Arkham Horror Fiction: Fourth-Order Adaptation

Tim Lanzendörfer

The board game Arkham Horror has been a staple in the Lovecraft gaming community for 35 years now. First published in 1987, it’s gone through three editions, and has morphed into what the publisher, Fantasy Flight Games, calls the “Arkham Horror Files” on their website. This is a host of related products—including six other board or card games set in the same, now proprietary universe—among them a book series, the Arkham Horror Fiction series. I want to say a few words about this series here.

As of the writing of this short note, there are twenty-one novels in this series (plus assorted short fiction), I think. It’s not entirely clear if there’s a full list of any of these anywhere, properly, and I’ve not read them all; I’ll update this as I do so, if I do so. For the matter of Lovecraft adaptation, these books present an interesting case. It’s not a difficult case, mind you—just an interesting lineage. Arkham Horror, the game, was initially conceived as Call of Cthulhu: The Board Game. Call of Cthulhu, of course, was Chaosium’s highly successful roleplaying game, which, as Arkham Horror’s designer Richard Launius suggested, he wanted to adapt to solitaire play to while away the time while the children were sleeping (“Arkham Horror: The Rear View” (Youtube)). Call of Cthulhu, designed by Sandy Petersen, in turn was meant by Petersen to allow players to “experience” the Cthulhu mythos. Petersen at one point—admittedly, at a point where deep reflection is called for!—suggests that he wants players to see “what you would have done in the place of Lovecraft’s intrepid heroes” (qtd. in Wöll/Ries, 344, in Lanzendörfer/Dreysse). Arkham Horror Fiction, then, is removed three times from the Lovecraftian origins it draws on, coming at us through two steps of adaptation through ludic narratives, only to turn the form back to fiction. And that, I think, is interesting.

From the books I’ve read, several things emerge, the most interesting to me is the kind of reader they appear to envisage, and which, one would assume, would be related to the kind of player that the board game has, or is understood to have. It’s difficult to imagine the branding to seek to appeal to anyone but those who know the board game, although no previous acquaintance with the game is necessary to understand what is going on in the books. If we grant that for the moment, we may at least imagine that the readers of the novels share some overlap with the players of the games.

And there are a number of surprising choices here. All of the stories are set in the 1920s. This is, of course, an artifact of their storyworld, specifically the Arkham Horror series of games. But at the same time, they are keyed into a contemporary progressive sensibility that produces a version of the Lovecraftian somewhat at odds with both iterations of the games (especially the first editions of Arkham Horror and of Eldritch Horror) and, well, the texts’ Lovecraftian roots. In the books I read, most protagonists were women of renown or achievement: a successful Hollywood prop maker, a daredevil Hollywood adventure-film actress, a Miskatonic University professor, the head librarian of the Special Collections at Miskatonic University Library, an explorer. Ancilliary characters are also often marked as minority identities: there’s at least three gay and lesbian characters – all, admittedly, closeted. The Hollywood prop maker is Asian passing for white; one of the novels centrally features an Inuit. This last character recalls and subverts (well) Lovecraft’s inclusion of the “degenerate Esquimaux” tribes involved in Cthulhu worship in “Call of Cthulhu,” and indeed, the novel he appears in – Litany of Dreams – repeatedly makes the character note to interlocutors that he is not an “Eskimo.” I’m not well-versed enough in the history of the terminology here to know if a 1920s Inuit would have understood himself to be falsely marked by the term “Eskimo,” but the attention paid here to the currently correct terminology clearly marks the stories as concerned, and in that presumably concerned with their audience’s own stances towards these issues.

On the one hand, then, there is a somewhat un-Lovecraftian insistence on a wide range of identities to be represented here. This is something the books have in common especially with the later editions of Arkham Horror, where the range of available investigators has also expanded considerably—still less than in the novels, though! On the other hand, there is also a fairly un- Lovecraftian openness to action as well as to the knowability of the unknowable. Specifically, I’m thinking here for instance of the way in which in S.A. Sidor’s two novels, the perspective of the chief, weird antagonist (the Spider Queen in the first novel, the “Lamprey” in the second) is produced by the novels themselves: we get direct interiority for these creatures, their thinking and wants; and of the car-chase scenes and monster fights in Rosemary Jones’s The Deadly Grimoire.

What this does is, certainly, to make the entire experience of reading these books more accessible. In several interviews published at Track of Words, writers for the series have highlighted that they understand their books to be entertainment: a way of spending a pleasurable few hours. Having read several, I kind of agree: they’re genuinely pleasurable, fast-paced, exciting, and don’t throw up any particular obstacles, or, indeed, end up especially surprising. Perhaps the most challenging of the punch that I read was David Annandale’s In the Coils of the Labyrinth, which played (a little) with references to Romantic literature, includes a guest starring role for William Wordsworth, and offers a rather complicated sense of overlapping and chronologically spread-out threats. But even that was, for the most part, fairly straightforward.

But it also asks us to think again about the process of adaptation. Call of Cthulhu adapted Lovecraft’s setting in both temporal and spatial regard in its effort put you in the place of Lovecraft’s “intrepid investigators.” That is to say, it made an initial choice to understand the temporal setting of Lovecraft’s fiction in Lovecraft’s own time as not merely a chronological coincidence but as a constitutive part of what Lovecraft’s fiction meant. This is, to be sure, by no means an uncommon move, but it is still a move: think only of the many adaptations of Sherlock Holmes that more or less effortlessly update Holmes to their respective presents. The spaces of Lovecraft’s fiction—Arkham, Innsmouth, Miskatonic University, and so on—are also, and perhaps more obviously, understood to be constitutive of what a “Lovecraftian” story must contain. Here, the stories I’ve read tend to center on Arkham, but don’t always insist on it: S.A. Sidor’s Curse of the Spider Queen, for instance, takes place largely in the Brazilian Amazon, though it starts (for not necessarily well-explained reasons) at the Arkham Advertiser. In as much as these stories are story-world expansions of a game that is affirmatively set in the 1920s, the chronological setting makes some sense, obviously, if for no other reason than to retain a recognizable relationship with the game. But it also leads to the at least somewhat anachronistic—or at any rate, non-obvious—progressivism of the narratives. This is less an issue of ostensible realism. It’s not so much that there weren’t successful women in the 1920s, including professors, archaeologists, librarians, mobsters, and film stars. It’s more that against the backdrop of the 1920s, these stand out more, and, especially against the history of Arkham Horror’s game design, it does, too. These books seem tailor-made to advertise the progressive turn of the games.

The novels in the Arkham Horror Fiction series stand at the end of a chain of adaptations in which Lovecraft’s fiction becomes increasingly watered down. I don’t mean this to suggest that there is something wrong with that, again: it’s not that I’m advocating for the purity of Lovecraft’s fiction. But, as Josh Reynolds, the writer of Wrath of N’Kai notes, what results is less cosmic horror than “cosmic horror filtered through a pulp-thriller lens.” In fact, it’s more pulp-thriller with a dash of horror, sometimes (but by no means always) “cosmic” in nature; and that’s not to mention that none of them read like a Lovecraft story, either in the way they build tension or in their style. Most of these stories then become more like Indiana Jones extended universe stories than Lovecraftian ones: there is action galore, wild car chases, narrow escapes, and, usually, a form of happy end, or at the very least an evil master plan foiled. And again: that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. It’s a thing that might tell us something about what it is that players of Arkham Horror are looking for in their Lovecraft-inspired game: specifically, it’s nothing all that much to do with Lovecraft, and something very much to do with a larger inspired-by universe. Not a terribly strong insight, I agree: but at least something, maybe.

What I’ve Read For This