(The source of the image. Those statues are all sold out.)
Lovecraftian horror is a staple of horror roleplaying, but it has its detractors as well. They don’t see anything frightening about Cthulhu and some also try to argue intellectually that no one else should either. I raise some questions about it, offer some answers — including one that says that questions are the answer — and venture into a territory I’ve not seen dealt with before: what happens to a Buddhist who meets a Lovecraftian monstrosity?
H. P. Lovecraft’s personality wasn’t too hot in the stability department. His fears, insecurities, and outright hatreds and racism are well-known. You could say that some of the horror in his stories is based on these phobias and neuroses; Cthulhu-themed roleplaying games model this by slowly eroding the characters’ mental health. But I would say that in this case it’s not so much about the horror, but about the terror – that is, the anticipation of horrible things happening, not facing it outright. The slow erosion of sanity — stability in Trail of Cthulhu — is about anticipation and build-up; and of course, the tension and loss of mental resources that your character is facing. In this sense, I much prefer Trail’s approach, as it has separate scores for Stability (which is easy to replace) and Sanity, which is the core of your world-view. Speaking of which, world-view is at the core of this post.
I’ve often heard the argument that Lovecraft’s horror loses its relevance once you abandon the modernist, rationalist, and/or Christian viewpoint. Cthulhu & co. attack your sense of security, your being at the center of the universe (or being created in benevolent God’s image), your hope for the future. But if you don’t subscribe to those things, you would lose no sanity facing the eldritch manifestations from cyclopean miasmatic depths. Counterpoint #1, from Delta Green, I guess: the development global culture to that point has made humans a Mythos race. I’m not sure I fully agree, but I like the idea.
Further on, I’m going to take this post to a somewhat Zen Buddhist territory, but let’s stick to something most readers are familiar with for now. Most of the people reading this blog probably agree and think that we are not the center of the universe (and probably quite a few also think that there’s no God or other supernatural awaiting us after death) . Cthulhu appearing and making that explicit wouldn’t shake those people one bit, would he? I’m saying it’s not guaranteed: just because you consciously think you aren’t the center of the universe (as a species or as an individual), doesn’t mean deep down you’re also comfortable with the thought. Lovecraftian horrors put you face to face with that fact. Some people are better at dealing with it than others — hence, roll dice to see how your character handles it. Roleplay well, act out the situation, bring the story and existential questions to life!
Existential questions and anxieties aren’t a simple question of yes/no, a clear-cut certainty. They’re not easily settled. One of the reasons I like art and stories is that they raise questions and breed perplexity.
Still, loss of hope for the future has probably been my favorite for a few years. It won’t come into play every time, but once the character learns enough, he will learn that humanity won’t have a future. You won’t be able to save the world permanently. You might even learn when our time will come. You won’t just learn that as a separate fact, you will know it in your bones. (Or, if your mind is merciful, you won’t be able to correlate its contents and you’ll remain somewhat sane.) Whatever you teach your kids, whatever charity work you do, however much you might want to make the world a better place… it won’t make a difference in the long run. Can your character handle it?
Of course, global warming might make this an issue that’s quite close to real life.
Now, to the Zen Buddhist territory. The reason I practice it (with an agnostic or atheist flavor, mind; just because you’re a Buddhist doesn’t mean you can’t believe in some weird stuff) is because it addresses the sense of security, not being at the center of the universe, and the impermanence of everything — not by avoiding them, but by coming face to face with them with your whole being, and thereby finding joy and compassion, instead of succumbing to a slavering Mythos monster.
Which makes me, and others like me, face a further question: if your daily practice already addresses those questions, what can Cthulhu do? Pulp-style two-fisted Buddhist monks aside, just by being a Zen jefe doesn’t make you invulnerable to the questions and perplexities of life, let alone facing surprising, unknown, and irrefutable cosmic horrors from beyond that don’t easily fit in your world view in any way.
The simple sanity check mechanism can be misleading in that it measures how you handle the revelations at the moment you face them. But your character needs to address those issues later on, as well, and try to make sense out of them. Should you fail the sanity check, it means your character is haunted not only by memory of the horrific sights, but by the thoughts about it, and how to make those thoughts fit in with her other thoughts. Trail of Cthulhu has a lovely mechanic called Pillars of Sanity, which are the building blocks of your character’s world-view. They fall to pieces once you lose enough Sanity.
One final thing, moving from terror to horror, to facing the inhuman threats. Fact: you don’t just see things, you also feel them. Your body reacts to whatever you see and hear. Emotions are felt in different parts of the body. You’re better at handling some things than at others; sometimes, there’s sensory overload and you get irritated and lose your shit.
Just imagine facing multi-dimensional horrors whose mere physical attributes defy not only everything you know intellectually, but also everything your body has learned to cope with, everything your body has biologically evolved to cope with. Do you know mirror cells? They’re responsible, for instance, for the fact that you can feel what other people feel, that your body reacts to what other people do. And in a Lovecraftian world, your mirror cells can only handle terrestrial life. I imagine that your mirror cells scream in agony from facing life-forms completely alien to us.
There’s no amount of mindfulness and body consciousness that can help you with that fact.