Thu
Dec 31 2009 3:07pm
Backing Into Lovecraft

Hmmm, not sure I like that title now. It sounds like one of the more melancholy sixties West End farces, or possibly a direction from the greatest Carry On film never made. Carry On Cthulhu starring Kenneth Williams as the mild-mannered Rhode Islander H.P. Lovecraft, Sid James as Robert E. Howard, Charles Hawtrey as Great Cthulhu, and a guest appearance by Jon Pertwee as the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. My gods, it could have worked. They’d already demonstrated their uncannily convincing American accents in Carry On Cowboy, so...

But I digress.

The intention of this small essay is to paint in broad strokes how I came to Lovecraft, and how his work has influenced me. In the first instance, there was no great revelatory plunging into Lovecraftiana for me. These days—he wrote, clamping a figurative briar pipe in his teeth—these days the man and his works are everywhere. Baby Cthulhu (“He’s cute! He’s cuddly! He’ll eat your cat!”), Chibi Cthulhu, Munchkin Cthulhu, Cthulhumas, the great be-tentacled one is everywhere. You can’t walk into a bookshop without ichor dripping on you. Back in the tie-dyed seventies, however, if you mentioned Lovecraft to the vast majority of people, the assumption would be that you were talking about a sequel to The Joy of Sex.

My first exposure was via the legendary (in the UK at any rate) Pan Books of Horror. These were at their height in their early numbers when edited by Herbert Van Thal, and featured a lot of Victorian, Edwardian, and “Golden Age” pulp material. They were terrific collections; we had an early seventies reprint of the first volume that contained tales of people being horrible to people (Seabury Quinn’s “The House of Horror”), animals being horrible to people (Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw”), and people using animals to be horrible to people (George Fielding Eliot’s “The Copper Bowl”). I was about nine when I read it, having already become addicted to literary horror by reading Poe and Bradbury, and I had long since realised that horror stories don’t tend to have monsters in them. It was disappointing, but there it was. Hideous creatures from beyond the ken of man only existed in the cinema, that was all there was to it, and that was pretty much what I was thinking when I turned the page and read “The Horror in the Museum” by Hazel Heald, and... Holy crap! There’s a monster!

A monster. An honest to God monster with unpleasant feeding habits. It made me quite unreasonably happy.

Later I discovered that the Heald story had been heavily rewritten by H.P. Lovecraft. Thus, this was my first contact with the man, even if I didn’t know it at the time. By the bye, I’ve always thought the unlikeable protagonist in Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print” might be based on Van Thal, although that’s just supposition.

My next contact with Lovecraft’s work was also partially diluted; in the late seventies I bought my brother Panther Horror editions of The Horror in the Burying Ground, The Shuttered Room, and At the Mountains of Madness for Christmas, none of which he read. They sat on his bookshelf as curiosities until, one day finding myself short of anything to read, I stole them. I dipped into Ground and Room, but didn’t find them very satisfying, so I never turned my attention to Mountains. There my interest in Lovecraft might have fizzled out before it began, if it hadn’t been for a badly written price tag in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1983. The tag was meant to say £19.99, which was an ungodly amount of money for a student to part with in 1983. You could bribe an MP, fund an insurgency, and still have money for a fish supper for that kind of cash back then. The very fact that it was so much just made the thing it was stuck to all the more attractive and mysterious—a role-playing game called Call of Cthulhu. A friend, however, observed that the first “9” in the price was badly formed and, at a glance, could be mistaken for a “0.” So, hoping for the best, he approached the counter with eleven pounds in his hand, and shortly afterwards was fleeing the scene with the game, a receipt, one penny in change, and a mad grin of victory.

The first adventure we had of Call of Cthulhu was not an unalloyed triumph. Within the first half an hour the party was running around strange tunnels cut into the earth (the work of Cthonians, although we didn’t know that at the time), and about an hour or so after that we met Nyarlothotep in full-on red tentacle, howling-at-the-moon mode. Things did not go well for us and, presently, our characters were all safely tucked away in the Bide-a-Wee Home for the Differently Sane. “Hmmm,” said my friend, who was running the adventure. “Perhaps I escalated things a bit quickly there.” Yes, Dave. Perhaps you did.

I was terribly intrigued by the ideas behind the game, however. I dug out At the Mountains of Madness and was quickly enamoured by the sheer scope of Lovecraft’s vision, if not always his execution. Shortly after I had my first shot at writing a Mythos story. It was rubbish, but at least it showed the inspirational effect Lovecraft was having (August Derleth wisely advised Ramsey Campbell to stop writing pastiches of Lovecraft, and to try writing in a milieu with which he was familiar, which is to say, by setting his stories in Britain. I didn’t have that advice, so I wrote a horrible mess set in 1924 New England, with a gumshoe protagonist, inbred bootleggers, and faux-American dialogue that made Carry on Cowboy sound like Shane. To call it shite would be a grave disservice to dung).

I bought the second edition of Call of Cthulhu and started to crank out adventures for my gaming group. My imagination was being pushed in interesting directions, sketching out conspiracies and unseen effects, grand schemes and petty revenges. The fascination with Victorian and Edwardian horror and fantasy—conceivably the result at least in part of that First Pan Book of Horror—expanded and stays with me to this day. Indeed, a plot originally intended for a Call of Cthulhu game underwent several mutations to eventually form the spine of the adventure game Broken Sword 2: The Smoking Mirror.

And so to the present, and the Johannes Cabal stories, in which Cthulhoid horrors rub shoulders with pantheons of great power and bestiaries of abomination. Even Cabal himself is partially the result of my plotting out a sequel to 1985’s Re-Animator for my own amusement. I wondered what if Herbert West had to collaborate with another re-animator, but one who applied the scientific method to magic. After several iterations, this other re-animator became Johannes Cabal, the necromancer.

This, then, was how I came to stop worrying and love Cthulhu. So now you know. I can tell you’re thrilled.

And now, if you will excuse me, I have some fantasy casting to do. Let’s see... Jim Dale as Herbert West, Bernard Bresslaw as a shoggoth...


Jonathan L. Howard is a former game designer, and author of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. The sequel Johannes Cabal the Detective is released Summer 2010.

1 comment
Ramsey Campbell
1. Ramsey Campbell
Indeed no - Sam Strutt in "Cold Print" was suggested by a gym master at my secondary school, not van Thal (who, incidentally, was Robert Aickman's literary agent for some years).

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