Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Beyond the Mountains of Bigotry

Here’s my problem.

I like the stories. I really want to see the movie. But the original writer of the stories is a stone-cold bigot, and I detest many of the ideas he endorses and espouses.

Oddly, I am not talking about Orson Card Scott and Ender’s Game. I am talking about HPLovecraft and the oft-proposed Mountains of Madness.

[OK, talking about OSC for a moment. I never read Ender’s Game – it came out in the mid-80s, when I was busy with a lot of other stuff, and I never caught the wave. I did read some of his Worthing Saga from the 70s and found that its central conceit (skipping through time by recorded memory) to be interesting but the delivery to be heavy-handed in its moralizing. That’s about it for me.]

Back to Lovecraft. I enjoy the sense of despair he evokes with an uncaring universe, his “Cosmicism” – that not only we are not the center of the universe; we don’t even matter to it. I also love his “Yog-Sothery” – his created world of strange gods that he hangs on his best tales, a universe which has expanded through other creatives into a greater creation – one of the first modern shared worlds.

But let’s face it – the man was a racist. Not just a creature of his times. Not a youthful indiscretion. Not just viewed with a modern lens. Not just misinformed. A barking mad racist. To him, pretty much all peoples who are not rock-ribbed white New Englanders were inferior, and the less you resembled Lovecraft, the worse you looked to him. His dark mutterings of subhumans and mongrel races permeates his text, and once he gets rolling, his is a most odious and repellent form of bigotry.

I like the man’s work (the parts where he not being barking mad), and I deeply love what he created, but to be honest, after five minutes in his presence, I would likely come across the table at him. He is petty and venal and a bigot.

And others have had to deal with this bigotry on a deeper level than I – talented writers of color who have been recognized for their work by awards with the Noted Racist’s head on it. The stalwart representative of Weird Tales, of that curious creation that is American Fantasy as a separate entity from its European forebears, is a poster boy for intolerance. What can be done?

Ignoring it is a mistake, a white-washing of the past, a denialism that does nothing for confronting the racism of its age and its metamorphed descendants in the present. Bowdlerizing his more offensive statements and pushing them to the back of the closest is dishonest to both him and ourselves. But how to accommodate the talent of the work with the failings of the author?

I think we simply say no. We tell him that this is not yours anymore.

This comes to me via the Call of Cthulhu RPG, where I have told numerous stories set in the Lovecraftian universe, a universe of the '20s, when overt racism (sexism, and any number of other isms) was more acceptable. So I have run adventures that have a strong racial or gender or nationalist component. Which means I and my players can choose what we want to talk about regarding those matters in the adventures.

[Indeed, this is something that CoC, with its limited Player Character empowerment and its deadly combat system does well. In CoC, you CAN bully the character around with hostile NPCs or a hateful universe. In D&D, you can have an Elf Warrior being refused service in a tavern, but if the Elf is 14th level, the tavern will likely not last long].

Many years ago, I ran the Beyond the Mountains of Madness campaign from Chaosium, a huge and recommended campaign that is a sequel to the story by Lovecraft. And one player wanted to run and African-American polar explorer.

OK, how to handle it? Saying no didn't work for me – there is a history of African American Arctic Explorers, and besides, player agency, the ability to do as they see fit within the parameters of the story, is part of the game. Instead I did the research and tried to treat the character accurately, but without frustrating the hell out of the player (it is a game, and he is a protagonist).

As a result, the institutional racism of the time kept hitting him with a thousand small cuts and the occasional two-by-four to the forehead, particularly in the “civilized” world. When the funders of the expedition first meet him, they are taken aback by his presence. Indeed, his character is interviewed last, left in the waiting room while the rest of the team gets the story pitch. One of the leaders of the expedition was an obvious racist, and barely concealed his disdain.  In NYC, the character is asked to used the service entrance, is initially denied access to the expedition’s hotel, and suffers from suspicion and latent hostility.

And when they get clear of New York, when the expedition heads south, that drops away, as the coherence of the team overwhelms the societal roles. I was actually pretty happy with the result (though in the adventure, they later meet Nazis (spoilers) and while I wanted to include an overly earnest German officer who “Really, really admires your Jesse Owens”, I never had the chance).  The comparison between the mores of larger society and the smaller expedition was marked. It was a good story, remained true to the era, and none of the challenges were squamous or tentacled.

In this I and the players have taken it all away from Lovecraft. We have said. “No. This is not solely yours anymore. We recognize your creation, but all like creations, it has gone beyond you.”

This should not be a surprise, I suppose. Creations, once they leave their originators, often evolve into new forms, forms that those originators would hardly recognize. Moving to a new media, be it games or movies, changes the substance of  the creation, and allows reinvention, for better or for worse.  O course, this is based on the assumption that the movie will be an exact representation of the book and the author’s original intentions. I mean, hasn't every new media adaption treated the works of, say, Frank Herbert (the David Lynch version of Dune), Ursula K. LeGuin (the Syfy Earthsea) or Alan Moore (just about everything) with respect and an eye towards the author's original intent? No. It is beyond the original creator when it gets to that stage.

And it is more than just a corporate control issue. Look at Star Wars. Lucas may have controlled the IP for many years, and his original three movies hold a deep place in the hearts of many of us, but his return to the universe for three more films elicited strong pushback from the very people who embraced his earlier work so dearly. The fans, in effect said “No. This is not yours anymore. Not yours alone.”

I think that is where I stand on Lovecraft. I want to haul out into the light of day his inherent and detestable racism, and to take this creation from him and make anew. Let us not sugar coat it. Let us take the ideas and press forward. The author, the artist, the original creator controls his or her vision, but as that vision passes through others (particularly in a large operation as a motion picture, or a shared universe as created with other creatives, or in RPGs), then the provenance is both weakened and broadened. It becomes part and parcel of our larger universe.

In effect, the same process that allowed OSC to re-imagine Hamlet as a hateful homophobic screed in turn allows others to influence, develop, and evolve his work. And will be the same process that will turn At the Mountains of Madness: The Movie, should it ever happen, into something that reflects other sensibilities than those of the author.

And I think I will go see that movie. And I will leave poor Howard, impoverished and barking mad, at the door, letting him howl and moon and wet himself publicly in whatever afterlife that would admit him. Let him rage against the presumption of those who work to get beyond his odious attitudes. I’m good with that.

More later,