Hite/Bauman: THE CTHULHU WARS (2016).

by waxbanks

Lovecraft memorably spoke of his sense of ‘adventurous expectancy’ as the impetus behind his work; this slim Osprey book stresses the ‘adventurous’ part, telling the story of the US military’s several-hundred-year war against the Mythos, from Cotton Mather and Roanoke to Special Forces operations in post-9/11 Afghanistan. I picked it up for Ken Hite’s name, of course; his Nazi Occult kicked off the Dark Osprey line a couple of years ago with his usual panache, and this was originally a solo Hite title. Gotta say, I’m a lot more interested in a new Hite book than a new Cthulhu book — the Mythos doesn’t generate much adventurous expectancy in me anymore — and I was surprised when it arrived the other day, having forgotten I preordered it six months ago.

In the end it’s a somewhat…workmanlike book. Bauman started from Hite’s outline, notes, and isolated fragments of prose, and cleverly worked the conceit of Hite as his deceased lunatic informant into the text. He did well. Short pieces of prose are superbly effective, and the final page (unsigned) finally breaks through to a subtle Lovecraftian creepiness. But the rest of the book is, as the title promises, Muskets/M-16s/Nukes vs Cthulhu (including a nice little picture of that last) — an extremely implementation-dependent idea, because it’s almost self-defeatingly unscary on the face of it — and the deliberately dry ‘after-action report’ approach keeps the book from attaining the extraordinary allusive density of Hite’s usual work. At day’s end, ‘an Osprey campaign book with bits of Lovecraftian flavour’ is a different kind of conceit from ‘assume every lurid tale about occult Nazi shenanigans is true,’ the former bound to a dust-dry house style where the latter can explore different approaches, and while there are occasional eerie echoes throughout The Cthulhu Wars, it reads like an elaboration of a Neat Idea rather than a coherent dark vision. It ends well, but the buildup to that end isn’t as satisfying as I expected.

In other words, the idea of ghouls eating the dead at Chickamauga is no more horrible to me than the idea of those thousands dying at Chickamauga in the first place — but I can imagine a version of the story, a bit more subtly shaded, which might go beyond the fact of ‘Mythos + USA History’ to something deeper, darker. The book’s last chapter escalates neatly, suggesting a properly Lovecraftian Bad End out beyond the final pages, but with the exception of the final sentences, nothing in the book haunts me, which is the only thing I ask of HPLesque work. Partly that’s the premise. Partly it’s the fact that the book does exactly what it says on the tin, but only that.

To clarify what probably seems like fanboyism: plenty of nerds dig Ken Hite’s writing, but I think that even his fans don’t realize how much work his work is doing.

Hite’s Suppressed Transmission columns, along with material like the Mythos section of his Trail of Cthulhu (or for that matter his bravura ‘nerd trope’ verbal improvisations at cons), make a strong case for him as the possessor of one of the most fecund imaginations and the most singularly effective prose style in RPGs. (Only a handful of writers, like S. John Ross and Jenna Moran, are as consistently strong on the page with Detwiller, Stolze, Laws, Wallis, and a few others up there too.) I’ve compared him to Douglas Hofstadter, whose Metamagical Themas columns are an equally singular achievement, showing a similarly catholic creativity. Hite’s prose has music to it, but (unlike Ross’s or Moran’s, or Hofstadter’s when he keeps his punnery in check) it isn’t particularly beautiful. Here’s the thing, though: while there are other writers with similar styles, Hite’s (somewhat scary) instant recall gives him the ability to shade every trope he deploys with a historical parallel here, a mythic resonance there. I keep coming back to the word density — in his best work, every sentence is a campaign seed, and every other word is bi- and tri- and tetrasociated until it generates a kind of psychedelic effect, a more functional and sane equivalent to the ‘eliptony’ nonsense which fills some number of his bookshelves. (Check the ‘Bibliophany’ in the first Transmission omnibus for a bulletproof reading list of eliptonic crazytalk and disreputable scholarship.)

So my reaction to The Cthulhu Wars is inescapably coloured by Hite’s name on the cover. It’s no slander against Kennon Bauman that the book fell short of my expectations — the Stolze/Hite Grim Wars book for Wild Talents disappointed me too, and Stolze is the man who wrote Progenitor for Christ’s sake! Collaborations are tricky: as a hardcore Phish fan I resigned myself long ago to the fact that 98% of the time Phish’s collaborations can only dilute their weird alchemical mixture (whereas the much less precisely tuned Grateful Dead thrived with guests onstage). I suspect that it’s a little like that with Hite: he supplements other people’s work well, and I bet it’s not hard to match the tone of his prose, but the characteristic contour of his work, the way it optimizes for polyvalence, is easy to parody and fiendishly hard to replicate properly. Think of the way Lost replicated the tiresome complication of The X-Files with none of its visionary ramifications — a failure of implementation which comes of not having That One Weird Mind in the writers’ room, the one who zigs left when the other folks are zagging right, in total confidence that it’ll all work out if the room just rolls with the punches.

(TV-nerd sidebar. The X-Files is an odd case: usually the head writer/creator shapes the show by being the best at writing it; cf. Community, Buffy, or (when Brian Vaughn and Drew Goddard weren’t around) Lost itself. But as the recent X-Files miniseries reminded a fanbase that seemed to’ve forgotten, Chris Carter is a hopelessly hamfisted scriptwriter who made a great show by virtue of his sensibility and imagination, not his actual teleplays. The Weirdest minds in the room belonged to Carter’s writing staff — the enigmatic Mr Morgan in particular.)

So this is all the long way ’round the barn to saying that The Cthulhu Wars was a perfectly fine read, Kennon Bauman stuck the landing, I consider it a Minor Victory on its own terms, but it’s not quite on the same level as GURPS Weird War II or The Nazi Occult. That shouldn’t even count as criticism; this is my psychodrama, not the book’s.