Cthulhu idylls

Call of Cthulhu movie posterI am going through one of my periodic bouts of fascination with all things Lovecraftian. This post collects all the best stuff I’ve found recently.

If you haven’t read any Lovecraft, this post by Matt Baldwin at Defective Yeti will put you on the right track. I agree with him that “Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness” are probably not the best to start with. Why not? They’re long, dense, and larded with big undigested chunks of exposition that will be more rewarding if they aren’t the first stops on your Lovecraft tour. I’d go with “Pickman’s Model” or “The Outsider” as starting points, and “Shadow Over Innsmouth” as one of the most approachable, creepy, and–rather uncharacteristically–kinetic Mythos stories. Update: In case you don’t follow the Defective Yeti link, you can get almost all of Lovecraft’s work for free here, and you can get the complete work for e-readers here. Go nuts!

vintage cthulhuMy own love of Lovecraft started around age 12, when I found a collection of his stories in the public library in Enid, Oklahoma. The above image was on the cover, and all it took was one glance for me to feel absolutely compelled to know more. Now I look at that image and think, “too human, too relatable, not alien enough”. But now I’m a jaded 38-year-old with a highly refined taste in Cthulhu depictions. At 12 I didn’t even know it was Cthulhu, I just knew that it was totally f’d up and totally awesome. The puny human being casually dropped to his death really sells it.

Since then I’ve been what you might call a recreational Lovecraft user. I’ve always had some Lovecraft around, and occasionally I really gork out on it, but it’s never been a lifestyle thing for me. I’m not into Cthulhu plushies, is what I’m sayin’.

Call of Cthulhu 6th edition coverBut I am into lots of other Lovecraftiana, at least periodically. The current affliction was triggered by the Kickstarter campaign for the 7th edition of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game from Chaosium. I funded at the “Slobbering Shoggoth” level–you get a truly insane amount of loot for a hundred bucks. I hope the cover art for the new edition rocks as hard as that from the 6th edition, above.

And of course that set me off on one of my periodic quests to plumb the depths of the Mythos. Here’s the best of what I’ve found this time out.

Cthulhu Wars - Great CthulhuThis mesmerizingly detailed Cthulhu figure is from the upcoming, Kickstarter-funded Cthulhu Wars boardgame. As of this posting, there are still 6 days left to get in on it. If you don’t want the whole game, you can get the Cthulhu faction figure set for $50. I haven’t made up my mind yet. Fifty bucks is a lot to drop on a hand-sized plastic statue (and some other figures I could take or leave). But it is pretty rad.

Michael Bukowski - resurrected human

Michael Bukowski runs the wonderfully-named Yog-Blogsoth blog, makes and sells handcrafted journals full of Lovecraftiana, and draws just about every possible Thing mentioned by HPL. This is his “resurrected human” from The Curious Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which is really disturbing, and therefore really awesome.

The poster at the top of this post is from the recent (2005) Call of Cthulhu movie from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. CoC is silent, looks like it was made in the 1920s, and has a runtime of 47 minutes. As of right now, it is streaming on Netflix and available to rent or buy on AppleTV, but not streaming on Amazon (although you can buy the DVD or Blu-Ray through Amazon). The disks are also available direction from the HPLHS, and there are posters and t-shirts, too.

CoC movie stillSo how is the movie? I watched it Saturday morning and enjoyed it immensely. For Lovecraft, knowledge may be power (maybe), but it is definitely sanity-eroding horror, and the movie does a good job of capturing that. I thought the decision to go with a faux-1920s production was canny. The climax of the movie could easily swallow a hundred million dollars, and if you don’t have that, you might as well skew in other direction and create a meta-fictional reason your effects don’t look like Avatar. The stagecraft and miniatures and stop-motion were all great by 1920s standards, and it’s easy to slip into thinking that you’re watching a genuine artifact of that era instead of something that came out the same year as Revenge of the Sith. And  of course, the 1920s are the decade for all things Lovecraftian, so using a faux-1920s production for a Cthulhu movie is appropriate. As other reviewers have noted, this is how you do sci-fi/fantasy/horror on a budget.

Incidentally, the HPLHS has done another movie, The Whisperer in Darkness, as a faux-1930s “talkie”, and it has gotten good reviews. I may post a review when I get a chance to see it.

Among my favorite things in the CoC movie were the two Cthulhu idols:

Legrasse Cthulhu idolthe “Legrasse idol” captured by Inspector Legrasse from the swamp cult,

Alert Cthulhu idoland the “Alert idol” found on board the ship of the same name (you can see a newspaper photo of this idol in the movie still above).

This set me off exploring the hitherto-unknown (to me) fan activity of making Cthulhu idols. For a taste of the breadth and depth of Cthulhu idol making, check out the ‘Cthulhu idol‘ category at the niche and awesome Propnomicon blog, which currently has 192 posts on the topic.

Nick Derington Cthulhu scuptThe most epic Cthulhu sculpt I have seen yet is this excellently-documented effort by Nick Derington, as chronicled on the Replica Props Forum.

Obviously what I should do next is sculpt my own Cthulhu. If and when I find time to do that, I’ll post the results here. In the meantime…

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

(In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.)

Sweet dreams!

UPDATE 13 months later: Well, I didn’t sculpt my own Cthulhu, but I did draw one, and that kicked off a thing where a bunch of other, more talented people let me post their Cthulhoid art as part of something I called the ‘Collect Call of Cthulhu‘. Clink that link for all the rest. And this summer the Lovecraft fever is on me once again–results so far are here.

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10 Responses to Cthulhu idylls

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    … too human, too relatable, not alien enough …

    Bingo. That was my immediate thought about all of these depictions. Like all ancient horrors, Cthulu works best when you can’t see him clearly. (See also: xenomorph, clover). It’s not just anything that looks like a man with the squid head that breaks the illusion — it’s anything that has a clearly defined outline.

    This, by the way, is part of what the Jackson LotR films did so well with the Balrog — and on film, the most uncompromisingly literal of all media. It was all very well for Tolkien to write deliberately vague description like “like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater […] the shadow reached about it like two vast wings”. Words are great for that kind deliberate under-specification, leaving details to the reader’s imagination. But to produce something on an actual screen that leaves the same impression of great but undefined power — that’s a real challenge.

    It’s also why they were dead right to cut the “slime balrog” sequence, cool through that would have been. It would have been impossible to show the extinguished balrog without becoming explicit about its shape and size.

    So I want to see Cthulus that I can’t quite make out probably.

  2. Matt Wedel says:

    You read my mind (and unknowingly stole some material from my next post). For that reason, the Legrasse idol from the movie is possibly my favorite of all the craft Cthulhu idols I’ve seen, because it’s not immediately clear what all the bits are, and you’re not sure where your eyes should go. That’s exactly the effect that a Cthulhu rendering should have. And it achieves this largely through being heavily stylized, which is also the right move in general (although in specific I might quibble over whether a pseudo-mechanical approach was the best one to take for this specific entity). From Paleolithic Venus figurines to jade lions to Egyptian tombs to Mayan codices, ancient renderings of religious significance are always stylized. So a photo-realistic approach is not only wrong for Cthulhu itself, it’s especially wrong for a Cthulhu idol. And to be fair, there are a lot of homemade Cthulhu idols out there that look like they might have been pulled out of a 10,000-year-old archaeological site. But most of them are so stylized that they don’t look menacing. That’s my main quibble with the Nick Derington idol: it looks alien enough, it just doesn’t look very scary. There is (to me, anyway) nothing suggestive of malign intelligence.

    So I think the trick is to make something that is stylized, conveys a sense of evil, and yet is sufficiently unclear or abstract that you can’t just take it all in and understand it at a glance. More on this in the next post, hopefully.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    That all sounds right. Plus intelligence.

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  7. Heteromeles says:

    Heh, I just hauled out my copy and re-read the LeGrasse passage from the Call of Cthulhu: “It was abnormally lifelike….” indeed. Actually, it’s a detailed description, so the abstract idol actually isn’t accurate, just very, very cool. One of my favorite pictures (not accurate either) is the book cover on http://www.amazon.com/Cthulhu-The-Mythos-Kindred-Horrors/dp/0671656414/.

    One could argue that, since a) Lovecraft was writing around the time of surrealism, and b) surrealism was based in part on what colonial explorers were bringing back from the Congo and New Guinea (among others), that c) one could make a fairly cool Cthulhu idol by going back to those roots, and using either Melanesian or Congolese art tropes as the basis for a sculpture. Most of these artistic systems are actually quite formal, with accepted abstractions and symbols, all of which is suited to mythos representation.

    As for the material, Call of Cthulhu suggests something like soapstone, which is easy to carve. Personally, I think true, dyed-in-the-wool geeks should be carving their cthulhus in dark jade, perhaps polar jade (which is actually from British Columbia and Alaska, but go figure). Since they’re using non-gem quality polar jade for high end bathroom counters in Asia, I’m pretty sure that it’s available in large quantities for a fairly low price. Working jade, of course, gets interesting, but a decent piece is tough enough to hold fine details, unlike a piece of soapstone.

    Of course, the other geeky way is to use a resin to create the material for the LeGrasse idol: “soapy, greenish-black stone with its golden or iridescent flecks and striations….” Um, yeah. Petrified oil slick is my guess. Lovecraft was fond of piling on the conflicting descriptors just to produce that sense of crawling unease, wasn’t he?

  8. Matt Wedel says:

    First, sorry for letting your comment languish for so long.

    Second, those are all good thoughts, especially the link through Surrealism to Melanesia and the Congo. It makes me think this: just as you could keep Cthulhu himself from being too identifiable by mixing parts of various animals, you could keep a Cthulhu idol from being too obviously the product of any one culture by blending design elements from several cultures.

    The book cover you linked to is by Stephen Hickman. There is a sculpture of that particular Cthulhu as well, although i don’t know off the top of my head if the sculpture predated the cover painting or vice versa. I meant to include that one as a nice example in my Cthulhu idol post and I somehow overlooked it. Thanks for the reload.

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