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As I touched upon when discussing purist adventures, I’ve been thinking about how horror is a pretty strange thing to love. I know plenty of people who find horror unappealing for good reasons, ranging from not enjoying being frightened to finding it all a bit silly and juvenile. While no one likes everything, horror as a genre seems to inspire stronger positive and negative reactions than possibly anything except pornography.

For those of us who love darkness, monsters, blood and nightmares, this usually starts in childhood. A few years ago, I watched a panel discussion at the Alt-Fiction festival in Derby where the assembled horror writers were asked what had kindled their interest in their chosen genre. Most of the panellists were around my age, and it was interesting that three of them cited the experience of watching Nigel Kneale’s chilling TV series Beasts.

I will save discussing Beasts for another post, but what resonated with me was that there was a point in each of their childhoods when they came into contact with something horrific and found that it connected with their imaginations in a new and exciting way. That part of their mind was probably always there, but Beasts awoke it. While Beasts had a similar effect on me when I saw it, something else had stirred the dark part of my imagination before then.

Pictorial-History-of-Horror-Movies

When I was eight years old, my father bought me a copy of Dennis Gifford’s book, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. I had inherited my father’s love of films — he was a film critic for Radio Hong Kong and one of the founders of the Studio One film club in HK — and cinema was the main interest we shared throughout his life. Even at that age, my tastes were tending to the macabre, and the Gifford book cemented that. It quickly became my most treasured possession.

I was a geeky child, and spent much of my time alone in my room, reading. Books fuelled my various obsessions, and I filled my brain with facts about dinosaurs, sharks and the natural world in general. The Gifford book supplemented this with stories of the extremes Lon Chaney went to in becoming The Man of a Thousand Faces, the iconic age of Universal monster movies, and the rather stranger world of what was then modern horror. It was the best introduction a young horror fan could have had: accessible and rich, with plenty of photographs. Despite the subject matter, it is a surprisingly genteel book, and Gifford shied away from the bloodier aspects of the genre.  He considered most horror films made after the 1950s to be tasteless and exploitative, and especially disliked Hammer.

It would be years before I saw many of the films described, but when I finally did, my frequent re-reading of Gifford made them feel like old friends.  In some cases, I even believed that I had seen films because Gifford had made them a part of my memories; it wasn’t until I watched the Karloff/Lugosi collaboration The Black Cat last year that I realised I had never actually seen it before and had just assumed that I had.

The other experience that confirmed me as a horror fan was stumbling across Todd Browning’s Freaks on television when I was about eight or nine.  This was in the early seventies and, as I had learned from Gifford, Freaks had been banned in the UK for many years, which made it especially fascinating  to me. We were living in Geneva then, and Swiss TV had obviously decided that Freaks was suitable for broadcast, so I managed to watch it in secret while my parents were out for the evening.

In case you haven’t encountered it, Freaks is a film from 1932 which tells a tale of emotional manipulation, betrayal and revenge set amongst the performers in a travelling circus. Most of the characters are members of the circus’ freak show, and rather that using special effects, Browning took the decision to use real freak show performers of the time, including dwarfs, amputees and people with a variety of birth defects.

Having seen it again it later years, Freaks now comes across as somewhat exploitative and insensitive. The main scene of horror in the film, with the villain being pursued through mud and rain by the freak show performers, does rely largely on the audience being disturbed by their appearance.  It is still undeniably an important piece of horror cinema, and an effective one.

Watching Freaks in secret, knowing its reputation as a banned film, made me feel both that I was transgressing somehow and that I was entering some other world of people who had seen this same thing. These were powerful feelings for a child, and they helped shape me.

It occurred to me a while ago that I probably don’t watch horror films for the same reasons as many people. It is very rare that one frightens me. More often, they simply resonate with my imagination, transporting me in a way that other films rarely do. Even though I am not scared, there is a build-up and release of tension, or a cathartic stirring of strong emotions. This is makes horror films strange and perversely comforting things, and I’m sure that it’s all Dennis Gifford’s fault.

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Robert E. Howard shot himself.

Today my mother is 80 years of age. 77 years ago, on June 11th 1936 Robert E. Howard put a bullet through his own head on hearing of the death of his mother (or near enough, hearing that she was not going to awake from a coma).

He was 30 years old. Thirty. That seems very young. Of course plenty of people have died young and left their mark. Lovecraft himself only reached 47. I always wonder what they would have gone on to create. But never mind that; Howard and Lovecraft have left a legacy. They created work that has influenced and enriched the lives of several generations, and I’m sure that will continue for many years to come. One day they’ll be forgotten, but we’ll be pushing up daisies before that I’m sure. In a way, they will outlive us. And I’m quite happy with that.

So thanks Robert E. Howard.

This is a brief piece on H.P. Lovecraft and the influence he has had. Roger Luckhurst is  a professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Roger Luckhurst discusses H. P. Lovecraft’s influence on Western cinema, television and literature, and talks about directors who have drawn on his works for inspiration in films such as ‘Alien’ and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’.

It was important to me that the feel of combat be right. I remember playing a simple card game many years ago on a rainy evening on the Burmese border. The game consisted of two players alternately laying cards and keeping track of the total value of the cards laid. The person who took the total over 101 was the loser. Certain cards would decrease the total, or jump it direct to 100. It was a compelling yet simple game which felt more like a combat than any so-called combat I’d ever experienced in a roleplaying game.

I wanted to combat in Call of Cthulhu to have the feel that both sides are struggling against one-another, both rolling dice every time. The way I see it, your character is trying to hurt mine. I must choose either to dodge (to avoid the blow altogether), or to engage with you, trying to land a blow of my own whilst avoiding yours.

That’s how the new combat system works. Every time you are the target of an attack you choose; either you attempt to dodge or you fight back. Dodging is a good option because you’re less likely to be hit, but you won’t hurt your opponent. Fighting back is a good option because you might deliver damage to your opponent, but (chances are) you’re more likely to get hurt in the process.

All Bette’s stories have happy endings. That’s because she knows where to stop. She’s realized the real problem with stories — if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.” Neil Gaiman, Sandman.

If you’ve encountered Pelgrane Press’s Trail of Cthulhu RPG, you will know that it has two modes of play: pulp and purist. Pulp adventures are action-packed romps where the heroes fight the forces of the Mythos and stand a chance of winning. In purist adventures, the expectation is that there is no chance of success. They represent the slide into madness and death, with the climax taking the form of a revelation of how hopeless the situation is rather than a battle against dark forces. The best you can hope for is to survive, and often even that isn’t the case.

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The Final Revelation, the collected edition of Graham Walmsley’s purist adventures for Trail of Cthulhu, will be out later this month. I had the pleasure of contributing a framing adventure which ties the four largely unrelated scenarios together, executed in the fashion of the classic Amicus portmanteau horror films.

When Pelgrane Press sent my contribution to outside playtesters, one group gave some feedback which reminded me that the purist mode of play is most certainly not to everyone’s taste. Part of their response read, “Its depressing tone, the growing sense of dread, discomfort and fatalist conclusion come together very neatly – making this possibly the closest anyone has yet come to a complete purist Lovecraftian adventure… And therein lies the problem. Given the time and effort committed by the group, the eventual outcome left everyone feeling depressed and questioning why we (or indeed anyone else) would want to give up their spare time to experience something so utterly unpleasant.

After I thought about ways of softening the scenario, finally deciding not to, I began to wonder why purist scenarios would appeal to anyone. The author of that playtest report made a very good point. This is meant to be a leisure activity, so why would you spend that time depressing yourself? This, in turn, is part of the larger question of why we enjoy horror stories.

A great many horror films are fairground rides, giving us quick, superficial scares, or shocking us with Grand Guignol blood and guts, but returning us safely to the ground afterwards. Some are more subversive things, which burrow into our brains and unnerve us long after they have finished. I think it’s safe to say that the former are more popular, but the latter become the classics of the genre. How the story resolves is a large part of what differentiates these films.

When a horror film or story has a happy ending, I often feel cheated. In many cases, a horror story is about a sudden and bizarre intrusion into someone’s everyday life, and the story is a battle to not only survive but to restore the status quo. There may be losses along the way, but a happy ending shows us that families and relationships will survive adversity, that we will save the people we love, that we can rebuild our lives when they break and that if we persevere, everything will be all right. The ideal situation for the protagonists is for everything to go back to the way it was at the start of the story, before the bad thing happened.

Life isn’t like that, though. We may overcome adversity, but we are changed by it. In many cases it gets the better of us. We will experience the deaths of friends and family, develop physical or mental illnesses that stay with us for life, have loving relationships fall apart and, ultimately, die ourselves. Everything will not be all right.

While experiencing a story or playing a game where the protagonists overcome horrors can be soothing, living vicariously through a tragedy or horrific demise can prove cathartic. Our dreams are often worst-case scenarios, preparing us emotionally for some of the shocks that we fear, and stories and games can do the same. Even if the protagonists are destroyed by what they face, we, as players or the audience, are quite safe. We can live through their deaths.

Also, stories are fundamentally about change. Even if everything is all right in the end, the protagonist is still altered by his or her experiences. Of course, if the status quo is not preserved, the change is all the more dramatic and affecting for the audience. The majority of horror RPGs address this through a variety of sanity or personality mechanics, tracking changes to characters via statistics and descriptors. The structure of most scenarios, however, is about trying to make sure catastrophic change does not occur.

The classic template for a Call of Cthulhu scenario is a group of cultists wielding forces which man was not meant to understand, trying to bring something dangerous and abhorrent into this world. It is the duty of the investigators to stop this happening. If they succeed, everything goes back to normal.

Personally I find this frustrating. When I play a game, I want the most interesting, surprising and exciting things possible to happen during play, whether these are good or bad for my character. In too many horror games, your purpose is to identify the most interesting thing that could happen and to ensure that it never comes about. This may help guarantee the long-term viability of a campaign or group of characters, but it feels anticlimactic to me.

The draw of the purist style is that the most interesting thing will happen or has already happened. There is nothing you can do to stop it. Your world will get worse and you will have nightmares or destruction to contend with. This is rarely dull. In my experience, these are the games that players talk about in hushed tones for years afterwards. Sure, their characters may have finished the game by sitting in a dark corner, rocking back and forth, or blowing his or her own face off with a shotgun, but there is rarely a sense of disappointment.