The Lurking Horror

02 Oct

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 Russell 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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51 Responses to The Lurking Horror

  1. Duncan Stevens

    October 2, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    I guess I’d agree that it’s not *consistently* scary, partly because, as with any parser-based game from this era, there are long puzzle-solving stretches between any scary bits (and the atmospheric element, while effective the first few times you enter the relevant locations, loses its scariness after you’ve trooped around for a while in your puzzle-solving endeavors). But there were definitely parts that I found effectively creepy at the time–the iron plate, the little sequence with the creature in the weather station, the rat tunnel, and the alchemy lab puzzle are the main ones I remember right now. (The weather station was particularly unsettling for me at first; it became less so after I realized the creature wasn’t after me as such.) Agreed on the hand being more joky than scary.

    The sequence early in the game when you find that your file is corrupted, and the dream/vision bit that follows, is another good example of Lebing’s restraint. At several points, the writing hints at something awful without quite spelling it out the way Lovecraft would have tried to do.

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 2, 2015 at 6:32 pm

      The rat tunnel strikes me as more gross than scary, and the mad scientist is walking right on the line where horror becomes comedy for me. (Granted, I could say both of the same things about much in Lovecraft.) Agreed that the weather-tower creature is probably the most effective scare of them all. The ending, on the other hand, feels more like an action movie than a horror flick. I think a lot of this stuff would be more effective if Lebling had been able to flesh it out a bit more, both in terms of implementation and text. Thus my wish that this had been an Interactive Fiction Plus title.

      • Duncan Stevens

        October 2, 2015 at 7:22 pm

        Right–I don’t recall finding the ending particularly scary.

        I really liked the elevator puzzle. Most of the other puzzles were just OK (and some weren’t even OK, such as the urchin and the maze), but that one was excellent.

  2. Felix

    October 2, 2015 at 5:04 pm

    Now I know where Charles Stross got some of his ideas…

  3. Duncan Stevens

    October 2, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    Also, all these years later, I remember the login/password combo without having to look it up, so evidently this game left an impression.

  4. Victor Gijsbers

    October 2, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    I don’t know whether it is your typo or Infocom”s, but “Anabsis” should be “Anabasis.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 2, 2015 at 5:51 pm

      Looks like it’s… mine. No surprise there, right? Thanks!

      • Victor Gijsbers

        October 2, 2015 at 5:58 pm

        Does the game itself involve an analogue of having to escape from inside the Persian kingdom while the Persian army is at your heels trying to kill you? :-)

        • Jimmy Maher

          October 2, 2015 at 6:08 pm

          No. It’s more an analogue of exploring the dungeons beneath the Persian kingdom and kicking the ass of the leader, who just happens to be a tentacled blasphemous nightmare. I think that’s the part covered in Anabasis II: Xenophon Strikes Back.

          • Duncan Stevens

            October 2, 2015 at 6:21 pm

            The bit in Anabasis II involving an elevator was quite prescient.

            • Jubal

              October 3, 2015 at 8:02 am

              I’m guessing Dave Lebling may have been a big fan of “The Warriors”, then…

          • niklasl

            October 5, 2015 at 3:05 am

            One modern analogue of Anabasis that comes to mind is that of a brave troop of game developers being alone in the hostiale territory of a major video game corporation after the leader that brought them there had fallen.

  5. Steven Marsh

    October 2, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    Lurking Horror was the second Infocom game I recall where I really found myself fighting with the parser over simple things. (The first was figuring out how to get the black hemisphere and white hemisphere together in Beyond Zork.) It was especially jarring since Lurking Horror was set in the modern world, and I felt like I wasn’t a character but a horribly ineffectual meat puppet:


    (etc. to countless solutions that don’t work)

    The ultimate solution to that problem felt like slicing an action down to too many discrete molecules. In comparison, most other games allow for things like OPEN DOOR rather than TURN DOORKNOB. PUSH DOOR… (etc.)

    Similarly, figuring out how to get a ladder to span two levels would be trivial in real life (or even in a graphic adventure), but the parser utterly failed me in Lurking Horror. DROP LADDER TO FLOOR BELOW, PUT LADDER ON FLOOR, etc.

    I’m sure I must have faced these problems in other games, but this was the first one I really felt it . . . possibly because – since it was set in the real world – I was less willing to overlook its inability to parse my obvious actions as being a gulf between my perceptions and a fantasy or science-fiction world.

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 2, 2015 at 7:48 pm

      I think there’s some truth to this. It’s trying to do just a bit too much for the 128 K Z-Machine, and it does suffer in places where we really could have used a little *more*, in terms of both text and code. The fact that Infocom was pushing out so many games during 1987 may also have taken its toll on the final polishing.

      • Duncan Stevens

        October 5, 2015 at 3:13 am

        I don’t know whether this was ever contemplated, but this is one game where it would have been natural to have a PC that was more than a cipher, and Lebling seems to have passed up that opportunity. The encounter with the hacker could have brought out some personality in the PC; no dice. You could have had a dorm room that would have said something about you, but no. The idea couldn’t have been completely foreign to the folks who put out Plundered Hearts the same year, so my guess is that space limitations played a role.

  6. Keith Palmer

    October 2, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    All the discussion about The Lurking Horror being a little too crammed into “the 128K Z-Machine” left me convinced I’d once seen a comment from Lebling himself lamenting he had to leave out “a lot of lovely shivers”; I went looking and found it in the old Inform Designer’s Manual.

    In any case, I’m convinced The Lurking Horror is the Infocom game made after the “Passport to the United Products of Infocom” catalog was made up I best remember; Stationfall probably comes second. (I’ll have to admit to not really delving into a number of the other ones from that period, though…) As you’ve said in this post, though, it may not feel absolutely “Lovecraftian” to me (the back of the box did mention Lovecraft, but also Stephen King), although I must also admit the text adventure I’d point to instead is “Anchorhead”…

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 3, 2015 at 6:41 am

      Ah, I thought I’d read something about The Lurking Horror along those lines, but I couldn’t track it down. Good catch!

  7. ZUrlocker

    October 3, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    Jimmy, great post. I have bought Lurking Horror several times (e.g. Masterpieces, Lost Treasures on iOS, several on eBay) and I have a legit Z5 file. I’m no longer running any DOS machines. What do I do with the Blorb file to get sound on a mac? Is there a particular Mac interpreter I need to use? If anyone has already explained the process a link is much appreciated.

    • Steven Marsh

      October 4, 2015 at 2:33 am

      Jimmy linked to the appropriate files to get a version of the Z5 file that supports sound (Version 221) —

      Once you have a Version 221 of the Z5 file and the blb support files, you need an interpreter that’ll support it. The only one I’ve found that worked for me on a Mac was Windows Frotz running in Crossover (download an interpreter from … which, yes, is less than ideal.

      Crossover is commercial software that makes it straightforward to run DOS games, using an interpreter called Wine:

      I haven’t tried it, but Wine Bottler (which looks free) might work as well:

      Hope this helps!

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 4, 2015 at 8:18 am

      The problem is best approached in two stages: 1) get a story file that supports sound; 2) get sound working in your particular interpreter.

      1. There are three versions of the story file released by Infocom. Serial number 203.870506 is the original, and doesn’t support sound. Serials numbers 219.870912 and 221.870918 are the Amiga re-releases with sound support. If you don’t have either of the later versions in your collection, you have two options: 1) patch one of your versions to support sound using tools in the IF Archive directory that we’ve already linked to; or 2) just download a story file of the right version from a ROM repository or somewhere else (hint: you might want to look into the blog of a fellow named Doug Bolden). The former process is going to be complicated, once again, by the fact that you’re on Mac; the only executable included is for DOS. If needs must, you could run this through DOSBox (even a 64-bit Windows won’t run it), or if you have a C compiler on your Mac just compile the single source file to make your own executable. However you get there, when you have a story file that understands the typed command “$sound”, replying with “Sound off,” you’ll know you’ve successfully jumped through Hoop #1. (Be sure to type “$sound” again to turn the sound back on!)

      2. Pretty much what Steve says. I’ve messed around a little with Gargoyle, but didn’t have any luck at all getting it to play the sounds. It may work if you’re willing to package the story file and the sounds together using the Blorb tools, as Ben Cressey describes at (Based on my experimentation this morning, it looks like the problems with Gargoyle’s Infocom sound support that are described in that thread have never been corrected.) Otherwise WINE and Windows Frotz are your best, most straightforward bet. I would say that both of the links provided by Steve are probably overkill for running a simple app like Frotz. Just the simple WINE — — should be fine. Just put the blorbed sound files I linked to into the same directory as your sound-enabled story file, and make sure the blorb file has the same name as your story file apart from the file extension. It all should Just Work. The first place where sounds should play is in the dream sequence that begins after logging into the computer and editing your paper. So you may want to save just before that starts. Then you can quickly get back to it for experimentation purposes.

      And yes, all of this is far, far more complicated than it really ought to be.

      • sho

        October 4, 2015 at 8:51 am

        How about just running an Amiga emulator (UAE) on the Mac and running the original Amiga disk image?

        • Jimmy Maher

          October 4, 2015 at 9:06 am

          Definitely an option, but tricky in its own way, especially for someone who’s never used an Amiga. I don’t think the Amiga Infocom games autoboot, which means tracking down a Workbench disk. Throw in the need for Kickstart ROMs and all and it starts to every bit as gnarly as any other approach. Amiga Forever unfortunately doesn’t run on Macs.

          • Pedro Timóteo

            October 6, 2015 at 8:04 am

            There are also utilities such as unadf (on Linux, I think it’s in most distributions’ repositories, and I’m sure it should be possible to find its equivalent on a Windows or Mac system) that can extract files from an Amiga .adf disk image. Then you just have to look around for the Amiga disk version of this game, extract the Z-code file, and you have the Amiga version of Lurking Horror. You still need to add the sound files in blorb format (just download the single file from the link Jimmy provided).

            unadf was most useful to me in order to try out Amiga versions of Sierra and LucasArts adventures on ScummVM, by the way. :)

      • ZUrlocker

        October 4, 2015 at 1:21 pm

        Ok thanks. I have a version 221 Z5 file, but so far no luck with any of the native Mac interpreters: Gargoyle, Spatterlight, Zoom. Getting a DOS emulator going seems like overkill. “Just follow this easy 17 step process….”

        Oddly, I can’t even get any of the DOS SND or Amiga DAT sound files to play on a mac manually. If anyone has converted these to plain WAV files that would be good enough for me. I’m just more curious about the sounds than anything.

        • Steven Marsh

          October 5, 2015 at 1:19 pm

          You can extract the files yourself (although — again — it’s nowhere near as easy as it could be on a Mac). Just follow this easy 17-step process!

          1) Download the BLB file from here:

          2) Download the Python file that lets you manipulate BLB files:

          3) Make a directory and dump those two into the same directory.

          4) Open a Terminal prompt (In /Applications/Utilities/ )

          5) From the Terminal prompt, change your directory to the folder you dumped those files into. The easiest way is to type:

          cd [DON’T HIT RETURN]

          … then drag and drop that directory into the Terminal window. Depending on where you created the directory in Step 3, this should result in something like:

          cd /Users/yourusername/Downloads/Blorb\ temp

          [NOW HIT RETURN]

          6) Now, in the Terminal, type:


          This should confirm you’re in the right directory, with the .blb and the .py script. If not, something went wrong somewhere around Step 3-5; try again.

          7) Once it’s working, type the following commands (one at a time, hitting return after each one):

          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 3 lurking3.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 4 lurking4.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 6 lurking6.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 7 lurking7.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 8 lurking8.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 9 lurking9.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 10 lurking10.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 11 lurking11.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 12 lurking12.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 13 lurking13.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 15 lurking15.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 16 lurking16.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 17 lurking17.aiff
          python ./ Lurking.blb export Snd 18 lurking18.aiff

          [There is no sound file associated with 1, 2, 5, or 14.]


          If everything’s worked out, you should have 14 AIFF files in your directory. These are standard well-behaved AIFF files; they’ll play in Quicktime, iTunes, Audacity, etc.

          • ZUrlocker

            October 6, 2015 at 3:48 pm

            Ok thanks for the details. Despite my bitching, I did manage to get WinFrotz running using Wine on my Mac and the chanting sounds at least were better than I expected and very effective. If you happen to have converted the SND files to AIFF and want to ZIP and post them somewhere that is much appreciated.

  8. Jesse Blue

    October 4, 2015 at 8:30 am

    About the Apple IIGS: Infocom never made a IIGS version of anything, except Beyond Zork. In 1993, the Big Red Computer club published the “Lost Treasures of Infocom”, including Lurking Horror. But unfortunately, that did not contain the sound effects. See also:

  9. Ian Schmidt

    October 5, 2015 at 3:56 am

    The Atari ST actually couldn’t play sampled sounds natively like the Amiga/Mac/IIgs. It used the Yamaha YM2149, a slightly more musical version of the AY-3-8910 sound generator that powered the Mattel Intellivision console and dozens of classic-era arcade games. The same techniques used on the C64 to play samples in games like Skate or Die via the SID also work on the 2149, but were not obvious and had no official Atari support.

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 5, 2015 at 5:02 am

      I’m certainly no expert on the ST’s technical capabilities, but in writing that I was thinking of the original ST Starglider, which played about 30 seconds of a theme song recorded in a studio by real musicians. This would seem to indicate that it was possible to do sampled sound on the ST with reasonable fidelity — at least better fidelity than the Commodore 64 or stuff like Access RealSound on the PC clones could manage. Whether Atari ST sampled sound could have been worked into a game with the ease of the Amiga sound support is of course another question. Even the later Sherlock, which also supported sound, made it only to the Mac and Amiga, which would indeed seem to indicate that it was at best a trickier proposition.

      • Pedro Timóteo

        October 6, 2015 at 8:09 am

        As far as I remember, digitized sound on the Atari ST basically killed the CPU while playing them, so it was mostly used in intros, title / menu screens, and so on. This wasn’t a problem in the later STE machines, but only a handful of games supported their extra features.

        Even a normal ST *could* have handled The Lurking Horror’s digitized sounds, of course (since not much else is happening when playing them), but I guess Infocom didn’t want to bother with it by then.

        • Jimmy Maher

          October 6, 2015 at 8:31 am

          Mmm, not so sure about that last. Many of the sounds in the game are looped continuously as the player enters commands and continues to play. Depending on how much the sounds really “killed the CPU,” this could present a problem — at least in comparison to the multitasking Amiga.

  10. Gnoman

    October 5, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    Unless the ones you’re talking about are different from the paired magnets (intended to rattle against each other) that I’m familiar with, novelty “rattlesnake eggs” seem to be an unforgivably irresponsible pack-in with a floppy disk game.

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 5, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      Hmm… maybe that was the problem? I’ve never seen them or even heard them described in detail. They were just mentioned by reviewers who got a pre-release copy of the game.

      • Steven Marsh

        October 5, 2015 at 11:38 pm

        Gnoman, I suspect you’re thinking of these:

        My assumption is that it was a version of the old prank with a washer wound up with a rubber band strung between an unbent curved paper clip, so that – when you open the envelope – it gives a “rattle” effect as the rubber band/washer unwinds. There’s no magnets involved so I imagine it’s no more dangerous than anything else metal.

        Here’s a YouTube video of how the prank works:

        Here’s an Instructable about how to emulate the effect with stuff you have around the house:

        I don’t have any definitive knowledge that this IS the feelie referred to, but I can’t imagine anything else it would be; I recall encountering this prank in the early ’80s, but I only first saw the rattling magnet things within the past decade.

  11. Alex Freeman

    October 5, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    I guess I have some trouble understanding why games like The Lurking Horror were such a tight squeeze for 128k considering they were all text. Does text really take up that much space? Ultima 4 and Maniac Mansion were able to fit on 64k of memory, and they were lengthy adventures full of graphics.

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 6, 2015 at 7:31 am

      Like The Lurking Horror, Ultima IV and Maniac Mansion both use far more than 64 K. They use a form of virtual memory to store what’s not currently needed on disk, as does the 128 K Z-Machine. (Remember, the 128 K Z-Machine can run on the likes of a Commodore 64.)

      Otherwise, this is largely apples to oranges. My instinct is that Maniac Mansion isn’t really any larger than The Lurking Horror, although it’s hard to quantify these things and with the different character combinations and all it perhaps makes better use of its size. Ultima IV certainly is much larger, but like other old-school CRPGs it achieves this by reusing the same handful of minigames over and over. Indeed, almost everything in that game is built from reusable parts: wilderness and city tiles, monsters, dungeon layouts, shops, shrines, etc. (The symmetry of the design, with the 8 shrines, 8 mantras, 8 runes, etc., isn’t just an aesthetic choice.) Ultima IV is also able to neatly divide itself into three — wilderness, towns, dungeons — and give each part its own disk side. This is something that The Lurking Horror, which needs to present a single contiguous space, can’t do. And the short answer is that, yes, text was *incredibly* expensive. That’s why old-school CRPGs tried so hard to minimize it. (By the time of The Lurking Horror, some were beginning to ship with paragraph books that let them add a little more texture to their worlds without having to include all that text in the game itself.)

      Except for the most trivial (picking up and dropping things, etc.), almost every interaction in The Lurking Horror is unique. There’s just one computer, just one refrigerator with Chinese food, just one microwave, etc. And all require their own text and code to implement. I think this emphasis on “quality over quantity,” if you will, is why Infocom games tend to hold up better today than 1980s CRPGs, of which even the better ones, like Ultima IV, can feel like endless slogs offering little reward for hours at a stretch. But that’s just my opinion; obviously others disagree.

      There are doubtless things Infocom could have done a bit better. Their text compression, for instance, wasn’t really all that great, at best only about a 35 to 40 percent saving over simply storing the text in the clear as ASCII. (Level 9 in Britain, the masters of text-adventure compression, used to roundly mock them for this.) But in the end anything they might have done would likely have only allowed a few more rooms and/or a few thousand more words.

      For a better understanding of how Infocom’s technology worked and what I really mean when I talk about “the 128 K Z-Machine,” you might find this article useful:

      • Sam Garret

        October 6, 2015 at 7:09 pm

        >>>That’s why old-school CRPGs tried so hard to minimize it. (By the time of The Lurking Horror, some were beginning to ship with paragraph books that let them add a little more texture to their worlds without having to include all that text in the game itself.)

        Not to quibble (much :-) but that kind of added flavour had been going on since at least 1979’s Temple of Apshai (

  12. Alex Freeman

    October 6, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    Wow! That and your link were really informative! Thanks! I think I get it now. I hadn’t really thought about the uniqueness in Infocom’s games or how much recycling was done in other games. I had thought about virtual memory before but didn’t realize that’s what it was called. The reason I thought about is because of Super Mario Bros. In that game, once you pass something, you can’t go back to it if it’s gone past the left edge of the screen. Furthermore, if something goes off the edge of the screen, it’s gone for good. That’s why koopa shells will never hit anything off screen. I figured all of that was due to some technique I now know is called virtual memory.

  13. G Grobbelaar

    October 11, 2015 at 3:47 am

    My little useless advice, couldn’t get any sound files to work in any winfrotz untill i found ttsfrotz thingy! Its basically winfrotz for the blind! And all sounds worked perfect. The 2002 version is available from ifarchive. I even went so far ads making other sounds with a utility on ifarchive and change Lurking sounds so that when a friend played it the sounds were funny!

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 12, 2015 at 8:44 am

      Just because all this wasn’t already confusing enough, we also have to remember that WinFrotz and Windows Frotz are actually two separate programs. I believe the former can also play the sounds, but it wants them in the older, non-blorbed format.

  14. Brian Bagnall

    October 23, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    I can scratch one more thing off my bucket list: finishing an Infocom game. Two peeks at the online Universal Hint System were needed (one to get past the maintenance man, and one to figure out how to get out of the professor’s lab). Not a bad experience all in all. This is much different from playing any other computer game, namely you need to keep notes, map all rooms and items, and play a little bit each night then go away and think about things offline before trying a few ideas again the next day.
    One curious thing about the game is how it is so non-character driven. None of the characters even have names, including the urchin, the hacker, the professor and the mysterious alchemy student who wrote a certain letter. Makes me wonder what the thinking was there.

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 24, 2015 at 9:14 am

      Most likely just lack of space…

      • David Ross

        June 17, 2024 at 2:38 am

        No, there’s a pattern.
        I think the choice was stylistic. It’s done to make you feel more alone in this uncaring universe. It’s one of the better nods to Lovecraftian ambience here.
        I agree this game is still not as scary as Stationfall or even Quest For Glory IV. Anchorhead was mentioned in these comments as being as good a Lovecraft IF as we’ll likely ever see. Lurking Horror is not that.

  15. Jerome

    July 19, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    Finally picket up this 30 years old classic (solving it on my own, I can proudly say). This one has been on my pile of shame for ages.

    I have no complaints about the puzzles, but I really got at stuck one point, when I didn’t realize that after showing some documents to the professor I could easily walk to the south part of the lab.

    The most scary part for me was that occasionally when you’re in the elevator shaft, the elevator suddenly starts moving upwards (or even downwards once, crushing me).
    I tried to rush up the staircase to see who pressed the button, but never found anyone…

    I love confronting adventure parsers with absurd commands and so I stumbled upon a funny bug. Sometimes (not always) you can throw away your self. Right at the start of the game, try:

    >throw me at hacker
    Thrown. The Hacker retreats. […]

    After that, “yourself” is found in the room. You cannot pick it up again, and when you leave the room you cannot examine yourself anymore :)

    There is yourself here.


    >examine me
    You can’t see any yourself here.

    PS: In fact I still use uhlersoth as password for “unimportant” accounts … OMG why am I telling this?

  16. Lisa H.

    July 19, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    I would suspect the urchin of pressing the elevator button, possibly.

  17. The Grand Rascal

    April 7, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    Does anyone here know exactly who, or what, in the Cthulhu mythos, “Uhlersoth” is or was? Google is useless in this regard…

    • Lisa H.

      April 9, 2018 at 7:49 am

      This doesn’t answer your question, but I never thought it was supposed to be anything specific, just a word that kind of sounded like it came from the same phonetic family.

  18. Andy

    June 13, 2019 at 2:22 pm

    Late to the party here, but I found the rubber centipede really disturbing, since it hadn’t been mentioned in the copy on the back of the box. You opened the package, and – gahhghhAAAH what IS THAT THING?

    Then again, I was about 9 years old when we got that game, so your mileage may vary.

  19. Allan Holland

    January 31, 2020 at 8:53 pm

    What I’d like to know is whether it was Dave Lebling’s idea to implement the ability to microwave the reanimated hand (back) to death. “The hand scrabbles around frantically, then at last lies still.” Wowzers. One of those weird little Easter Eggs. Was it a tester’s Idea or vintage PDL? (Jon Palace, maybe?)

  20. Ben

    January 26, 2023 at 9:15 pm

    game). -> game.)

    But If -> But if

    Russel Lieblich -> Russell Lieblich

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 30, 2023 at 6:14 pm



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