Collect Call of Cthulhu, Part 4: Scott Elyard’s stumbling mountain

Yow, this Collect Call of Cthulhu thing is succeeding beyond my wildest dreams, in that some really talented folks are unleashing new art on the world because of it. Many thanks to everyone who has contributed so far, to those whose contributions are still waiting in the wings, and to those who will create new cool stuff in the future.

A minor programmatic note before the main attraction: I’ve got so much good art coming in that I’m getting a little backlogged in terms of getting it posted. If I’ve promised to post your art and it’s not up yet, fear not, it will be soon. I moved Scott’s stuff to the head of the line because it was all done, and with everyone else I am still working out some details. Happily, this means that we all have even more Cthulhu art to look forward to in coming days.

Scott send in a detailed writeup with the images sandwiched in the middle, so I’m going to turn the floor over to him. I’ll pop up back at the end with a few thoughts of my own. Everything between the hash marks is Scott’s.

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I’ve tried to draw H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu a lot, but never really produced anything I would consider even remotely successful. I sort of came by the stories themselves in a confused manner, too, which didn’t help at all. My first exposure was probably through a collection of other short stories in one of the libraries I grew up in while I was a Navy brat (we moved every 18 months; so it’s hard to remember which library, honestly). It wasn’t even a dedicated Lovecraft collection, but an anthology filled with stories by other authors. Which? I can’t say, or even when, though I’m thinking it was when I lived in Japan, maybe in 1984. But my interest received a boost via roleplaying games, especially the Cthulhu mythos section (filled with marvelous Erol Otus art) of the original printing of Deities and Demigods by TSR, which was posted behind the librarian’s desk (with all the other AD&D books) at the Yokota library.

I used to troll used and new bookstores looking for his work, finding very little (this was before popularity seems to have kicked off, but living on base in remote locations didn’t really help, either). For whatever reason, collections were rare as they tantalizing, and these influences may have starved and malformed my ideas on the subject.

Until Matt posted about what he’d like to see in a Cthulhu Idol. Everyone knows what this thing looks like, especially if they’ve read the story. But it isn’t much help if you like a lot of good direction, since the description in the story is vague enough to allow for an infinite multitude of possibilities.

Here’s one such, informed somewhat by Matt’s take.

I’ve always loved simple illistrations made with limited color palettes, so I began there, as though this were one of the storybooks about dinosaurs or cryptozoology I grew up on.

Scott Elyard - a mountain walked or stumbledAs a warm-up, I started with Cthulhu itself, drawn with as few preconceived notions as possible. Alien, monstrous, but resembling no earthly creature beyond superficial impressions. The fog helps make it appear even larger, by disrupting its silhouette. The eyes are numerous, but proportionally small, to support the sense of scale. The tentacles are numerous, writhing, and appear mighty (to me).

And the mouth… an empty hole rimmed with many teeth. No beak, no lips, no mandibles, but thousands upon thousands of teeth. Anyone or anything that passes into it is lost forever. The wings, still folded or matted against the body, would soon inflate and exaggerate its proportions even further.

Consider this an objective view of the Landlord of R’lyeh, one no sane human eyes should witness. But what about the idols, the handmade representations of the monster?

Scott Elyard - Cthulhu idolIt is different. Subjectivity obliges some variation, but their roots lie in the story itself.

Cthulhu influences dreams, and as shapes appear in the minds of telepathic sensitives, the minds of sculptors and gravers might assert their own interpretations, possibly driven by their own motives and dark needs.

Representing Cthulhu as a god of death, gaunt and skeletal, seems to fit. The eyes are larger here, to facilitate recognition and identification. A lack of eyes on the idol might increase its abstraction, but you might not feel as though it could be looking at you. The maw, fairly true to inspiration, magnifies its strangeness and menace.

Cthulhu might be well unknowable in appearance to anyone unfortunate enough to witness it in person, but animals more terrestrial and familiar may influence the sculptor’s taste. Distortions in proportion complete the effect.

The idol stands on a block, carved all of the same green material. On the block are the infamous undecipherable characters, depicting who knows what horrors.

A lot of people who draw this seem to make stuff up and fill the space. Here I could not resist referring to a conlang project of mine which uses multiple sets of glyphs for the same sounds. Even without deciphering it, anyone can guess what’s written on the block.

I chose a specific approach to the design of the idol and Cthulhu itself, for the idea that details can be used to enhance the alienness of a subject, similar to the way a masking effect can be had with simplification (cf. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud for some great discussion of this effect).

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Okay, Matt here again. Wow, that is a lot to think about. I love the depiction of Cthulhu down on all fours. I’d never seen him drawn that way before, but it’s legit–Lovecraft described him as stumbling and dragging himself around. The tentacles coming out all over the body are great, too. They put me in mind of the behemoth from the movie The Mist, only better, because Scott’s Cthulhu is even less relatable to any single Earthly creature. The lamprey-like mouth is a great touch, too. I had been thinking about how horrible lamprey’s mouths are (do an image search if you aren’t familiar), I just couldn’t see how to get that onto Cthulhu. But he did it. The combination of the skull-like eye sockets and lamprey-like mouth would be disturbing under any circumstances, tentacles or no.

I think I like the drawing of the idol even better, though. It hits a lot of the right buttons for me. The wings are reminiscent of a sphinx, but obviously not just simple bird or bat wings. The skinny legs and overall skeletal aesthetic really work, too. And that brings out something that I sort of felt but never actually said in my Cthulhu idol post, which is this: Cthulhu himself is some kind of huge, hulking thing, and skinny limbs may only work there if he’s really bringing in the alien physics in a big way. But to me skinny limbs seem very desirable on a Cthulhu idol–they seem horrible in some way that I have difficulty capturing in words. And that’s at least potentially contradictory–if Cthulhu is immense, why do I want skinny limbs on the idol? I think it’s this: some of the best Cthulhu idols look like they might come to life, leap off their plinths, and wrap their tentacles around your face right before they suck out your sanity and your life. So to the extent that an idol looks like some kind of horrible crouching demon child thing that might come to life at any moment, it creeps me out, and thereby induces the right emotion even it deviates from the literal interpretation of Cthulhu as a hulking brute. So that pushes me a little farther down the path of thinking that a good depiction of Cthulhu the entity and an effective Cthulhu idol may to some extent reflect different design philosophies–as do Scott’s depictions here.

For more of Scott’s stuff, including some rad dinosaur art, check out his Tumblr, Cyrillic Typewriter, his blog, Coherent Lighthouse, and Cubelight, his shared graphics venture with Raven Amos.

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3 Responses to Collect Call of Cthulhu, Part 4: Scott Elyard’s stumbling mountain

  1. Markus says:

    I really like the wings of the idol, they look nearly like the gills of an axolotl, what is also quite interesting, because it´s well possible the “wings” aren´t wings at all, but only something humans would identify as wings, but in fact they are something completely different.

  2. Matt Wedel says:

    Yes, I’m increasingly attracted to the idea that the “recognizable” parts of Cthulhu, like the wings and tentacles, aren’t literally wings and tentacles, but Something Else that only gives the impression of wings and tentacles when visually imposed upon our poor primate brains. The branching tentacles on Mark Witton’s Cthulhu being a prime example–they look more like vines, but since they’re sprouting from an animate object we tend to categorize them as tentacles. I think this is an area ripe for exploration: that any description or depiction of Cthulhu is an attempt to corral something profoundingly ungrokkable with the fragile net of human perception. I suppose this must be something that artists deal with all the time–how to encode emotion in their art, or use their art to elicit emotion in others.

  3. Bryan Riolo says:

    First attempt I’ve seen of a pocket-sized idol to give a hint of Cthulhu’s size. Cool! Great job!

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