Wednesday, November 2, 2011
From 1918 till 1922, Lovecraft himself penned nearly three dozen short stories where the influence of Dunsany is clearly in evidence. These "Dream Cycle" stories are not generally held to be HPL's best works, but there's no question that, despite their flaws, many possess a certain vibrancy and immediacy that makes them attractive. After 1922, Lovecraft largely abandoned his Dunsanian tales, believing himself not temperamentally well-suited to its idiom. Nevertheless, he did occasionally return to some of the characters, locations, and themes of his Dream Cycle in later stories, starting with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath in 1926. For this reason, the Dream Cycle is sometimes considered a sub-set of his Cthulhu Mythos tales, even though the connections between them are tenuous at best.
Of course, tenuous connections are the stuff of which pastiche is made and so it is with H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, a 1986 boxed supplement to Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, written by Sandy Petersen, Kerie L. Robson, Keith Herber, and others. Subtitled, "Roleplaying Beyond the Wall of Sleep," Dreamlands is intended to open up a new realm for Call of Cthulhu adventures, one reached by leaving one's physical body behind and allowing one's consciousness to travel elsewhere. It's an intriguing basis for a fantasy roleplaying campaign, I can't deny, which is why I readily snapped up the supplement when it was first released. It's worth noting, too, that, though presented as an adjunct to Call of Cthulhu, its origins are in fact far older than that venerable game, having been conceived by Sandy Petersen before he wrote Call of Cthulhu (or so I believe -- someone with more certain knowledge can correct my misapprehension if indeed that's what it is).
Unfortunately, Dreamlands suffers a bit from the same problem that nearly every Mythos-related project suffers from: the need to codify. Now, as someone who is regularly guilty of the same vice, I say this not to point fingers at Sandy Petersen and friends. I mention it because I think the great difficulty in producing a roleplaying game (or supplement) that takes place in the land of dreams is that dreams are regularly whimsical to the point of incoherency. By their nature, they defy codification, even when there's a seeming connection between them. I often have dreams that take place in the "same" locale and yet, each time, details -- sometimes very large ones -- change or are omitted entirely and my dream self rarely takes notice.
So, while there's clearly a basis for a single dream realm in Lovecraft's stories, I'm not sure that realm is consistent enough to serve as the basis for, say, a canonical map. But that's exactly what Dreamlands does. It gives readers a map and a gazetteer of the Dreamlands, along with stats for many of its inhabitants, including its deities and other supernatural beings. It's all very well-done in a literal-minded way, but it certainly doesn't feel very much Lovecraft's Dream Cycle stories, even the worst of which possesses that queer, malleable feeling that so many of my dreams do. Furthermore, the connection between the Dream Cycle and the Cthulhu Mythos feels very forced at times. Simply because, for example, ghouls appear in both doesn't mean that Lovecraft saw his stories as all taking place within the same "universe," at least no more than the fact that I dreamed about "M.A.R. Barker" means that he and I actually met.
If that all sounds nitpicky and pedantic, that's probably because it is. H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands is a supplement I enjoy and I regularly think about finding some way to incorporate it into my Call of Cthulhu campaigns, but I've never done so successfully. Every time I've tried to do so, it's felt a bit silly and cheap, more akin to revealing that Hastur is Cthulhu's half-brother than something mystical and phantasmagoric. Maybe the failing is in me rather than in Dreamlands itself, but I'm not yet fully convinced of that.