of a cover story. Indeed, many of his submissions, including some that are regarded today as among his best work, were summarily rejected.

The February 1928 Weird Tales that included Lovecraft's most famous story. As always, it didn't make the cover.

The February 1928 issue of Weird Tales that included Lovecraft’s most famous story. As always, it didn’t make the cover.

It was shortly after his stories started appearing in Weird Tales that Lovecraft embarked on the one great adventure of his life. In March of 1924 this confirmed bachelor, who had never before expressed the slightest romantic interest in a woman, shocked family and acquaintances alike by abruptly moving to New York City to marry Sonia Greene, one of his UAPA correspondents. Just to make it all still more bizarre, she was a Jew, one of the groups of racial Others whom he hated most. But anyone who thought that his wife’s ethnicity might reflect a softening of his racism was soon proved wrong. He instructed Sonia that she should ensure that any gatherings she arranged be made up predominantly of “Aryans,” and persisted in excoriating her ethnicity, often right in front of her. The marriage soon ran into plenty of other problems. She was loving and affectionate; he, she would later claim, never once said the words “I love you” to her. She had a healthy interest in sex; he had none — indeed, found it repulsive. (He had an “Apollonian aesthetic,” she a “Dionysian,” he would later say in his pompous way.)

The couple separated within a year, Lovecraft renting a single large room for himself in Brooklyn Heights, a formerly wealthy area of New York now come down in the world, full of rooming houses catering to transients and immigrants. That last in particular always spelt trouble for Lovecraft. He poured his bile into “The Horror at Red Hook.” One of his uglier stories, it’s set in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn, a neighborhood with a similar history to that of Brooklyn Heights. It reads like a bigot’s vision of Paradise Lost.

Its houses are mostly of brick, dating from the first quarter to the middle of the nineteenth century, and some of the obscurer alleys and byways have that alluring antique flavour which conventional reading leads us to call “Dickensian”. The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill. One can trace the relics of this former happiness in the trim shapes of the buildings, the occasional graceful churches, and the evidences of original art and background in bits of detail here and there—a worn flight of steps, a battered doorway, a wormy pair of decorative columns or pilasters, or a fragment of once green space with bent and rusted iron railing.

From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through.

After describing his unhappiness in New York to his aunts with increasing stridency — he said he awoke every morning “screaming in sheer desperation and pounding the walls and floor” — Lovecraft got from them a railway ticket and an invitation to come back home at last in April of 1926. His two-year adventure in adulthood having ended in failure, he resumed what even his most admiring biographers acknowledge to be essentially a perpetual adolescence.

Back in Providence, Lovecraft wrote his most anthologized, most read, most archetypal, most influential, and arguably simply best story of all: “The Call of Cthulhu.” Its opening lines are the most famous he ever wrote, and for once relatively elegant and to the point, a mission statement for cosmic horror.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

The narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” is an intellectual gentleman, apparently an anthropologist of some stripe or other, who stumbles upon a sinister cache of documents whilst serving as executor of his grand-uncle’s estate following the latter’s death under somewhat mysterious circumstances. An epistolary tale in spirit if not quite in technical form, the bulk of its length consists of our narrator explaining what he found in that initial cache as well as the further research to which it leads him. He gradually uncovers evidence of a sinister global cult, older than antiquity, which worships Cthulhu, an extraterrestrial entity of inconceivable power. Cthulhu sleeps entombed somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean, waiting until “the stars are right,” when he will rise again to awaken his even more powerful comrades — the so-called “Great Old Ones” — and rule the world. Non-converts like our benighted narrator and his grand-uncle who learn of the cult’s existence tend not to live very long; it apparently has a very long reach. Importantly, however, it’s also strongly hinted that the cult may be in for a rude surprise of its own when Cthulhu does finally awaken. He and the Great Old Ones will likely crush all humans as thoughtlessly as humans do ants on that day when the stars are right again.

In only one respect is “The Call of Cthulhu” not archetypal Lovecraft: it has a relatively subdued climax in comparison to the norm, with our narrator neither dead nor (presumably) insane but rather peeking nervously around every corner, waiting for the cult’s inevitable assassin to arrive. This is doubtless one of the things that make it so effectively chilling. Otherwise all of the classic tropes, or at least those that didn’t already show up in “The Rats in the Walls,” are here: locales spanning the globe; forbidden texts; non-Euclidean alien geometries “loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.” There’s the affectedly archaic diction: “legends” becomes “legendry”; the past tense of “show” becomes “shew.” There’s lots of words that you’ll only find in Lovecraft, to such an extent that you know as soon as you see one of them that you’re reading either him or one of his imitators: “eldritch,” “Cyclopean,” “daemonic.” There’s the way, kind of hilarious and kind of endearing, that every single person or document talks in the exact same voice and diction. (This applies even to an extract from The Sydney Bulletin, which describes the crew of a ship as “a queer and evil-looking crew of Kanakas and half-castes.”) And yes, this being Lovecraft, the usual racism and horror of miscegenation is also all over the place: the cult makes its outposts not with the upright Aryan races but with the “debased,” “mongrel” peoples of the earth. Almost as notable is what is conspicuously missing, here as well as elsewhere in the Lovecraft oeuvre: humor, women, romance, beauty that isn’t somehow “blasphemous” or “daemonic.” Come to think of it, about 95 percent of life’s rich pageant. Some writers like Shakespeare and Tolstoy enfold the whole world of human experience, while others focus obsessively on one tiny corner of it. Lovecraft is definitely among the latter group.

Many of Lovecraft’s later stories continued to explore what came to be known as the “Cthulhu Mythos,” sometimes in the form of novellas rather than short stories. Always generous with his friends and correspondents, he also happily allowed other writers to play with his creations. Thus the Mythos as we’ve come to know it today, as a shared universe boasting contributions from countless sources — many of them, it must be said, much better writers than Lovecraft himself — was already well into its gestation before his death. Whatever else you can say about Lovecraft, his complete willingness to let other share in his intellectual property is refreshing in our current Age of Litigation. It’s one of the principal reasons that the Mythos has proved to be so enduring.

When not writing his stories or his torrents of letters, Lovecraft spent much of the last decade of his life traveling the Eastern Seaboard: as far south as Florida, as far west as Louisiana, as far north as Quebec. Preferring by his own admission buildings to people, he would invariably seek out the oldest section of any place he visited and explore it at exhaustive length, preferably by moonlight. Broker than ever, he often stayed with members of his small army of correspondents, who also took it upon themselves to feed him. Otherwise he often simply went hungry, sometimes for days at a time. Paul Cook, one of his few local friends, was shocked at the state in which he returned to Providence from some of his rambles: “Folds of skin hanging from a skeleton. Eyes sunk in sockets like burnt holes in a blanket. Those delicate, sensitive artist’s hands and fingers nothing but claws.”

Those friends and correspondents of his, more numerous than ever, were an interesting lot. They now included among them quite a number of other writers of pulpy note, some of them far more popular with inter-war readers than he: Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), Clark Ashton Smith (the outside writer who first and most frequently played in the Cthulhu Mythos during Lovecraft’s lifetime), Fritz Leiber (creator shortly after Lovecraft’s death of the classic fantasy team of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), Robert Bloch (author many years later of Psycho). Those last two, as well as many or most of Lovecraft’s other regular correspondents, were notable for their youth. Many, like Bloch, were still in their teens. The picture below shows Lovecraft on a visit to the family of another of his young friends in Florida in 1935. Robert Barlow had just turned 17 at the time. It’s an endearing image in its way, but it’s also a little strange — even vaguely pathetic — when you stop to think about it. What should this 45-year-old man and this 17-year-old boy really have to share with one other?

H.P. Lovecraft, left, with the young Robert Barlow and family in Florida, 1935.

H.P. Lovecraft, left, with the young Robert Barlow and family (and cat) in Florida, 1935.

Ironically, Lovecraft died just as his career seemed to be on the upswing. In 1936 he received $600, the most he’d ever been paid at once for his writing and a small fortune by his meager standards, for two novellas (At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time) that were published by the prestigious (by pulp standards) Astounding Science Fiction. This marked a major step up from the perpetually near-bankrupt Weird Tales. Best of all, both novellas made the cover, signaling what could have been the start of a steady relationship with a magazine that valued him much more than Weird Tales ever had, that may have finally allowed him to earn a real living from writing. But it wasn’t to be. On February 27, 1937, after weeks of excruciating stomach pain, he visited a doctor for the first time in years, who determined that cancer of the small intestine and acute kidney disease were in a race to see which could kill him first. He died on March 15.

At the Mountains of Madness

The relative upswing in Lovecraft’s literary fortunes that began with his publication in Astounding proved oddly unaffected by his death. In 1939 August Derleth and Donald Wandrei formed Arkham House — named after the fictional New England city, a stand-in for Providence, where Lovecraft set many of his stories — to preserve his work in book form. A long, convoluted series of copyright disputes arose almost immediately, initially between Lovecraft’s young friend Robert Barlow, whom he had named as executor of his estate, and Darleth and Wandrei, who claimed to have been bequeathed the rights to his stories by his family. This tangle has never been entirely resolved, but most people today simply act as if Lovecraft’s stories are all in the public domain, and to the best of my knowledge no one has ever been sued for it.

Edmund Wilson’s infamous 1945 hatchet job for The New Yorker, from which I quoted to begin this article, is entertaining but not terribly insightful, and must have been disheartening on one level for fans of Lovecraft, especially as it set the tone for discussion of him in high-brow literary circles for decades to come. On the other hand, though, the very fact that Wilson, the country’s foremost literary critic at the time, felt the need to write about him at all is a measure of how far he had already come in the eight years since his death. Since then Lovecraft has continued to grow still more popular almost linearly, decade by decade. He long since became one of those essential authors that anyone seriously interested in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, or horror simply has to read, and if the recent success of True Detective is anything to go by he’s not doing too badly for himself in mainstream culture either. As I write this article today I see that not only “Lovecraft” but also “Cthulhu” are included in the Firefox web browser’s spelling dictionary. What more proof can one need of the mainstreaming of the Mythos?

But just what is it about this profoundly limited writer that makes his work so enduring? Well, I can come up with three reasons, one or more of which I believe probably apply to most people who’ve read him — those, that is, who haven’t run screaming from the horrid prose.

The first and most respectable of those reasons is that when he wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” his one stroke of unassailable genius, Lovecraft tapped into the zeitgeist of his time and our own. We should think about the massive shift in our understanding of our place in the universe that was in process during Lovecraft’s time. In the view of the populace at large, science had heretofore been a quaint, nonthreatening realm of gentlemen scholars tinkering away in their laboratories to learn more about God’s magnificent creation. Beginning with Darwin, however, all that changed. Humans, Darwin asserted, were not created by a divine higher power but rather struggled up, gasping and clawing, from the primordial muck like one of Lovecraft’s slimy tentacled monsters. Soon after the paradigm shift of evolution came Einstein with his theories about space and time, which claimed that neither were anything like common sense would have them be, that space itself could bend and time could speed up and slow down; think of the “loathsome non-Euclidean geometry” of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. And then came our first inklings of the quantum world, the realization that even the comforting regularity of Newtonian physics was a mere facade spread over the chaos of unpredictability that lay beneath. The world seemed to be shifting beneath humanity’s feet, bringing with it a dawning realization that’s at the heart of the embodiment of existential dread that is Cthulhu: that we’re just not that important to anyone or anything; indeed, that it’s difficult to even express how insignificant we are against the vast sweep of the unfeeling cosmos. I believe that our collective psyche still struggles with the ramifications of that realization today. Some cling ever tighter to traditional religion (it’s interesting to note that fundamentalism, in all its incarnations, is a phenomenon that postdates Darwin); some spend their lives trying to forget it via hedonism, career, social media, games (hey, I resemble that remark!); some, the lucky ones, make peace with their insignificance, whether through Nietzschian self-actualization, spirituality, or something else. But even for them, I believe, persists somewhere that dread and fear of our aloneness and insignificance, born of the knowledge that a rogue asteroid — or a band of inconceivably powerful and malevolent aliens — could wipe us all out tomorrow and no god would save us. It’s this dread and fear that Lovecraft channels.

That’s the philosophical argument for Lovecraft’s importance, and I do think it’s a good one. At the same time, though, it’s hardly a full explanation of why so many of us continue to enjoy — yes, enjoy — reading Lovecraft even after he’s beat his one great idea comprehensively into the ground over the course of dozens of tales. We also read Lovecraft, ungenerous and even voyeuristic as it may sound, because we’re fascinated by the so obviously troubled personality that created them. In short, we want to know just what the hell is up with Lovecraft, this man who fancied himself an independent, strong-minded gentleman scholar yet is actually terrified of just about every damn thing in the universe. Various people have advanced various theories as to what in fact was up with Lovecraft. Some, noting his inability to express any other emotion than terror and, most of all, disgust — which he admittedly does do very well — have said that he must have been on the autism spectrum. Others, noting his habit of surrounding himself with young male admirers and his occasional habit of describing their appearance in rather, shall we say, idealized terms, have questioned whether he was a closeted homosexual — quite possibly closeted even from himself. In the end, though, all such theories end up feeling unsatisfying and anachronistic.

What is clear is that the Lovecraft we meet in his fiction is a walking, talking bundle of neuroses and phobias, disgusted especially by the seething biological physis that is life itself. Most of all, he’s disgusted by that ultimate imperative of biology: sex. His work is so laden with Freudian imagery that it’s the veritable mother lode for any believer in displacement theory: “rigid” pillars; yawning abysses coated with slimy moisture; dilating doorways leading into dark, strong-smelling tunnels; thick round “Cyclopean” columns (did someone say something about a one-eyed trouser snake?). Read in the right spirit, passages like this one from “The Call of Cthluhu” become hilarious:

…everyone watched the queer recession of the monstrously carven portal. In this phantasy of prismatic distortion it moved anomalously in a diagonal way, so that all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset.

The aperture was black with a darkness almost material. That tenebrousness was indeed a positive quality; for it obscured such parts of the inner walls as ought to have been revealed, and actually burst forth like smoke from its aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings. The odour arising from the newly opened depths was intolerable, and at length the quick-eared Hawkins thought he heard a nasty, slopping sound down there.

What makes all of this still more hilarious is that Lovecraft has no idea that he’s doing it. It’s almost enough all by itself to make one a believer in Freud — if one can stop laughing long enough.

And that in turn gets us to the real dirty little secret about Lovecraft, the reason so many of us continue to love this pretentious bigot like we do the racist but entertaining old uncle we see every Thanksgiving: he’s just so fun. He’s the best camp this side of Plan 9 From Outer Space. This is the real reason that people want to take Cthulhu to bed with them as a plush toy. In the countless works of Lovecraftian fiction that have been written by people other than H.P. Lovecraft, the line between parody and homage is always blurred, largely because he’s uniquely impervious to the typical mode of literary parody, that of exaggerating an author’s stylistic tics until they become ridiculous. The problem is that Lovecraft already parodies himself. Really, how could anyone write anything more ostentatiously overwrought than this?

The tramping drew nearer—heaven save me from the sound of those feet and paws and hooves and pads and talons as it commenced to acquire detail! Down limitless reaches of sunless pavement a spark of light flickered in the malodorous wind, and I drew behind the enormous circumference of a Cyclopic column that I might escape for a while the horror that was stalking million-footed toward me through gigantic hypostyles of inhuman dread and phobic antiquity. The flickers increased, and the tramping and dissonant rhythm grew sickeningly loud. In the quivering orange light there stood faintly forth a scene of such stony awe that I gasped from a sheer wonder that conquered even fear and repulsion. Bases of columns whose middles were higher than human sight . . . mere bases of things that must each dwarf the Eiffel Tower to insignificance . . . hieroglyphics carved by unthinkable hands in caverns where daylight can be only a remote legend. . . .

I would not look at the marching things. That I desperately resolved as I heard their creaking joints and nitrous wheezing above the dead music and the dead tramping. It was merciful that they did not speak . . . but God! their crazy torches began to cast shadows on the surface of those stupendous columns. Heaven take it away! Hippopotami should not have human hands and carry torches . . . men should not have the heads of crocodiles. . . .

To those last lines I can only reply… no shit, Sherlock. Long after the cosmic horror has had its moment and you’ve realized that obscure diction doesn’t a great writer make, the camp will always remain. While it may be borderline impossible to parody Lovecraft, it’s great fun for a writer to just go wild once in a while in his unhinged style, to ejaculate purple prose all over the page in an orgasm of terrible writing. (Having once written a Lovecraftian interactive fiction, I fancy I know of what I speak.) This, again, is extremely important to understand when reckoning with his tremendous ongoing popularity, and with the fact that so many excellent writers who really ought to know better — people like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Jorge Luis Borges, and Joyce Carol Oates — can’t resist him.

If you haven’t yet read Lovecraft, I certainly recommend that you do so. Love him or hate him, he’s a significant writer with whom everyone — especially, as we’ll begin to see in my next article, those interested in ludic culture — should be at least a little bit familiar. And getting a handle on him isn’t a terribly time-consuming task. While his other works can certainly be rewarding to cosmic-horror aficionados and lovers of camp alike, you can come to understand much or most of what he does and how he does it merely by reading “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” In my opinion the best of his later works is At the Mountains of Madness, more a work of pulpy Antarctic adventure than horror and all the better for it; his prose here is a bit less purple than his norm. (That said, it does also contains one of the best instances of high Lovecraftian camp ever, when he shows himself perhaps the only person on the planet who can find penguins “grotesque.”) After you’ve read those three all of his writerly cards are pretty much on the table. His other works more amplify his modest collection of themes and approaches than extend them.

Next time we’ll take up another weird tale: how a young game designer turned these nihlistic stories whose protagonists always end up dead or insane into a game that would actually be fun — one that you might even be able to win once in a while.

(The definitive biography of H.P. Lovecraft is and will likely remain S.T. Joshi’s sprawling two-volume I Am Providence. A shorter and more accessible biography is Paul Roland’s The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft. Worthwhile online articles can be found at The Atlantic, SalonThe New York Review of Books, and Teeming Brain. The Arkham Archivist has put together The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, a free-to-download ebook for Kindle and EPub readers. Finally, there’s BBC Radio’s excellent Weird Tales: The Strange Life of H.P. Lovecraft.)


Posted by on September 18, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction