Cthulhu Between the Sheets: Fact and Fiction
H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos has spawned a host of games and associated stories set in the gaming world. For every gem there are numerous lumps of coal to be found gathering dust on the discount shelves at your local gaming shop. Recently, I found a few titles that deserved a far better fate than the discount shelves at Meeplemart or Chapters. Here’s why S.T. Joshi’s edited Cthulhu anthology; The Dark Waters Trilogy by Graham McNeill and Achtung! Cthulhu: Dark Tales from the Secret War deserve a place on your bookshelf, regular price or not.
I’ve already written about H.P. Lovecraft and why the writing of H.P. Lovecraft is a nightmare come true for gamers. For those wanting to get closer to the source material Lovecraft’s stories are available free on-line or really cheap in massive compendiums from any major book seller. I forked out the $15 USD for a curated book of Lovecraft’s work edited by S.T. Joshi and haven’t regretted it. Why is “The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories” worth buying?
- The editor S.T. Joshi has studied and written about the horror genre in general and Lovecraft in particular since the early 1980s. Whether Lovecraft’s writing is ‘literature’ will be answered, perhaps, when the question is answered definitively about Stephen King’s work. In other words, never! What is not open for debate is how seriously Joshi takes his subject matter. He’s written dozens of books on Lovecraft in addition to a dozen more on other literary topics – horror and otherwise – and edited numerous collected works and magazines for sizable publishing houses. In the absence of my own personal knowledge I’m happy to take the advice of somebody long in the field who takes his stuff seriously.
“I think it is beyond doubt that H.P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” – Stephen King
- The book contains a carefully curated set of eighteen stories, an introduction to and shorter biography of Lovecraft, and suggestions for further reading of primary and secondary sources. For me this is just the right amount for one book. All the major and best Cthulhu Mythos stories are here. You’ll get a solid dose of the good stuff and a solid foundation if you want to later dig deeper.
- There are fully detailed notes and references for each story. These notes range from explanations about where Lovecraft first introduced a recurring character or concept, translations of latin used within Lovecraft’s text, to comparisons of different versions of his stories published over the years. Done with discreet numbered end notes the references are there if you want them but don’t get in the way if all you want is the story.
- The book is a pleasure to read. It comes as a sturdy soft cover printed on good quality paper with easily legible print, even for my older eyes. It’s published by Penguin Classics as a Deluxe Edition. I find the selection of stories more than enough to give me a good measure of Lovecraft without being watered down. The quality of the book and curated number of stories makes for a tome that’s easy to read in bed, eyes wide and sheets pulled up to your neck. Many of the Lovecraft compendiums are massive, padded out with his lesser works, and require a magnifying glass to read.
Achtung! Cthulhu explores Dark Tales from the Secret War that raged behind the scenes of an alternate WWII where Cthulhu and his ilk are as influential as the Axis and Allies powers. It was written to support the Call of Cthulhu: Achtung! Cthulhu role-playing game but you don’t need knowledge about RPGs to appreciate this collection of 13 original short stories. Why does it deserve a space on your bookshelf?
- It is masterfully written. These are practiced storytellers bringing a broad range of writing styles together into a cohesive whole. The language is pointed and economical yet provides a complete sketch of the characters and setting. After reading each short story you’ll care about the characters, or in some cases hate them. The settings are fully rendered – you can smell the bazaar in Cairo and the washed up seaweed on the shore of a Pacific island. Polished short story writing all around.
- WWII history and the weird war co-exist seamlessly. With the Blitz, or desert campaign, or Pacific islands as a backdrop, the weird and disturbing characters from the secret war have a believable platform from which to plumb the fantastic. The desperation of both Axis and Allies to gain an upper hand is believably played out in the ruthless search for cursed artifacts or attempts to recruit and bring monsters across from other dimensions. Each story addresses the question “What if?” with wildly inventive yet believable answers.
- The stories explore history and humanity’s flaws, but never with glib treatment of the grim realities of WWII. Writing supernatural fiction that includes Nazis is a touchy endeavor. Achtung! Cthulhu stays well on side. Usually, the Germans are portrayed as real people shaking their head at the stupidity of their superiors and shocked by the horrors of war. Where required, the bad guys always get their comeuppance, often at the hands of the very powers they seek to turn to their own nefarious ends. Particularly satisfying is the fate of the Nazi thug in “Servant of the Dark”. The Jews he’s extorting give him more chances to walk away than he deserves, and then finally step aside to let him meet a particularly horrifying type of Cthulian justice.
Fantasy Flight games has commissioned many talented writers to create fiction based in their Arkham Horror Files which includes games like Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness, Elder Sign, and Eldritch Horror. To my mind, nobody brings the investigators, villains, and the town of Arkham to greater life than Graham McNeill in his Dark Waters Trilogy.
It is a steep order for a writer to bring a fresh perspective to the confines of a well established cast of characters and previously defined setting. McNeill makes it look easy. We get to know familiar people like Rex Murphy the reporter in greater depth. Without sounding like a history lesson, character’s back stories are neatly parcelled out and before you know it you’ll be able to predict how they’ll react to a given crisis. This difficult task – to let you know a character so well you can identify their motivations, idiosyncrasies, and predict their reactions – is doubly impressive because McNeill is not starting from scratch. He has to create his portrait overtop a previous indelible profile.
The stories crack along at a furious pace but never at the expense of plot or character development. Considering how much action is packed into each book of this trilogy it never feels frenetic or causes a lack of focus due to jumping from scene to scene. Familiar Cthulian icons like the Necronomicon, Deep Ones, Cultists, and unnamable horrors are harnessed to speed the plot forward and continuously challenge the sanity and physical reserves of our intrepid investigators. The entire series is a page turner and highly recommended!
I’ve found that reading both Cthulhu fact and fiction has been an education in writing and greatly increased my enjoyment of the Cthulhu gaming gems currently on offer.
How about you? Is there fiction or essential reading you can recommend to enhance the games we play?