Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Call of Cthulhu

"The Call of Cthulhu", first published in Weird Tales, February 1928.

This is the the seventeenth entry in my read-through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

This is one of – if not THE - archetypal “Lovecraftian” story. It has all the elements you expect from HPL: dreams; ancient myths; degenerate cults; and impenetrable and incomprehensible ancient horrors. The structure of the story is also typical of what we've come to expect from him: a distant, anonymous narrator; the aggregation of information from diverse sources, the slow build up of suggestion and dread.

The climax of the story where Johansen finally meets Cthulhu himself is essentially a kind of seaman's yarn (a lost island, ancient ruins and a sea monster) but the effort HPL has put in up to that point provides this encounter with a disturbing context that it's inconclusive resolution does nothing to dispel. Part of this effect rests with the material of the hints themselves – ancient cults, cosmic horror, the tentacles of an ancient conspiracy buried deep in the heart of human civilization – but much of the effect comes from craft. The a slow crescendo of horror that starts with the dreams of a few aesthetes, to the hideous ritual in the swamp and finally to Johansen's encounter gradually raises the scope and stakes of the story from the trivial to the Earth-shatteringly profound.

There's also the quality of the prose, which is magnificent here, exemplified by the perfect, chilling expression of cosmic horror in the opening lines: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some 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.”

I was struck this time around by longing for chaos and destruction expressed by Castro the Cultist. I can almost see his eyes crinkling with glee when he describes the coming of the Old Ones: “The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.”

One wonders to what degree HPL might have felt a similar longing to be freed from the stifling constraints of New England society, to kill and revel and enjoy himself. If you think of the sort of chap HPL tends to admire – sober, well-rooted, pure-bred – then Castro is the almost direct opposite, a half-breed who has roamed the world revelling in exotic degeneracy. In some of HPL's stories, there's a kind of of Orientalist fascination for the other, that makes me think that he too might have felt the pull of exotic sights and ancient mysteries. At the same time he seems to fear letting go, and in Castro we can see what happens the man who doesn't supress his wanderlust and desire for novelty; Robert Suydam is another study in this sort of lack of continence. Once a man lets his baser desires rule him, he is lost.

I'm pretty sure I first read this one in the first edition of The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, back in about 1983 or so, but I admit that I am no longer certain if the story was included in that edition (my copy of first edition is possibly in a box at my mother's, or perhaps my brothers; I've got the fourth edition now). Whether I read it there or not (it would therefore have to be one of the Del Rey editions) this has become emblematic of the way a CoC adventure ought to play out, but it shows, I think, the weakness of this model for a game.

The narrator is entirely passive, so let's not pretend he's a player character, but he is the only one in the story whoever puts all the connections together. The PCs in this story are probably Prof George Gamell Angell, Inspector Raymond Legrasse and Gustaf Johansen, but they all operate in isolation from each other. They each have a single encounter with the mythos where they don't really have much to do besides sit around listening to the GM's descriptions – until recently this has been my typical experience with CoC, as a player and GM. Better models are probably to be found in The Horror at Red hook (although here I think “main character” is not Detective Malone, but the more compelling Robert Suydam), The Lurking Fear, Under the Pyramids and The Nameless City.

I want to enjoy CoC roleplaying – I bought the first edition as soon as it was available in NZ in 1983 – but it's very rarely lived up to the poorly articulated Platonic ideal I have in my head. I've had enough good experiences recently to give me renewed hope thanks to the new Trail of Cthulhu ruleset (which addresses some of the problems I had with the CoC system) but I don't think HPL stories themselves, and particularly the eponymous one, are especially good models for the game itself.

Coming next: "Cool Air".


  1. Probably the actions of Armitage, Morgan and Rice at the end of the Dunwich Horror are the closest to the classic roleplaying party in Lovecraft's fiction. Even then he doesn't directly narrate their actions, but has them described as watched by Earl Sawyer at a distance.

  2. Yes, the Dunwich Horror is another good model, but I haven't blogged that one yet! The problem is one of maintaining the horror atmosphere while preserving a degree of agency for the PCs. In the stories, the protagonst's rarely have many interesting choices - they just tend to let the story flow around them. In Under the Pyramids or The Nameless City, eg, the protagonists at least hint at other paths they might take. The Lurking Fear is the most RPG-like one so far - several other characters pass through the story, coming to sticky ends, and in the end the protagonist dynamites the Martense House to smithereens.

  3. In many ways Lovecraft's characters are very unlike PC in games as they are often passive or avoid taking more active choices.

    I do find running horror games to be hard as it can be difficult to really unsettle a group that already know each other and are there to enjoy themselves for an evening.

  4. You, HPL's narrators are usually helpless witnesses. In the stories, the discovery of the shocking truth is usually where it ends, more or less (except, perhaps, to hint at a dreadful end). In a game, one expects it to go to the next stage of "so what do you do about it?" I think that addressing this is one of the design goals of ToC.

    I am impressed, though, at how many of the stories end with the portagonist/narrator in a state of mental distress that's highly familiar from games of CoC/ToC!

  5. "You"? I meant "Yes" not "You in that first sentence there...


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