This post follows on from the last one. Also, it is explicitly about what I want in a Cthulhu idol. YMMV, and probably does, and that’s cool. In particular, I talk here about aspects of other people’s work that do and don’t work for me, but none of that should be taken as criticism of those people or their work in general, or as a suggestion that my artistic ability is greater than theirs (I assure you that the opposite is the case). If you have different ideas about what Cthulhu should look like, please fire back in the comments.
First principle: Cthulhu should be scary. A fat guy in a rubber suit with limbs that look like prawns is the opposite of scary. Therefore it is crucial to not follow Lovecraft’s drawings (borrowed from here):
Next: Cthulhu should not look like a human at all. Nick Derington put this very well in his idol build thread on Replica Prop Forum:
Too often you see stuff like this-
He should be otherworldly and like in the description “vaguely anthropoid” at best. Not a bodybuilder wearing an octopus mask and bat wings.
Next, I agree with Mike that over-specifying Cthulhu is probably a bad idea. As he said in a comment on the last post:
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.
That’s a tough standard to follow when making a Cthulhu idol, which has to be a real, solid, three-dimensional thing. I think the operative words, though, are “clearly defined”. At some point, if something is going to look truly alien it has to defy easy interpretation. Otherwise it’s just recognizable bits stitched together, and people have been making monsters that way for millennia (gryphon, hydra, manticore, etc.).
For that reason, the Legrasse idol from the 2005 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.
Next item: if Cthulhu is not just a man in a suit, nor should it just be an alien animal. There should be a quality of malign intelligence (two potentially separate things: it should look smart, and also evil). This is the one area where Nick Derington’s Cthulhu sculpt leaves me cold: it certainly looks inhuman, it just doesn’t look very bright, and therefore not very scary.
So there is a list of qualities that a Cthulhu idol ought to have to be satisfying: it should be alien enough to not look like a human, alien or stylized enough not to be too easily interpretable, but sufficiently interpretable to convey malign intelligence. That’s a tough mix, I think, because some of the qualities are almost at odds with each other, and it got me thinking about some specific design elements that one might use.
First stop is basic geometry. If Cthulhu looks like a round lump or a toad, it’s easy to imagine yourself as bigger than it is, which is all wrong. One nice thing about the Legrasse idol is that it leans outward, toward the viewer, which sort of subtly punches up the idea that it is huge and should loom over you.
I think asymmetry could come in here, too. Symmetry is familiar, soothing, and attractive. Asymmetry denies us those things, and when applied to biological structures can look stomach-churningly wrong. Obviously this could be overdone, but I think some subtle asymmetry could reinforce the otherness of Cthulhu.
Lovecraft described Cthulhu as having vestigial wings, and his drawing confirms that, but I’m in favor of making the wings bigger rather than smaller. If they wings are too small, they look cutesy, like fairy wings, and totally destroy the effect. But going in the other direction, wings can be a vehicle for some of the desirable elements listed above. For me, the wings on the Legrasse idol work: they can’t be anything other than wings, but their profile is unusual and aggressive. They make me think of devil-wings and Dracula’s cloak, without too literally implying either of those specific things.
I’d be tempted to go even further in terms of imbuing the wings with menacing and disturbing qualities. For menace, no wings in history are scarier (to me) those of the demon Chernabog from the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia.
What if the wings were sort of unfinished–vestigial not in their physical span, but in the extent of their wingy-ness? Imagine something like the appendages of the xenomorph facehugger, but partially webbed (the excellent facehugger above is built out of real animal bones, with a couple of turtle shells for the egg). From bats and classical demons like Chernabog, we expect the finger-ends to point down, but what if they pointed up and out, like the points on the wings of the Legrasse idol? I think that could be very effective and unsettling.
Next up: eyes. I am sorely tempted to go eyeless, because eyeless faces are always disturbing. But (a) it won’t do, canonically, and (b) it’s been done, in the Alien movies and a lot of horror movies and videogames and such. Although I gotta say, I really like how the eyelessness is accomplished in the poster below, in that not only are there no eyes, there’s not even a top-half-of-the-head where the eyes ought to be.
(I’m also bypassing the idea of doing the eyes shut. Snakes and spiders sleep with their eyes open, and that’s creepy. Also, anything recognizable as shut eyes is probably too recognizable. Finally, the Great Cthulhu should not look sleepy–that way lies plush toys and true madness.)
The other way to do something scary and inhuman with eyes (while rightly avoiding the “angry eyebrow” syndrome quoted above) is to do too many eyes. Lovecraft drew Cthulhu with three eyes on each side, and Nick Derington’s sculpture has three on a side, but in neither case do the eyes strike me as scary. For scary multiple eyes, the ne plus ultra has to be spiders.
As for the body and limbs, I’m still thinking. I like the unholy profusion of limbs on this Cthulhu maquette by Joel Harlow:
The side limbs are a little too clearly goatish for me, but I really like the WTF hand-flipper-wing thingies both in front and behind. Also, excellent use of multiple eyes, and tentacles not just as mouthparts but sort of popping out all over the place. It’s all over-specified for an idol (which is fine, since it’s not trying to be one), but suggests a couple of useful principles. First, have lots of limbs, or at least don’t make Cthulhu too obviously a tetrapod. Second, don’t make the individual limbs too clearly this or that.
It just occurred to me that polydactylous webbed hands and feet could be a sort of reflection in miniature of the webbed-facehugger-type wings. It could lend Cthulhu the suggestion of unholy growth, just too many body parts going on at once. Also, if the fingers (on hands, feet, or wings) look like spider legs, that is both disturbing and not something I’ve seen done before with Cthulhu. We’ve had reptilian and molluscan and crustacean Cthulhus, but nothing that I’ve seen that draws too much from terrestrial arthropods. Insects and spiders are creepy–maybe we should be capitalizing on that.
Anyway, back to limbs in general. I don’t think Cthulhu should be buff. Skinny, skeletal limbs are creepier than big muscular ones. That’s how Edgar Rice Burroughs described the evil goddess Issus, that’s how Michael Whelan painted the Boogeyman (above), and that’s how Giger’s xenomorph started out (although later iterations strayed from the true faith),
To sum up, my ideal Cthulhu idol would have the following characteristics:
- looms outward, or otherwise aggressively posed
- big grabby unfinished-looking wings, possibly posed asymmetrically
- spider-like eyes, but probably not too regular in numbers or symmetry
- extremities not clearly arms or flippers or whatever, but some horrible combination, and skinny rather than buff
- inhuman (probably covered by all of the above)
So. This is basically just a pile of art references and musings. As I said in the last post, the obvious next step is to turn it into reality. Unfortunately right now I am short on both time and sculpting experience. The latter is just a complication, in that it will make it more difficult and time-consuming to get what I want. The former is an actual barrier, in that it’s keeping me from doing this at all right now. But maybe soon.