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.
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.
I’ve heard lots of criticisms of video games over the years, but Jeff Vogel’s critique that they have too many words is a new one. He makes a strong case against one particular game–Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity. After reading his article, it’s hard to argue against the claim that Pillars is too verbose. The character creation and menu screens are packed with tons of text for the player to wade through.
I’m less sure about whether this is really a trend in gaming generally. After all, Pillars was explicitly designed as a throwback to the beloved text- and lore-heavy Black Isle RPGs. For example, Planescape: Tormenthas over a million words. Even I tended to ignore some of the esoteric descriptions in Planescape, and I love that game.
Some players really do seem to enjoy the atmosphere of a game rich with background material. It may be true that much of the information is irrelevant to the game’s mechanics, but this is High Fantasy, and one of the things High Fantasy fans look for is a sprawling world filled with many interesting details that don’t all fit into the main narrative.
Using lots of words is indeed a problem, as Vogel says, but not just in games. The High Fantasy trope of giving tons of background information can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Pillars of Eternity intro is nothing next to the dense opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. In general, when writing in a genre, you will try to emulate the most successful authors in that genre, so it’s hard to blame Obsidian for looking to the work of Tolkien and his successors for ideas.
I myself have never been a fan of this style. And that’s despite the fact that some of my influences favored verbosity. Take H.P. Lovecraft for example–he was a pioneer in writing horror, but he tended to go overboard with some of his descriptions. I think some of that crept into my own early attempts at writing horror.
It’s much easier to use too many words than to use just the right number. The old line about “writing a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one” applies. It’s easy to waste words, and that dilutes their intended effect.
Think of it this way: whenever you write something, eventually you will have to stop. You only have so many words before you have to hit send, or mail it to the publisher, or whatever. While the supply of words is theoretically infinite, in practice it’s severely limited–by the reader’s attention span if nothing else.
So, you want to maximize the value you get per word. What do I mean by “value”? Well, it’s whatever idea or feeling you are trying to communicate in your writing. If it’s an informational document or a bit of technical description, then you want to be as clear and concise as possible. If you are writing a character who prefers to communicate non-verbally or who is just mysterious, you use few words, and you make them vague and open to interpretation.
Sometimes there is value in deliberately using too many words. The dramatist W.S. Gilbert (another of my favorites) would often have characters say things in as complicated and lengthy a way as possible for comic effect. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” as they say in big organizations.
Vogel is right that the Pillars opening screens are bad at conveying information. They could have communicated the same points more succinctly. But the problem is that in addition to giving the player some information, they are also supposed to be atmospheric. And you usually need more–or at least different–words to create an atmosphere than to just convey information.
It’s a difficult balancing act–the writer(s) must both communicate technical detail about how to actually play the game while also keeping the player immersed in the virtual world in which the story is set. (For an example of a character creation intro that is more integrated with the game and doesn’t bore the player, I recommend Fallout: New Vegas–-also by Obsidian.)
The “optimal” number of words is dependent on what the writer is trying to convey, as well as on the medium they are using. Obviously, a screenwriter is going to use fewer words than a novelist to describe the exact same scene, because the screenwriter knows they will have actors and sets that will communicate certain things visually.
To summarize, all writers, regardless of their subject, style or genre, should follow Einstein’s advice: “Everything should be as simple as possible–but no simpler.”
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…
My initial reaction was that the reason for this was that Gilbert’s works are inaccessible to modern readers because he was sometimes a bit of chauvinist, and most publishers aren’t keen to push the works of another straight, white, male Victorian writer. Modern readers are looking for more diversity.
I was about to say this, but then I realized it wasn’t true–and my own literary interests showed why. (You can see my whole exchange with Mr. Crowther here.)
Specifically, I thought of H.P. Lovecraft, the early 1900s horror writer, whose influence on modern horror seems to be ever-increasing. His ideas creep into films like Alien and The Thing, his famous monster Cthulhu is the shorthand for Ultimate Evil in some parts of the internet, and there is an entire genre of horror named after him. Only yesterday I wrote a review of a horror novel clearly influenced by him.
And Lovecraft is way, way less accessible to the modern reader than Gilbert. Gilbert, as I said, was a bit of a chauvinist. Lovecraft openly sympathized with the Nazis. His letters, while in other respects brilliant and insightful, show a man prone to almost genocidal racial screeds, and his books often contain appalling racist diatribes and descriptions.
Everyone who reads and enjoys Lovecraft’s work ultimately has to grapple with this undercurrent of White Supremacist venom that runs through it. (For the record, here’s where I did it.)
So, if a racist Nazi sympathizer can have such an influence over modern writers, why can’t a lovable old Victorian dramatist have the same?
The answer is that Gilbert’s main claim to fame are the comic operas he wrote with Arthur Sullivan, and comic opera is out of fashion. In fact, not only is comic opera out of fashion, but the form of musical theater that evolved when it fell out of fashion is also out fashion.
Gilbert’s other famous work, the Bab Ballads, are witty, short poems in a style that is, once again, out of fashion.
Thinking about the Lovecraft v. Gilbert issue was what really brought home to me how out of fashion metered, rhyming poetry is. Because Lovecraft also wrote poetry, and yet, for all his influence, his poems don’t seem to get reprinted nearly as much as his short stories and novellas.
I have a collection that purports to be “The Best of H.P. Lovecraft” in front of me. It contains mediocre tales like “Pickman’s Model” and “In The Vault” , but not his great poem “Nemesis”. If Lovecraft had only written horror poetry, probably he would not have one-tenth the influence he does.
So, why did poetry fall out of fashion? I have no clue. It’s easy to memorize (that’s part of the point) and tends to be shorter than the sprawling novels that students in schools get assigned. And yet, poetry–or at least, rhyming and metrical poetry that adheres to rhyme schemes and other rules, is distinctly out of fashion.
[Plot spoilers abound–but the power of this book is not in its plot, but rather in its atmosphere, so I don’t think it is ruined even if you know what happens. But, fair warning…]
Annihilation is about a team of scientists–a biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist and an anthropologist–sent to explore a mysterious region called “Area X”. This place was created by some unexplained disaster called “the Event” many years in the past, and the 11 previous teams sent there have either disappeared or, more disturbingly, returned as mere shells of their former selves.
The biologist narrates the story, beginning with the team’s entrance into Area X. The main features of the landscape are a lighthouse on the coast and a structure which most of the team calls a “tunnel”, but which the biologist refers to as a “tower”.
Almost immediately, they begin to encounter strange phenomena–eerie moaning sounds at dusk, and then, a strange and disturbing line of writing created seemingly in plant-life on the wall of the tower/tunnel.
Before long, the team begins to distrust one another. The biologists sees the psychologist hypnotize the others, while remaining impervious to it herself. The anthropologist is killed in the tower, by what the biologist believes to be a creature writing on the interior of the tower.
It soon becomes apparent that the biologist is not a reliable narrator, as she gradually reveals important details like the fact that her husband was part of the 11th expedition–one of those who returned as a mere shell, before dying of cancer months after returning home.
No one and nothing is entirely reliable in Area X, and this is part of what gives the tale its unnerving atmosphere. VanderMeer skillfully creates a mood of gnawing dread by introducing this uncertainty. Other writers would do well to mimic his method of creating fear through implication and speculation rather than through blood and gore.
Eventually, when it appears the psychologist has betrayed them, the biologist makes her way towards the lighthouse on the coast, leaving the surveyor behind at their camp after arguing with her. At the lighthouse, she finds a strange picture of the lighthouse keeper from before “the Event” and, even more significantly, a huge pile of journals from previous expeditions–far more than the 11 that “officially” were supposed to have taken place.
Finally, she finds her husband’s journal, but does not read it. She exits the lighthouse and finds the psychologist lying wounded outside. She has been attacked by the same creature–which the biologist now calls “the Crawler” assumed to be responsible for writing on the wall of the tower.
After a brief exchange, the psychologist dies and the biologist makes her way back to the camp. Along the way, she encounters the creature responsible for the eerie moaning noise, though she escapes and never actually sees it. After that, she is shot by the surveyor, but is able to withstand it, apparently due to some infection or other mutation resulting from her time in the tower.
She shoots the surveyor, and then returns to camp to make final preparations to explore the tunnel and find the Crawler. She reads through the journals she collected from the lighthouse, concluding with her husband’s. His account describes he and his fellow team members seeing their doppelgangers entering the Tower–suggesting that these doppelgangers are the entities that returned from Area X to the outside world. Most significantly, his journal is largely addressed to the biologist; and is meant to express his feelings for her.
To me, this was the most extraordinary part of the entire book. While she has at times discussed her relationship with her husband, and how its deterioration ultimately led him to volunteer to go to Area X, her tone has always been cold and detached. When she reads the journal and realizes that her husband made the journey largely as part of a desire to connect with her, and regrets that she never tried to connect with him in the same way, her tone changes–real emotion comes through.
It’s a surprisingly romantic and touching passage–only a few paragraphs, but very moving. Like Victor LaValle in his excellent Ballad of Black Tom, VanderMeer has succeeded in imbuing his tale of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with real human emotion–no mean feat, given that the genre’s creator premised it on the insignificance of humanity.
After reading the journals, the biologist enters the Tower and finds the Crawler–a suitably mind-warping encounter with the indescribable, in the best Lovecraftian tradition. At the center of the unimaginable, incomprehensible thing, she sees the face of the lighthouse keeper from the photograph, providing some hint at the creature’s origin.
After this last encounter, the biologist decides to follow her husband’s last recorded plan which was to go to an island off the shore. The book ends on an ambiguous and yet strangely bittersweet note.
I have said that the core of Annihilation is not its plot, but rather its atmosphere. Reading what I have outlined here does not give you the sense of it. VanderMeer writes the sort of story I love: an undefined time and place, with the tension residing in the eerie setting and the horror being the horror of doubting one’s own sanity. He has written the book that At The Mountains of Madness wanted to be.
There are some flaws–early on, I felt it was bogged down too much by description. (Though I have frequently been found guilty of too little description.) He uses the expression “far distant” too much, and occasionally the biologist’s detached, scientific tone would be jarred by the use of a word like “scary”, which seemed too simplistic to me.
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
…then Annihilation serves as the very model of a weird tale.
This is a little unorthodox: Before I start my review of this novella (short version: it’s very good), I first need to discuss H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Horror at Red Hook, upon which it is partly based. Spoilers for both are ahead, obviously.
Red Hook is H.P. Lovecraft’s work in microcosm; showing both his best–his tremendous talent for creating a chilling weird story–and his worst–his extreme and vicious racism. It’s both one of my favorite Lovecraft stories for its plot and its atmosphere, and also one I hate the most for the way he despises all the non-WASPs at every opportunity.
The plot follows police detective Malone, who is investigating the suspicious activities of a wealthy and mysterious old man, Robert Suydam. Suydam purchases tenement buildings in the immigrant district of Red Hook, New York.
As is often the case in Lovecraft stories, the foreigners populating Red Hook are depicted as sinister, inhuman figures, controlled by the corrupted “Aryan”, Suydam. (Even the bad whites still outrank the non-whites, in Lovecraft’s world.)
Malone’s investigations of Suydam leads him to join the police in a raid of the tenement buildings, where they stumble upon inconceivable cosmic horror that nearly drives them mad. (For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the underlying concept of all “Lovecraftian” horror.)
The denouement consists of people thinking the menace is over when the buildings collapse in the police raid, but Malone, one of the few survivors, knows better; and evil foreigners in Red Hook are still heard murmuring diabolical chants.
I love the atmosphere and pacing of Red Hook–Lovecraft did a good job insinuating occult machinations to create a powerful sense of dread. Malone is also one of his most complex and carefully-drawn protagonists. (Admittedly, that’s not saying much–more on this later.)
But I loathe calling it one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, simply because of the many paragraphs just dripping with violent racial hatred.
This is the issue LaValle’s novella addresses. The first half of The Ballad of Black Tom is told from the perspective of Charles Thomas Tester, a black man in New York who hustles to support himself and his father.
Tester is tasked with delivering a book of magic to a mysterious woman in Queens, Ma Att. This sets off a chain of events that includes a run-in with Detective Malone and his associate, an ignorant officer named Howard. Both Malone and especially Howard treat Tester with extreme racism and cruelty.
Additionally, Tester also encounters Robert Suydam, who hires him to play his guitar at one of the gatherings at his mansion. Though Tester senses something odd about the old man, he cannot refuse the pay to support himself and his father.
When Tester goes to the mansion, Suydam speaks to him of “the Outside”–meaning, essentially, other dimensions–and demonstrates his ability to move the house at will through space and time while a shocked and frightened Tester plays his guitar.
(While most of the story and characters are derived from Red Hook, this particular scene had shades ofThe Music of Erich Zann–one of Lovecraft’s best stories. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but I loved it.)
Suydam concludes by speaking of “The Sleeping King”–it is not clear to Tester what this means, but all the Lovecraft aficionados will know. In a panic, Tester tries to flee, but opens the door only to see Detective Malone standing in a completely different room than the one that should have been on the other side. Suydam’s manipulation of space and time at work.
Ultimately, Tester is allowed to go home with his pay, only to find that Howard has murdered his father. The policeman saw him with a guitar, which he claims to have mistaken for a rifle, and shot him dozens of times. Malone backs up Howard’s story, and they leave Tester broken and furious. This drives him to work with Suydam.
The second half of the story is told from Malone’s perspective. He learns that Suydam is taking over tenement buildings, and that he has a new lieutenant–a man called “Black Tom”.
Malone then returns to Ma Att’s house to track down the mysterious book. When he arrives, Ma Att’s house has vanished–a witness reports that it was seemingly through the supernatural power of a man matching the description of “Black Tom”.
Terrified by the power Tom and Suydam apparently possess, Malone quickly organizes a raid on Suydam’s buildings. Being well-versed in the occult, he is able to find a hidden passage to a secret chamber that the other police miss, and there he confronts Suydam and Black Tom.
LaValle shows us more explicit horrors than Lovecraft ever would, but the real difference between the climax of Black Tom and Red Hook is that the former balances cosmic horror with personal motivation–LaValle never loses sight of what draws Tom (or Suydam, or Malone), to the weird and the sinister. In the final chapter, Tom makes it clear it was the cruel racism he experienced that drove him to become a monster.
Lovecraft rarely bothered to explore motivations. It was a deliberate artistic choice–he said in some of his letters that human concerns bored him, and so he preferred to focus on the horror of cosmic indifference. That’s a legitimate storytelling decision; and many of Lovecraft’s successors have gone too far the other way, and overemphasize human emotions, to the point where it dilutes the cosmic horror. (Even the great Stephen King is sometimes guilty of this.)
LaValle gets the balance just about right, in my opinion. The characters are human enough that we are interested in them, but the cosmic horrors are bizarre enough that we never lose that “dread of outer, unknown forces”, to quote Lovecraft himself.
I bought this book expecting it to be a “critique-by-way-of-story” of Lovecraft’s work and attitudes. And it certainly was that, but what I frankly did not expect was that it would also be a cracking good weird tale in its own right. Good cosmic horror is rare, and good cosmic horror balanced with other genres and techniques is even rarer. As such, I highly recommendThe Ballad of Black Tom to fans of the genre.