Humor and Cthulhu

Not a week after I published the last section of my Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia foreword which touched on humor in the Mythos, we hear from well-known Call of Cthulhu illustrator Blair Reynolds. Blair announced on a thread that his publishing firm Room 308 was leaving the field of gaming publishing to concentrate on his Black Sands graphic novels. Of course, that’s his choice, but he left us with the following thoughts:

It must be said that I had meanwhile also grown increasingly disenchanted and frustrated (again) with the games industry’s orthodoxy, mediocrity, vapidity and apathy. Especially where Lovecraft and roleplaying are concerned, I feel strongly that too many bubbly, juvenile, tender-hearted milksops have infested the genre: Pollyannas promoting a kinder, gentler version of the Cthulhu Mythos by way of Cthulhu plush dolls, Elder Sign earrings, ‘Niggurath nursery rhymes, Miskatonic Christmas carols, and buttloads of other flippant silliness.

And it’s not just the gaming industry. The general population of devotees among “Lovecraftian circles” suffers from a fairy tale misconception of the Mythos, one that I believe would turn poor Howard in his grave if he could see the candy-ass travesty that his grand universe has become. The mainstream Mythos is a dumbed-down and diluted, popularized and trivialized, emasculated cartoon, wholly separate from the dark, unutterable, obscene and blood-soaked savagery that is the true essence of the Mythos, and my contempt for this fashionable, New Age, Hello Kitty Lovecraft is well known.

Now, I can understand where he’s coming from, and it’s hardly in my nature to get in the way of a good rant. Let’s face it, though – if Lovecraft were turning in his grave, it’s because he wanted a shelf full of plush Cthulhus!

If you think I’m kidding, you should read some of his letters. My personal favorite is this letter to Clark Ashton Smith, in which HPL thanks him for soon-to-be-arriving pieces of dinosaur bone:

To think of having by me the mortal remains—in part—of a twenty-foot-high thing which lumbered about the primal Pacific morasses 50,000,000 years ago …. a thing which may have trod the vari-colour’d sands of Lemuria, & nosed amongst the fallen obelisks of the Elder Ones…..a beast on whose broad back Great Cthulhu himself may have ridden from his palace in blasphemou[s] R’lyeh!

This isn’t to say that Lovecraft couldn’t be critical about his work and that of others, or that he couldn’t buckle down and be serious when he needed to do so. Nonetheless, there was a playfulness that also inspired his work with the Mythos, that drove the Mythos and kept it going even after the Lovecraft Circle dispersed. Lovecraft was, on one level, a huge “Mythos” fanboy, and I don’t think we can understand the dynamics behind the Mythos until we understand that.

Thus, the same elements that Blair excoriates as an infestation were actually there from the beginning. What needs to be asked, then, is if their increased publicity makes this more problematic, and if elements of the less serious aspects of the game have crept into the roleplaying game in terms of actual play. My answers to the above are “I don’t know” and “I don’t think so,” but I’d be interested to hear from the rest of you.

UPDATE:  At least one reader has commented that he thinks I’m using HPL as an authority to overrule Blair here.   Well, yes and no.  I don’t think that we need to follow Lovecraft’s views with regard to the Mythos – most people don’t – but at the same time, HPL’s own attitude underlines how much play and humor have been a part of the Mythos, and we need to recognize that element.

My own answers to the two above questions are that increased publicity and the adoption of the Mythos by underground pop culture (I think there is such a thing) has indeed made humor more of a part of it.  What I haven’t seen is the actual scenarios being vitiated by the humor.  You get cartoons, humorous articles, and even spoof scenarios in Mythos materials, but nothing I’ve seen indicates that particular elements are being played for laughs.  That doesn’t mean all sorts of silly things don’t happen in them, as Call of Cthulhu players know all too well, but that comes from the execution and not the presentation.  And Cthulhu is probably the most commercialized of all the Old Ones, and he very rarely shows up in scenarios.

Published in: on February 3, 2008 at 10:19 pm  Comments (18)  

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  1. After mulling the whole affair over a bit more I can’t come to any other conclusion than that Mr. Reynolds is pulling our collective legs. “Too many people are mocking the eldritch horror of the Mythos! Woe is me! The horribleness has been unhorribilized!” is just sooooo over the top that it has to be a joke. Particularly, as you point out, in light of Lovecraft’s own intellectual playfulness and sense of humor. Klarkash-Ton, anyone?

  2. I admit to having mixed feelings.

    On the one hand, I don’t really care about the existence of plushies and humorous Mythos fiction and whatnot. I don’t care for them, so I don’t buy them, and I go about my business. It’s hardly a crime against Lovecraft and humanity.

    On the other hand, looking at Call of Cthulhu and its development (or lack of same) over the years, I see a trend towards removing the horror and any real challenges to players. Mustn’t risk the characters actually dying or going insane. Maybe they should have psychic powers, too.

    I don’t have a problem with hero pulp gaming – I enjoy it a great deal. But why get rid of what makes Call of Cthulhu different to turn it into a clone of a million other games out there?

  3. I am not a gamer so I may be speaking out of turn but isn’t the trend in games derived from books, movies etc to dumb them down. Marketing being what it is anything that acheives some level of popularity gets marketed in some manner. So none of this seems to surprising.
    My guess is that “pure” mythos ( so to speak) would not sell near as well as the watered down versions.
    In any case Blair Reynolds return to grahic novels is welcome.

  4. Much as I love Blair’s work, I am hard-pressed to think of many scenes of “blood-soaked savagery” in Lovecraft’s fiction. I demand more artwork of protagonists fainting due to startling internal realizations.

  5. I certainly can’t quarrel with any of the above. Well put, all of you.

    But if I may be logical and practical for a moment?

    Plushies woo women.

    For that reason alone, the entire point should be stricken as moot. 😉

    I do admit, however, that the very words “hello kitty” fill me with a nameless dread that oozes down the walls like….an oozing thing that likes oozing down walls.


  6. Not that I have much to add, but hello kitty is invading more than the mythos…—evil-black-rifle-meets-cute-and.aspx

  7. I’d be really interested to hear any solid examples of what Steven is talking about – this so called trend towards protecting the players from death or insanity. I’m just not aware of this.

  8. FTL –

    I understand your logic, but there may be a slight flaw in the execution.

    If we were taking about a guy’s well loved teddy bear from his childhood, or a Curious George that got a googly eye upgrade from Grandma, that would be more likely to have potential for ‘wooing of women’.

    But have you seen the array of stuffed animals in Dan’s office? It’s more on the disturbing side than the, “Oh, how cute!” Honestly, I think the limb-less hamster creature is the most creepy of the lot.

    Sorry, Dan 😛

  9. Reynolds’ argument sounds like a cop out to me. But I love the man’s art. Maybe running a publishing company is too frustrating for him. I dunno. I do hope that he starts putting more art out there and I look forward to the reprint of his graphic novel.

  10. There’s a fine line between cute and disturbing, Ex.

    I do admit that if Dan weren’t feeling under the weather, I might have to demand empirical proof of that limb-less hamster. But we should leave him be. 🙂

  11. FTL,

    Dan corrected me on the limb-less hamster issue. It is, in fact, a limb-less hippo.

    He also said something about how it keeps the other hippo from killing everyone….

  12. Oh, well, that’s all right, then. 😉

  13. […] by two other figures.  The one on the left is a plush Cthulhu.   Do not consider him as a silly distraction from roleplaying games; he should be considered in this context as possessing all of the malignity and alienness of […]

  14. I personally try to avoid using the word “fanboy” as its quite a negative word these days, however aside from that well put…

  15. Personally, I take all the plushies and jokes and bumperstickers as a challenge to be weirder and more disturbing in my own work.

    I also figure that the popularization of the Mythos as harmless fun is all part of a plot to make it easier to convert all of humanity into doting worshippers. And make us beg to be eaten.

  16. Meh. So a guy who, quite some time ago, did some very cool pictures and then disappeared for years has now said that he won’t be doing anymore gaming stuff, shortly after announcing that he’d be doing a bunch of gaming stuff. I could care less. Mr Reynolds is obviously a flake. A very talented flake, but a flake nonetheless. Running a company is too much for him? I’m sure there are plenty of people who’d offer to help, but he hasn’t asked anyone or given them a chance to offer, has he? He wants to concentrate on his Black Sands graphic novel? Terrific! It only took him several years to put out one issue. Perhaps we’ll see another before the heat death of the universe. But I doubt it. The whole thing smacks of someone easily stymied pulling a strop and deciding to take his bat and ball home.

  17. To be fair to Blair Reynolds, some of that was due to health problems. But I think the whole affair could have been handled differently.

  18. […] Get the entire post from here. […]

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