Lovecraft. Just stop it.
I have heard pretty much every board game content creator I watch / listen to lament about how much Cthulhu is in the hobby. “Not another Cthulhu game” had become a refrain when talking about the upcoming releases. Even Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) released an expansion for their card game Sash Up called The Obligatory Cthulhu Expansion, making fun of the over saturation of Lovecraft. Lovecraft is sort of a fad in board gaming right now and it continues to sell. I first grew tired of seeing Cthulhu everywhere because I was not familiar with the lore and the stories. I had not read a single line Lovecraft wrote and had no intention to anytime soon. This all changed when I read The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle.
The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of a less than famous short story by Lovecraft call The Horror at Red Hook. I picked it up as a part of an online book club I participate in. After reading LaValle’s retelling, I became interested in the original story, wondering why he chose to rewrite and rework Red Hook. I read one of LaValle’s interviews about the book and in my research I found LaValle was infatuated with Lovecraft’s stories from a young age but was not aware of the extreme racism the stories were rooted. As he grew older, he began to pick up on Lovecraft’s views on people of color, and in particular when it came to Red Hook, the people of color in New York City. As an author of color, LaValle wanted to rework this story, writing half of it from a person of color’s perspective and giving an authentic voice to the communities of color.
I, along with others in the book club, became interested in reading the original Lovecraft in order to compare and have deeper discussions on race and racism in the stories. I found on the Kindle store the entire collection of H.P. Lovecraft for 99 cents. So I bought it with the intention of reading Red Hook and the possibility of reading more of his stories. After reading Red Hook and a ‘poem’ I will not repost here, I do not think I will be reading Lovecraft anytime soon, unless it serves some purpose. In fact, 99 cents might have been too much to pay for his entire works. I would say reading Red Hook was a waste of time, but I found the comparison to The Ballad of Black Tom to be very useful when trying to articulate my thoughts about the short story.
From the story of Red Hook, it was evident to me how Lovecraft views people of color and communities of color. He treats them like afterthoughts, a scourge upon New York, using derogatory terms and other distasteful stereotypes to categorize entire communities. He devalues them, describing people of color by their one or two stereotypical features (see, slanty-eyed Orientals). Sometimes Lovecraft is more subtle (similar to authors who subconsciously write in racism because of their own socialization), but other times he is blatantly bigoted. If I want to read about ancient powerful monsters set to destroy most humans, I should not have to be subjected to racism and oppression.
I am shocked we do not talk about where this universe comes from and the racism where the literature is rooted. I am saddened how much and how popular Cthulhu themes are in board gaming. I know Cthulhu and other ancient ones provide an ‘epic’ theme – running around the world, trying to stop the ancient ones from awakening, getting caught up in the story, and fighting an epic battle. Lovecraft has become just a big monster theme and we treat it as such. Even folks who I know have read extensively the different works of Lovecraft… Nothing. To me, it seems like people are protecting Lovecraft and his works. Maybe it is conscious protection, maybe folks a genuinely unaware of the racism interweaved in his writing… I find it hard to believe but I will give folks the benefit of the doubt. Whatever the reason is does not matter to me – we must do better with our awareness, knowledge, and action.
I am not telling anyone who likes to play Cthulhu games to stop playing these games. Be aware of where this theme comes from and the racial context these stories fall in. Educate yourself on the subtle and the blatant racism and do not become defensive when Lovecraft is criticized. I encourage you all to become critical yourself in your analysis and start asking those question we seem to be ignoring. If you know Lovecraft and are aware of these issues, speak out. Silence is a terrible act of omission in the work of social justice. We absolutely must be critical with the games that we play. I talk a lot about inclusion in board gaming and Lovecraft promotes exclusion of many people. This might not personally affect you, but it does affect someone who may be in the hobby or want to join. Yes, it is just a game. But no one should be subjected to oppression to have fun. If you knew a game made someone feel unwelcome in your group based on their race, would you still want to have that game in the group week after week? Just a thought.