Lovecraft, how do I love thee? Let me count with my tentacles… – My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Stories

I’ve gushed about Lovecraft on my previous post for Stargazer’s World Lovecraftian Week. Through my love for role-playing I discovered one of the masters of the genre and have enjoyed his work and that of others inspired by him for many years. Some may say it’s a man crush, but I say thee nay!

H. P. Lovecraft, the person, brings all sorts of conflicted opinions to a discussion. Michael presented a great overview on his life and works few days ago. He was definitely a man of his times. However, think what you may of the man, I love his writings. Some may think he was verbose or archaic but from the first time I read his works I was mesmerized. He’s up there among my favorite authors, Poe, Cortazar, Borges, Kafka, distinguished company. I regularly return to Lovecraft’s work, reread it and always find something new.

So what are my favorite stories by Lovecraft himself, or by others inspired by his work? Read on…

5. Call of Cthulhu:

The Kraken

Below the thunders of the upper deep;

Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,

His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep

The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee

About his shadowy sides; above him swell

Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;

And far away into the sickly light,

From many a wondrous grot and secret cell

Unnumber’d and enormous polypi

Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.

There hath he lain for ages, and will lie

Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,

Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;

Then once by man and angels to be seen,

In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Well it should come as no surprise that The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft makes the list!  After playing the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game this was the first of Lovecraft’s stories I read. I was a teen and I know that upon first reading I did not understand all the complexities in the story. Still the details of the tale, style, structure and themes set in my mind what to expect from Lovecraftian stories.

The three parts of the story, the tale of the artist gone mad, the cult to the ancient creature and the tale of the sailors coming upon the nightmarish city out at sea create a sense of dread and the unknown that touches upon primal fears. It also serves as a handy template for the type of stories that can be told in the Mythos milieu where investigation and discovery are more important than combat, and knowledge is more valuable than coin. But beware the price of knowledge, for it may well be your sanity! (For some reason writing this has brought on an attack of excessive melodrama, back to the post…)

The story is well known by lovers of the Mythos, so a straight gaming adaptation would be difficult, but reading it provides all sorts of interesting ideas and tropes that can be used in Lovecraftian gaming. Here are some adventure see ideas inspired by the story:

Idea #1 – The characters work or are visitors at an inaccessible insane asylum, or maybe they became stranded there. Perhaps there is a storm, a flood, a tornado, some seemingly natural disaster that keeps them from leaving as the patient slowly begin to go mad around them. Like the artists in the first part of The Call of Cthulhu they are being affected by the rise of R’lyeh from the depths of the ocean. If you want to make the story more complex perhaps a patient is a former cultist and is influencing the other patients or one of the doctors in the staff is in the possession of some ancient tome and has performed a ritual that is causing the madness. The inmates escape and the characters are suddenly the prey of the deranged! Ideally it can be set to occur in the same timeframe as the story, March 23rd to April 2nd 1925. If you want to set it in a different time the idea can be accommodated, maybe it takes place in an asylum in a developing country, maybe in the 50s or 60s. I would avoid setting it in modern times where means of communication and transportation may circumvent some of the complexities of the plot.

Idea #2 – The characters investigate a mysterious religious cult, it may be because a loved one has joined the cult and disappeared or they work with the authorities, but something is fishy (excuse the pun) with the seemingly benign group. Not unlike the cult in the second part of The Call of Cthulhu, the members of the group are worshiping the Old Ones, but in a different guise. The common members may not even be aware of this. The plot could be as simple as rescuing the cult members, or as complex as a scheme to take the cult members to the Pacific Ocean and perform a ritual so R’lyeh rises from the depths!

The story is available online, and has inspired radio and comic book adaptations as well as a silent movie by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Even as a young reader I was appalled at some of the racism in the story, but if you’ve never read it, you owe it to yourself to do so.

4. The Whisperer in Darkness: In this story, also by Lovecraft, the supernatural is mixed with science fiction and the product is a very personal and eerie horror story. Here the unknown comes in the form of an alien race that claims to harbor no ill will towards mankind and even presents itself as willing to share with select humans the wonders of their technology and secrets.

While the Mi-Go claim to be benevolent; their nature is so alien, as is their technology that can remove a human’s brain and safely store it in a cylinder, and so far removed from the reality of the 1930’s that it may well be sorcery, the power of dark unknown creatures. I’ve read opinions and talked with people who believe the Mi-Go may have been truly enlightened beings, a superior intelligence misunderstood by the humans. Whenever I’ve read the story I always find the information the Mi-Go provide the protagonist through the guise of the Akeley suspect and agree with the general consensus that that the Mi-Go took the old man against his will.

Reading The Whisperer in Darkness always gives me ideas for possible mythos themed adventures. Some possible adventure seeds:

Idea #3 – This could be the plot to a sci-fi adventure in the vein of Event Horizon (a movie with obvious mythos underpinnings). The characters are part of the first human faster than light spaceship, built based on technology found in an alien archeological site in the solar system. When the mission travels through hyperspace they end up in the world of the Mi-Go and come into contact with the strange alien race. Perhaps the hyperspace engine does not take them to another part of the galaxy but to different dimensions where the laws of science are different!

Idea #4 – Until I read the Wikipedia article on the story I was unaware that The Whisperer in Darkness was one of the first literary appearances of the human brain preserved in a jar concept. The characters may acquire, through an inheritance, archeological dig or some other way a Mi-Go cylinder containing a brain. If they figure out how to use the equipment they may begin communicating with the disembodied brain, which guides their explorations of other Mi-Go ruins and the adventures to procure some of their artifacts. The brain may in fact be working for its nefarious purposes and may even seek a way to take over the body of one of the characters.

The story is also available online in the H.P Lovecraft Archive and the H.P, Lovecraft Historical Society is producing a film based on it. There is a teaser trailer here, and this is the official trailer.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pd5gWGfnK5M

3. Brian Keene’s work: The novels of Brian Keene have a distinct Lovecraftian feel to them and some of his mythology integrates elements of the Cthulhu Mythos. I was introduced to his novels by a friend who heaped praises on his zombie novels and his book The Conqueror Worms, a world where it starts to rain one day and never stops. The creatures that seem to have taken over the world are definitely Lovecraftian. The zombies in his The Rising and City of the Dead novels are not the traditional zombies from the movies, but corpses animated by evil spirits from the Void.

His fiction is decidedly modern, dark and visceral. He can sometimes be over the top, morbid and gruesome. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I am a big fan. I’ve read most of his work and I’m yet to be disappointed. The idea of powerful entities predating the Creator and vying for control of the multiverse present a conflict not so much Lovecraftian but more akin to some of the later reinterpretations of August Derleth, but still the protagonists of Keene’s fiction fight a battle against the overwhelming forces of darkness and despair they cannot, with very few exceptions, win. That is much more Lovecraftian. I’m not saying Keene is unoriginal, on the contrary, I think he weaves the influence of modern horror, slasher movies, comic books and Lovecraft into his very effective and personal style.

I’m actually really surprised that, as far as I know, no one has attempted to create some RPG adaptation of his novels. If you like the Call of Cthulhu style of play (and come on would you be reading this if you didn’t?) and don’t mind playing ultimately doomed heroes, the settings of his various books are ideal for a horror campaign. If you want to read a book where the heroes might just have a chance, Dark Hollow and Ghost Walk present a place where heroes may just fight back the darkness, if only so briefly. Urban Gothic is an excellent take on the degenerate beings hiding among us unseen, but in a modern setting. If the subhuman creatures in the book have been there so long, who is to say there are not others just like them?

Are you still unsure about Keene? He has a serialized novel on his website, Deluge, a sequel to The Conqueror Worms. Just as he says on the webpage, reading the novel before Deluge is highly recommended, but if you want to get a feel for his style here is the chance. Hope you enjoy it!

2. A Study in Emerald: A short story by master storyteller Neil Gaiman (of Sandman fame) that combines Lovecraftian elements with Doyle’s famous Consulting Detective.  Sherlock Holmes meets Cthulhu! Nuff said! I don’t want to ruin anything for you. The story is available online at Neil Gaiman’s website. Go read it; the post will be here when you get back…

(And while you are there, read I Cthulhu, it’s a fun!)

Back? Good! I first read the book in the anthology Shadows over Baker Street, a great collection of stories that mix elements from the Sherlock Holmes milieu with the Cthulhu Mythos. The book is excellent. The Cthulhu by Gaslight supplement I mentioned in my previous Top Five Lovecraftian gaming products post would be ideal to adapting the ideas from A Study in Emerald. I really think it may not be suited to more traditional Cthulhu games and would be a great setting for a more pulp inspired adventure style. Here is an adventure seed for you:

Idea #5 – The characters are investigators, from either the 1920’s or modern times, and through a ritual or portal they end up in another world, the world where A Study in Emerald is set! How will they deal with this new situation, will they be able to fit in or will they quickly become known as enemies of the rulers of the land? The idea of running this game in a modern world extrapolated from the world presented in the story is too ambitious to even consider in this few sentences, but ask yourself, would the future world ruled by the Old Ones be a post-apocalyptic barren wasteland drained of live, or a world of tyrannical order?

Idea #6 – Not looking forward to running such a gloomy campaign… What about having your supers characters discover an alternate Earth just as the one presented in the story? How will your super character’s fare against the might of the Old Ones. Mixing Realms of Cthulhu and the Savage Worlds Super Powers Companion should be simple enough. “Horrid tentacled creature your reign of terror ends NOW!  So says Captain Hyperbole!”

1. The Dunwich Horror: And last but not least, the tale of Wilbur Whateley. The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft is to me the ultimate Lovecraftian story. It has everything, cults, mysteries, unfathomable creatures from beyond, forbidden lore, Miskatonic University and the Necronomicon! What is there NOT to like?

Ironically, this is one of those stories where the good guys actually win. It happens in the distance, seen through the eyes of the locals who only catch a glimpse of what’s going on, but nonetheless it’s a victory.  Yet the feeling remains that this is one small triumph in a much bigger and dangerous war where the humans have little influence.

There have been adaptations, stories set in Dunwich, the characters appear in the works of others, but I believe this story is a great template for a Lovecraftian game. I don’t have a specific idea or adventure seed for this story. I think the story itself is nicely self contained and would hate to intrude upon its perfection, but certainly elements, places and characters can populate other Cthulhu adventures. The story is online at the H.P Lovecraft Archive and I would love to know how it inspires you, what did you learn that you can apply to Lovecraftian gaming from it? If you are truly brave find the 1970 movie adaptation, be wary, it may cause Sanity loss! Here is the trailer…

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tM8EbSvNFqg

I trust the ideas peppered though the list inspire your own gaming. I’m sure some of them might be a little cliché, but hope at least some serve as starting points for your Lovecraftian games.

One last personal note… When I turned twenty I took an anthology of Lovecraft’s work with me to the beach. I had not read his work for some years and on that day I wanted an old friend with me. While my friends had fun in the sun I sat down with the book and read some of his short stories. For the first time I read these stories as an adult, not as a teen reading for the game I was playing, but as a mature, conscious reader. It was like reading the stories for the very first time. That day a tradition started. Ever since, for the last seventeen years, I always read some Lovecraft on my birthday. I guess the realization of our insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things keeps me grounded!

3 thoughts on “Lovecraft, how do I love thee? Let me count with my tentacles… – My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Stories”

  1. I agree that all of the Lovecraft stories you mentioned are great. I haven't read the others, but will definitely look into it now. But I think one of my favorite Lovecraft stories is "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." It was definitely one of his best in my opinion.

  2. Thanks for the comments (and sorry for the late reply)!

    Phalse, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” is one of my favorites, and would have been up there if Gaiman and Keene were not in the Top 5, but definitely top 10.

    Cody, likewise with “The Shadow over Inssmouth”, definitely top 10. “At the Mountains of Madness” was always a hard read for me. I tried to tackle it while I Was a teen and had trouble working my way through it, I have read it as an adult but some subconscious resistance must remain in me.

Leave a Reply