Entry 48: Let’s talk Seven, The Keeper’s Handbook

Continuing my overview of the new edition of Call of Cthulhu, I go over the Seventh Edition, which gets into the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the changes in the game, so to speak.
We start with another introductory chapter, and then go into an overview of H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. To some of the ongoing fans of the writer’s work and the game this may be superfluous, but this game is written to be inclusive for people new, not only to this game but to role playing games in general. It is a good condensation of the concepts and brings a Keeper to an understanding of the underlying premises of Lovecraft’s writing.
We have two chapters that are the Keeper’s side of Character creation, and goes into the mechanics of the process from a Keeper’s perspective.
In Chapter Five, we start to open the game mechanics, going into how Skill rolls work, and how the new functions of the game impact gameplay. Bonus and penalty dice are explored, and then an examination of the Investigator development phase, a post-scenario improvement development in the game.
In Chapter Six, we go into Combat, a system that explores the modified rules, the new system for opposed rolls and damage is explored. In my opinion, it is a smoother system than most games, and while on an initial read it is a bit more complicated than it used to be, it encourages more free flow combat and once used to it, I think it is a good and strong system.
In Chapter Seven, we explore chases, something that most games do but tends to be underused in play (at least somewhat a matter of player’s mindset to take potential combat as something to ‘see through’), but really is extremely well suited to Lovecraftian fiction, so well suited to Lovecraftian gaming. This system is a relatively simple system that actually, once understood, is well suited to Keeper improvisation as much, if not more, than pre-planning. A chase track can be created only a few steps ahead and played out with on the fly additions. It does require attention and focus, but gaming should, regardless. The possibility for multiple outcomes, including (to my personal delight), the party getting separated over the course of certain actions and speed variances, leads to the probability of greater in-game complications, which may force some new directions for a scenario, but again, as long as a Keeper is adaptable, this opens more vistas instead of closing off options.
Chapter Eight, Sanity is explored, and with no disrespect to the more realistic direction that some of the more recent editions had used, it borrows both from the earlier readings on Sanity, with an inclusion of more modern and realistic understandings of sanity and insanity, and a push to include a more cinematic few of insanity’s manifestations. This does try to include all concepts in a straightforward presentation that I found very applicable for gaming, a bit different from earlier versions, with a good feeling, and a tendency for insanity in a player character to have more longevity, not something that can be ‘treated and dismissed.’ Additionally, with the more in-depth background aspects of the character, the insanities a player character develops can become more a part of who the character is…by tying into who the character had already been.
Chapter Nine, the Magic system, brings the familiar concepts of magic in the game to the Seventh Edition. This section of the game ties the already existing concepts from earlier editions into the seventh edition rules, and also addresses various concepts that had been issues in earlier editions. The concept of ‘becoming a believer’ shows up in this chapter, and this is one of the biggest potential hazards for the more scholarly investigators in this game; if I were to offer any caveat to player characters in this system, I would make sure that Keepers keep this option available, but also warn Investigators to steer clear of it. The potential to increase the Cthulhu Mythos knowledge skill with minimal to no sanity loss sounds tempting, but once that line of belief crosses, madness is a given, and a major event.
Chapter Ten, Playing the Game, is a section where we get advice and suggestions on how to tie it all together, on gameplay itself, there have been variations on this chapter in sections in all the earlier editions, but here it covers also going into how aspects like pushed rolls and the more intense backstory aspects all can and should be blended into play. I think this chapter does a great job of integrating all of the aspects of play, and I think Keepers will probably want to pore this chapter over a few extra times, even when it’s talking about things you already know.
Chapter Eleven through Fourteen are where we get the ‘base data’, in turn through each chapters the Tomes where the knowledge and spells often lurks, the spells themselves, the alien technologies that players may encounter, and the entities of the Mythos (as well as more mundane potential threats) This area can be either the Keeper’s grimoire or diving board depending on playstyle. The books where the players can learn about the mythos, the spells they may uncover, the monsters they may encounter. Of course, depending on playstyle and Keeper inventiveness, you can use this information to make your own entities and books and spells.
Chapter Fifteen gives us two scenarios, both of which are excellent reads, and good examples of scenario construction. If I were to offer any criticism at this juncture it would only be that I would have loved to see at least one more scenario. But show me a Keeper that wouldn’t have made that comment.
The volume closes with a set of appendices, starting with a glossary, then conversion data for earlier editions, equipment lists, a weapons table, a summary of rules for quick reference, and we close with ‘the sanity quiz’ a nice little callback from, if memory serves me, its first appearance in The Cthulhu Companion.
I give my most hearty endorsement to this edition, I think that while it has its detractors, this is an excellent updating to an already great game.

Enty 47: Let’s talk Seven, Investigator’s Book.

I have been fairly quiet here or in the forums about the new Seventh Edition for Call of Cthulhu, partly because I had, as a backer for the Kickstarter, access to the pdf proofs before they were available to non-backers. The pdf format initial release for the rulebooks are now available at the Chaosium website, so I feel it is okay to begin talking about them. I’ve also had time to watch the initial reactions, look at what others have commented on and examine their issues, pro and con. Since this is a commentary on the entire game instead of a scenario review, I will be placing it in this blog.
First off, let me admit that in regards to horror gaming, I have a strong bias for the Call of Cthulhu game. While I have read other systems, I have to date focused on this system and Trail of Cthulhu as the two I have found personally resonate best with. There are simpler systems, but I do favor these so far. There are a few of the more recent ones I have not read yet, and I’m not trying to be in any way disrespectful of them. The game has considerably evolved over the decades since the first boxed edition, I remember bringing home that thick box in 1981 and reading it in an eager frenzy. The mechanics were based on the BRP system, and used several conventions of gaming at the time. The structure of the game, however, was new, the goals were different from other role playing games out up to that point, regardless of theme. Scenario design was stated as favoring the ‘onion layer’ concept, the game allowed players to increase in skills, but ultimately, they were fighting an ongoing battle against mortality and insanity as they confronted the horrors of the game. These two items alone set the game apart in huge leaps and bounds. Even other horror games remained largely based on player characters gaining in power and strength and becoming more and more capable of dealing with the threats they face.
In this, every edition has remained consistent, up to and including the Seventh Edition, and in this the game continues to shine. The mechanics in Call of Cthulhu, while recognizable to a large extent, have changed more in the change to this edition than any other.
The core game now comes in two core volumes, one for the Investigators and one for the Keeper. In this, the game follows some of the steps of other games through the years. A Keeper will still need to read both books, and there is no real reason players can’t read the keeper’s book out of session, but as in most games, probably a good idea for the Keeper’s book to be ‘keeper only’ during play.
The core mechanics regarding skills, their usage and advancement are, as they’ve always been, percentile based, and the current skill being a factor in whether or not skills advance. The character statistics have been shifted into a similar manifestation, with the core statistics, strength, intelligence, etc finally being a percentage rather than a number in or near the 3-18 range.
The numbers that end up least changed are magic points, weapons damage, and hit points. This is, I think, largely to keep combat results streamlined in play.
While essentially recognizable, the game is tweaked in almost every aspect, and the new books reflect if in a new smooth look that is simultaneously sleek and modern and appears a shade antique. This kind of ties into a modern perception of the art deco look which makes another connection to the classic Lovecraft era, the 1920’s and 1930’s. Chapters are laid out logically, with the text of one of Lovecraft’s owns stories (the Dunwich Horror) immediately following the introduction chapter. Some of the earlier introductions included the text of the story “Call of Cthulhu”, and some of the game’s fans are puzzled and annoyed by the change of story, but the rationale does make it a more logical change. Of all of Lovecraft’s stories, Dunwich Horror is more like how scenario investigations tend to play out than any of his others. Since we are talking about a game based on his fiction, elements of investigations can be found in most of the stories, but moreso here than in any other.
Chapters Three through Five of the investigator’s handbook are about character creation, and all have their parallels to the original process. In Chapter Six we open the concept of Investigator Organizations, something that crept into many campaigns (and a few suppliments) but was not part of the normal game, per se (with the exception of Delta Green, more or less). This can give an interesting additional touch of continuity to the game including a means whereby which replacement characters can be usually introduced into play without being overly disruptive. Chapter Seven is a guide to various things to reflect on about, as the chapter calls it “life as an investigator”. Tips for the characters, pointers on things that can enhance or hinder game play depending on how investigators choose to utilize the information in this chapter. Chapter Eight is a guide to the Twenties, a means of helping players get into the mindset of their characters if the “Lovecraft Classic” period is used. Chapter Nine gives tips and advice for players of the game more than the characters (To differentiate it from the information in Chapter Seven), and Chapter Ten wraps up the Investigator’s Handbook with assorted reference material for players.
More than the difference in statistics, players are encouraged to build backstories for their characters, create connections to their world, and give anchors for their character’s traits and stability. This woks both for and against the players in ongoing play, but it enhances the game completely, and makes everything that happens feel much more personal to the character.
I’ve read assorted critiques, but I find most of them to be simple variances in taste as far as the changes from an Investigator’s point of view are concerned. The deeper changes are in the Keeper’s Handbook and I will address them in that entry. However, I have to say I like the new system, I haven’t really got anything strongly negative to say about any of it. The game’s changes were designed to streamline aspects of play and in that I feel they succeeded, even when they did add new rules (again, the Keeper’s Handbook section will go into that more).

Entry 46: F Paul Wilson, specifically “the Keep”, but also touching on Repairman Jack and the Adversary Cycle

A writer that I have intermittently read through his career but always enjoyed when I did read, F. Paul Wilson has explored some concepts in his works that are very handy for exploring as seeds for CoC. This is no accident, as I will go into here.
First, the Keep. This was the first book that most people encountered this writer through, and while an early novel (Wikipedia indicates that it may be his second published work, the bibliography is a bit tricky) it is a well-structured, and well written piece. There is to my own perception a bit of a flaw in the story, though I am relatively sure most of the audience had less issue with this aspect. As the first book in the Adversary Cycle, we are presented with Wilson’s take on a very Lovecraftian concept, albeit somewhat distantly. The Keep, largely set in a single location during World War II involves a Nazi occupation of a castle that protects a dark secret of its own. Attempting to secure the location and decipher the mystery of the location, the Nazis begin to encounter mysterious and increasingly dangerous phenomenon. A protagonist is drawn to the scene as the story unfolds, and the darker secret of the Keep as antagonist begins to lash out, with the Nazis and some innocent civilians caught in the middle of a deadly game.
Without giving away too much of the story for those interested in reading it, the mysterious phenomenon later is communicated with, and presents itself to some of the humans investigating it as if it were a vampire, while being something darker, and more powerful than any of the humans suspect. (This is the point where I have issues, once any of the people involved in the story begin communicating with the entity, the feeling of menace lessens considerably, even after we discern that the menace is far more than a simple vampire.
The story presents a background of a clash between two forces, one destructive, the other opposed to the destructive one. This is not a good versus evil conflict, more of an indifferent versus destructive conflict, which can be viewed in a very Lovecraftian light. Wilson is a Lovecraft fan, so this presentation is certainly not accidental, and is easily something one can fit into an ongoing game.
His next book, published under the title “the Tomb,” introduces the character known as Repairman Jack, a man who lives outside the normal system, in our modern world (modern for when it was published), and works as a ‘fixer’, seeking to function something like a private eye, helping people who have run out of options in the normal legal or societal system. He is pulled into a situation that is somewhat supernatural, and finds himself protecting innocents against the desctructive force hinted at in the Keep. It has been some time since I’ve read this book, I don’t remember if it was named as such, but this becomes the second book, after the Keep, in Wilson’s Adversary Cycle, and the first released book in the Repairman Jack series.
Aspects of almost all of Wilson’s books can be mined for scenarios, and Repairman Jack comes across very effectively as an Investigator, can be used as a template for an investigator, as a very unusual occupation template, or as a handy npc.
The threats in his book can make excellent monsters themselves, the foundation concept of taking an existing mythical creature and reverse engineering it into a Mythos type threat is a very good technique, and his background entities, the two polarized entities of the indifferent force and the destructive force can be seen as interpretations of the forces of the Mythos, those outright hostile to humanity on the whole, and those less hostile but not necessarily friendly.
I will concede that it is possible to see this as a bit Derlethian in a cosmic Good guys vs bad guys with humans as pawns in the great game, but it is to be perceived that it is less good guys than indifferent guys who happen to be antagonistic to the destructive forces and willing to let us humans be if we manage to survive. It is also easy to set all this aside, but I still suggest Wilson’s writings as a source for potentially mineoworthy material.
In other words, a recommended source of material you can mine if needed.

Entry 45: Going into books (back after a bit of silence)

Various things had me not posting for a while, apologies to any who were in any way impacted. I will begin my return to posting by going into what should be a fairly obvious concept for Keepers seeking out ideas for scenarios. In a game inspired by the writings of H P Lovecraft and of others who picked up the themes, creating the Cthulhu Mythos, it would be obvious to say that using these writings for inspiration is a given. This does not indicate trying to create scenarios as recreations of the exact works, however.
Momentary comment on that last sentence. There have been scenarios written that do exactly that, with varying degrees of success, though usually such directly referential scenarios are written as sequels to the stories in question. Two have been written as sequels to “the Horror at Red Hook” and the Chaosium scenario collection “the House of R’lyeh” contains four scenarios that are sequels, direct or indirect to stories of Lovecraft’s, with one more a recreation of the story it refers to. And one of my favorite scenarios in ‘Unseen Masters’ is essentially a sequel to two stories of Bloch’s and one of Lovecraft’s. The massive campaign “Beyond the Mountains of Madness” is a clear sequel to the story “At the Mountains of Madness”. And the older volume “Escape from Innsmouth” allows for a re-enactment of the government raid on Innsmouth that is a minor element in the original story “Shadow over Innsmouth”. It can be done, but there are hazards. First, an attempt to recreate the story has the clear problem that unless you are citing a fairly obscure story, the players will know the direction the story reaches for, even if not the only conclusion. Sequels are a better idea for this in that you take the end of the original story as starting point, and you can go in different directions without compromising the original story.
A somewhat better option for this level of recreation comes from the book “Stealing Cthulhu” by Graham Walmlsey, which explores the idea of taking Lovecraftian plots and shifting elements of the story to different environments, different villains, to create a similar story but not the same. It is a fairly clear concept, and his book does go into it at some length, but I do suggest it as good reading for exploring the concept in this particular angle.
Having said this much..if you are going to use stories for inspiration and you aren’t going sequel..if you don’t use Walmsley’s methods, I highly discourage writings of the major Lovecraftian authors because the players are more likely to recognize the source material and will either be annoyed at being thrust into the protagonist role of a story they read or try to take the story in a direction the original story didn’t accommodate, and unless you’re good, they can get you backed into a corner pretty quickly.
Not to say it can’t be done, not to say it shouldn’t be done, but make sure its not recognizable if you do (I take this moment to encourage Walmsley as a resource again). If you read a lot of Lovecraftian fiction by other authors, you will have more sources of things to play with, but short stories in and of themselves are not necessarily good frameworks for scenarios. A story, short story, novella, or novel length, is a linear structure, beginning, middle and end. A scenario is more a set of points, with an intended outcome, but should have more than one possible outcome and definitely should have more than one way for the points to be connected to complete the story. I’ve gone off at great length in earlier posts how I dislike a scenario being too linear. I do think that a well-structured scenario should have at least two potential end points, success and failure, and both should be flexible enough to allow for partial success and partial failure as well. This is, I feel, true of all rpg scenarios, but moreso in horror gaming than anywhere else. In a short story/novel, you read a progression of events as the protagonist goes from point a to point b to point c to the story’s resolution. But it should feel like a natural progression in a story, and while you have room for more than one course and resolution in a scenario, after it is played, it should have the same feel. The players went from the start to point a to point b to point c (or point a to point e to point c to point d to point b), but it should still feel like a complete story.
Always remember rpg gaming is cooperative storytelling, and the story is not complete until played.
When adapting a story to a scenario, you have to take the linear structure of the story and built around it, make allowances for the players to make decisions and actions that were not part of the original structure but still fit in the framework.
I’m not saying you can’t end up in the same place as the original story, but if at all possible you don’t want the players to realize until later (if ever) that they played out a version of ‘Shadow over Innsmouth’. For the most part, this applies to all game genres (how many campaigns were built around a small group being tasked with transporting and destroying a small but important artifact in fantasy gaming?) perhaps a ramble, perhaps a bit obvious, but getting back into the pool, wanted to set up the beginning of my next few entries.

semi new direction; The play as a movie

I am feeling a bit in transition at this point with the Keeper’s blog. I have found myself going over the same ground on more than a few occasions, and rather than just turn into a circular discussion I think I’m going to start going into actual scenario construction and background aspects construction for my campaigns. Not presenting completed scenarios here, at least not at this point in things, but bringing up things that I am bringing into my campaigns. To start with, a twist on the King in Yellow for my CoC Mondern era campaigns.

An infamous play, with catastrophic history, and hotly suppressed when first printed, continues underground. If you add in the events from the scenario compilation/semi-campaign Ripples from Carcosa, the play’s actual history long predates its ‘known’ publication in the Nineteenth Century. As a play, it is a logical step that any film director who knew of the play may have been tempted to try to bring the play to the silver screen. It is also a logical assumption that this would have happened more than once, successful or not (how many versions of Frankenstein have there been? Or Beau Geste?)

Therefore, in my campaign, there have been multiple attempts, some never getting to a full print, some going to a completed movie, none of which have had general release. The stories of the directors and their versions follows. I will occasionally make reference to real individuals in this, but they are being used for fictitious purposes, and no disrespect or slight is intended in this. All of this information presented here is available to players who try to research it, but to date there has been little pressure to, and only one group ever tried to find out about any of the versions, going for the most recent.

The first attempt to film it was, naturally, a silent movie, filmed in Germany by a contemporary of Fritz Lang, Oskar Kruger, in 1925, under a straight translation of the title “der König in Gelb.” Kruger was a maverick filmmaker who tried to work outside of studio influence as much as possible. He was able to secure some funding for his ‘dream project’ from one studio, and several investors, though he described his project as a mythic fantasy, never providing great details to any of the investors. The rushes were profoundly disturbing, and the silent medium did not translate the text of the play adequately. This version of the film was completed, though watching it leaves a muddled mess, the story not fully carrying over, textually, though the actions do follow the plotline of the original play. The cast did have access to the full play, and some of them did read more than small parts, to their detriment. More than half of the cast never acted again, three of them succumbing to madness and spending the bulk of the rest of their lives in institutions, four others dying prematurely by various causes, all of them suspicious in nature. Kruger was despondent over his failure to carry over the vision, and was unable to film another full length piece, only managing a handful of short films before he lost all support. Some level of madness clearly affected him, and he managed to outlast his career as a filmmaker by about ten years, working as a projectionist in a cinema in Berlin until his death in 1938.

The second version was a Spanish adaptation in 1939, El Rey Amarillo, a version that, while completed, was never distributed. The director, Enric Murgo had succumbed fully to the madness of reading the play and adapting it into a screenplay. He had retained some level of cunning and never let the cast read the entire script, only letting them see the scripting for small scenes at a time. He also filmed the scenes out of sequence, though he arranged a screening for the studio heads and cast after he put the final print together. Murgo was the only survivor, a full third of the screening’s audience never being seen again, the others all dying by violence. Murgo was tried for murder, and found guilty but insane, spending the rest of his days in an asylum. This black and white film was confiscated during the trial procedings, and no known copy has ever been discovered. Rumors persist that the original print was stolen from evidence and is still out there, but has never been presented in any public forum.

There was a dearth of attempts to film the play until 1957, when Hammer Studios quietly arranged a production to begin, using sets from other productions for the initial footage. The director, Wallace Matthews, admittedly started filming without reading the original source material, working from a script that was a loose adaptation of the first act, written by Frank McDowell, who released a script based on the second act from an asylum in northern England. A third script was never delivered, and Matthews argued with the studio that the second portion of the script was nearly incomprehensible, and managed to secure, after studio review, to build his own version of the rest of the script based on the first third, and the workable parts of the second. A studio head was using his influence to keep the film moving forward as a vehicle for his girlfriend at the time, Virginia French (real name: Esther Parker), who was cast in the role of Cassilda, which inexplicably was presented as the female lead. In this version, Prince Aldones, rather than being a sibling, was presented as a prince of a neighboring kingdom, and some of the text implies that he may be in Carcosa in exile. Prince Uoht was played by a young unknown actor, Ben Harrow, and in this version had many of the lines originally written for Aldones in the play. While the ending is grim and a bit savage, it has so little resemblance to the original play that unlike the original play, or seeing productions of the play, or other film versions, there is no apparent mental damage from seeing this adaptation. It was released under the title “Under Dark Moons”, and eventually released to video under the title “Castle Nightfall” (a reference that shows nowhere in the text, and has puzzled a few scholars)

Ironically, AIP tried to film a version in 1963, using a protégé of Roger Corman’s, Brendan Finney as a director, with Corman listed as producer. Finney was able to secure a copy of the original play, in French, and translated it into English in scrrenplay format. This proved his undoing, however, as he was unable to retain his sanity. Similarly to Murgo, however, he was able to keep his madness from being clearly evident, at first, though he failed to have Murgo’s foresight and began filming the script in sequence. Madness began to overtake the cast and crew, and production halted after three weeks, with half the film completed, and multiple deaths. The footage is rumored to have survived, but the film was never completed, and ends about a third of the way into act two of the original play. None of the surviving leads ever worked in film again.

In the 80’s, an independent studio attempted a strangely modernized version of this film, an American company filming in Vancouver. The film was set in an unnamed city, though some exteriors were filmed in Milan and Paris to ‘add flavor.’ While some attempted to attach known names to the production later, all of them denied any connection to, or knowledge of the project. The change of the torturer Keleth to a detective of sorts, and the shift from direct nobility to the upper echelons of a strange upper class society, with all of the names and ranks left intact leaves a strange and disturbing film, with the Phantom of Truth coming across more like a movie slasher, leaving most of the characters dead by mid-story, though they all return for the film’s conclusion, which is at least reminiscent of the original play’s conclusion, this climax happening in the Phantom’s lair, a penthouse loft apartment with a somewhat panoramic view as the backdrop for the arrival of the King in Yellow. This film went straight to video under the title “Yellow Nights” and is at best a weak adaptation. No sanity loss for viewing this film. This movie was widely criticized for the incest subplot, which is considerably more graphic than the relationships in the original play.

The final known full adaptation of the play was filmed in 2005 as something of a ‘pirate project’ by Mattieu Rossier. He filmed this movie without permission or funding. He was the most rational-behaving of the filmmakers who adapted this play, first securing funding for a fantasy movie with a completely different script. He then snuck the scenes for this film into the working script and filmed them out of sequence while filming the authorized film (which was released under the title “Winterheart”) Using the sets, costumes, actors, he completed both films in relatively short time, and began to edit them into their respective works.

He unveiled “the King in Yellow” at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. Since the film was not ‘on the books’ for the studio that made it, he was allowed to present it as an independent film. The screening was a bigger disaster than Kruger’s. A riot broke out in the cinema, only forty two known survivors out of an audience of three hundred and seventy five. Of the survivors, twenty seven have total amnesia regarding the incident (or pretend to), though all have shown signs of lingering trauma. More disturbingly, even though no member of the cast or crew was ever able to see the intact film (except for three cast members in the Sundance screening), all but seven, including Rossier, have died since the filming. Some by illness but most by acts of violence. This film, like the others, has been withdrawn and suppressed, with many claiming no surviving print exists.

However, on the internet in the last few years, a version has been leaked that purports to be this adaptation. The impact on those who watch it seems to bear this out, and there are active motions to remove the film wherever it is found.

A bit long winded, and a lot of behind the scenes stuff, but in Call of Cthulhu, that is not uncommon.

What makes a story Lovecraftian, part Three, Cinema

This is going to be a bit odd, to start with, but when you start looking at Lovecraftian stories, cinema is one of the more hit or miss areas, though the successes are awesome. It is also even more subjective, you will have people commenting and debating whether or not a particular film is or is not Lovecraftian at considerable length and energy.

To start with, adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories to movies often completely miss the Lovecraftian themes. Strangely, some of them at least pick up hints, some do better than others. The story that I tend to shorten the title to ‘Charles Dexter Ward’ was adapted as “Edgar Allan Poe’s the Haunted Palace” The story behind that is easy to find, but has more to do with the studio’s pressure for the title than anything of Roger Corman’s wishes. This is by no means a close adaptation of the original story, but it is an entertaining movie that takes the themes of the story well, and also brings up Lovecraftian themes in a few sequences towards the end. So it stands as a successful Lovecraftian movie, if not an optimal adaptation. Conversely, the first attempt to film ‘The Colour out of Space”, “Die Monster Die” is a grim and ghastly piece of work, an embarrassment to the careers of pretty much all involved. Similarly, the first attempt at ‘the Dunwich Horror” is a complete failure as an adaptation, though it does have its fans (I don’t really put myself in that group I have to admit.) successful adaptations of Lovecraft’s work really didn’t find their footing until Stuart Gordon did “Reanimator”, an adaptation of “Herbert West-Reanimator”, which is not my favorite Lovecraft story by a considerable distance, though I have to admit that the film captures some of the feel of the story, and puts it in the modern milieu effectively. This led to many other adaptations in subsequent years, and the success rate became much more hit and miss. Some excellent successes are still debated by some fans, so again, the subjective nature is more evident. The HPLHS productions of Call of Cthulhu and Whisperer in Darkness are, to me, wonderful films, and the adaptation of ‘The Colour out of Space’ originally released as “die Farbe” I think is as good an entry as possible.

But Lovecraftian cinema is not limited to adaptations, and films like ‘Yellowbrickroad”, “Absentia” and even “Horror Express” pick up on the themes and play with them without coming anywhere near Lovecraft’s work directly. Now again, these films are of mixed quality and there is more than a little debate over them, and how Lovecraftian they are or aren’t, but they at least touch on the concepts, the hints that the universe is more than we imagine it to be, and our concepts of controlling the universe are woefully misinformed and inadequate.

Sadly there are films that try to be Lovecraftian and fail, sometimes so painfully you wish for the silhouettes of movie seats and two robots with a human companion to throw lines back…some of these are just bad movies, some are good movies that fail at the concept. I won’t name names here.

Maybe at this point, this isn’t the best place to bring this up, but I ran into an interesting thread in a podcast (the Lovecraft Geek, Robert Price’s nice bits of exploration) on a re-listen that I think warrants mention somewhere in this particular discussion. While Lovecraftian fiction posits a somewhat nihilistic bend, stressing the insignificance of humanity in the universe as a whole, it also presents, in many of its works, the value of clinging to our humanity and striving to effectively ‘push back the darkness’ as much as possible. I also will say that this fiction, cinema, gaming or books, is an item that involves as most science fiction, fantasy and horror, a suspension of disbelief, and reading and enjoying these works does not require a compromise of any point of view or ethical, philosophical or religious stand. If you are unable or unwilling to set aside those concepts for the suspension of disbelief, then such fiction, among many other types of fiction, may not be for you. I have other feelings about that, but those are my feelings and I won’t go into that here, I am not seeking to argue the validity of anyone’s viewpoint.

 

What makes a story Lovecraftian, part Two, All sorts of Critters

This is going to be the most intuitive for anyone who is a serious Lovecraftian fan, but it is something I’ve heard repeatedly from any editor or publisher of Lovecraftian fiction or gaming scenarios. The fact that it is repeated so often indicates that there are people out there who don’t get this point. A monster alone does not make a Lovecraftian story. Particularly if the only thing to recommend it as Lovecraftian is that it has tentacles. Some people inevitably create a horror story and put in a complicated monster and present it as a Lovecraftian story.

Now I readily concede we read stories in which monsters can exist with some level of glee, and a well written horror story with a monster can be very entertaining..but that doesn’t necessarily make it Lovecraftian. Even attempts to categorize Loveraftian themes to a point, handled without the somewhat nihilistic viewpoint discussed in part one can fall short of being truly Lovecraftian.

Back to monsters before I get back to that. Looking at Lovecraft’s own fiction, several of his own works that do meet the primary Lovecraftian criterion feature no ‘monsters’ as such. Thing on the Doorstep, Charles Dexter Ward, while we have monstrous characters and actions, no real monsters show up (Though something monstrous is hinted at in Charles Dexter Ward). In Lurking Fear and Rats in the Walls, we have monsters of sorts, present and past, but they all are of human stock, degenerated but human regardless. So a monster is not necessary at all, but the theme is the key.

Some of the best Lovecraftian movies are either monster free or monster light, but that is a matter for part three.

Graham Masterton wrote two novels Manitou and Revenge of the Manitou (I have subsequently discovered that there were later books in this ‘series’ that I had been unaware of, but I have not, sadly, read them having just become aware of them), that actually do borrow from Lovecraftian themes, with a villain that, as memory serves me, comes from the works of August Derleth Lovecraft ‘collaberation’ The lurker at the Threshold, and presents it intruding into modern times (modern at the time at least). I have to say that while he brings up the concepts, they are countered by forces that fall more into the “Derlethian” mode than anything Lovecraftian, which I would tend to refer to as “Lovecraft Light”.

At this point, a brief diversion into this concept, the Lovecraft Light. Derleth’s writing took Lovecraftian ideas and presented a less nihilistic tone to his stories and began a trend to ‘sytemizing’ and ‘categorizing’ the entities of the Cthulhu Mythos, carried on by Lumley and Carter among others for some time, trying to make them come across as more understandable entities, almost flying in the face of how they were being presented in the days when Lovecraft, Bloch and Howard were throwing it together at the beginning. Some of the stories were more successful than others in execution and concept, but they presented ideas that to some extent mitigated aspects of the Mythos and these are elements that are either removed or downplayed. Though, granted, creations from these attempts are included in the Mythos in games, and as I said, some of the stories are more successful than others, and it can be debated (and often is) how Lovecraftian they are. But there is a grey area, which ultimately is part of the fun.

In a field where the idea is the unknowable…the boundaries of it fight easy classification. Which is appropriate.