Posted on July 9, 2009 by Flames
Recently, we had the chance to sit down with industry veteran Kenneth Hite, who is a horror game designer, author and columnist. You may have read some of Ken Hite’s columns through Weird Tales or Out of the Box at Indie Press Revolution. In this interview, we talk a little bit about the Origins-award winning title Tour de Lovecraft and the recent release of The Day After Ragnarok, horror as a genre versus mood, the Windy City, his upcoming projects and much, much more!
How did the idea for Tour de Lovecraft come about?
When Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press hired me to write Trail of Cthulhu, I decided to re-read all of Lovecraft, to soak myself in the mood and the material, and to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I was using the new Penguin Classics versions — with S.T. Joshi’s careful, scholarly edits and annotations — and inspired by that, decided to blog each story on my Livejournal as I read it. It was really nothing more than that at first, but as I kept reading, I kept finding more ways to approach the material — some conventional “gamer ways” like imagining a secret history behind Houdini and Lovecraft’s partnership, and some straightforward lit-crit stuff like identifying the Burkean sublime in “The Call of Cthulhu.” So the project “jest growed,” and eventually, readers started asking for a book collecting the posts. Since one of those readers was Hal Mangold, who was looking for a first book for his Atomic Overmind Press, the result was Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales, which just won an Origins Award, he bragged.
Can you tell us a little bit about your column in Weird Tales?
Well, another of the readers of my “Tour de Lovecraft” blog posts was Stephen Segal, one of the editors of Weird Tales. (Let me just say that again. Weird Tales. Home of Lovecraft, Howard, Smith … and me.) He wanted something like that for Weird Tales, and riffing on the notion of the “tour,” we worked out the idea of approaching Lovecraft via the settings of Lovecraft’s stories. He named the column “Lost in Lovecraft,” which besides triggering atavistic Air Supply terrors in readers of a certain age is a pretty good description of what the column is. Like a Lovecraft protagonist, we find ourselves in some strange country — Antarctica, or Arkham, or the Woods — and kind of explore our way around it using Lovecraft as our guide. It’s still literary criticism, not travelogue, but given Lovecraft’s absolute insistence on setting, it’s odd that I haven’t seen it done more often.
The question whether or not horror is a “mood” or a “genre” often comes up in entertainment. What’s your take and how does that apply to your work?
I like to say that horror is both intent and content: if you intend to horrify, you’re committing horror, whether you’re Shakespeare on the blasted heath or Tolkien in Mirkwood. That said, we all sense that vampires, and serial killers, and crumbling cemeteries, “belong to” horror in a way that kings and elves don’t. We call that sense “genre,” and it’s a term of art used by marketers and academics. There is a horror “genre” in both senses, and I try to pay attention to both marketing and academia, but as a reader or a writer you have to be first concerned with mood. “Is it scary?” is a far more important question than “Where will it be shelved in Borders?” All that said, when I’m writing a book like GURPS Horror, I have to think about genre questions (what monsters should I stat out? what character templates need to be available?) while providing plenty of advice and guidance on mood.
What’s the story behind the children’s book Where the Deep Ones Are?
That’s one of those “someone should do this” projects that a bunch of us, including myself and John Nephew of Atlas Games, have been kicking around for years over drinks at various conventions. Finally, it got to the point that I just did it, and John agreed to publish it and the next book in the series, The Antarctic Express (which is The Polar Express out of “Mountains of Madness”). The most surprising element of the whole project, in both cases, was how easy the fit was. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” really is about a young man who visits a dangerous place and discovers he belongs there; “Mountains of Madness” really is about a magical voyage to the Pole, and getting a gift you can’t share or prove. Once you start looking at the tales that way, there’s almost no limit to how many of these I could write. If they sell, of course. Fortunately, Atlas Games got really great artists on both books, which was absolutely essential, but I had nothing to do with that part.
How does writing Lovecraft for a game differ from writing fiction?
Well, I haven’t written very much fiction, except for the short story “Ring Around the Sun,” which was the intro fiction for a game book, Secrets of the Ruined Temple for the Mage: the Awakening. So, I’m not sure that I’m the best person to ask about this … but the big difference between writing anything for a game and writing any kind of narrative art (prose, comics, drama, film, whatever) is that game writing is not fundamentally about character or plot, but setting. There can be “supporting cast” characters, and plot hooks or story opportunities aplenty — wars, evil cults, cute anthropologists, what have you — but the game writer isn’t in charge of the characters or the plot. That’s the players and the GM’s job, for the most part. Some games do more to constrain those choices, and direct the plot toward a given feel or mood: Trail of Cthulhu, for example, assumes that the characters are investigators of occult mysteries, and that the stories will horrify. But at the end of the day, if your idea of a game is to try and make strangers act out the novel in your head, you’re doing everyone (and the novel in your head) a disservice.
Did you find working on the post-apocalyptic game, The Day After Ragnarok, easier or harder compared with your other, mythos-inspired work?
Every game — and I assume every writing project — has that stretch about three-quarters of the way in where it just becomes agonizing labor. Some get there sooner, and stay there longer, but they all get there. The best projects are the ones that keep dangling that carrot at the end, or keep providing little pieces of magic amid the sweat and toil. Trail of Cthulhu and The Day After Ragnarok were those kinds of projects; they both kept throwing up little nuggets of joy even when by all rights they should have been utter misery. H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard are very different (and occasionally difficult) writers to try to inhabit, even though I’m comfortable in both outfits — but after spending a year or so mentally dressed as HPL, putting on the Two-Gun Bob hat was more like a vacation than it might otherwise have been. Plus, I have to admit that there’s a certain toddler joy in smashing things up; everyone who predicts or plots an apocalypse, from the prophet Jeremiah to Al Gore to me, is probably half-rooting for it in their inmost heart. It’s the reason we go see disaster movies.
In your published works, the city of Chicago appears to be one of your favorite locales. What inspires you to write about the windy city?
I like to say that I’m a lifelong Chicagoan, and have been one ever since I moved here in 1988. If you’re an architecture buff, it’s like living in the Louvre; Chicago’s history is a perfect microcosm of secrecy and madness; its literary tradition is perhaps second only to New York’s in the hemisphere. There’s just no bottom to the well, whether you wander around Chicago in person or in books. While “write what you know” is a distinctly overrated maxim that has resulted in far too many novels about failed novelists, I do think that to know about Chicago is to want to write about it.
Of all your works, which one was the most fun to work on and why?
Probably the most fun project I’ve ever done, soup to nuts, was the original-series Star Trek RPG for Last Unicorn. I was in charge, I had an all-star cast of writers, we had a top-notch graphic design all ready to go, and my job was to make everything more like Captain Kirk would want it. It was the kind of project where I could ask Robin Laws for old-school TREK vignettes, and get them back in three days, and be the first person to read such wonderful things. The misery stretch of that project really only lasted a week — it was the last week, and I got no sleep, and every crisis in the book detonated all at once — but then it was done, and it looked fabulous. I don’t know that it’s my absolute best book — that’s probably GURPS Cabal or Trail of Cthulhu — but it was the most fun day in, day out.
More recently, Will Hindmarch asked me to write the introduction to Requiem for Rome, saying “just be Ken Hite on Roman vampires for 2,000 words.” I had so much fun with that that I turned in 5,000 words. On a slightly more disciplined level, my “Lost in Lovecraft” and “Suppressed Transmission” columns are that kind of fun, too — something about that 2K-5K length is just all sweet spot.
What’s next for you?
Well, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to U.S. History, Graphic Illustrated comes out this week, so that’s technically “next.” I wrote the script for it — the amazing Shepherd Hendrix (of Stagger Lee fame) did the art. The Antarctic Express, Rough Magicks (for Trail of Cthulhu), and Cthulhu 101 (an “intro to the Big Green Guy” for newbies) will all be out at GenCon. I have Book-Hounds of London (another Trail of Cthulhu sourcebook) to write, and a “vampire spy thriller” GUMSHOE game that needs a good title. I’m developing two products for Adamant Entertainment’s Call of Cthulhu line: one in Elizabethan England, and one in gangland Chicago. I’m revising GURPS HORROR for Fourth Edition, and writing three or four PDF supplements for that. We have more Day After Ragnarok stuff planned and in the pipe — a Russia sourcebook, probably with a Plot Point campaign in it, for starters, along with some shorter things. I’ve got plans for a narrativist “indie game,” and some microgames. And more stuff along those sorts of lines.
If you could work on any project, what would it be and why?
Well, ruling out things like “write and direct a big-budget Bollywood version of Carmilla,” or “be lead developer on an MMORPG based on H. Beam Piper’s Paratime series,” and restricting ourselves to the more likely universe, I still have hopes of doing a Hell-Fire Club book for Call of Cthulhu, doing for Georgian England what Delta Green did for fin-de-siecle America. I probably need to take one more swing at a time-travel game of some sort before I’m completely satisfied, too. It would be fun to write a novel if I turned out to be any good at it. Same thing with comics. And of course, there’s a list of people I’ve worked with — Christian Moore, Steve Kenson, Robin Laws, Jim Cambias, to name a few — whose involvement in a project would automatically make it a project I want to work on.