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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Did Geek Culture Kill Cthulhu?

OK, I'll begin by acknowledging that in media, people can do whatever the hell they want, and I'm pretty much powerless against the creative freedom of others.  Nor should I have the power to censor what others do in the name of creative expression, assuming no one gets hurt.  But I think maybe someone has.

Seriously, though, I'm about to launch into semi-rant territory here, but want to qualify things.  The opinions I express are mine alone and shouldn't be taken as anything else.  And to stave off those poison pens, let me clarify that I LOVE Call of Cthulhu as a game and will continue to play it often.

Got it?  Good?  Because while I can't be certain, I think that someone killed Cthulhu - I mean killed him dead...   

Not literally, of course.  Immortal beings are famously immune to death, or so I've been led to believe, and popular fictional characters are tougher still.  But geek culture has altered this dynamic such that something vital, if not absolutely essential, about Lovecraft's creation has been lost amid the crush of games and products aimed at those who love this cosmic fellow.

So let's get a few things straight right off: 

Cthulhu is dark, mysterious, and terrifying.  A barely glimpsed monstrosity from some forgotten star possessing an alien psychology so beyond us as to render it an existential nightmare of cosmic proportions (literally).  This inaccessible mystery is part of its enduring power because Cthulhu, and its kind, are forever beyond our understanding, and this counts for pretty much EVERYTHING.

It's said that to look upon
Cthulhu is to be driven completely mad...

Cthulhu is never fully revealed.  A forensic accounting of its appearance, powers, and abilities is beyond us.  And its history and darkest motivations even more so, being only hinted at in ancient manuscripts known to turn their readers mad and reduce them to pale, quivering, and often suicidal, husks.  

Yes, we get a detailed description of a statue fashioned from feverish nightmares.  But this is subjective and tinged with such conventional madness as to be suspect.  Of course, there's the amorphous thing Lovecraft describes rising out of the sunken city of R'yleh.  Not coincidentally, this occurs on stormy seas as seen through the eyes of mortal panic, and the final glimpse is suitably formless as to simultaneously expose and conceal itself. 

Even Cthulhu's human cult is barely witnessed, being so utterly deranged as to be of little use.  Mostly, Lovecraft's investigators chase after old manuscripts and half-remembered legends that are usually sufficient, in and of themselves, to destroy the sanity of mere mortals.  And the dark and half-glimpsed horror waits until the very end to thrust our heroes into oblivion.

But these days, Lovecraftian baddies are dragged kicking and screaming into broad daylight, where their power fades.  When elder gods come fully statted as villains for your role-playing game, complete with implied instructions on how to defeat them, mystery flies out the window.  The barely glimpsed horror comes out to shake hands and offer its calling card like a true salesman.

The vagueness of this picture,
along with the fact that Cthulhu is revealed
as a statue first, really works...

The internet offers many fine illustrations of great Cthulhu, including art from certain role-playing games.  These are superior to Lovecraft's drawing, which I suspect shows the elder god on R'yleh's version of the Squatty Potty.  Detailed forensic breakdowns of the Great Old One(s) are easy enough to find, and these leave little to the imagination; now just another bad guy, albeit a very ancient and powerful one to contend with.

But there's a fun side to all of this.  I have a Cthulhu plush sitting on my bookcase.  My dog, being fond of fluffy toys, desperately wants to get this and thrash it around, at least until she realizes it doesn't have that squeaky thing.  But that's not everything.  You can buy Cthulhu merchandise online, including caps, shirts, and assorted figurines.  Some are comical and others more respectably scary.  But all of them lack mystery... 

There's certainly nothing wrong with this.  Like I said, geek culture can do what it wants.  But I still remember Lovecraft as a literary genre in the 70s, years before Cthulhu became a geeky commodity.  The essential thrill of these stories lies in what the reader DOESN'T know and can never fully grasp.

And we, the reader, play along because it's FUN.  But we also understand that stripped of its shadows, Cthulhu and company are really only scary in the way that nuclear war, with all its destructive potential, is scary.  Minus the shadows and forgotten lore, Cthulhu is neither cosmic nor especially evil.      

So when it comes time to play Call of Cthulhu, don't forget what makes Lovecraft great.  Build mystery and suggest something so antithetical to human understanding that you shudder, and remember what makes YOU scared and pass it along.  The thing you fear is lurking in the darkest shadows, just barely seen.  A terrible thing revealed only at the bitter ending.  Resurrect Cthulhu now!


  1. A guy in my office has a Cthulhu bobble head on his desk. He has never heard of CoC :(

  2. A guy in my office has a Cthulhu bobble head on his desk. He has never heard of CoC :(

  3. Same thing was done to vampires and zombies. We kill our darlings with love. Then we find the next obscure idea to worship. Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!

  4. Did you take a look at Cubicle 7 "Laundry files" rpg ? It may interest you as it manages to create the same sense of dread as HP Lovecraft stories while turning many "cthulhian" tropes upside down. It manages to blend dark humor and horror perfectly. By the way you don't have to read the books (or even like them) to like the game.
    It's awesome to run when your players (or the GM) are a bit burned out on CoC.

  5. Quoth The Angry Monk, “Same thing was done to vampires and zombies. We kill our darlings with love.” But of course, that was a function of real world popularity. Fortunately most real world “normies” have never heard of Cthulhu or indeed Lovecraft. So recruit some noobs. As for the rest of us, think chimpanzee. Sure, pop culture turned them cute & funny. They’re like big pushy toys ...until they gnaw your face off.