Friday, May 13, 2011

When the Stars Are Right – The Cthulhu Mythos

With the notable exception of Edgar Allan Poe, there is no other writer whose works influence the modern horror story more than the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. For those of a geeky persuasion, I'd argue that Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos is even more important than Poe's body of work. Concepts, if not specific names from the stories and books written in the 1920s are found in film, comics, games and other books, even those who hold no official connection to the mythos. I've written about the Lovecraft-inspired board game Arkham Horror before, in brief, but today I'd like to go into the bigger picture of the Cosmic Horror subgenre.

The man... er, thing Himself, Great Cthulhu.

Lovecraft himself grew up a sickly, highly intelligent and obstinate boy who loved the antique and obscure, feared insects and night terrors that haunted his dreams, and was vaguely contemptuous of anyone not of Anglo-Saxon descent. His life was characterized by poverty, limited social interaction with any outside of the (usually female) people he lived with, and he wrote mostly in obscurity during his lifetime. His publication of horror stories in pulp magazines of the time (most notable Weird Tales) starting with Dagon, in 1919. His stories began a friendly correspondence with other authors of his time, including Robert E. Howard (of Conan the Barbarian fame) August Derleth, and Clark Ashton Smith.

His friendship with Derleth, his tendency to “ghost write” tales for other writers while incorporating elements of his own pseudomythology into the works, and his openness concerning other writers using elements from his writing in their own works are largely responsible for his modern popularity. Elements of Lovecraft's stories appeared in the works of his contemporaries, Howard and Derleth in particular. The phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” was coined by August Derleth, who took up the mantle of writing stories in the fictional universe created with Lovecraft's ideas upon the author's death in 1937.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft.  1890-1937.

The Lovecraftian style of horror stories, also known as cosmic horror, are characterized by common themes, the primary of which is the utter insignificance of all of humanity, and the rejection of any belief in a benevolent deity. The intentional or accidental pursuit of Forbidden Knowledge in the course of science, art or even forensic pursuit of mysteries allow characters in Lovercraft's tales brief glimpses into terrible truths about evils vast and alien with death or insanity in short order a typical result. Gods in these stories are ancient beings usually ignorant of the human race with terrible powers best left unknown. Cthulhu himself is neither the most powerful of these entities, nor is he the theological center of the mythos, but the short story The Call of Cthulhu was notable in that it was the first tale where all elements now recognized as components of the style were used.

One of the most popular creations within Lovecraft's stories, the fictional Grimoire called The Necronomicon, has become so popular and entrenched in the world of horror fiction that there have been many who insist it is real. It was first referred to in the story “The Hound” in 1924, as the creation of the fictional “Mad Arab” Abdul al-Hazred, originally titled al Azif. Since inclusion in Lovecraft's stories and those of his contemporaries, the Necronomicon has appeared in many films, comics, games and other horror stories and novels. Several books bearing the title “Necronomicon” have been published by various authors over the years for sale in bookstores.

A Shoggoth, a creature made mostly of eyes and tentacles that has nothing to do with Japan.

The deities and alien races of the Mythos are many and varied, most stemming from a particular fear of the author, and given elemental associations/affinities later by August Derleth. Cthulhu himself, a great winged horror who lies dreaming in the sunken city of R'lyeh is worshipped by cultists, and will one day awaken “when the stars are right”. Nyarlathotep, a god of many names and faces, has had more contact and interference with the human race than any other deity in the mythos, at one point in history taking the form of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Yog-sothoth, Dagon, Shub-Niggurath, Azathoth and many other deities haunt both the waking world and the Dreamscape, where more than a few of Lovecraft's stories are set, with their dread influence. Elder and Alien races and creatures such as the Great Race of Yig, the Flying Polyps, Nightgaunts, Elder Things, Hounds of Tindalos and Shoggoths are more commonly physically encountered by humanity, usually with fatal consequences.

Games and gaming in particular have taken elements of Mythos stories to tell horror stories and act as background for horror games. Chaosium, Inc. produced the definitive Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG in 1981, and many editions later, it remains one of the most popular horror RPGs, with player-character “investigators” typically encountering mythos elements in the course of solving some sort of mystery in a 1920s setting. Video games have also embraced the Mythos in many, many horror titles, notably in the Alone in the Dark series of games, the Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth game released for PC and consoles, and recently the popular indie horror title Amnesia: the Dark Descent.

The incredible cover of Call of Cthulhu, 6th ed. Also a song by Metallica.

I've personally done a lot of reading, research and work in the area of horror gaming, one of my greatest campaigns to date was a Call of Cthulhu game set in the back room of the hobby shop I'd managed at the time where the table was set up in the middle of 4 “walls” of black curtain to produce a theater “shadowbox” sort of effect. The light was a single bulb on a dimmer switch set to only allow enough light to read character sheets, and I was fortunate enough to have as a co-game master a former theater associate who sat behind the curtains controlling lighting, music and sound effects during sessions. These elements, combined with my pre-game speeches reminding players to fight the urge to crack out-of-character jokes to break the horror mood which is why we're really all playing, made for a very, very effective horror campaign where the group successfully completed the mega-scenario Masks of Nyarlathotep. Anyone else out there have any mythos-related experiences?
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The Happy Whisk said...

DocStout: I never used a Foreman grill before but I like the idea of real grill marks. Getting a new outside grill this summer. Can't wait to try meat on the grill.

DocStout said...

To anyone confused, Whisk's comment is in response to one I made on her excellent blog. I'm (probably) not grilling to do with Cthulhu this spring... but I did, for several years, host "The Barbecue Man Was Not Meant To Know", no joke.

Astronomy Pirate said...

The Cthulhu Mythos is pretty epic. I have read a good amount of it, not the entire thing, as there are tons of pieces, but it is a great fantasy world. And Arkham Horror is an awesome game.

Chris C. said...

I must ashamedly admit I've not yet read Lovecraft. I've got him on my Kindle though, so it's only a matter of time!

The Angry Lurker said...

I know little about this but I have the interest, just not the time at the moment.

Jay said...

thanks for the info, i never knew how much HP Lovecraft influenced modern fiction.

Alpha said...

I'm quite jealous of the quality of your game immersion.

BannedFromAdsense.NET said...

I didnt know about Cthulhu before i have seen it in South Park :/

Patti D. said...

very interesting post, thanks!!

Admin said...

wow some of these are pretty much creepy

Moobeat said...

HP is the man now dog

RedHeadRob said...

That was a lot about lovecraft I've never knew! Thanks :D Good post!

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