Much like his colleague Rich Longmore, I interviewed Geoff McKinney quite awhile ago with the plan to post this at the end of February; and, much like that other interview, here we are in late March! Regardless of schedule, though, I am very happy to have Mr. McKinney here in the interview chronicles of this blog, because – as I said in my Carcosa review – his writing has made an indelible mark on my mind and never quite left my imagination. That book is always in my head somewhere; a lasting testament to Geoffrey’s imaginative, vivid worldbuilding and turns of phrase. On with the questions!
Thank you very much for agreeing to do this Q&A for my little blog! I usually make it a point to get the “origin story” of my guests, so to that end: how did you get into RPGs originally, and what games brought you to where you are today in the hobby?
I began playing D&D when I was 10 years old in the second half of 1980. I walked out of the toy store with a D&D basic set (with rulebook edited by J. Eric Holmes, module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, and chits), the AD&D Monster Manual, and some dice: a green 4-sider, an orange 12-sider, and a red 20-sider (numbered 0-9 twice). I already had some 6-siders at home, and I did not have enough money to buy any more dice that day. In the following months I purchased (in order) a red gem 8-sider, a yellow gem 10-sider, the AD&D Deities & Demigods Cyclopedia, the Players Handbook, and the Dungeon Masters Guide.
I have been playing first edition AD&D or the original 1974 D&D game ever since. The joy and wonder I have derived therefrom is incalculable.
Most of your books seem to be influenced by 60s and 70s psychedelia and the fantasy art and books that were fueled by it. Would you say you are inspired by that, and if so, why?
Sure! I was born in 1970, and I remember my older cousin regaling me in the mid-70s with lurid stories of anacondas, piranhas, killer bees, UFOs, vampire bats, Bigfoot, the Yeti, psychic powers, the Loch Ness monster, vampires, weird Roman Catholic saints, Marvel’s Man-Thing, King Kong, Godzilla, and a host of other things I am undoubtedly forgetting. I ate it up with both hands. Add in some ancient astronauts, black velvet posters, and vans with colorful fantasy murals painted on their sides, and you have a heady and potent mix for a young boy’s imagination.
Arguably, you are most famous for Carcosa, the bizarre science-fantasy nightmarescape filled with amoral wizards and Things Man Should Not See. That, of course, has ties to the works of Bierce, Chambers, and Lovecraft. Which of these would you say inspired you the most? What is your background with those authors?
Of those three, definitely Lovecraft. I first read Lovecraft when I was in my early 20s. I read every one of his stories in publication order, mostly in the evenings after getting off of work. Lovecraft of course led me not only to Robert Chambers and Ambrose Bierce, but also to Clark Ashton Smith and to Lovecraft’s own favorite four authors: Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, M. R. James, and Arthur Machen (whose “The White People” I regard as the finest weird story ever written).
One of the things I, and others, have noticed about your Carcosa setting is the lack of detail about the famed city of Carcosa itself, as mentioned by those authors. Why is that the case?
First of all, my players have never dared journey to the alien city of Carcosa. I therefore have never detailed it. Secondly, detailing it would probably be a mistake. The city is the single most mysterious and forbidding and blasphemous place in the lands of Carcosa, and as such anything that I wrote about the city (no matter how inspired) would probably be deflating for others and for myself. I think it best to let it be forever beyond human ken.
Carcosa has been, and still is, hotly debated in some circles. When you were writing it, did you expect it to become so controversial?
No, that surprised me.
Carcosa is still one of the most popular books from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Why do you think that is? What is the secret to its longevity?
The third RPG product I ever bought was the AD&D Deities & Demigods Cyclopedia, very soon after it was released at Gen Con in 1980. The Cthulhu Mythos section therein, with its unparalleled illustrations by Erol Otus, profoundly affected my 10-year-old imagination. I spent countless hours poring over those illustrations and reading the words so many times that I am surprised that I can’t quote the whole section. Inhuman, worse-than-evil deities, all of whom are chaotic evil (save for Azathoth, which isn’t even sane enough to have a non-neutral alignment) and all of whom demand human sacrifice–and they look like what Erol Otus drew? That sunk deep into my imagination, and ever since it comes bubbling up, such as with Carcosa. It is authentic, it is primal, it is pure vision. I think Carcosa’s readers can sense that, that there is nothing phony or false or shallow about it.
Many of your works are connected in some way to Carcosa. What is it about the setting that inspires you so strongly?
It all started in 1980 with me reading a sentence in Deities & Demigods’ description of Hastur: “He lies in a crypt at the bottom of Lake Hali near the alien city of Carcosa.” That is pure poetry, like a fragment of a much larger myth from a prehistoric text:
…He lies in a crypt
at the bottom of Lake Hali
near the alien city of Carcosa…
One could say that those 17 words were the genesis of my Carcosa setting. They have never left me.
Speaking of LotFP and Carcosa-connected works, your Isle of the Unknown and Dungeon of the Unknown are not strictly related to your Carcosa corpus. What was the genesis of these different books – what did you want to do with them, and how did you come about doing them in the first place?
The Muse spoke to me quite suddenly on that. I had been pondering the reality that one’s first encounter with a given type of monster is fundamentally different than one’s subsequent encounters with said creatures. Remember the horror of the first time you encountered a D&D troll, and even after hacking it to pieces it kept slithering back together? But after that it’s, “Look, boys. Another troll. Pull out the oil. Does anyone have any acid? Does the magic-user have any fire-based spells memorized? How about a nice fireball?” So one day as I was driving, the whole setting came to me, in which every monster is unique and therefore never before encountered by the PCs. Every monster is an Unknown Quantity, and nothing is a member of a species with which one can become familiar.
Many of your books are self-published via Lulu, while Carcosa, Isle of the Unknown, and Dungeon of the Unknown were all done with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Do you have plans to do more books with them (or anyone else!) in the future?
I definitely have plans for future books. Right now, though, I don’t want to give any details. It is a hard thing to have people expecting a forthcoming product. “How much longer?” And then after I give a date, I see my own deadline fly by and I feel like an idiot. For me, there are only two real statuses for a product: “I’m working on it,” or “Now available!” Right now the status is, “I’m working on it.”
Right this very moment, who or what is inspiring you to write more immersive gaming products?
Again, I don’t want to give any details of my present project right now. I’m excited about it, and it is different from anything I’m aware of ever published, while at the same time sitting squarely in the center of 1970s A/D&D.
As a wrap-up, I always like to make sure there’s a chance for authors to present anything they want to shine a light on or plug. Is there any of your works, new or old, upcoming or otherwise, that you’d like to take a moment to mention?
I love all of my children, so here goes:
I wrote three books (Carcosa, Isle of the Unknown, and Dungeon of the Unknown) published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess:
The three are also available via drivethrurpg.com.
I also have written seven AD&D modules published via lulu:
Lastly, there is the line of Psychedelic Fantasies modules that I edited, available via drivethrurpg.com.
I am extremely thankful Mr. McKinney agreed to be interviewed, and even more overjoyed to finally have an answer to the City of Carcosa question that I have often wondered about. I considered it a glaring oversight for a book named Carcosa, but when you read his response to that, it becomes much clearer. I like the logic of it. I think, related to the comments section debate on the Carcosa review about the HD/damage dice rules, too, there’s glimmers of the philosophy of the Isle of the Unknown. I hate to infer too much from my reading, but after speaking to Geoffrey about the thought behind those books, I can’t help but think maybe that fear and unpredictability was present in those Carcosan HD rules too.
My great appreciation for his patience, too, with the lateness of my publication. I told him it’d be in February some time, but he’s hung on for an extra month without a gripe. Lovely. Also, special shout-out for being one of the few people to use the same double-return answer/question separations I do, meaning I didn’t have to do really any actual formatting work – that gets him a gold star in my book!
I hope this has been of some insight to everyone else out there, and I look forward to having Mr. McKinney back on the blog whenever his top secret mystery project comes out!