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.