Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us


Typically I’m not into fiction novels. Any science involved doesn’t really work (although movies and TV are more likely to do this), the characters often don’t feel real or deep, and it just doesn’t provide an interesting ride. But a clear exception to this is the work of H.P. Lovecraft, a clear master of horror. For those of you who are into fiction and haven’t heard of him, go read him now. Through the magic of the Internet, I can wait. He simply is that good. Or put another way,

H.P. Lovecraft built the stage on which most of the last century’s horror fiction was performed. As doomed as any of his protagonists, he put a worldview into words that has spread to infect the world. You need to read him – he’s where the darkness starts. – Neil Gaiman

That Gaiman quote pretty much sums up Lovecraft’s impact and tells us a little bit about his works. Lovecraft tends to follow a fairly predictable formula in his works, which goes something like this:

  1. Protagonist is a rational person who thinks spiritual things are silly
  2. Protagonist is volunteered to investigate the bizarre happenings of a town and help the inhabitants overcome their irrational fears
  3. Protagonist learns that there is indeed something spooky going on
  4. Protagonist sees a glimpse of the true horrifying nature of reality, driving him insane

There is some variation in this formula (e.g., if he kills himself after step 4 or not), but this is pretty much it. And I find it especially interesting that such a simple formula works repeatedly. But let’s start off by that phrase I slipped into step 4, “the true horrifying nature of reality”. In Lovecraft’s world (commonly referred to as the Cthulhu Mythos), the Earth and all its inhabitants are insignificant in the grand scheme of things (similar to nihilism) and furthermore, that life is worthless. This worldview has been called “cosmicism”, and stresses the worthlessness of life, making it somehow even more depressing than nihilism. In the Lovecraft universe, vast cosmic entities are abound, and even seeing them causes insanity. They tend to be sleeping until awakened by cultists, with the intention of either destroying the time-space continuum or enslaving all sentient life (typically the first option though).

The Cthulhu Mythos is dominated by a number of these Elder Gods (later authors break it down further, but we won’t get into that here). They are very infrequently mentioned, as knowledge of them is strictly forbidden except to cultists, who know to hide the knowledge appropriately. However, there are three Elder Gods that stand out for me:

  • Cthulhu: The one everybody knows about. He has arguably the best short story, The Call of Cthulhu, and definitely the most famous story as far as Lovecraft goes. Story-wise, he’s pretty similar to the other Elder Gods not on the list, and is the epitome of Lovecraft’s style. Worshipped by cultists across the world, he lays asleep until he can regain enough power to awaken and bring darkness to the world.
  • Azathoth: The creator god. He creates the universe but the sheer power that creation requires puts him to sleep. When he awakens, he will perform the opposite act: destroying the universe. He can’t be fought or defeated, but his awakening can be delayed.
  • Nyarlathotep: Kinda similar to Loki from Norse mythology. He’s a trickster god, and is notable for not being asleep like the other Elder Gods. He takes on many forms and generally is just trying to keep from being bored until Azathoth awakens and destroys time-space. His best appearance is definitely The Haunter in the Dark.

If you’re into horror, the book to get is the Necronomicon, which has all of Lovecraft’s best stories (except for Nyarlathotep, which is extremely short but enjoyable), but if you’re a casual reader, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories will certainly suffice. Most of Lovecraft’s works are excellent, but I don’t particularly care for the longer stories (anything over 30 pages). The horrifying mood tends to go up and down like a rollercoaster and at 30 pages or less, it works great, but in the roughly 100 pages that The Dream Quest for Unknown Kadath takes up, it just ends up being boring. This is a bit of a sad fate since Unknown Kadath is the most colorful and other-worldly of Lovecraft’s stories, but it just feels like a focus on that instead of the protagonist, who is essentially along for the ride (the opposite of most Lovecraft stories). The Lovecraft formula is still preserved, more or less, but just stretched out too far to be enjoyable.

What I find particularly interesting about the Cthulhu Mythos is how effectively it’s been translated into other mediums. The video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth for the original X-Box perfectly portrays the cosmicism that is Lovecraft’s works, taking on another well-known Lovecraft story, The Shadow over Innsmouth. (I hear the PC version is a bit buggy, so don’t pick it up if that’s still the case)

It’s like an FPS but with way more stealth, which makes sense since you take on the role of a totally ordinary guy, not a space marine with super power armor etc. etc. etc.. As a totally ordinary guy, the gameplay is kinda shitty. He doesn’t get a weapon of any kind until more than halfway through the game (and can’t punch or hit in any way until then), and he can’t fall that far without hurting his legs (which you then have to patch up). Two or three bullets tends to take you down, and there’s no auto-healing, which current generation games have spoiled us with. There’s lots of puzzles and you will be required to use your brain, so I can’t recommend the game to people who just want a bland FPS. If you want the exact opposite, however, this is the game for you (although it’s almost a decade old now).

If you’re looking for something a bit more recent than the X-Box game, you will likely come across this treasure that has sucked up a fair amount of time for me lately, a board game called Arkham Horror.

Arkham Horror is a co-op board game in which all players attempt to prevent an Ancient One (an Elder God) from awakening and destroying time-space itself. It’s best played with four players and definitely captures the essence of Lovecraft’s works. Despite being a game that takes 2-4 hours, the game is fairly unpredictable, and even as you get close to what you think will be a victory, it can quickly turn around and go the other way. Expansion sets exist that add other smaller towns you can travel to or mix it up by replacing the base components of the game with new ones (e.g., if you relied on guns and weapons for combat in the base set, some expansions remove them entirely, making for a very different game). Regardless, each of the seven expansions (will be eight soon) tends to focus on a single Ancient One: one focuses on Nyarlathotep, one on Cthulhu, one on Yog-Sothoth, and so on.

A particularly interesting facet of this game is that you can play it by yourself, which is exactly what I needed (since competitive games fail to work with one player). The hostile creatures and Ancient One all act deterministically, so there’s no secrets as to what they’re doing at a given turn. With that in mind, I wanted a way to save data on the games I play and mess around with it in the future.

Finally, another great medium that the Cthulhu Mythos has been adapted to is short videos on the interwebs. They don’t follow any of the established stories and are only a few minutes long each, but put a nice humorous blend on the Mythos and are instant classics for those who’ve read Lovecraft and love it. Enjoy!

Elder Sign:

The Necronomicon: