Concerning Fun: Evil Texts Pt. 1, Or: Why They Can't Indict The Cosmos
Max José Dreysse Passos de Carvalho
At some point, any well-meaning Lovecraft character, critic, enthusiast or adaptor has to come up with an approach to the delicate problems posed by evil texts. When it comes to the former, this strikes us as not very difficult, conceptually at least. If you’re the unfortunate protagonist of a Lovecraftian tale and happen to stumble over an edition of the Necronomicon, you burn it. Perhaps, you perform some ancient ritual of purification. What you don’t do is read, critically engage with, copy, distribute, or, god forbid, adapt the thing. But what if you aren’t, what about outside the mythos, what about our world? Here, things get complicated. What would an evil text even be? Contemporary understanding (even Western) would certainly quarrel with the notion of a text being evil solely because it was written by a “mad Arab.” Admittedly, none of Lovecraft’s investigators ever suggests that the book is evil because its author was someone painted as a scary foreigner. But racism is undeniably among the reasons why Lovecraft’s texts ‘work’, why they succeed in bypassing the reader’s skepticism, why they, despite their absurdity, appear somewhat plausible (the default reading-subject interpellated by Lovecraft’s fiction is White, academic, and cis-male). Consider also his convenient omissions of (large parts of) the Necronomicon’s content and biographical information about its author, i.e. any kind of data that would enable ambiguous readings and risk turning the book’s evilness into a matter of taste. All of this is necessary because, under normal circumstances, books aren’t considered capable of being moral agents; they are things. They come with content and a context of production, including some form of authorship. Books aren’t evil in any primordial sense and can only “become evil” in so far as they come to play a part in the evil plots of actual agents, i.e. people. If you’ve read the last entry to this series, you probably recognize the argument: the modus operandi of the Necronomicon metaphor functions analogously to how I used Cthulhu in regard to climate change. It is a way of externalizing human agency, of inscribing it into a non-human thing and pretending it no longer has anything to do with us. The notion of the evil book is mirrored by that of the passive reader, whose performance of blasphemous rituals primarily exposes the human lack of agency in the face of superior evil powers, rather than the human capacity for immoral choice. A Lovecraftian cultist may be corrupted, but their corruption does not make them a villain in any immediate sense. Rather, it turns them into a puppet, one that follows instructions sent to it from the actual evil above or below. Think, for instance, of how hitting zero sanity points in Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu (CoC) forces players to relinquish control over their characters, turning the latter into villainous puppets in the DM’s hands. This “madness” cuts deeper than, say, that of an Ajax in Sophocles: the mad in CoC are bereft not just of their capacity for intentional action, i.e. knowing what they are doing, but of intention itself, of subjectivity altogether. In the game, reading “tomes of eldritch lore” stands easily as the most sanity straining activity, promising knowledge of forgotten spells and other mysterious Cthulhu stuff in return. Losing the struggle against an evil book in CoC by failing some dice rolls means going insane, which means getting evicted from your character’s body. Since the player’s is the character’s subjectivity in the game or, at the very least, the possibility for the latter emerges within the former, the evil book’s victory lies in turning character into setting, subject into object, human into body. When the lost character returns as a villain later into the campaign, everybody understands they aren’t the same person anymore, they aren’t a person at all, really, but an obstacle, much like their tentacled allies or a forest fire blocking the party’s way back to safety. They aren’t evil, the power controlling them is.1
Some Lovecraftian texts go one step further and suggest that the failure of ascribing responsibility to individuals leads to a collapse of morality altogether. In David Prior’s 2020 film The Empty Man, a police chief despairs over his investigation of a series of occult homicides. At all crime scenes, cops encounter the same sentence, “The Empty Man made me do it”, written using the victim’s blood for ink. The problem: there is no missing serial-killer, in every case the culprit is either the victim themselves, or a person close to them, seemingly acting out of a sudden delirious episode. By all metrics of police procedure, the cases are solved, the perpetrators identified. Yet, there is obviously a third party involved, one that connects these otherwise isolated cases of individual madness. But since the ominous “Empty Man” to whom the guilt is displaced is neither a moral agent nor a judicial subject, unbeknownst to the cops he’s a kind of eldritch “god” existing outside of time and space, the police can do nothing but to punish the unfortunate individuals through whom he acts. The chief ruminates:
“Sure, we can put [the perpetrators] in prison. But that’s not solving it. It’s inexplicable. It’s too big. We can’t indict the cosmos.”
On the one hand, The Empty Man seems to stand as a prime example for the aforementioned tendency of cosmic horror to externalize human activity by binding it to a fictional entity beyond our control (a move that essentially amounts to an aesthetic equivalent of reification). The experience which is allegorized by the film’s cthulhuian antagonist is that of living in a social totality that individualizes responsibility while at the same time rendering choice that takes place on an individual level utterly insignificant. The dilemma of police intervention, in the film as in late Capitalism, lies in the social contingence of crime itself: punishing transgressions never gets to the forces producing violent actors in the first place, elder Gods in the former, patriarchy/racism/poverty/etc. in the latter. Man in the 21st century too appears as “empty”, as little more than a vessel through which greater forces enact their will. Punishment of the guilty is mere performance, justice a sham. The neoliberal state can indict Harvey Weinstein, but just like it can’t indict the cosmos, it can’t indict patriarchy. On the other hand, the film’s marked surrealism goes a long way of undermining the naturalization of man’s emptyness: it paints a scenario wherein a crisis of the modern disciplinary regime only emerges as a consequence of supernatural intervention. In so doing, it raises the question of why the problem faced by the chief feels so hauntingly familiar when really, our reality is so different from the one depicted in the film. The Empty Man objectively resides beyond human grasp, so it is only natural that state violence should be powerless against him. But why is it powerless against patriarchy? I’d argue that herein lies the reason we must insist that the Necronomicon can only be plausibly evil in fictional space where instead of humans, all we have are characters, i.e. beings that by their very nature do not possess any kind of meaningful historical agency – they do what they’re written to do, and that’s the only reason their reality has a conceptual space for evil objects. This is a crucial distinction to make, for as Mark Fisher points out in Capitalist Realism, the naturalization of humanity’s non-agency is a key feature of our contemporary predicament:
“[We] know things are bad, but more than that, [we] know [we] can’t do anything about it. But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy” (21).
In our world, man is empty only under specific historic circumstances, circumstances that entail the constant repetition of the claim that man is empty by nature (for else man would rebel against these circumstances). Be on the look-out for these claims, they are all around us. But I wouldn’t be writing these lines, and this piece’s title wouldn’t bear the “Part 1” suffix, if there wasn’t a sense in which the notion of evil texts remained somewhat pertinent even outside of fantasy stories. Mein Kampf would be a particularly stark example. But also, and I don’t mean to imply any degree of equivalence here, Herbert West: Reanimator, a story that has Lovecraft describe an African American character as a, please excuse me, “loathsome, gorilla-like thing”. Is calling such texts “evil” necessarily as depoliticizing as I’ve made it out to be? And if not, what politics might follow from such an ascription or, in other words, how should we deal with texts we think are evil? I will return to these questions in the next entry to this series. Thanks for reading.
There is a kind of limited agency involved in deciding whether or not to read an evil book in CoC, but this is a strategic choice that shouldn’t be confused for a moral one: if a character reads the Necronomicon, they read it because they want to defeat evil (i.e. win the game), not because they are evil – which is to say nothing of the fact that whether you succumb to madness ultimately depends less on your decision than on the dice-rolls that follow it. Taking the risk here is a move; a risky one, sure, but not an immoral one (see Clint Hocking’s urtext on ludonarrative dissonance, which deals with this precise dilemma in game design). ↩