Book Reviews

Living in Lovecraft's World

An illuminating book explores "the literary prehistory of virtual reality."


As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, by Michael Saler, Oxford University Press, 283 pages, $27.95.

No one has ever set foot on the campus of Miskatonic University, because strictly speaking, Miskatonic University does not exist. It's a fiction, a creation of H.P. Lovecraft, the same pulp writer who invented the monster-god Cthulhu. But Lovecraft's fictional world isn't contained by the page. Millions of people participate in it: not just by reading his stories and those of other writers who have built on his mythos, but by writing and sharing their own Cthulhoid tales, playing in Lovecraftian game-worlds, or producing deadpan scholarship about the cosmos Lovecraft created. You can buy a Miskatonic T-shirt, sweatshirt, or baseball cap, and if you wear it you might earn a grin from another spiritual alumnus of the imaginary college.

"The modern West has been called 'disenchanted,' but that is a half-truth," the UC-Davis historian Michael Saler writes in his thoughtful book As If. "It can equally be deemed an enchanted place, in which imaginary worlds and fictional characters have replaced the sacred groves and tutelary deities of the premodern world." The people who enter those imaginary worlds do not literally believe that these fictions are real—not usually, anyway—but they often enjoy acting as though they do. The cultural critic Mark Dery has called Cthulhu's devotees a "postmodern religion, unfettered from traditional belief's insistence on religion as moral truth and literal fact"; Lovecraftians, he concludes, can "have their critical distance and eat it, too, believing as if rather than believing in." Saler's study extends the thought, chronicling the rise of as-if worlds and the fandoms that inhabit them.

His tale begins with the New Romances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, and other novelists added maps, footnotes, photos, charts, appendices, and other playful faux-scholarly elements to their creations. The New Romances begat modern genre fiction, from the detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle to the fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien, and those in turn yielded our modern virtual worlds. The Sherlockian who offers painstakingly crafted arguments about the biography of Dr. Watson is the prototypical as-if believer, adopting what Saler calls "the double conciousness of the ironic imagination"—a mentality that allows you simultaneously to understand that you're playing with fictions and to treat them as though they're real. (You can see a similar double consciousness in other areas as well: an ironic style of utopianism, an ironic style of religion, an ironic style of political paranoia.)

This mindset, Saler suggests, can affect the ways we view the real world as well. It encourages "the notion that the real world is, to some degree, imaginary," he writes, "relying on contingent narratives that are subject to challenge and change." Put differently, it encourages tolerance, pluralism, and an appreciation for the limits to your own perspective and the value in other views. To illustrate this effect, he quotes interactions from the letters pages of pulp magazines, from amateur press associations, and from other places where fans with different worldviews butted up against one another.

Inevitably, he encounters opinions that aren't especially tolerant or pluralistic. Lovecraft himself was both an active participant in the pulp world's public spheres and a fierce racist and anti-Semite prone to declaiming about the dangers of degenerate alien hordes. Saler makes the case that Lovecraft's prejudices faded somewhat over time and that his correspondence with dispersed readers and writers helped to steer him in a less bigoted direction. This argument isn't implausible, but I wouldn't say he proves his case.

Fortunately, Saler is too smart to suggest that ironic distance and open exchanges of opinion are themselves enough to keep people from being prejudiced jackasses. He is making the more tentative and defensible claim that they can diminish prejudice and jackassery: not always, not irreversibly, but enough to nudge the world in a welcome direction. I think he's right. And even if he's wrong, the enchantments are often appealing in their own right.

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  1. The people who enter those imaginary worlds do not literally believe that these creations are real?not usually, anyway?but they often enjoy acting as though they do.

    Jesse Walker, who presumably reads the comments here every day, needed to go to some guy’s book to discover this?

    1. I like to pretend AnonBot is real.

      1. Wait so it doesn’t exist?

        Then how do we both know who AnonBot is?

  2. Lovecraft himself was both an active participant in the pulp world’s public spheres and a fierce racist and anti-Semite prone to declaiming about the dangers of degenerate alien hordes.


    I think you should have focused more of the article on that little tidbit.

    I nearly bought a Miskatonic University T-shirt before I finished the article.

    1. Lovecraft himself was both an active participant in the pulp world’s public spheres and a fierce racist and anti-Semite prone to declaiming about the dangers of degenerate alien hordes.

      Oh please. Yes there is some truth to Lovecraft having ‘racist’ views, but that was due to him being born in turn of the last century America. It’s not fair to point to Lovecraft’s early work, which does contain racist overtones and not point to his evolving views of race which led to his more nuanced later work.

      Not to mention that we was so anti-Semitic that, you know, he married a Jewish woman.

      1. *he, not we

      2. Not to mention that we was so anti-Semitic that, you know, he married a Jewish woman.

        She’s an example of the interaction with an APA changing his attitudes, since that’s how he met her. That said, Saler also writes this:

        In her memoir she recalls Lovecraft ranting about the “alien hordes” polluting New York. “When I protested that I too was one of them, he’d tell me I ‘no longer belonged to those mongrels. You are now Mrs. H. P. Lovecraft of 598 Angell St., Providence, Rhode Island!'”

        1. Indeed. If Lovecraft were alive today, I have a feeling he would be a Tom Tancredo, or a Sheriff Joe-type. Not racist as in hatred of people for having different genetic heritages, but fiercely protective of what he viewed as “mainstream American culture” and very anti-immigration.

        2. Wikipedia wants to know what your “APA” means.

        3. And contrast Lovecraft with Sax Rohmer, whose Sinophobia and anti-Semitism were a cynical ploys to use his audiences’ own racial fears to add chills and thrills to his works.

    2. Corning: chill out. HPL was a product of his time. And a damned interesting writer. I’ll take him over that lame ass Stephen “we need higher taxes” King any day.

      Besides, don’t you like anyone who has views you find repugnant? Wagner’s operas? Matt Damon movies? How many of those great films we see on Turner Classic Movies were made by commie pieces of shit? You gotta take the good with the bad.

      And no, I don’t like Matt Damon movies, except maybe True Grit.

  3. H. L. Mencken was a bigot who also supported the Harlem Renaissance.

    But then again, I think that he hated pretty much everybody…

    1. Mencken hated the mob. We should all hate the mob. Alas, he thought some members of the mob were even less civilized than others, based on their, er…lack of culture, and maybe one other quality which I’m not legally aloud to bring up. Again, a product of his time.

      1. I meant, of course, allowed, not “aloud.”

        I swear I’m civilized. I’m not one of them. Really.

    2. Mencken was not a bigot. A bigot is one who despises anyone not belonging to HIS group. Mencken was a misanthrope, a much more interesting creature. He despised nearly all groups, including the German-Americans of which he was at least nominally one. He was an elitist who believed that the Common Man deserved to be largely let alone, provided that the uncommon man was accorded the same courtesy (which he believed unlikely). His writings about what he called Aframericans or Ethiops fell in with many of the prejudices of the day, but he also defended their right to an education, their right to be treated as citizens, and very nearly the last thing he wrote for the newspapers was a defense of their right to play mixed-doubles tennis on the Baltimore municipal tennis courts.

      I think one of the reasons that Mencken still has a dodgy reputation is that the Intellectual panjandrums can’t deal with the fact that he never went to college, yet was clearly more important to American letters than any two college educated twits then or since. They use his strong language and his slowness to realize that the stories about Nazi atrocities were not more anti-Gernam bushwa in the WWI style to discredit him

      But his AMERICAN LANGUAGE is still the seminal work on the difference between American and English.

  4. “””‘prone to declaiming about the dangers of degenerate alien hordes.””‘

    So we can’t proclaim against degenerate alien hordes anymore? Who says, is there a rule book on all this?

  5. OK, sometimes you jsut have to roll with it man.

  6. What I want to know is: Who was Tom Bombadil?

    1. He was that dude that dropped out of it all and went off to live in that idyllic river valley. I think he went by the name John Galt before he dropped out.

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