Something Squid-like This Way Comes …
As a teenager, I wasn’t reading many of the same books as my peers. For example, while many of them were reading Stephen King (The Shining, Cujo) or Flowers in the Attic (horror of a different kind), I was mostly a science fiction and fantasy fan (Alan Dean Foster’s For Love Mother Not, Star Trek novelizations, Monica Hughes’ Keeper of the Isis Light series, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven, Wizard of Earthsea, Roger Zelazny’s Roadmarks, to name a few), plus of course a steady diet of primarily super hero comics. I also had a love of mysteries, leading me down a path that varied from Encylcopedia Brown to Agatha Christie to Edger Alan Poe. About that time I stumbled upon an obscure author in a used book store, one H.P. Lovecraft. The language of Lovecraft dripped with hyperbolic dread and I devoured these short stories and was hungry for more. Surely some convergence of stars was at work when I stumbled upon a hardcover Role Playing Book at a board game convention, Call of Cthulhu. At this late date I can no longer recall which I stumbled upon first, but I suspect it was the book that caught my eye first, priming me for being so eager to grab a game. In any case, this hardcover RPG was the first one that I can recall actually buying instead of borrowing from friends.
It was a very different game from others I knew of at the time. No giant robot tanks or mages versus orcs. and it narrowly beat out my love of Cyberpunk 2020 (or at least, as near as I can recall of those many years ago). Investigators plumbing the depths of a mystery, only to uncover the most awful of unintelligible truths lurking beneath an all too thin veil of sanity. The first game I ran was the scenario that came with it, and young and dumb as we were at the time, investigators kicked open doors and charged in with shotguns at the ready. They crept up a narrow set of creaking stairs, only to have the burly muscle at the back suddenly go vacant eyed and unload both barrels into those poor unfortunates ahead of him. That moment still gets called back to decades later, the survivor with minor injuries but gory contents of the meat sack formerly known as a human being splattered over him causing sanity checks, vaulting out of a second story window rather than stick around while a shotgun got reloaded. Pure horrific gold in our inexperienced teen minds.
It took a few more years for me to hone this fear and paranoia, something I would later read in Stephen King’s excellent book, Danse Macabre (a must read for any who seek a more scholarly approach to studying the horror genre, also where I learned of King’s own discovery of Lovecraft in pulp magazines he came across as a youth), a descending order of horror being suspense, shock, and if that all fails, go for the gross out. Surely I did as futher adventures were spun with elements of non-Euclidean neo cubist art and eccentric librarians revealed to have hinged skulls. Mostly we played Dungeons and Dragons but every couple of years we’d get the itch. I continued to read the occasional Lovecraftian tale on the side, only to discover the Mythos creeping into the book shops with stories by Robert E. Howard of Conan fame (and apparently pen pals with Lovecraft), Robert Bloch (Psycho), and Michael Slade (Ghoul) though I’d never characterize myself as a horror aficionado.
And apparently I wasn’t the only one who took inspiration from these tales of eldritch horror. Numerous movies have been made that were based on (or at least loosely inspired by) Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothery (as old H.P. referred to it) though not many of them would be considered classic cinema.
- The Thing (despite being based on Who Goes There by John. W. Campbell, there is a debt owed to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness owed to the novella and each of the movie adaptations)
- Event Horizon (many will call this a Hellraiser knock off, but it oozes with Mythos elements)
- The Reanimator and it’s numerous campy sequels
- The Color Out of Space
- The Resurrected
- Prince of Darkness
- In the Mouths of Madness
And many more found on any casual Google search, these few being ones that I always think of first. Television too has been infected with Lovecraft Country (based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name) and even the first season of True Detective courted the dread King in Yellow. The comic and movie Hellboy was unapologetic in its use of incomprehensible beings beyond our understanding and frog people with Hyborian ancestry.
Meanwhile I continued to acquire Cthulhu themed board games like Arkham Horror (experiencing editions going from a tentacled Candyland to a behemoth of a game that often took close to an hour to set up) and its spiritual successors Eldritch Horror and Mansions of Madness, the dice game Unspeakable Words, and more continue to come out every year or three. Smash-Up poked fun at this with their Obligatory Cthulhu Expansion and they aren’t alone.
I wasn’t immune to this either,
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention a caveat about Howard Phillip Lovecraft. He was a creature of his times, a casual racist being one of those aspects and it shows up in his writing. The black protagonist in Lovecraft Country wrestles with that, just as we fans reading Lovecraft almost a century after these things were written.
Lovecraft as a human being – well, that’s another story for another post and he was indeed a creature of his times in ugly ways and it shows in a number of his stories. But thankfully the makers of that game continued to release products, covering unspeakable eldritch horror from the original settings of 1920s New England and unleashing it upon the Victorian age and the Modern and even further.
We learned lessons like never let the lowest willpower investigator guard the rear while going up a narrow flight of stairs. We saw the origins and questionable exits of classic player characters like Emile Francois Chopin (last seen fleeing the oppressive sky) and Frank ‘the Butcher’ Duvall P.I. (the less said of Frank journey, the better). The moment when an interview with an ally turned all sorts of wrong when the faint outline of a surgical scar covering a hinge in their skull was noticed by a single PC – that was a golden moment when everything clicked together in a horror of what had transpired, that the creature before them was no longer human and a similar fate was awaiting them if they didn’t escape.
I’ve borrowed bits and pieces in various other games when invoking unspeakable gibbering horror, unfathomable alien intelligences, and madness driven cultists to make their guest appearances in Champions or D&D. It was with glee that I introduced players to the setting of the Emile F. Chopin Asylum, dedicated to a distant uncle for reasons best left unsaid. I’ve slavishly invested in
- a number of Cthulhu board games (Arkham Asylum, Eldritch Horror, Mansions of Madness, Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu but that also invites my Pandemic addiction, Don’t Mess With Cthulhu (meh), Cthulhu Dice, the Obligatory Cthulhu Mythos Smash Up Expansion
- at least one CCG (Mythos from back in 1996, I somehow missed out on the later ones that followed over a decade later)
- and others that I have played but do not own like Elder Sign, A Study In Emerald (based on the Neil Gaiman story of the same name), Lovecraft Letter (a bit more swingy than the original Love Letter), Machina Arcana (a kickstarter game with some pretty nifty mechanics but takes a couple of plays to really get the way it works), The Hills Run Wild (Lovecraftian horror, hillbillies, and skirmish tactics), Unspeakable Words (count the angles in your words, save vs insanity) and many more that exist but I haven’t the time or money for.
I’ve recently been playing Call of Cthulhu again with the 7th edition of the game that has tried to streamline some of the clunkier elements (i.e. combining the punch, kick, headbutt, and simple melee skills into a single fighting skill) though it still has at its core the same skill based systems found in their other games like Ringworld, Runequest, and Cthulhu clone Delta Green. This time its the legendary epic Horror on the Orient Express. We’ve borrowed a few rules from Pulp Cthulhu and its stretching different GM muscles than D&D and that is making me a better player I’d like to think for combat is very different in a CoC game.It is typical for a player character in Call of Cthulhu to find their end in death, madness, or being eaten and various combinations thereof. It has certainly left its marks on me.If nothing else, it certainly pushed me to improve my word comprehension with the likes of –
- ia cthulhu fthagun!