The unspeakable mind-shattering Elder Gods, the eccentric who created them, and the fans and gamers who keep them alive
[Published in InQuest magazine #16, October 1995. Copyright ©1995 Wizard Press.]
"That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die."
-- The Necronomicon
People called him crazy, but really, we should all be so crazy. Sure, if H. P. Lovecraft were living in the apartment next door, you might wonder about this quiet, dirt-poor, horse-faced outsider who spent his days writing hundred-page letters. Maybe you'd picture headlines like NEIGHBORS SAY KILLER WAS "STRANGE DUCK."
But after all, we should expect a few peculiarities from the creator of the Cthulhu (kuh-THOO-loo) Mythos, the greatest hoard of horror fiction between Poe and Stephen King. If we had more strange ducks like H. P. Lovecraft, the books we read would be a lot stranger and more interesting.
"Not more unutterable could have been the chaos of hellish sound if the pit itself had opened to release the agony of the damned, for in one inconceivable cacophony was centred all the supernal terror and unnatural despair of animate nature."
--"Herbert West--Reanimator" (1921-22)
Hearing about the early life of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (or, as his fans often call him, "HPL"), you might expect the worst. He was born in 1890 in Providence, RI. His father went crazy and died young, his mother was a clinging neurotic, and Howard grew up a reclusive and sickly boy in genteel poverty. He became an avowed and lifelong atheist by age 12 and got drummed out of Sunday school.
Lovecraft never held a regular job. After his mother's death in 1921, he made a poor living as a critic and ghost writer; he ghosted a story for escape artist Harry Houdini. He married in 1924 and moved to Brooklyn, but after two miserable years he divorced his wife and returned to Providence. There he lived alone and basically friendless. Those who knew HPL described him as emotionally remote, prim, neurotic, alienated, intellectual, aristocratic, antiquarian, contemptuous of commercialism, militaristic, and vehemently racist even by the standards of his time. In other words, a real charmer.
In the usual script, the next bit is supposed to be (1) alcohol and drug abuse, (2) terrible rages, (3) KILLER CALLED "LONER" BY SPOOKED NEIGHBORS. Nothing of the kind. Lovecraft lived out a quiet life in Providence, travelling often along the eastern seaboard and writing letters, letters, tens of thousands of letters -- possibly more letters than anyone in history. He never touched liquor or drugs, although he had an amazing appetite for ice cream. For all his faults and oddities, Lovecraft was also independent, rational, philosophical, curious, and amazingly well educated. He died in 1937 of intestinal cancer and kidney disease.
What saved Lovecraft from tragedy or oblivion? Very early in life, around age seven, he started writing. He was driven to write. At age 24 he joined an amateur press association, a tiny group of writers who wrote cheaply printed fanzines for each other. Until then, "I was as close to the state of vegetation as any animal well can be," he wrote. "What Amateur Journalism has given me is -- life itself." For the rest of his life, finding kinship with this microscopic audience, he filled dozens of issues with philosophy, criticism, political theory, humor -- and stories, strange fantasies of horror and the macabre.
Urged by his readers, he submitted some of his tales to the influential magazine Weird Tales and quickly became one of its leading writers. In this and other pulp magazines he published the works that still attract many thousands of readers today.
"Then from that opening beneath the chimney a burst of multitudinous and leprous life -- a loathsome night-spawned flood of organic corruption more devastatingly hideous than the blackest conjurations of mortal madness and morbidity. Seething, stewing, surging, bubbling like serpents' slime it rolled up and out of that yawning hole, spreading like a septic contagion and streaming from the cellar at every point of egress -- streaming out to scatter through the accursed midnight forests and strew fear, madness, and death."
-- "The Lurking Fear" (1922)
Lovecraft claimed to be attracted by beauty more than by fear, and some of his works are exotic fantasies in frank imitation of the Irish writer Lord Dunsany (1878-1957). These are about as creepy as the Care Bears. But HPL always recognized that his true talent lay in horror fiction.
His many terror tales, influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, Welsh fantasist Arthur Machen (1863-1947), and others, derive from his own fears. From Poe's work HPL borrowed highly strung, morbidly sensitive Gothic narrators; from Machen, the device of stark cosmic terrors erupting into a peaceful rural setting. The fantasies of British writer Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) showed Lovecraft how to conjure weird entities that shatter the barrier between reality and imagination.
But ultimately Lovecraft's work is very original, powered by his personal phobias. Horror novelist and editor T. E. D. Klein listed most of the menu: "His own private dreads and revulsions produced a body of work filled with cannibalism, bestiality, reverse evolution, fish-gods and fish-men, reptile-men, ape-men, creatures both slimy and scaly, monsters behind human masks, savage tribes, degenerate backwoodsmen, fungoid rottenness that spreads like cancer, and decomposing corpses that walk and speak like men."
A subset of Lovecraft's tales, just over a dozen stories and novels written between 1921 and 1935, concerns an imagined pantheon of sinister, inhuman gods, the demented cults that worship them, and the arcane texts that describe their inevitable return to Earth. These stories, and those of later writers, form the core of what we know as the Cthulhu Mythos.
Most of Lovecraft's horror fiction, and especially the Cthulhu Mythos stories, trouble the reader with one central idea: that Earth used to belong to another race that got driven away, but lurks in the darkness, waiting to take back the world. The Mythos gets its name from the 1926 story that kicked off this cycle, "The Call of Cthulhu."
So, who are these new neighbors? Supreme among them is the blind idiot god Azathoth, who sits formless at the center of the universe "encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a demoniac flute held in nameless paws."
Not your idea of a fun playmate? Just look at these:
- Yog-Sothoth, a giant agglomeration of iridescent spheres coterminous with all time and space, Opener of the Way and provider of mind-shattering wisdom.
- Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young, a fertility deity that manifests as a huge cloudy mass and spawns hideous three-legged Dark Young.
- Nyarlathotep (nye-ar-LATH-ho-tep), the Crawling Chaos, enigmatic messenger of the gods, whose 999 forms appear frequently among humanity to enforce the Outer Gods' will.
And those are just the Outer Gods. Beneath these entities in power are the Great Old Ones, powerful alien beings that plot to retake the Earth they once ruled. Chief among these is Great Cthulhu, who dwells in a kind of suspended animation at the bottom of the Pacific, in the sunken city of R'lyeh.
Cthulhu is a Dating Game contestant's worst nightmare: "a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face [is] a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind." Oh, and he's as big as a mountain. When "the stars are right," Cthulhu and his servitors will return to life and take over the earth, driving out humanity like vermin.
The Mythos is populated by many lesser figures: Dagon, whose Deep One servitors are the fish-people mentioned above; Hypnos, god of sleep; the Mi-Go, or Fungi from Yuggoth (i.e., Pluto), insectile things that steal brains and store them, still living, in cannisters; plus shoggoths, shantaks, dholes, flying polyps, nightgaunts, dimensional shamblers, and other cheery folks.
Just as important as the monsters in these stories are the vivid settings. Almost all take place Lovecraft's beloved New England, in quaint but sinister history-soaked towns like Arkham (a fictional analogue of Salem, Massachusetts), where scholars at Miskatonic University study such eldritch texts as the Necronomicon, written centuries ago by the mad Arab Abd al-Azrad. HPL often began his tale in a mundane, carefully described backwater town and then gradually boiled the reader's brain with bizarre happenings, hideous alien things, and a growing sense that the universe doesn't care about us.
You want to know the real terror in the Cthulhu Mythos stories? It's not just that godlike monsters want our world, not only that secret cults are carrying out conspiracies forged eons ago that will inevitably destroy the human race. It's that nobody up there cares. This is, like, the natural order of things. We gradually realize that Cthulhu and his bunch aren't even evil, because "good" and "evil" are human concepts that mean nothing to the uncaring universe. Now that's scary.
Lovecraft begins the story that spawned the Mythos, "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926), as follows: "[S]ome day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."
"It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train -- a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter. Still came that eldritch, mocking cry -- 'Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!'"
-- At the Mountains of Madness (1931)
Lovecraft's visionary work attracted a small but talented circle of like-minded writers. In the best spirit of amateurdom, Lovecraft freely encouraged them to add to his pantheon for Mythos stories of their own -- a happy contrast to the licensing deals and shared-world contract anthologies of today. Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, Robert E. Howard, and others added new deities, cults, and occult texts. They thought it great fun.
After Lovecraft died, one of his most devoted correspondents, an energetic Wisconsin writer/editor named August Derleth (1909-71), co-founded and ran a publishing company, Arkham House, specifically to preserve HPL's work. It remains one of the most successful small presses in the country, and its three huge volumes of Lovecraft's fiction -- now in corrected critical editions -- are still the mainstay of its line. A new generation discovered Lovecraft through these books. Later horror writers like Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell modelled their early works on his. (If you've seen these works, you know this turned out a mixed blessing.)
Since the rise of Stephen King, Lovecraft's influence on horror fiction has faded. Strings of weird adjectives and long, overwrought, hypnotic sentences no longer trail across the horrific page. But HPL's small niche in literary history is secure, shored up by annual conferences, small-press pamphlets that republish his every scrap of fiction, bibliographies, and fine work by the tireless scholar S. T. Joshi. Of all Lovecraft's works, the Cthulhu Mythos stories draw the most attention.
As his tales grew more popular after his death, some critics and amateur psychologists began saying Lovecraft was nuts. They never tried to argue that he actually believed in the Mythos or in magic (his letters make it clear he didn't), only that, well, gee, someone who lived alone, felt alienated, and wrote maybe 100,000 letters must be crazy. Colin Wilson, a prolific British author who has himself written Mythos stories, wrote in The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination (1962) that Lovecraft "made no attempt whatever to come to terms with life," was "totally withdrawn," and has "rejected 'reality' and is fundamentally 'sick.'"
Baloney. HPL had plenty of limitations, but he coped with them rather gracefully. He travelled a lot, maintained a huge network of correspondents, and conveyed a powerful literary vision that still draws readers. His sickness, if any, lay in his compulsion to write exactly the twisted stuff he wished, without concession to commercial pressures. Man, gimme some of that sickness!
"What had happened to this monstrous megalopolis of old in the millions of years since the time of my dreams? ... Could I still find the house of the writing master, and the tower where S'gg'ha, the captive mind from the star-headed vegetable carnivores of Antarctica, had chiseled certain pictures on the blank spaces of the walls?"
--"The Shadow Out of Time" (1936)
THE ROLEPLAYING GAME
Lovecraft's stories have made it onto film and into comics, but possibly the biggest source of Cthulhu converts is the remarkable Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game from Chaosium (Oakland, CA). Published in 1981 and now in its fifth edition, CoC was the first horror roleplaying game and remains one of the best. According to Chaosium, the game and its excellent line of supplements have won two dozen gaming awards. CoC has also kept Chaosium alive through some tough times.
Designer Sandy Petersen based Call of Cthulhu on Chaosium's venerable "Basic Roleplaying" system, which in turn derives from RuneQuest. Early on, Petersen apparently assumed that CoC would be a novelty game, a change of pace from standard fantasy fare. "In this game the monsters win, hee-hee!" But just as in a good HPL story, a grander and spookier view gradually pervaded the game's scenarios. Under editors Petersen, Lynn Willis, and Keith Herber, CoC has evolved into the major example of Lovecraft's continuing influence.
What makes CoC so neat? Much has been written about the game's unique attractions. Set mostly in the 1920s, it is the only historical RPG to become an authentic hit. It creates vivid settings, just as Cthulhu's creator did. The "Lovecraft Country" supplements meticulously describe Arkham, Dunwich, Kingsport, and other sinister towns, sometimes house by house.
Also, because Mythos monsters are so much more powerful than player characters, heroes (called "investigators" in the game) can't just charge in with guns and dynamite. They must uncover clues, scout out the scene, and otherwise show prudence. This encourages roleplaying instead of combat mania. Players often talk of strong attachment to their characters, even though the characters inevitably perish in the slimy jaws of some dhole or Elder Thing. Or, just as bad, they run out of Sanity.
Sanity is the signature rule system of Call of Cthulhu, the one everyone knows and other games imitate. Characters have a Sanity score from 1 (barely sane) to 99 (solid as a rock). As they see monsters and other horrors, or study the abominable and profane tomes that increase their Cthulhu Mythos skill, characters inevitably lose Sanity points. Sudden sharp drops incur a temporary insanity from a two-page list, and when Sanity reaches 0, the character goes permanently ga-ga and leaves the game. Few roleplaying experiences match the fun of playing a stiff-upper-lip 1920s investigator as his mind slowly, slowly unravels....
But setting and Sanity notwithstanding, the key ingredient in Call of Cthulhu's popularity has been its sensational adventures. No other RPG's scenario support even remotely approaches the breadth, originality, flavor, and quality of the CoC line. With such massive globetrotting campaigns as Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984) and Horror on the Orient Express (1991), as well as many fine scenario collections, CoC offer an astounding range of settings, activities, and fears. The game has expanded beyond the 1920s with two other period settings, Gaslight (1890s London) and Cthulhu Now (modern-day). Another supplement, Dreamlands, even captures the high-fantasy atmosphere of Lovecraft's Dunsanian tales.
Just as Lovecraft's friends began writing Mythos stories back in the 1930s, so small companies today license rights to publish their own CoC scenarios. Chief among these is Pagan Publishing (Seattle, WA), which has produced an exceptionally intelligent line of major campaigns like Walker in the Wastes and Coming Full Circle. Pagan's magazine for CoC enthusiasts, The Unspeakable Oath, is superb. Pagan also sells stuffed Cthulhu plush dolls, Papa (with wings) and Baby (without).
Startlingly and happily, Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu line shows a mordant sense of humor. The two Blood Brothers scenario collections bring the CoC rules into camp one-evening adventures based on classic horror movies in various genres: vampires, werewolves, Dino-Rama, Detached Body Parts, Killer Dolls, and even Mexican wrestling movies. You even get game statistics for Abbott & Costello! Pop a bowl of popcorn and have a rousing time.
THE CARD GAME
With the trading card game craze in full swing, Chaosium began work on Mythos: The Call of Cthulhu Collectable Card Game. Each of two or more players becomes an investigator with unique skills and Sanity value. Investigators travel around Lovecraft's world in search of allies and Mythos spells, meanwhile struggling to remain sane.
Chaosium partner Charlie Krank designed Mythos and its first three boosters simultaneously, producing over 400 cards in a single dark spawning. The basic game, which debuted in March , is sold in 60-card starter decks that focus on "Lovecraft Country" in New England: Arkham, Kingsport, Dunwich, and other spooky places. Released with the basic game, the first expansion, Expeditions of Miskatonic U., develops deeper mysteries of the same area. It's sold in 15-card boosters.
A second expansion, Cthulhu Rising, appears in late April. This takes players to the sunken (?) island of R'lyeh in the Pacific, where Great Cthulhu lies dreaming. In late May, the third expansion, Legends of the Necronomicon, ranges across the Middle East and Europe in a search for the original eldritch tome.
Lovecraft's continuing popularity, in games, books, bumper stickers and buttons (Cthulhu Saves!), and other spinoffs, shows that artistic success has little to do with "normality." Like all early science fiction and fantasy writers, HPL wrote not for money or fame, but because he felt compelled to create. Today's career-minded fantasy novelists, with their three-book contracts and merchandising deals, sneer at Lovecraft as a hopeless failure. Yet his weird vision has survived, and it will last long after today's bestsellers fade away.
Allen Varney has written five published books, 15 roleplaying supplements, and three boardgames. He wishes he were as "strange" as H. P. Lovecraft.
GETTING INTO CTHULHU ... (ICK!)
H. P. Lovecraft's complete fiction is published in three thick volumes by Arkham House. Try them in this order: The Dunwich Horror and Others (corrected text 1985), At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels (1985), and Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1986). Look for them at specialty bookstores. The hordes of cheap paperback editions can be uneven, so if you don't like one, try another.
Looking for a Lovecraft movie or comic? There are bunches. Looking for a good movie or comic? Hmmm. You might start with the first film ever based on a Lovecraft story (in this case, the novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward): a 1963 Roger Corman quickie called -- get this -- Edgar Allan Poe's Haunted Palace. (It's a strange place, Hollywood is.)
After that, pickings get slim. You can get into fistfights with Lovecraft fans over whether Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (Empire Pictures, 1985) or any of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies (1983, 1985, 1993) bears any resemblance to the Lovecraft sources they claim. Probably the best film evocation of HPL is the 1991 HBO made-for-cable movie Cast a Deadly Spell, starring Fred Ward as detective H. Phillip Lovecraft. Set in a 1948 Los Angeles where use of magic is common, this fun movie manages to be faithful to Lovecraft without adapting any Mythos story!
In comics, you can find a lot of pale Mythos adaptations in early '70s Marvel comics like Journey Into Mystery or Warren's Creepy and Eerie. More recently, Millennium Publications produced several three-issue runs of Mythos comics that gave new meaning to the term "limited series": H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu: The Whisperer in Darkness, Cthulhu: The Festival, and a Re-Animator adaptation. Ugh.
Lovecraft's Necronomicon, no matter what anybody tries to tell you, doesn't exist and never did. He made it up. You can find several recent books written under that title, including a couple of art books by Alien artist H. R. Giger.
For a practical Call of Cthulhu roleplaying campaign, get Chaosium's rulebook (5th edition, $22), the first Investigator's Companion ($11), Arkham Unveiled ($19), and a scenario book such as The Great Old Ones ($18). Once you're underway, Masks of Nyarlathotep ($19) and Horror on the Orient Express ($40) will keep you busy for months apiece.
Mythos 60-card starter decks cost $8.95; boosters cost $2.95.
Chaosium has also published Daniel Harris's Encyclopedia Cthulhiana ($11), which covers fiction, poetry, and gaming material.
The best CoC material today comes from Pagan Publishing ("Plotting the downfall of humanity since 1990"). Pagan is also readying its own massive Cthulhu Mythos bibliography. Look for issues of The Unspeakable Oath.