The Big Idea: Kenneth Hite
Posted on March 22, 2022 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
Location is everything — or, if not everything, then still quite a lot, especially when considering the work of foundational fantasist H.P. Lovecraft. For Tour de Lovecraft: The Destinations, master games writer Kenneth Hite gets out the map and takes us traveling, from Arkham to Innsmouth, in pursuit of terror and tourism.
The most important part of the Big Idea for my second Tour de Lovecraft book came from Stephen Segal, who at that time was non-fiction editor for a little magazine called Weird Tales. He had followed my first Tour de Lovecraft in its original publication (in my LiveJournal, of all things) and his Big Idea was “Ken should do a series like that in Weird Tales.” Rather than simply re-doing the first Tour, I pitched a series on Lovecraftian locations: the settings of the various stories. I sorted through all of Lovecraft’s tales and collaborations and winnowed out not just where the stories were set (Arkham, New York, Antarctica, and so on) but the other locations that informed the tales (Leng, Dreamland, Egypt) and a few setting-concepts (Antiquity, Hyperspace, Deep Time) to boot.
Lovecraft, it is fair to say, deprecated characters, and often explicitly subordinated his plots to incident and atmosphere. That leaves setting as the only one of Aristotle’s Big Three elements of story that Lovecraft cared about. And Lovecraft didn’t just care about setting, he was obsessed with it: “I am as geographic-minded as a cat,” he wrote to fellow fantaisiste Clark Ashton Smith in 1930, “places are everything to me.”
One can (and I did) find dozens of similarly emphatic statements to that effect in his letters, if the evidence of location-drenched stories like “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Colour Out of Space,” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” weren’t convincing enough. For Lovecraft, stories grew out of the very ground and shape and feeling of the setting, terror emerging (if you will) from the terroir. Some of this approach he took from his great unsung model Nathaniel Hawthorne, but much of it came from his “extreme & lifelong geographic sensitiveness,” as he wrote to Smith on another occasion.
All that established, I found it very odd that almost nobody (with the very occasional exception from the great Lovecraftians Peter Cannon and Steven Mariconda) had ever approached Lovecraft’s settings from a literary direction. We have plenty of speculation on the question “Where is Arkham?” for example, but almost nothing on the question “What is Arkham?” What did Lovecraft mean by a city simultaneously full of “witch-haunted” gambrel roofs and a “lovely vista of … white Georgian steeples”?
Once more I turned to Northrop Frye, and his discussion of the symbolic double-city in Western literature, backstopped by Lovecraftian scholar Robert Waugh, who wrote the definitive monograph on the topic. My Big Idea was to turn Frye toward Lovecraft, and to expand Waugh from the city to specific cities – and to the Swamp, and the Moon, and Arabia, and the Apocalypse.
I always intended the series to begin, like Dante, in The Woods and end, also like Dante, in Providence. I got through about a dozen of my “Lost in Lovecraft” pieces (Air Supply as cosmic horror: discuss) before, Lovecraftian creature that it was, Weird Tales sublimed and died once more. But I still wanted to finish the journey, and so did my beloved publishers Atomic Overmind, and perhaps most importantly, so did our Kickstarter backers. Vampires and pandemics notwithstanding, we did. Like Randolph Carter, I spent years seeking the “sunset city,” and also like Randolph Carter, all it took at the end was waking up and looking around.
Tour de Lovecraft: The Destination: Atomic Overmind Press|DriveThru RPG
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the map is not the territory… and when the territory keeps shifting in and out of focus then map-making leads to madness… and without maps how can you ever get further from home base than line-of-sight?
I just came up with my next @netflix elevator pitch… “Madness of the Maps”… adults driven around the bend by efforts to document strange new terrain…
I haven’t read this but Kenneth Hite’s game writing is amazing, he’s done some great columns and supplements. Heck he even does good movie reviews.