Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Shortly before I became editor of Dragon Magazine, our alien overlords at TSR commanded that the magazine focus strictly on D&D. That unbreakable dictate couldn’t have come at a worse time for me, since between review copies and convention visits, I had become a big fan of many non-TSR games.
To keep Dragon connected to the greater gaming industry, I sought out the best writers known for their non-D&D work. Kenneth Hite had been at the top of my wish-list since I’d begun reading his “Suppressed Transmission” column in Pyramid, one of my favorite rival periodicals.
Since then I’ve admired Ken’s work in many horror games, notably Pelgrane Publishing’s Trail of Cthulhu, and I pay attention to his film reviews because we watch many of the same types of movie for some of the same reasons. And, if for no other reason, I’ll always remain grateful to Ken for his recommendation of the espionage novels of Alan Furst, which still dominate my audiobook folder.
1. As most gamers have encountered at some point, certain special individuals warn that those who indulge in fantasy have a hard time distinguishing it from reality. The release of your Nazi Occult volume from Osprey caused its own kerfuffle among those who dislike mixing history with the fantastic. Why are they wrong?
They’re wrong first of all because they don’t know what the book is. My book The Nazi Occult follows Osprey’s first “Dark” title, Zombies: A Hunter’s Guide. This should be the first tipoff that we’re not doing straight military history. The second tipoff might be, oh I don’t know, the picture of Nazi werewolves attacking a U.S. Army convoy. I’m not saying that nobody ever believed the Nazis created real werewolves. I’m just saying that such people are beyond the reach of any disclaimer I could write, and can’t possibly be made any more confused by another metafictional book on the topic. You can tell that these whiners have some other agenda because they don’t spend any time denouncing, say, historical novels like Julian Rathbone’s A Very English Agent or George Macdonald Fraser’s immortal Flashman series—which can be far harder to tease apart if your real goal is unvarnished History.
The larger, more positive reason to blend history and the fantastic is that it’s great fun. Speaking of historical novels, if you can’t see the fun in something like Tim Powers’ Declare or Alex Irvine’s One Soldier One King or Lisa Goldstein’s Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon or Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Hotel Transylvania or (on a slightly less overt note, or perhaps one in which “fantasy” incorporates “secret history”) Lawrence Norfolk’s Lempriere’s Dictionary, then you are simply colorblind and deserve nothing but our pity. It also gives people who enjoy fantasy a road into history they might not have found for themselves: “I like werewolves—I wonder what this Nazi Werwolf movement was all about, then.”
2. You and Robin D. Laws launched the aptly named “Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff” podcast, and lately Pelgrane has published “Ken Hite Writes About Stuff” via their webstore. “Stuff” gives you a lot of latitude, but what topics do you find yourself drawn to most often these days?
I’m still reliably drawn to conspiracy theory, the occult and eliptony in general, to Shakespeare, to history and fantasies of history, and to Lovecraft and perhaps to literary criticism. On that last, I think by the time you’re my age, the tendency is to drill deeper into things you already like than to go rabbiting after new shinies. I still remember the horror with which I realized I’d suddenly become seriously interested in William Blake and had to go back and read a whole bunch of books to catch myself up.
Robin picks the topics, in virtually all cases, for the podcast, so those represent his interest in my interests interspersed with the occasional “wind Ken up and let him go” topic such as the boundless infamy of Woodrow Wilson. I pick my own stuff for “Ken Writes About Stuff,” with the understanding that Cthulhu stuff is the best stuff for backlist sales. But the other half has been fairly representative of where I’m also at: martial arts (as spectator and historian, I hasten to add), mad Nazi science and folklore about it, UFOs and the weird allure of the Seventies as a historical setting, Mumbai and Bollywood and India and cities in general, and mind control and perception. That KWAS may have dropped at the same time as my GURPS Horror: Madness Dossier finally does, which caps—or at least plants a flag in—my long-running interest in “hollow history” and epistemological conspiracy in general.
I’m also still reading a lot of spy fiction and nonfiction to keep my Night’s Black Agents reflexes sharp and to prep for my bit of Delta Green writing and development.
3. Your note in the recent Achtung! Cthulhu about the dangers of dehumanizing Nazis and the NKVD shocked me because I initially read the note out of context while skimming the text. When I read it properly, I was struck by your point. Could you describe in general terms why it’s important to separate acts of human atrocity from those of supernatural horror?
First off, let me say that if you’re just playing mindless adventure, you can go ahead and dehumanize Nazis and Commies all you want. They’re orcs. Plink and forget. Shooting Nazis in the face should be reflex action, it’s the epitome of twitch. But if you intend your game to mean anything, to be about something besides target practice—if, say, you’re running a horror game—then failing to treat the Nazis as human means failing to treat their atrocities as human. Like I say in the Achtung! Cthulhu piece you refer to: “Suddenly their 20 million victims weren’t murdered by humans, but instead were killed by a freak amoral accident, or died of a plague spread by orcs.” It becomes a tragedy, not a sin. By dehumanizing the Nazis, you help to trivialize their crimes. This becomes even worse if you blame the Nazis on the supernatural: “Well, Himmler was in league with Yog-Sothoth/manipulated by vampires/a demi-lich, so that’s why he killed millions of people.” This lets the Nazis off the hook—and worse yet, it lets us off the hook, it lets us pretend that “humanity” is somehow above these vile acts committed by humans. I don’t think it’s quite as important to make that distinction in the case of, say, Jack the Ripper—we’re all quite aware that humans can be serial killers. But way too many people seem to think that genocide is somehow something “we humans” don’t do. Like the poet says, “Nothing human is foreign to me.” For some reason, people don’t always understand the terror of that statement, and our horror games especially should emphasize it.
Osprey branches out from history to legend.
4. As a film buff and gamer, where do you find movies that most commonly influence your game or game writing imagination? Are there certain nations that are particularly good for horror, SF, fantasy, conspiracy, and other genres? Certain directors?
With games that specifically evoke film storytelling, as with Night’s Black Agents, I can be influenced by a good bit in a mediocre film. Bookhounds of London was heavily influenced by Polanski’s pretty but hardly A-class Ninth Gate, for example. Genre is seldom defined by its masterpieces.
But that said, and similar specific research subjects aside, I don’t watch films to influence my game writing. If there’s a connection, I watch films more to refill the tank of creativity, to get a possibly un-Ken-like version of something, so I’m not always talking to the inside of my own head, and that doesn’t require genre to work. Of course, if I see something truly brilliant, it’s going to come out in my work just like it might in the work of any creative artist—but I haven’t written a Korean crime game despite seeing a whole bunch of superb Korean crime films like The Chaser, A Dirty Carnival, Mother, I Saw the Devil, Thieves, and the like.
[The following three paragraphs were lost from the original post in a silly copy & paste failure.]
Bollywood is getting better and better at making crime films, which delights me: Shootout at Wadala is a classic gangster story, and I’ve never seen a better choreographed (literally!) heist sequence than the hotel job in Dhoom. I think the last really good true conspiracy movie I saw was Golden Slumber, a Japanese film that inverts the genre to make a film about society instead of isolation. But most good conspiracy films turn out to be either crime films or horror; in either case, Korea’s got you covered.
Korean film in general is just amazing nowadays, maybe better even than Hong Kong was at its peak. Even mediocre Korean B-pictures are better than the same level of work from France or America. There’s a messy, kind of stupid Korean thriller flick, Typhoon, that’s more compelling and more on-point than any recent Bond movie. In horror, France has really picked up the gauntlet: Haute Tension, Martyrs—they’re not easy to watch, but they’re not lazy, which is the real problem with a lot of post-Saw American horror. I’ve become a big fan of the French director Denis Dercourt, who has a sort of gamer-Hitchcock sensibility in psychological thrillers; his films have a real sense of invisible rules constraining action.
Fantasy is such an easy genre to get wrong (and perhaps so dependent on specific national-cultural cues) that I don’t seek it out; sometimes something surprises me, but not often. The American independent Beasts of the Southern Wild is probably the best fantasy film I’ve seen in a decade, although you might call the arch British ghost movie Skeletons a fantasy, in which case the scores switch around. It’s not straight horror, anyhow. Similarly, I don’t seek out foreign SF, which (the occasional District 9 aside) is not much better than Anglo-American material: Monstersis a British SF-horror film made in Mexico, and stands up to anything else on its scale this decade.
5. You mention Korean and French films featuring very human monstrosity, which makes me realize I can’t think of many films that come close to capturing the cosmic horror that Lovecraft sought to express. Can you recommend films that succeed or come close to that ideal?
Well, like in fiction, cosmic horror is more likely to be expressed in a single scene than throughout an entire work. The scene early on in the 1951 The Thing when the scientists fan out to reveal the size of the crashed space craft, for example; the ruins in Alien; the cold cinematography of 2001; the meaningless twigs in Blair Witch Project. Lots of good (and even not-so-good) horror movies cross wires with the vast scope and terrifying nihilism of cosmic horror, if only for a two-second cut or a dramatic pause. On a slightly more Machen-y wavelength, Yellowbrickroad and Absentia are two excellent “unknowable horror” films that imply cosmicism. But some films try (with greater or lesser success) to tackle the core themes head-on: Darabont’s The Mist and John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, for example, or 1408 by Mikael Hafstrom, or the first two-thirds or so of Event Horizon, or the non-puzzle elements of The Cube. J-Horror movies often live there, because a malevolent, absurd universe is usually just one step up from their normal level of horror: Kairo and especially Uzumaki are excellent examples of cosmic horror film.
Listen to Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws wax alternatively nerdy and erudite on their mighty, mighty podcast.