REVIEW: Stealing Cthulhu by Graham Walmsley

First published in 2011, Stealing Cthulhu is a guide that teaches you to produce Lovecraftian narratives by breaking down Lovecraft’s short stories and re-mixing the component parts. Written by Graham Walmsley author of well-received Call of Cthulhu-clone Cthulhu Dark as well as a number of books for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu and a book about how to improvise as a GM, Stealing Cthulhu is aimed quite squarely at the RPG market and therein lays both its utility and its limitations.

There’s a line quite early into this book where Walmsley makes an off-hand comment about how Call of Cthulhu has grown progressively more distant from Lovecraft’s original writings and how re-introducing a bit of Lovecraftian bleakness is a great way to both surprise and engage your players. This is absolutely correct and is one of the primary motivations behind my re-reading of the Lovecraftian canon, but I think the remark could do with a bit of unpacking.

The idea that I stand behind is the idea that things have been lost in translation somewhere between Lovecraft sitting down to write his stories and Chaosium deciding to produce a game with his name on the cover. I would also argue that, in the decades since said game first appeared, the gulf between Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” and Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu has grown steadily wider.

Part of this is due to Sandy Peterson’s original sin: His understanding of Lovecraft’s writing was the product of an age where access to Lovecraft’s writing was channelled and refracted through August Derleth’s editorial control of Lovecraft’s writing: Which stories were republished, how those stories were discussed, and which authors were allowed to produce derivative works were all shaped by Derleth’s interpretation of Lovecraft’s writings and the past few decades have seen a generation of scholars working day and night to disentangle Lovecraft’s writing from the manner in which they were presented by the man who assumed control of his literary estate on what might be viewed as questionable legal grounds. As S.T. Joshi and others have argued, Derleth not only created the concept of the Cthulhu Mythos, he also inserted into it a load of weird ideas that were entirely absent from Lovecraft’s writings: The idea of Cthulhu having plans to enslave humanity? The idea of there being an on-going war amongst different mythos deities? The idea of different mythos creatures representing different elemental forces? All dreamed up by Derleth and absent from the original source material.

Lovecraft nerds have been banging on about this for decades and, to their credit, we have finally reached a point where Lovecraft’s original fiction is easily available while all of Derleth’s writings have been out of print for decades. I may be sticking my neck out here but I would go so far as to say that Chaosium were one of the last bastions of Derlethian fiat. Long after Derleth had died and Lovecraft’s vision had been re-discovered, Chaosium were re-printing old Arkham House stories and warning people that Lovecraft’s monsters were all owned by the descendants of Papa August. The Seventh edition of Call of Cthulhu does at least refrain from mentioning the (by now long-defunct) Arkham House but you can still see traces of their thinking in the fact that monsters added to the mythos during the Derleth years are in no way distinguished from the monsters that appear in Lovecraft’s original writings.

Derleth favoured a decidedly more pulpy and up-beat vision of Mythos-based stories than Lovecraft himself. Where Lovecraft was a terrified existentialist who used the Mythos to articulate personal fears about mental health, disease, loss of social status, and general discomfort at the human condition, Derleth ignored most of the more personal and metaphorical aspects of the stories in favour of a pseudo-Christian worldview where the goodies lines up to fight the baddies and where the evil plans of Ol’ Squid-face could be thwarted by square-jawed heroes. Imagine someone with a head injury acquiring legal control over Albert Camus’ L’Etranger and editing it to include a load of back-story about how the Arab who got shot was actually a member of Al Qaeda and you basically have the Derlethian approach to Lovecraft’s fiction in a nutshell.

If this sounds to you like the way that most Call of Cthulhu adventures tend to play out, then you will understand the point I am trying to make. If I point out that Pulp Cthulhu takes the Derlethian character of most golden-age Call of Cthulhu adventures and cranks that shit up to eleven then you will understand the point that I am trying to get across when I say that Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu is the last bastion of Derlethian Lovecraftiana, and that the gulf between the game and the source material has grown steadily wider with the passage of time as more and more Chaosium products have leaned into that set of interpretations.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with a more pulpish approach to Lovecraft. I might even go so far as to echo Michael Fryda and suggest that Derleth’s vision of Lovecraft’s stories makes for a far more sustainable game than Lovecraft’s original vision. The problem is that I think this thematic drift needs to be acknowledged and while Walmsley opens this book with a line that appears to make this acknowledgement, he then goes on to produce a book that is 100% rooted in Peterson’s original Derlethian vision of upper middle-class professionals fighting the good fight against a bunch of mouldy old gods. This book is positioned as a guide to producing your own H.P. Lovecraft stories but a better way of putting it would be to describe this book as a guide to producing slightly generic Call of Cthulhu scenarios.

While I find the book’s methodology somewhat intriguing, my disappointment stems from two distinct areas: Walsmley’s approach to the source material, and his choice of source material.

As Walmsley himself puts it in his bibliography:

He then goes on to list a few additional stories:

And concludes with a few non-Lovecraftian Mythos stories:

Those initial six stories comprise about 85% of this book’s textual references. So this really isn’t a book about stealing from Lovecraft, or even stealing ideas from the Mythos in general, it’s really a story about stealing from a very narrow range of Lovecraftian Mythos stories and using them to fuel the creation of new scenario ideas.

As someone who enjoys Lovecraft for Lovecraft, this really stuck in my craw as you’re taking quite a complex author who passed through a number of different phases in his creative life and boiling him down to just six stories. Even if we remind ourselves that Walmsley is all about generating scenario ideas rather than literary criticism; that is still a really limited and reductive font of source material.

The shallowness of the methodology becomes even more evident once you realise that this book is all about taking those six stories, breaking them down to their component parts and basically re-mixing those components to produce new Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu stories. For example, instead of simply running your players through “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, why not take the basic plot structure of that story and alter both the monster and the setting? So rather than a bunch of Deep Ones taking over a coastal town, why not write a scenario about a bunch of Mi-Go taking over a town in the mountains? And rather than running your players through “The Call of Cthulhu” why not replace Cthulhu with Azathoth and replace the Pacific Ocean with the Sahara desert?

This book is 178-pages long and so Walmsley’s methods do grow in sophistication as more elements are broken down and swapped around, but it’s really depressing and de-spiriting to read a 178-page book by a respected game designer that suggests you can produce Lovecraftian narratives by swapping out the parts of just six stories. While I would be the first person to admit that some of Lovecraft’s short stories are a bit iffy, they all contain at least one solid idea for a story and so I find it very hard to believe that endlessly re-mixing six, twelve, or eighteen stories would produce more gameable material than just reading what Lovecraft actually wrote. And this is without mentioning all of the fantastic riffs and derivations of his work that authors have produced in the decades since his death. If you’re looking for inspiration, don’t write “Call of Cthulhu” except it’s about ghouls who live in a swamp, read some actual short fiction!

This isn’t a guide to creating Lovecraftian stories, this is a recipe for churning out hack shit and even the most addled and inexperienced of GMs can do infinitely better just by taking the time to read a few stories and playing on the themes that Lovecraft invokes.

I think this last point might touch on the root of my irritation with this book as Walmsley’s focus is entirely upon the basic building blocks of plot. There’s no appreciation for themes, there’s no appreciation for imagery, sensibility, or feeling. It’s just breaking a narrow range of stories down for parts and using those parts to create ever-more narrow and derivative reproductions of stories that once had the power to move and inspire. Positive reviews of this book are swift to stress that Stealing Cthulhu isn’t literary criticism and I think that’s right… this is the opposite of literary criticism, it’s encouraging people to look at art in the same way as one of those asset-stripping, auto-plagiarising Artificial Intelligences: Turn the handle and churn out derivative shit that half-way looks the part as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

Another thing that irritates me about this methodology is its absolute pessimism with regards to human creativity: Roleplaying games are a distinct form of media and producing adventures for RPGs is a bit like producing short stories for a collection or a magazine. Sure… you might be able to crank out a workable short story by fiddling around with a few tropes but why sell yourself so short? Writing an adventure for a horror game is an opportunity to reflect on your own life and draw inspiration from the things that frighten you. Writing an adventure for a historical game like Call of Cthulhu is an opportunity to engage with history and politics; to look at a particular era and isolate what you consider to be the interesting tensions. Lovecraft was a great writer because for all he wrote about big rubbery monsters, he was also writing about himself and there’s really no reason why your Call of Cthulhu campaign should not be just as personal and just as expressive.

The worst thing about this book is that when you move beyond the main thrust of Walmsley’s methodology, the book contains some genuinely good and thoughtful advice. For example, at one point, Walmsley admits that his early readings of Lovecraft’s work left him confused as to certain matters of fact about the stories. Rather than viewing these misprisions as things to be corrected, why not use them to build new stories? Walmsley also suggests reading the stories and taking note of the images and ideas that stuck with you as everyone responds differently to different things and so re-visiting the Mythos with a change of emphasis might unlock new impressions as well as new experiences.

Graham Walmsley is an insightful writer with a great track-record for producing material for Lovecraft-inspired RPGs. As a result, Stealing Cthulhu cannot help but be full of really interesting ideas about how to read books, take inspiration, and use that inspiration to create stories of your own. The sections detailing the different Named Entities are particularly engaging and I really appreciate the effort to shine a light on non-Lovecraftian Mythos works but I cannot for even a second imagine myself using this book’s core method. Nobody’s players deserve that level of hollow cynicism.

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