Friday, August 7, 2009

What the New Lovecraft Circle can teach the OSR

I’ve just begun reading The New Lovecraft Circle (Del Ray Books, 1996), an anthology of short stories by later writers who indulged in expanding on Lovecraft’s original tales. As I read the introduction by Robert M. Price, it struck me as to how similar the challenges these New Lovecraft Circle writers (Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, Lin Carter, John Glasby, etc.) faced were to those confronting the OSR. In many places, merely replacing “New Lovecraft Circle” with “Old School Renaissance” and “Mythos fiction” with “classic D&D” produced astoundingly good advice. After all, what the New Lovecraft Circle was doing and what we’re engaged in is remarkably the same: expanding on ideas created by a predecessor while attempting to remain true to the source material.

In the post which follows, I’ve taken excerpts from Price’s introduction and presented them here. Each excerpt is followed by commentary from myself regarding how I think that the Old School Renaissance could learn a thing or two by examining the challenges and concerns of the New Lovecraft Circle. It’s a rather lengthy post, especially of a Friday, but one I believe is worthy of consideration as we move forward as a niche within a niche.
In all this, in the stories of the New Lovecraft Circle, one sensed simultaneously the joys both of nostalgia and of fresh creation. Accordingly the reader, if the stories hit him right, experienced a feeling of at-home-ness and the delight of newness. You could almost pretend it was all unfolding for the first time, and this time here you were on the ground floor.
This statement is just as true to the Old School Renaissance as it is to the New Lovecraft Circle. In general, the OSR bucks any accusations of doing what we do because we look at the older editions through rose-colored glasses, a stand which I agree with. However, we do sometimes take this defense too far and proclaim that nostalgia also has nothing to do with our embracing the older versions of the game. I think we do a great disservice to ourselves when we go to this extreme. Nostalgia for the simpler times of our youth most certainly influences our love for the game and there’s nothing patently wrong with this. Nostalgia, like all human emotions, is not a useless feeling; it has its place and purpose. To deny its presence in the OSR is nothing more than whitewashing the matter in hopes to shore up any defensive arguments we might offer. We should acknowledge its role in what we do, learn to accept its presence, and proudly revel in it.

As with the New Lovecraft Circle, one of the draws of the OSR is the opportunity to participate in the developmental stage of a new (old) branch of the hobby. Many of us were either too young or not yet born at the time the game first took flight and we missed the chance to participate in those heady days when there seemed to be no limits in sight. One of the most common reactions I’ve read and heard about the OSR is that it does a fair job of recapturing what it must have been like to be active in this hobby of ours in the early 1970s. Both Fight On! and Knockspell have drawn comparison to the early issues of Dragon and those of us who contribute to those magazines are stepping into the roles of Dragon’s earliest collaborators. Every amateur role-playing supplement published helps guide the movement and suggest new possibilities. In short, we’re engaging in an exercise of alternate history, playing a game of “What If?” to see where the hobby might have gone if the limitations of business had not stepped in. That’s part of the electricity in the air which powers the OSR.

All of which brings me to the question of pastiches, a guilty literary pleasure. Most Cthulhu Mythos fiction is either a pastiche of Lovecraft and Derleth or at the very least formula fiction. Is this a bad thing? Some say it is, and this may have something to do with the unwillingness of many editors to even look at Mythos fiction. They think readers know too well what to expect: a too-familiar story in which certain things will happen, right on schedule, and in which certain code words and book titles will try, unsuccessfully, to substitute for atmosphere and characterization.

There is a thin line between homage and necrophilia. With the first, we acknowledge that which has come before us as a sign of respect to both our heritage and its creators. With the second, we’re merely defiling the dead for our own pleasure, too lazy to take up the challenge of going after livelier quarry. The OSR needs to keep this in mind. Anything produced in the present that smacks of the past is going to be judged by its predecessor, so make sure you’re doing something unique with a theme if you choose to revisit it. Every sci-fi/fantasy mashup will be judged according to Expedition to Barrier Peaks, every deathtrap dungeon compared to the Tomb of Horrors. If we can’t revisit that ground without discovering something new there, perhaps we’d best look for unexplored territory rather than be judged wanting. To engage in homage is fine, but we’ll only stagnate if that’s the best we can do.

But surely not all genre fiction, not all formula fiction, need be a poor example of its type…I believe that we may learn much from the remarks of Lin Carter, made in his book Imaginary Worlds, in reply to the criticisms…against the pulp genre of Swords-&-Sorcery fiction, damning it as “a living fossil with no apparent ability to evolve.” To this Carter replied, “Well, perhaps. But what of it? The stuff is fun to read, and fun to write, and the fossilization of the genre is, I suspect, largely in the eye of the beholder…Must a school of writing evolve? I wonder why. Evolution implies change into something else.”

In other words, this criticism, also aimed frequently at Cthulhu Mythos fiction, is a Catch-22: if the genre doesn’t evolve, it is dead in the water. If it does evolve, it becomes something else. And in either case we are done for.”
This passage strike exceedingly deep if only because we’ve witnessed firsthand what happens when a game “evolves.” I’m in agreement with Carter here. The earlier editions of the game remain fun to read and fun to write, and, most importantly, fun to play. The idea that the original versions of D&D are fossils does lie in the eye of the beholder. If OD&D is a fossil, it’s a particularly lively one, akin to a trilobite that can rip out your throat.

But despite the virility of this “fossilized” form of the game, we still face a similar challenge to that of the New Lovecraft Circle. Unless we’re content to remain in the comfortable confines of D&D circa 1974, we need to explore ways in which we can take the game to new heights (and lows) without mutating it into something completely different. Unless the OSR does this, we’re dead in the water, a mere footnote in the history of the hobby. The possible incarnations the game may take without changing into something completely unrecognizable have already been demonstrated by some. Like it or loathe it, you can’t dismiss the fact that Geoffrey McKinney took the OSR into new and unsettling territory with Carcosa. Gabor Lux has been demonstrating similar unorthodox thinking with his Fomalhaut setting. We need more of this if we want to thrive and challenge ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with games filled with halflings, orcs, and Conan stand-ins, but this doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be the only option.

Carter offered no contrived aesthetic defense for writing new Swords-&-Sorcery…John Jakes, in a passage appreciatively quoted by Carter, sums it up: we don’t like it because we are supposed to like it or obliged to like it by some literary conscience. We like it because we like it. Jakes: “There are just not enough of this kind of stories to go around any more; not enough, anyway, to please me.”
We sometimes forget this. When challenged to explain why we enjoy the early forms of the game, we feel we have to construct air-tight arguments and cunning counter-attacks against the current regime. Deep down inside though, we play this form of the game because we like it, a fact we don’t owe anyone a justification for. And the reason that the OSR exists is not only because we like these versions of the game, but because there’s not enough material to go around to appease those of us who enjoy it.

…To put it in terms drawn from Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Notes on Camp,” Carter, Jakes and the rest of us enjoy this fiction precisely for the excesses that make more “serious” critics turn up their noses. In another essay, Sontag puts down science fiction along with pornography as “sub-literary”…But she has forgotten herself when she makes such sweeping judgments. We latter-day pulpists are not to be despised, for we have acquired the sensibility of “Camp.” Carter knew what qualified as great literature and what didn’t and that both were enjoyable in their ways. And he was unashamed of his nostalgic, campy love for what he himself called “the gloriously fourth-rate.”
This is something that gets overlooked in the rush to be more “Older School Than Thou.” The unwritten rule is that if you show any appreciation for any RPG not considered “old school,” you are in danger of getting your membership card revoked. This is patently absurd.

The new versions of D&D (and all the other “new school” games out there) have something to teach the grognards, even if it’s only what you don’t like in a role-playing game. There’s an old saying in writing that “before you break the rules, you must first learn them.” This applies to RPG as well. If we merely dismiss newer titles out of hand, we’re doing exactly what we accuse the New School of doing with our own preferred version. We don’t need to apologize for loving the “camp” or “gloriously fourth-rate” versions of the game, but there’s no excuse to be so willfully obtuse that we’re unable to admit that even the newest of role-playing games have a place in the hobby, if only because there are people who enjoy them. The biggest challenge for anyone is expose themselves to something they don’t agree with, be it role-playing games or political leanings. Fortunately, there’s no threat of contamination in doing so and it might even strengthen your own beliefs.

But one might persist, doesn’t it get rather stale? Maybe there can be good Mythos fiction, granted, but hasn’t it all been written? Does the plethora of poor Mythos imitations signal that it’s been done to death? Why continue to write them?

…I think Derrida helps us grasp the fact…that when one writes a “Mythos story,” one is in fact simply reading the Mythos story, the one written deep within by all one’s years of reading and enjoying the work of Lovecraft, Derleth, et al. The second half of Derleth’s Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos was a rewriting, and thus a rereading, of the first half. One wishes there were more of these stories, so one writes more of them, not so much for other hungry Lovecraftians to read, but for oneself to read in the very act of writing them.
Why do we persist in writing new supplemental materials for these games? Haven’t all the good ideas already been taken? Hasn’t there been enough claptrap published? What can I possibly have to offer to the OSR? These are all very good questions.

The second paragraph answers these questions not only in regards to Mythos fiction but to old school gaming. We write these materials simply because we need to read them. If you’re currently working on some old school supplement, chances are you’re not doing it because you have intentions of getting rich off of publishing it. You’re writing it because you feel the need to see it exist somewhere other than in your own mind. You need to give it form and substance outside of the scattered notes and ideas that are lodged in your brain. In short, we write these things for ourselves. Although the scarcity (and that’s fading) of newly-written old school supplemental material helps encourage these creations and there is an audience for them, we’re actually engaging in self-gratification. There’s nothing wrong with this, just be sure to wash your hands once you’re done.

“All those terrible fannish Mythos yarns are so bad not because they must be, nor even because their young authors are poor writers, but rather, at the bottom of it, because they are poor readers! They have picked up nothing in Lovecraft but all the tongue-twisting names and the twisting tentacles, merely beasts and bestiaries. Mythos names, we often hear, and rightly, do not a Lovecraftian story make.

…The basic idea of a Mythos tale as I have set forth is an interior skeleton like a mammal’s, a frame on which to grow, not a hard, limiting exo-skeleton like those worn by the insects from Shaggai. It forms the base-line against which the new variations may be measured. It is not denial of flexibility; it is something to be flexible with.

In my judgment we may plot the failure of both insipid fan Mythos fiction and of sophisticated New Wave Mythos fiction…along this axis. The fan fiction tends to stick to the skeleton so closely there is no meat on the bones. Or the meat is old and rank. We’ve heard it all before.

The New Wave stuff, on the other hand, chucks the whole skeleton. It is either like an invertebrate shoggoth or it has simply plugged in a few familiar Mythos names here and there in an unfamiliar structure.”
These final paragraphs take us back to what I feel is the greatest obstacle the OSR faces: how do we grow while remaining true to our roots and avoid mutating into something “not-D&D”? As I pointed out above, we must learn the difference between acknowledging our past and rehashing it. We need to discern what lies at the heart of Old School D&D and use this as the framework from which to hang new ideas. Not the easiest of tasks and one that has many subjective answers. In our attempts to identify the skeleton of D&D, we can’t do so with terms so inflexible that the game and the OSR cannot bend to reach unexplored places. Luckily, the very rules of the game are malleable enough to accommodate the mental calisthenics that the OSR must perform to stay vibrant.

The New Lovecraft Circle has proved that it is possible to build on old ideas and visit new territory while remaining true to the origins of the material. It’s now time for the OSR to do the same. Luckily for us, the New Lovecraft Circle has given us a few pointers as to how to proceed.


Matthew Slepin said...

Fantastic post, Mike. I'm trying to think of something cleverer to say than that, but seems like you have said just about all that could be said on the topic.


Oh: if the phrase "There is a thin line between homage and necrophilia" is yours, you ought to copy-right it. I'll be using that frequently. :)

JB said...

Good stuff.

One thing additionally to consider: in Steven King's non-fiction book "On Writing" he puts forth the idea that many writers write simply for the love of the written word. Whether you call yourself a "fourth-rate writer of fiction" or "self-gratifying re-creators of nostalgia" the fact of the matter is that you ARE creating something: entertainment certainly, enriching (of the imagination) quite possibly.

Just as we should strive to keep open minds and learn from games...even those of which we're not fond...we should also appreciate our own efforts. Role-playing is more than just fiction writing; it is more than the sum of its rules system and supplements. RPGs give people a means to build rapport with each other, to build communities based on cooperation and entertainment and imagination.

It is quite possible that to some kids (younger ones especially), the slickly produced expensive hard cover games are hopelessly beyond their grasp, whether because of the size of cash outlay needed or the depth of the rules. Since older games like B/X are no longer in print, games like Labyrinth Lord have the opportunity to reach these young folks and enrich their lives in ways Hasbro/WotC never long as WE (the OSR believers) are willing to support them and introduce them to new folks.

I guess I'm just saying that, yes, there are challenges to walking outside the standard gaming line, especially writing or publishing for it. But rather than just say, "no apologies are necessary," I believe we can say "there is value to what we're doing."

But that's just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Simply brilliant Mike. I posted many a comment on blogs criticising the OSR and its followers, pointing out that I don't play the older versions of the game because I feel nostalgic (although that's there too), but first and foremost because I find them fun - more fun for me than later versions. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

Fantastic. Love the game. That's what, to me, my OSR is all about. Love the game the way it speaks to me.

Blotz said...

What an excellent and posting. Hard to add anything except thanks.

Oh yeah...
"Deep down inside though, we play this form of the game because we like it, a fact we don’t owe anyone a justification for."
I think it goes without saying that this statement should apply to Every Gamer, no matter what game they prefer.