Monday, June 1, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Trail of Cthulhu

It's commonplace nowadays to look askance at the writings of H.P. Lovecraft's correspondent and admirer August Derleth, viewing them as amateurish examples of hackwork pastichery. This is particularly true since the advent of serious Lovecraft scholarship in the last 30 years, which has enabled many people to read HPL without all the posthumous accretions many had previously accepted as the genuine article. Much like Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft's popularity was often helped at the expense of watering down and otherwise bastardizing his singular vision, resulting in many self-professed Lovecraft fans actually misunderstanding what the object of their devotions wrote and believed.

Much of that watering down is the result of August Derleth's tireless attempts to market the Old Gent's works to a wider audience throughout the 1940s and 50s. Derleth rationalized and regularized Lovecraft's intentionally incomplete myth cycle, filling in every empty space and elaborating on each and every reference in order to bring about a consistency that the originals lacked. In addition, he engaged in posthumous "collaborations" with HPL, in which he'd take an idea or some names or even a snippet of text and use it as the germ for a story entirely of his own devising but that, because of the use of Lovecraft's name in association with it, acquired an authority it otherwise would have lacked. In short, it is Derleth, not Lovecraft himself, who is the true father of what we now call the "Cthulhu Mythos," for Grandpa Theobald had no such conception in his mind as he wrote his stories, each of which was a unique creation that might or might not have some connection to what he'd written previously. That is, Lovecraft simply wrote stories, whereas Derleth (and those influenced by him) wrote stories about Lovecraft stories.

1962's The Trail of Cthulhu, published by Derleth's own Arkham House press, is a good example of the distinction. Collecting together six short stories written by Derleth between 1944 and 1952, they tell the story of the thoroughly un-Lovecraftian scholar-adventurer Laban Shrewsbury's battle against the forces of the Mythos on Earth and in realms beyond. Shrewsbury has spent 20 years traveling the cosmos, amassing eldritch lore and arcane power with which to fight his private war against the darkness, in the process becoming nothing less than an occult superhero. It's fun, enjoyably written pulp goodness, but it's about as far from the existential horror of its supposed inspirations as I can imagine.

The fascinating thing is that, as a source for gaming ideas, Derleth's stories are often more rich than are Lovecraft's own. That's not to say that they're better -- that's an entirely subjective judgment I won't make -- but I would certainly argue that the Call of Cthulhu RPG would largely have been impossible without the example provided by Derleth's Shrewsbury and other similar characters. I can and do appreciate the point of view of Lovecraftian purists who think Derleth's enthusiasms did a disservice to HPL's legacy by diluting it with ideas and concepts utterly alien to it. I am myself a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist and abhor the way that others often strip mine their predecessors' works for things they can use for their own efforts. At the same time, I also concede that popularization can occasionally have a salutary effect on source material, making it not only more accessible but also more generally useful. To some extent, I think Derleth's "Lovecraftian" efforts proved more beneficial than harmful, at least as far as gaming goes, but I am open to being convinced otherwise. At the very least, I think it's quite fair to say that gaming owes a lot to Derleth's ideas, perhaps even moreso than it does to Lovecraft directly.


  1. I mostly agree with the gist of what you're saying. One of the big downsides, IMHO, is that by Derleth's shoehorning the "mythos" into a pseudo-christian setup of good and evil gods, we've lost the much more interesting message Lovecraft was offering. The entities he presented were alien, not just in biology but in intellect and abilities. It was their alien yet often clearly superior minds that put humans in their place. By placing them in a good/evil cosmology they are humanized, given a human base of motivation, when in reality Lovecraft believed the opposite, that humans are essentially animals, there is no God, and in fact humans are probably not at the top of the food chain in the greater cosmos. Through Derleth this is all sort of mutated by his own religious beliefs, which is a shame.

  2. You raise some notable points. I would add that everything which makes people want to know more about the origins of an idea is a good thing. I am not familiar with August Derleth's works, but surely things become a bit muddier when someone rewrites the works of others (like De Camp and Carter did with Howard) so that it becomes difficult to discern the contributions. Luckily today one can find Howard's original works in print; are Derleth's works still mixed with those of HPL is a similar fashion?


  3. Lovecraft simply wrote stories, whereas Derleth (and those influenced by him) wrote stories about Lovecraft stories.I think this is a fair analysis. As you say, the concept of "Cthulhu Mythos" is a latter creation - the pulp authors swapped ideas and used each other's proper nouns for a laugh, but it's only under Derleth that you really get an interconnected, broad Cthulhu world.

    Also, I think you're right when you say that Derleth's work might better from an RPG point of view. Sure, the addition of "good gods/bad gods" changes an important part of the world view of Lovecraft's works - but it's much easier to create heroes and run campaigns in the Derleth-esque world, I feel, whereas Lovecraft himself will always be consigned to the "and then a hellbeast ate him" one-off. ;-)

    As an aside, it seems to me that Cthulhu et al have really mutated from their literary origins, with influences from the pastiche writers, the RPG and general nerd culture warping Cthulhu in particular into The Ultimate Badass Who Is Unkillable when I don't think that's necesarilly what the original stories convey. Or at least, Lovecraft's writings are much more sparse on details which are now overwritten in a lot of people's minds with "eats 1d4 adventuers per round". I think a proper reading of his works (as you clearly have done) is something more nerds should do before pontificating on Cthulhu - and I feel bad for never going back to that short story collection of his I read, thusly forcing me to acknowledge myself as unqualified to discuss this further. :-)

    George Q

  4. I don't think Derleth's Shrewsbury is completely without precedent in Lovecraft's own work, or even that it's necessarily the best model for what became the archetypal Call of Cthulhu approach. Let's not forget the investigations of Willet in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward - or, even more appropriately, the trio of Armitage, Rice, and Morgan in The Dunwich Horror, who walk like a CoC party, talk like a CoC party, and quack like a CoC party.

    Call of Cthulhu, specifically, seems to reject the vision of the Lovecraftian adventure put forward in The Trail of Cthulhu in two important respects:

    1: Interdimensional travel is never routine.- In Lovecraft's work, frequent trips outside Euclidian spacetime has an ultimately negative effect - just look at The Dreams In the Witch-House.
    - In Call of Cthulhu, whilst supernatural means of transport are available in the form of the byakhee (used in the Trail, yes, but also used in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath), it's never a trivial thing to do such a thing - if nothing else, it involves the use of magic, which grinds you down just a little bit further. It also entails subjecting your character to the tender mercies of the GM. What's more, going to a trip to the library of Celeano, if the GM decides that it exists at all, is decidedly difficult.
    - In The Trail of Cthulhu Shrewsbury treats byakhee a bit like enormous faceless taxi drivers.

    2: If you ever actually see an Old One, you lose.- In The Dunwich Horror the party's success lies in preventing Wilbur from summoning his otherworldly father to Earth. In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward an ancient and dangerous evil is defeated - but said evil is simply an (admittedly experienced and accomplished) human wizard - no Old Ones appear onstage whatsoever. The sailor in The Call of Cthulhu does, admittedly, manage to delay the Old One's return by ramming him with his ship, but it's only a delay - Cthulhu is still alive and active in the world through his cult, which is more than capable of avenging the tenacled one; the Old One endures, whereas in their respective stories Wilbur Whately and Joseph Curwen are destroyed.
    - Wise Call of Cthulhu players know that preventing the cultists summoning their dark master in the first place is always preferable to fighting the beast itself.
    - Shrewsbury's grand overarching scheme in The Trail of Cthulhu involves tracking the big guy down and dropping a nuke on him. Granted, it doesn't work, but it's precisely the opposite of the sort of approach generally encouraged in Cthulhu-inspired gaming. Any CoC investigator, on learning that Shrewsbury was planning to stroll up to an Old One's lair and poke it with a (nuclear-tipped) stick, would make their excuses and leave the party in a great hurry, if they didn't just shoot the raving old idiot dead to prevent him from making such a foolhardy mistake.

  5. Nice post.

    I hope you and your family are feeling better.

  6. It is interesting how the actual text of Call of Cthulhu again and again criticises Derleth's approach to the Mythos, and yet, as you point out, the game, with its emphasis on normal folk actively fighting against eldritch horrors, rather than fleeing whenever they can, seems to have more in common with Derleth.

    All that said, aside from Armitage and company (as Arthur points out), Lovecraft's own Howard Carter is certainly less of a protagonist, and much more of a pulp hero.

  7. Sorry, Randolph Carter. Not sure what happened there. ;)

  8. Derleth's stories in Trail of Cthulhu are great fun. You have to read them as utterly different from Lovecraft's approach in order to appreciate them, though.

    They are more suited to an RPG, it's true, but I think the RPG isn't Call of Cthulhu, it's something different ... it's more about beating the horrors than about surviving them.

  9. I enjoyed reading Derleth's Cthulhu Mythos stories--once. They don't bear re-reading, unlike Lovecraft's stories that can be read over and over.

    I agree with what you say, James, about the Derlethian Mythos being more gameable than the Lovecraft Mythos. In my CARCOSA, Derleth has more influence than Lovecraft, Lin Carter has more influence than Derleth, and DDG has more influence than Lin Carter.

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  11. treat byakhee a bit like enormous faceless taxi drivers.

    ...stroll up to an Old One's lair and poke it with a (nuclear-tipped) stick

    I'm afraid I've played in campaigns where we did both these things and cheerfully paid the price.

    One of the things I love about CoC is that it's possible to play it anywhere on a continuum from doom-laden angst through two-fisted, cultist-bashing adventure to hapless comedy - sometimes all in one sitting. I can't remember who said that nothing is really funny unless is has something terrible in it, but I've found that where CoC brings the terrible/tragic, players very often manage to find the comic. That bothers some people: A small subset of CoC players I've met have been mighty prescriptivist about the "authentic" mood for the game, and about keeping their HPL references "pure." That can be good and powerful, but I think it can also miss a lot of the potential of the Mythos as a genre.

    confirmation word: nosan. James, your page is messing with me.

  12. I'm not a huge fan of Derleth... but not because he "bastardized" Lovecraft's vision, so much as because he's just not that great of a writer.

    If anything, the concept of other writers taking "Lovecraftian" themes and interweaving them into their own stories was always Lovecraft's vision anyway. People tend to forget how much other writers contributed concepts that are considered "core" to the Mythos; writers like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Block, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, etc. And August Derleth was hardly the first to posit that human characters could meet the eldritch horrors of the cosmos with a somewhat two-fisted approach. Robert E. Howard's rather extensive Mythos fiction tends to gravitate towards that paradigm, perhaps to no-one's surprise.

  13. I'm not gonna lie to ya, James. I actually like Derleth a little better than Lovecraft. Partly 'cause, as you said, Derleth's stories are a little more two-fisted, partly because they're more organized, and partly because I simply don't understand why Lovecraft is scary. I mean, I can understand why that might be in a less enlightened time where mankind thought it was hot shit (IE the period Lovecraft lived in), but now I think people are jaded enough that a lot (myself included) would look at a Lovecraft story and say "So the universe is big and uncaring. What else is new?"

    This is not to say that I think Lovecraft's stories are bad, of course. Merely that I find them more intriguing than horrible.

  14. As Rach said, a lot of Lovecraft's stories seem to be about things that have lost their horror: in particular a universe which isn't centred around humans, and the possiblity of a 'taint' in one's ancestry.

  15. This discussion about us no longer being horrified by an uncaring universe the way HPL was (with his preoccupation with Providence), reminds me of this:

    Science is a match that man has just got alight. He thought he was in a room — in moments of devotion, a temple — and that his light would be reflected from and display walls inscribed with wonderful secrets and pillars carved with philosophical systems wrought into harmony. It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary splutter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he anticipated — darkness still. H. G. Wells, "The Rediscovery of the Unique," The Fortnightly Review, July 1891

    I guess it's been going on for quite a while.

  16. The Trial of Cthulhu RPG (which I must admit I thought this post would be about when I saw the title - it's very much a "players work it out yourself" rather than a "roll dice to see if you worked it out" game and so I had contemplated doing a blog entry about how it has an Old School core to it) has two settings for rules - Purist and Pulp which covers both bases. In Pulp guns are useful for dealing with cultists and uppity natives, in Purist guns are useful for suicide. The book does make the point (made above) that HPL often jumped between the two opposing poles.

    You can go Derleth or Lovecraft with the same ruleset.

    A mythos writer who seems to be ignored these days is Brian Lumley - I'm not a huge fan of his works, especially Titus Crow his blatant Dr. Who ripoff, but his Mythos stuff is very pulp and even as I disliked it when I read it I was aware that there was much more game potential in it than a lot of the mood pieces that Lovecraft wrote. His Dreamlands stuff is quite good in a swords and sorcery fashion.

  17. I was a Lovecraft purist when I read his stories, but when I ran CoC I was for sure a Derleth man. I wanted characters to be on the road to becoming heroes who could fight the Mythos while at the same time studying it. I wanted them to be more akin to a Titus Crow than one of the short stories doomed fuddy duddies.

    Of course HP had at least a couple of heroes who seemed to be able to survive mythos encounters. Inspector Legrasse(sp) and Randolph Carter come to mind.

  18. While prefer my yog sothoth-eries Derlerth free, I think it would be nice to see a biography of the man. He is almost as weird as old Theobald himself in some respects.

  19. Here is a question for Lovecraft fans--where to start? I've been wondering that for about 30 years. I'm not interested in being a completist or scholar--just read the best or most representative. I've put it off because, well, because even the flying monkeys spook me (the Auntie Em/Witch sequence in the crystal ball was far scarier). Just looking for a starting point from among the many releases.

  20. I would say that the seminal piece is "Call of Cthulhu", followed by "The Dunwich Horror".

  21. Oh, I forgot "The Shadow over Innsmouth"!

  22. Any book with "At the Mountains of Madness" in the title : )

    I haven't read any Derleth (I'd like to) so I can't comment.

  23. Thanks, Antonio and Chris T. And thanks, James. Thought-provoking and informative, as always.

  24. Rusty, Antonio and Chris have given good suggestions. "The Call of Cthulhu" is a good overview of the cults-and-monsters aspect of the Mythos, and has been mentioned above, while "The Dunwich Horror" is a good example of a Call of Cthulhu investigator team in action; I haven't read the latter in a long time, but I remember it being quite a chore, whereas the first is a great deal more readable. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is a great read, rattling along at a brisk pace while maintaining a sense of horror and menace. I haven't read "At the Mountains of Madness" in about ten years either, and I remember it also being a bit of a slog, but I may feel differently now.

  25. Excellent. Thanks, kelvingreen.

  26. Funny thing about RPG campaigns is that they themselves are almost always of necessaity 'hack works' and 'pastiches', strip-mining the original classics for content. Cliche, for instance, works great in RPGs, where it's anathema to good literature. And for this reason hack authors are often more useful as inspiration than the originals, because they are our useful models. I can't run a Conan game that truly captures REH's genius, because I am not a literary genius, but I can run one that resembles the works of his lesser imitators.

  27. Although it's a bit of a different beast altogether, I actually think "The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath" is the best Lovecraft piece. It's a bit sword & sorcery, but it's also one of the best Mythos stories there is at the same time, ironically.

    Other than that, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", "The Dunwich Horror" "The Whisperer in Darkness" and of course "The Call of Cthulhu" are the most iconic stories he wrote, I think. "Pickman's Model", "Cool Air" and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" are also personal favorites that I don't hesitate to recommend. Some of the "lower grade" classics are stuff like "The Colour Out of Space", "Rats in the Walls", "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Strange High House in the Mist."

    After that, I think they all start to run together a bit, personally.

  28. I should've thought of this before: Ken Hite's Tour de Lovecraft is actually a nice introduction and overview to the tales, as well as being a really sharp collection of essay reviews full of Stuff To Think About.

    Michel Houellebecq's H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life is supposed to be a good essay on the man, and not nearly as one-sided as you might imagine from the title.