First, a disclaimer: I’ve said this before, but it’s necessary to reiterate every time I talk about him: H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a very good person. He was a racist. He was an elitist. He was a Nazi sympathizer. (To be fair, he died in 1936; before the worst of their crimes would have been known to the world.) Anytime Lovecraft gets praised for anything, it has to be qualified by mentioning these facts.
When I was in college, I used to go to the library in between classes and hang around reading collections of Lovecraft’s letters. And while this meant having to suffer through his frequent bigoted rants, it also exposed me to another side of Lovecraft: the man who assembled a group of like-minded authors, and offered friendly advice, criticism, and encouragement.
Because despite his general fear of other people, Lovecraft was famous for the circle of friends he amassed—mostly fellow writers who were all trying to publish offbeat stories like the ones he wrote. He corresponded with many of the authors who wrote for the aptly-named pulp magazine Weird Tales. The most famous example of this is probably his letters to the teenaged Robert Bloch, who would go on to fame as the author of the extremely un-Lovecraftian horror tale Psycho.
It was also very likely Lovecraft’s correspondence with other writers that saved his work for future generations. August Derleth, another of Lovecraft’s pen-pals, was key to getting many of Lovecraft’s stories published after the author’s death. Lovecraft himself showed next to no interest in the commercial side of writing. I think he considered it beneath his dignity. But Derleth preserved and published the stories for a wider audience, to the point that now Lovecraft has an entire sub-genre named after him.
The ironic thing about Lovecraft is that, for me, most of his stories aren’t particularly scary. With a few exceptions, most of them are fairly obvious and sometimes downright tedious. He had good concepts, but only so-so ability to actually execute them.
But the reason Lovecraft is such an important figure is not his fiction, but that he was a conduit. As his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature demonstrated, he had a vast knowledge of the work of his predecessors, and kept alive the memory of masters like M.R. James and Robert W. Chambers to pass on to a new generation of horror writers. And in turn, the new generation that Lovecraft introduced popularized his writings, and his style.
Lovecraft wasn’t a great writer, but he had an ability to find people who were. He was like a beacon, assembling people who wanted to write a certain kind of horror, and introducing them to other authors who had tried similar concepts in the past.
(Side-note for Lovecraft fans: I’ve speculated that Lovecraft must have felt some sympathy for Joseph Curwen, the unnaturally long-lived sorcerer in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward who, through necromancy, confers with great minds of the distant past.)
For all his flaws—and there were many—this was the thing Lovecraft got exactly right. To me, nothing illustrates this better than Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle is an African-American author who enjoyed reading Lovecraft at an early age, even despite all of Lovecraft’s disgusting racist sentiments. LaValle wrote a splendid weird tale both inspired by and in rebuke to Lovecraft. Someone Lovecraft himself would have looked down on was able to build on the foundation of his tales, and make something better than the original.
Another one of those old dead snobs that I used to read in my youth was an author named Albert Jay Nock. Nock, like Lovecraft, was an autodidact, and also a self-described misanthrope. He was an early proponent of libertarian thought, although I have to believe he would find modern libertarianism entirely too crass. Nock, as we’ll see, had a pretty high opinion of himself.
Nock wrote an essay called Isaiah’s Job, about the Biblical prophet charged with warning the people about God’s wrath. While Isaiah is at first discouraged that so few believe him, God explains that His message is for what Nock called “the Remnant”: a select subset of the population who will understand it.
Nock obviously, and with characteristic arrogance, saw himself as a figure similar to Isaiah. His message was meant for a small group of people, people whom the messenger himself may never even personally meet, but who will nonetheless receive it and take appropriate action. Or as Nock put it: “Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness.”
Lovecraft’s function in the world of horror was similar: he put out the message about weird fiction, and became a kind of touchstone for everyone interested in it. Sherlock Holmes famously said to Watson, “You are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.” Lovecraft was a conductor of darkness—dark fiction, to those interested in the genre. His own stories are almost superfluous to his real contribution: he united people who otherwise would have remained apart.
Hardly anybody likes H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Dreams in the Witch House. Even H.P. Lovecraft didn’t like it, and subsequent readers have generally considered it one of his worst.
And, by pretty much any objective measure, it’sa bad story. For one thing, there’s no surprise or subtlety to it—Lovecraft beats the reader over the head with the legend of Keziah Mason, and her rat-like familiar, Brown Jenkin. I think he was trying for ambiguity, but he was failing spectacularly at it. Walter Gilman, the doomed protagonist of the tale, should be able to see what’s coming a mile away; the reader certainly can.
In a good weird tale, there should be some question as to whether the supernatural doings are real, or simply a hallucination by the protagonist. Lovecraft was trying to do this, but he didn’t. The evidence favoring the supernatural explanation is simply overwhelming. And needlessly drawn out. When an author tells you on page one that a witch and a rat-like monster are up to no good, the final page should contain a bigger pay-off than “a witch and a rat-like monster were up to no good.”
Lovecraft, I’ve come to realize, had no idea how to hint or imply something. This is a problem when writing horror, because it is a genre that depends heavily on subtle hinting. And Lovecraft kind of knew this, but he couldn’t do it. So what he would do instead is write this:
“Eventually there had been a hint of vast, leaping shadows, of a monstrous, half-acoustic pulsing, and of the thin, monotonous piping of an unseen flute—but that was all. Gilman decided he had picked up that last conception from what he had read in the Necronomicon about the mindless entity Azathoth, which rules all time and space from a black throne at the centre of Chaos.”
He seems to have believed that by prefacing an outright statement with “A hint of…” that it would count as an actual hint.
Also, there are a number of lines that just sound downright silly. Like:
“What made the students shake their heads was his sober theory that a man might—given mathematical knowledge admittedly beyond all likelihood of human acquirement—step deliberately from the earth to any other celestial body which might lie at one of an infinity of specific points in the cosmic pattern.
Such a step, he said, would require only two stages; first, a passage out of the three-dimensional sphere we know, and second, a passage back to the three-dimensional sphere at another point, perhaps one of infinite remoteness.”
It sounds so easy! And then we have this masterful bit of understatement:
“May Eve was Walpurgis Night, when hell’s blackest evil roamed the earth and all the slaves of Satan gathered for nameless rites and deeds. It was always a very bad time in Arkham…”
In addition to these technical flaws, Witch House is one of Lovecraft’s nastiest tales. The sacrifice scene at the end is grotesque, and of course, it wouldn’t be Lovecraft without casual racial bigotry. What’s truly odd is that Lovecraft creates a story in which the poor, un-educated, and superstitious immigrants are clearly right in their beliefs, and the WASP upper-class is demonstrably wrong, and yet Lovecraft likes the WASPs better anyway.
It’s a badly-constructed, badly-written, and badly-paced tale, with a heavy emphasis on gore and none of the subtlety that Lovecraft at his best was capable of. And it comes with a side-serving of class arrogance and racial hatred. (BTW, I am a descendant of Eastern-European immigrants to the northeast United States, rather like the ones Lovecraft treats with utter contempt in this tale. Who are you calling “clod-like,” HPL?)
So, why do I re-read this horrible little tale every April?
Part of it is, I read it for the first time as a college student during spring term, and so I had some instant sympathy for poor Walter Gilman. Studying for exams is stressful enough without being abducted by long-dead witches and taken into other dimensions.
Also, Gilman is, in his own way, kind of heroic. He does ultimately fight back against the evil cosmic forces, and to some extent succeeds in thwarting them—even if it doesn’t work out well for him. Unusually for a Lovecraft character, he doesn’t just observe the horror and go mad, but takes some sort of corrective action. I kind of like that, even though the scene itself is six different kinds of ugly. (Also: why does the witch recoil from the crucifix? Oops, did someone have to undercut his entire atheistic literary philosophy in order to make his plot resolve itself?)
And finally, this book introduced me to Walpurgis Night, which is a great way for a Halloween-obsessed lunatic such as myself to get a mid-year fix. It’s not the really strong stuff, but it can keep me going for those long six months.
In his essay Good Bad Books, George Orwell defined same as “The kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished… They form pleasant patches in one’s memory, quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments, but they hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life.”
This is what Lovecraft and a lot of the “pulp” writers of the era were doing. There aren’t any pretensions about these kinds of stories. (Indeed, since Lovecraft never intended to publish Witch House, he had no reason to be pretentious.)
That’s probably why stories like Witch House, that suck by standard measures, still have this quality of being re-readable. They’re authentic—when you read Lovecraft, you’re not getting what editors and publishers thought was a good book. You’re getting undiluted “Yog-Sothothery,” as Lovecraft called his peculiar style, straight from the bottle.
It’s almost like Lovecraft, in spite of his prejudices and unwillingness to curb his own bad writing habits, was able to tap in to some core principles that make for a good horror story.
Describing Keziah Mason, Lovecraft wrote:
[S]ome circumstance had more or less suddenly given a mediocre old woman of the Seventeenth Century an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter.
Similarly, it seems as if some circumstance gave a mediocre man of the 20th century an insight into writing horror that is perhaps beyond many modern practitioners of the genre.
This is just a video of a bonfire I had on April 30 a couple years ago. Not really related, but do you know how hard it is to find free images associated with Walpurgis Night?
I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.
It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)
The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.
This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.
My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.
WARNING: I AM GOING TO SPOIL THE WHOLE MOVIE. DON’T READ THIS IF YOU WANT TO BE SURPRISED.
Annihilation tells the story of a biologist exploring a mysterious region called “Area X”, where the fallout from a meteor strike has enveloped the landscape. In the film’s first scene, we see the biologist (unnamed in the novel on which the film is based, but here called Lena and portrayed by Natalie Portman) being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, whose questions she can answer only vaguely, or not at all.
The film then flashes back to a meteor crashing into a lighthouse, and then forward again to a scene of the biologist giving a lecture in her class at Johns Hopkins. (It seemed hard to believe she would have been giving a lecture on the basics of cells to pre-med students, but whatever.) After class, she meets a fellow faculty member named Dan, who invites her to his house for a party. She refuses, as she is still mourning the loss of her husband, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac, and yes, apparently Kane is his only name)—a soldier missing and presumed killed in action. She stays home and paints their former bedroom, thinking of happier times.
Then her husband suddenly appears. She’s overjoyed to see him, but it soon becomes clear he is not well, and has no memory of what his mission was or how he got back. He begins to bleed from the mouth, and Lena calls an ambulance. En route to the hospital, they are intercepted by a SWAT team that drugs Lena and forcibly removes her husband from the ambulance.
She awakens in a holding cell where she is interrogated by a psychologist called Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually reveals that they are in a research station just outside of Area X—where Kane was deployed. He is dying, and Lena realizes the only way to find out what happened to him is to join the team of researchers about to deploy into the mysterious Aurora-like substance called “The Shimmer” that covers Area X.
The team consists of physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and medic Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). They are led by Dr. Ventress. Ventress throughout seems cold and distant, and in early scenes has her hood pulled over her eyes like she’s Darth Sidious or something. She also sounds almost bored when describing to Lena how Area X will slowly grow until it consumes the entire planet. Leigh is a fine actress, so I’m assuming the director told her to deliver her lines in this awkward way.
After entering the Shimmer, Lena and her team awaken after a few days with no memory of how they reached the part of the jungle they are in, or of setting up their camp. Moreover, they discover that none of their communications equipment works, while Ventress lurks ominously at the edge of the camp, saying dismissively “Did anyone really expect our equipment to work?”
In other words, Ventress is pretty much the worst leader imaginable, and gives them every reason to distrust her.
The team makes their way into the jungle, trying to find the coast and the lighthouse that lies at the epicenter of the strange phenomena. At one point, they find an abandoned boathouse where they are attacked by a huge albino alligator.
This scene really annoyed me, because when the creature attacks Radek and pulls her into the water, Lena immediately runs in after her, dropping her rifle. And then Sheppard and Thorensen follow suit.
Lena is supposed to have been in the army! I find it hard to believe she would just throw down her gun and blindly jump into the water. The fact that the others would do the same, leaving no one to cover them, is just inexcusable.
Miraculously, they rescue Radek, and then–despite inexplicably letting the gator get too close before firing on it–kill it and examine its corpse, discovering it is mutated, with teeth like a shark.
As they move deeper into Area X, they discover an abandoned army base where they find a video memory card left behind by the previous team–including Kane. On playing the card, they see a disturbing scene of Kane cutting one of his comrade’s stomach open to reveal his intestines writhing like a living creature. Later on, they find the remains of this unfortunate man, with strange vine-like structures radiating out from his skeleton and covering the walls.
Unable to sleep after studying the strange behavior of the cell samples, Lena joins Ventress taking the night watch. Ventress tells her that, in light of the disturbing footage, it’s a good thing that Lena didn’t tell the other team members that Kane was her husband. Ventress’s musings on the human urge for self-destruction are interrupted when a monster breaks through the perimeter and drags Sheppard into the night. Lena finds her remains the next day
After this, Thorensen grows (rather abruptly, I thought) distrustful of the other members of the team. She comes to suspect that Lena murdered Sheppard.
Now might be a good time to mention that all of this has been interspersed with flashbacks to Lena and Kane’s marriage as she thinks back on their relationship. First, she recalls their happiness together, but gradually, her thoughts turn to his deployment–and her infidelity with Dan during his absence.
She wakes from a dream of one such memory to see Thorensen holding a gun on her. In her escalating paranoia, Thorensen has found a locket of Lena’s with Kane’s picture in it, and realized he was her husband. She is now convinced that Lena, possibly working with Ventress, killed Sheppard, and ties both of them up, as well as Radek. She seems on the verge of slicing them open when the monster that killed Sheppard appears and kills her. (Eerily, the sinister beast growls in Sheppard’s voice.) Radek gets free and kills the monster, saving Lena and Ventress.
Ventress decides to press on, heading alone for the lighthouse. Lena and Radek remain behind in the ruins of suburb overrun by strange vegetation and trees that resemble human beings. Radek wanders off, apparently deciding to become one with Area X, leaving Lena to find her way to the lighthouse alone.
The lighthouse scenes were some of the best in the film–it’s a tower surrounded by human skeletons and strange glittering trees; a perfectly creepy set. Inside, Lena discovers a camera (which mysteriously still has power after all this time) that contains a recording of Kane giving a chilling speech that ends in instructions to “find Lena”. He then commits suicide with a phosphorous grenade, after which a doppelganger of him steps into the frame.
Lena enters a small hole in the lighthouse floor, leading to a strange catacomb structure where she finds the psychologist, who says some threatening stuff and then explodes into a dazzling display of light and strange alien forms.
I know a lot of reviews talk about how weird and trippy this scene is, but honestly, it was not nearly as weird as it is in VanderMeer’s book:
“Not a wall of light–gold, blue, green, existing in some other spectrum–but a wall of flesh that resembled light, with sharp, curving elements within it, an textures like ice when it has frozen from flowing water. An impression of living things lazily floating in the air around it…”
Weird lights as shorthand for the Great Unknowable Cosmos is a pretty common science fiction idea. I thought of this line from Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann:
“I saw… only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.”
I even fancied I heard the demonic pipings of some nameless flute on the soundtrack, another Lovecraft standard.
After the light show ends, Lena is confronted by a strange creature that resembles a person in an oddly-colored full-body suit. (Honestly, you could be forgiven for thinking the special effects department gave up and said “Just send the stunt person in their mo-cap garb.”)
This creature fights Lena, prevents her from escaping the lighthouse, and mimics her every move. It’s a mesmerizing and well-choreographed dance-fight, although I couldn’t help thinking of this classic Marx Brothers routine.
The creature gradually starts to take on Lena’s physical features, creating another doppelganger. Lena–at least, I think it’s the “real” Lena–takes a phosphorous grenade from Kane’s pack and thrusts it into the creature’s hands. It explodes and Lena escapes as the creature and the lighthouse are engulfed in flames.
Flash forward to the interrogation chamber, where the man in the hazmat suit reveals that The Shimmer disappeared after the lighthouse was destroyed, and that Lena’s husband–or, the person who looks like her husband–has recovered. She asks to see him, and a flicker of The Shimmer is seen in their eyes as they embrace and the credits roll.
For all the talk of Annihilation‘s many influences–Apocalypse Now, Alien, 2001, everything Lovecraftian–it reminded me most of the video game Spec Ops: The Line. The scene of Lena gazing back at the flaming tower reminded me of a similar surreal shot in Spec Ops, and both game and film are driven by an ever-increasing uncertainty as to what is real amid mounting death and destruction. (Also, minor note, but Spec Ops was the first time I ever heard of white phosphorous.)
Annihilation is a solid sci-fi thriller. Portman and Isaac’s performances are the standouts, but everyone is good–in later scenes, Leigh makes up for her early flat line readings about the end of the world. There are a few truly disturbing scenes, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The special effects occasionally look cheesy, but for the most part they were decent. The soundtrack is a little weird. A strangely soothing stringed instrument crops up at ill-timed moments, but it wasn’t a major problem.
The script is likewise solid: the love scenes, Kane’s final message, and the very last line are the best parts, and there are only a few pieces of clunky exposition, including Lena’s opening speech to her class.
If you like science-fiction, horror, and especially weird fiction of the cosmic variety, this one’s for you.
And that’s my review. What are you waiting around for? Go on, shoo! Go watch the nice movie. There’s nothing to see below the page break, I promise.
The plot broadly follows that of Lovecraft’s original episodic short story until the end, but with numerous edits, alterations and additions. It is a “reimagining” (or “reboot” in modern lingo) rather than a mere retelling. For one thing, it’s far longer. Lovecraft’s original seems like a mere outline in comparison.
Very often, when people say their work is “Lovecraftian” what they mean is that it has some names or artifacts from Lovecraft’s mythos, or perhaps that their tale concerns large alien monsters resembling sea creatures. Very few writers imitate Lovecraft’s tone, which is detached and serious. Usually these wannabe Lovecraft stories are written in the somewhat flippant manner of a Stephen King narrator, with a few references to “Cthulhu” and “Abdul Al-Hazred” thrown in.
Within a few pages of Friendship of Mortals, I was blown away by how well Driscoll managed to imitate HPL’s style. The tone, the pacing, the careful descriptions of everything from people to books to the architecture in Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham – all of it was there, just as in the canonical stories of Lovecraft himself. While Friendship of Mortals may take its general plot and characters from one of Lovecraft’s shorter (and generally less well-regarded) tales, its style and pace resemble his longer and more developed works, particularly The CaseofCharles Dexter Ward.
This would be impressive enough on its own, but Driscoll manages another feat: she explores the psychology and backstory of not only West, but the narrator (unnamed in Lovecraft’s original, but here named Charles Milburn) and other characters of her own creation. And though the human element was something that Lovecraft, for good or ill, deliberately minimized in his stories, Driscoll examines it, and does it well, without ever becoming unfaithful to his style.
Each of the major characters—West, Milburn and Alma Halsey, Milburn’s lover– are given detailed backstories and for the most part behave in believable and consistent ways. The romance between Milburn and Halsey was particularly impressive, because Lovecraft never wrote romance. In general, one of the major red-flags that a would-be Lovecraft imitator is about to become decidedly un-Lovecraftian is the introduction of sex or romance.
But Driscoll somehow pulls it off. As I was reading the love episodes between Halsey and Milburn, I thought to myself “If Lovecraft had written romance, it would have been like this.” That might sound like a joke, given Lovecraft’s antipathy toward all emotions except fear, but I mean it as a sincere compliment: Milburn and Halsey’s affair, while being relatively explicit, still seems in keeping with the period setting, both in terms of how it is described and what the lovers actually do.
Driscoll reinvents the vignettes of Lovecraft’s serial, changing or removing certain details here and there, fleshing out the views of the sentimental and romantic Milburn and the rational, calculating Doctor West, and then bringing them, over the course of West’s increasingly disturbing experiments, into conflict. Minor characters are just as vividly-drawn as the major players, from one of West’s numerology-obsessed professors to his overbearing businessman father.
Driscoll plays down the horror and violence of the original, but the relatively little space given to the monstrous results of West’s experiments renders them more powerful as a result. It’s dark and disturbing stuff, but again, true to the spirit of the source material.
I have a few quibbles: the book is lengthy and slow-paced, which readers expecting a thriller may find forbidding. But I doubt Lovecraft fans will be put off by this, as HPL could take his time with a story as well, and part of his style is its slow, gradual pace. A feature, not a bug, in other words.
In the last quarter of the book, the psychological character-development aspect takes center stage over the plot and horror elements, which some readers may find disappointing. Milburn’s philosophical musings, while quite interesting, begin to overtake all the other components at this stage.
One other note: there is one scene in which a character uses a racial slur—it’s perfectly logical for the time and circumstances, but nevertheless it is shocking enough to see on the page that I think I ought to warn readers about it. But again, anyone who has read HPL’s own works will have seen far worse, alas.
But these are all ultimately minor points, which don’t detract much from the book’s many virtues. The Friendship of Mortals is the first in a series, and I’m eager to read the next installment. It’s certainly a must-read for Lovecraft fans, and I think it works quite well even for readers to whom things like the “Necronomicon” or “Cthulhu” are meaningless, provided they like a good psychological drama with tinges of the supernatural.
I can’t stress enough the magnitude of what Driscoll accomplished here—she took one of H.P. Lovecraft’s lesser short stories and made it into his greatest novel. I say “his” just because she imitates him so well that at times, I swear I could forget the author’s identity, and believe that HPL really had returned to flesh out his tale of the amoral re-animator and his increasingly reluctant assistant. Like Dr. West, Driscoll has made her subject live again.
As long-time readers know, I love the story The Repairer of Reputations, by Robert W. Chambers. I wanted to write an analysis of it, but it’s such a carefully-constructed story that I didn’t know how to do it without quoting huge sections at length.
Then I had an idea. The story is in the public domain. (It was published in 1895.) So, I thought, why not post the story with my comments included? That will be an easy way for people to read the story and for me to comment on specific things that I think make it work so well.
So that’s what I did. It’s so long that I put it on its own page rather than do it as a blog post. You can read it here. I hope it’s useful to anyone who wants to write weird fiction.
I think it was somewhere in the arboretum of the TranStar corporation’s Talos I space station, about six hours into Prey, that I started to realize what was wrong.
Something had been gnawing at me; a vague sense of discomfort in the back of my mind. It wasn’t the apprehension that every object in every room might turn out to be an alien mimic waiting to ambush me, nor was it the thought that at any minute the possessed remains of crew members might teleport in to attack me with psychic energy blasts.
No, these things I had expected, and indeed become accustomed to.
In fact, that was the problem. What was really bothering me was that none of it was all that scary.
Prey sounds like a game almost engineered to my personal taste. It’s a horror RPG in which you play as Morgan Yu, a scientist on a space station overtaken by mysterious aliens called “the Typhon”. As you explore the station and fight the Typhon, you gradually uncover the backstory by reading logs of deceased crew members, and talking with the few survivors. All the while, you must overcome obstacles placed by Morgan’s brother, Alex–the scientist who seems to be responsible for the disaster.
Some of the Typhon, called “mimics”, have the ability to take any form, including such innocuous items as coffee mugs and even health kits and other useful items. So, you never know what might turn into a monster and attack as you creep through the dark, eerie corridors.
In addition to the usual video game weapons–pistols, shotguns, etc.–Morgan can use an experimental technology called “neuromods”, which grant the user all sorts of abilities, but can erase the user’s memory–a significant point, as it accounts for why Morgan has no memory of events that occurred before the beginning of the game. (This is explained by a character named January–a robot assistant who holds Morgan’s memories and acts as a guide in the early stages of the game.)
Prey has multiple paths and endings, and many different ways of accomplishing your objectives–a style of gameplay I strongly prefer. And to top it all off, Chris Avellone, perhaps the greatest game designer ever, helped write it.
With all this going for it, I was a bit dismayed by how weak the first act was.
Not that it’s bad. It’s good enough. Especially the opening 20 minutes or so; which are very disconcerting and disturbing. Not since Spec Ops: The Line has a game so successfully pulled the rug out from under me. But I’ll talk more about that later. (This is probably a good time to mention I’m going to spoil the game’s plot here, so don’t proceed any further if you want to play it without knowing what happens.)
I reference Spec Ops because it’s another favorite game of mine–again, Prey mimics elements from many of the classics. There are elements of Bioshock(takes place in a remote futuristic art-deco station) Half-Life, (the mimics look like headcrabs) Alan Wake(the shadowy phantoms murmur phrases spoken by the victims they now possess) and Dishonored. (This is only to be expected, since both are made by Arkane studios.) Indeed, there’s so much mimicry here, it makes the clever “not a mimic” marketing slogan seem rather ironic.
And yet… it doesn’t quite work as well as it should in the the beginning. And by “the beginning”, I mean approximately the first five hours after the opening sequence.
It’s like how all-star teams in sports don’t necessarily play up to the potential of all the great players on the roster. This is usually because all-star teams don’t have time to develop chemistry–the sense of timing that makes a team function well as a unit.
Something similar is going on with Prey: it is built up of some very excellent parts, but they don’t always work together to create a coherent whole.
It’s not always clear what Prey is supposed to be. A lot of it looks like survival horror, but it’s not particularly scary. (One exception is an enemy called the Poltergeist. It’s invisible and causes all sorts of disruptions. Very effective, especially the first time it happens.)
Prey‘s setting is also somewhat puzzling. It’s set in an alternate future in which John F. Kennedy was not assassinated, and the U.S. and Soviets worked together on space exploration. But it’s not clear to me why this background was needed for the story. It felt like a gimmick.
Then there are the graphics. They are good, but strangely cartoonish, which makes it hard to take anything seriously. I had this same problem with Bioshock and Dishonored as well. The people in these games all have soft, caricatured features, which creates a feeling of unreality.
I’m not sure why this particular style bothers me more than the outdated graphics of older games like Deus Ex or even Doom 3, but somehow it does.
It is probably true that if I weren’t so well-versed in the simulated experience of exploring a creepy station overrun by monsters, the beginning of Prey might have been a lot more intriguing. If you haven’t played Doom 3 or Bioshock or System Shock 2 or Half-Life orDead Spaceor the Fallout: New Vegas add-onDead Money or… well, if you haven’t played many survival/horror games, everything in Prey will be new and interesting.
To get back to the Arboretum, where I first began to have thoughts of just giving up on Prey–well, I didn’t. I pressed on, and was soon rewarded for my efforts. Because not too long after this, I started to run into some survivors with whom I could actually interact, as opposed to just constantly sneaking around in the dark, trying to alternately fight and run away from the Typhon.
The game really picks up once you start to meet some of the other characters. One suspects there must be a behind-the-scenes reason for this…
Don’t know the exact %, but I did some of the supporting cast (Igwe, Mikhaila, the Cook, Sarah, Danielle/Abigail, etc.) and some lore bits.
Helping officer Sarah Elazar and her men prepare for and then win a battle against Typhon forces massed in a cargo bay was the first really satisfying part of the game, and meeting some characters I cared about (who weren’t already dead) made me feel much more invested in the plot.
Even better were the quests involving Mikhaila Ilyushin. She guides you through a section of the station, and eventually you have the opportunity to get her some life-saving medicine. It’s an optional quest, but really satisfying to complete.
Mikhaila was my favorite character in the game, because the quests relating to her are both rewarding and emotionally “true”. After returning to Morgan’s office, she asks you to find data about her father that is stored in the station’s archives. On finding it, it reveals that Morgan ordered her father’s death. You have the choice of whether to tell her about this, or destroy the evidence. In the end, telling her is ultimately the right choice. “Honesty is the best policy…”
Between her and the security personnel in the cargo bay, I started to care about the story in a way I hadn’t for the first six hours or so. And so I found myself once again heading to the arboretum to meet with Alex, and hear his explanation for the whole thing.
On reaching his office, you learn that in fact everything he’s been doing has been to fulfill orders previously given to him by… you. Alex isn’t evil; he’s just doing what he believed the “real” Morgan would have wanted him to do, before neuromods and other experiments changed his sibling into someone he no longer recognizes.
This was a very powerful plot twist, because the game does a good job of making you hate Alex in the beginning, and then does an equally good job of making you want to work with him. The switch is accomplished very economically, and does not feel at all forced or contrived.
Alex explains that the key to understanding the Typhon has to do with the “coral”–a mysterious luminescent substance they have woven throughout the station as they have taken it over. After you study it further, it confirms what Alex claims Morgan initially suspected: the coral is a neural network.
For me, this development happened at about the 15 hour mark, and I was really getting into the game at this point. I returned to the arboretum (Alex’s office is there) to bring back the data I had collected and upload it for analysis. This, I figured, would trigger the endgame sequence.
But no–the upload gets interrupted by a surprise attack from a mercenary named Walther Dahl. He’s been sent by the TranStar corporation to steal back all the data and kill everyone on the station.
He’s also the most annoying character in the entire game. He blows in at the eleventh hour with his army of military robots, totally disrupting the pace of the narrative. He may have been referenced earlier in the story–although I sure don’t remember it–but certainly not in any way that counts as meaningful foreshadowing. My reaction to his arrival wasn’t “oh, wow; it’s that Walther Dahl guy I heard about earlier”, but instead “who the hell are you?”
It reminded me of Stephen Leacock’s mockery of a common trope in detective novels that explains the crime by concluding: “It was the work of one of the most audacious criminals ever heard of (except that the reader never heard of him till this second)”.
Even worse, Dahl undercuts the main enemy of the game, the Typhon. It’s like in Mass Effect 2 and especially 3, when Cerberus and the Illusive Man kept getting in the way of fighting the Reapers.
I actually found myself rooting for and counting on the Typhon to get rid of Dahl’s inexplicable army of robots for me. This is detrimental to the plot in two different ways: first, it makes you feel sympathy for what had previously been an unambiguous enemy; and second, it undercuts the Typhon’s effectiveness–they can’t be that powerful, if Dahl was able to show up and take over the station in the space of about five minutes.
This whole sequence was undoubtedly the weakest point of the game, and it took about two hours to resolve. (In fairness, defeating Dahl was extremely satisfying, but not so much as to justify his existence in the first place.)
So now, I found myself going back to the arboretum yet again, to do the same thing I had been about to do two hours before, prior to the pointless Dahl episode. And that wasn’t even the worst thing about it–but I’ll get to that later.
There had been several points throughout the game where it seemed like they were just throwing obstacles at me to make everything as hard as possible. There were quests that went something like this:
“Go get some files from a computer on the other side of the station.”
<Goes there, fighting and hiding from Typhon all the way>
“Oh, the door is broken. You have to get parts to fix it.”
“Shoot, the power’s out. Backtrack and turn it on.”
<Goes back; fights more Typhon>
“Hey, the power is out because the reactor is broken. Fix it.”
<Rebuilds nuclear reactor>
“What were we doing again?”
This had been frustrating enough, but the Dahl interruption was just too much. I prefer games in which each objective involves uncovering new information that advances the plot, rather than have most of the objectives be about doing busywork that eventually uncovers information that advances the plot. It felt at times like they were just dragging it out. And this turned out to be a big problem, but again, more about that later.
Once the coral data is analyzed, Alex explains that the coral is used by the Typhon to transmit a signal. Morgan, he continues, had suspected this from the beginning and had designed a device that could destroy the Typhon by taking over the neural network. He suggests using this, instead of following January’s suggestion of activating the station’s self-destruct mechanism.
At this point, a massive Typhon creature appears from deep space and begins to consume the entire station. Morgan then has to choose between whether to destroy the station and the Typhon along with it, or activate the device and destroy the Typhon but keep all the research and technology the team on Talos I has developed.
I chose the latter. I’m always a big one for keeping knowledge–same reason I always leave the Collector base intact at the end of Mass Effect 2. It never hurts to have more technology at your disposal; you can always choose not to use it if you don’t want to.
In either ending, the Typhon are destroyed, and the credits roll. But Prey still has one final twist in store. And it’s significant enough that even though I warned you about spoilers earlier, I’m putting it after the page break…
WARNING! The following clip contains intense LEGO violence. Parents, this is what happens when you give your nine-year-old sons red clay and LEGO skeletons! (Credits blurred as before, to avoid embarrassing family and friends.)
This movie is a little clearer than my previous ones, I think. It was about an army of skeletons who invade a planet and massacre the inhabitants. I made the movie when I was nine, but the music came much later–when I was about 15, and I briefly got into composing scores for my old movies.
And now you know how far back my cosmic-horror fixation goes…