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Cthulhu Week: The Man Who Shot Joseph Curwen

Posted on August 20, 2010 by Kenneth Hite

Kenneth Hite, author of Cthulhu 101 and other Mythos tomes of dark intent brings us a tale of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game from Chaosium.

Enjoy this contribution to Cthulhu Week, but don’t read too deep…we can’t be held responsible for what horrors are left behind…

“And as I said before, I haven’t any mental energy to spare on unamusing side-lines. It’s just the same with games. Meaningless spotted pasteboards, carved castles and horses’ heads … No, Grandpa ain’t made to relish sech didoes! All these things are, in their superior form, simply by-products of excess intellectuality — which I haven’t the honour to possess. In their inferior form they are of course simply avenues of escape for persons with too poorly proportioned and correlated a perspective to distinguish betwixt the frivolous and the relevant…”
— H.P. Lovecraft, letter to James F. Morton, Feb. 2, 1932 (Selected Letters IV, p. 13)

At the Mountains of MadnessH.P. Lovecraft would think I was wasting my time. And, if you go by the vast majority of roleplaying games out there, you’d be hard pressed to prove him wrong. Almost without exception, the most popular games are the ones that encourage “avenues of escape,” usually into the purest adolescent power fantasy. In Dungeons & Dragons, for example, you are stronger, faster, and better at killing things than most people, you have magic powers (or magic items) that are sheerly impossible, and there’s nothing to prevent you from killing things and taking their belongings, by which deeds you grow ever more powerful. Especially in early versions of Vampire, the power fantasy was even more explicitly adolescent — you had all manner of cool, romantic abilities that centered around staying out all night and cruising, but the Elders kept frustrating you for their own arbitrary reasons. Throughout it, your vampire is urged to wallow in his own sense of anguish, a pain that nobody can understand, worse than anybody’s pain, ever. Occasionally, games will present adolescent power fantasies with a scrim of morality — alignments in some versions of Dungeons & Dragons, or the superheroic models of games like Champions. Sometimes the adolescent fantasy is more literally escapist, a fantasy of “getting out of here,” complete with cool “free trader” spacecraft in Traveller or at least the vicarious thrills of Luke Skywalker’s adolescent escapades in Star Wars.

But it’s all fundamentally adolescent power fantasies at bottom, or at the very most innocuous, escapism. And there’s nothing wrong with that — we’ve all got that mistreated, misunderstood ego inside us who wants nothing more than to supercharge the old id and slaughter orcs. It’s worth recalling, as well, C.S. Lewis’ observation that the usual enemies of escapism are jailers. But it’s just not that important to think about. It’s not worth any more time than it takes to fill up the dungeon or stat out the starship. And this isn’t to say that no roleplaying game can be the subject of critical thinking — if only as a product of its times, Vampire repays a good deal of critical examination, for example. And some games — the various Lord of the Rings games, for example — might borrow the weight of their source material. Certainly the whole medium of roleplaying games is grossly underexamined as an art form by narratologists and scholars of drama, and deserving of far more critical attention. Game designers can certainly learn to create better games by such examination, as well. But aside from such historicism or refraction, or investigations into the games’ nature and form, how much importance, how much moral weight, can you really attach to the specific stories told within these narrative structures? I would say — and I would expect most RPG designers to say — pretty much none whatsoever. Almost the sole exception is Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu.(1) Read Footnote

In Call of Cthulhu, your character explicitly starts no better than any other. There is no leveling up, no percentile strength, no special class skills or feats separating your character from any other citizen of Arkham. Yes, your character may well gain magical powers and travel to exotic destinations, as in other roleplaying games. But such “improvements” come at a cost, at the cost of lowering your irreplaceable Sanity. In Call of Cthulhu, the player knows at the outset that his character, if played long enough, will go insane and die. That’s a very different proposition from hoping that your character will become the vampiric Prince of Pittsburgh or get a Helm of Command at 18th level. Of course if that was all it was, Call of Cthulhu would simply be nihilistic, an exercise in masochistic masturbation. At best, its characters would resemble the decadent aesthetes of Lovecraft’s short story “The Hound,” seeking ever more outré pleasures, or perhaps the shortsighted Tillinghast in “From Beyond,” accepting insanity as the necessary visa for interdimensional tourism. And in many of Lovecraft’s stories, this is the case — Lovecraft was, after all, a nihilist (albeit a gentlemanly nihilist) himself, who considered morality “mere Victorian fiction.” The object of terror, for Lovecraft, is terror.

But a surprising number of Lovecraft’s stories back away from that precipice. In those stories, terror provokes a response. In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Dr. Willett boldly investigates Ward’s fate, and avenges him. In “The Thing on the Doorstep,” Daniel Upton does the same for his unfortunate friend Edward Derby. Walter Gilman kills the witch Keziah Mason in “Dreams in the Witch-House,” although he dies in the attempt. Although the narrator, Robert Olmstead, succumbs to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” his warning inspires the FBI and the Navy to destroy the town. Professor Armitage exorcises “The Dunwich Horror,” the police break up “The Horror at Red Hook,” and the narrator dynamites the Martense mansion at the end of “The Lurking Fear.” And most uncharacteristically of all, the Whipples armor up with “Crookes tubes” and flame-throwers to burn out the demonic entity within “The Shunned House.” Some critics (such as S.T. Joshi) feel that these “naïve narratives” backpedal from Lovecraft’s pure “mechanistic materialism” by positing responses to cosmic horror other than fetal surrender or panicked flight. However, in this context we can recognize them not as failed models of Lovecraftian philosophy, but as the successful seeds of Call of Cthulhu adventures. (The core rulebook, in fact, apotheosizes The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as the ideal model for Call of Cthulhu scenarios.) In Call of Cthulhu, you suffer inevitable madness and danger and death for a purpose — to defend the rest of Arkham, or the world, against the Cthulhu Mythos.

That is a moral decision, to place your body and your sanity “between your loved homes, and the war’s desolation.” Call of Cthulhu is almost entirely alone among roleplaying games in that its characters are moral adults. They recognize something larger and more important than themselves or their safety. They accept self-sacrifice as the necessary price to pay to keep children safe in bed at night. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Or better yet, for complete strangers. And this is not merely the self-sacrifice of a fireman or a Marine. The Investigators in Call of Cthulhu adventures know that the true world is more terrible than fire or fascism, more horrific than anyone can imagine. They alone know the worst thing in the entire cosmos that can happen to a person — and they bring it on themselves to keep it away from others. Now that’s a game worth playing. And more to the point, one worth thinking about critically.

“Make no mistake: Oklahoma is a lot more than a mere pioneer’s and promoter’s frontier. There are old, old tribes with old, old memories there; and when the tom-toms beat ceaselessly over brooding plains in the autumn the spirits of men are brought dangerously close to primal, whispered things.”
— H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop, “The Mound”

So, granting our premise that Call of Cthulhu is, in fact, worthy of critical examination, how do we go about it? Well, in any literary pursuit, it’s best to start off with Aristotle’s Poetics, because nine times out of ten, you’ll find yourself back there anyway. Even without Aristotle’s hand-holding, it’s clear that Call of Cthulhu is a framework for tales of tragedy, ending in death and madness. A full campaign played to the end arouses, in Aristotle’s words, “pity and terror.” The central agon — the conflict — of the game, however, is not that between Investigators and the gods. It is, appropriately, larger — more cosmic — than that. It is not the heroes who have hamartia, the “tragic flaw.” It is, per Lovecraft, the universe that is flawed. (Or more Real than mere humanity can stand. It all depends on one’s perspective.) The agon is centered not on the heroes but on the universe. The universe, when faced squarely, will drive you mad, as it has at its heart the Cthulhu Mythos. However, scattered accidentally through the universe are innocent beings, the byproducts of monstrous ancient warfare. The heroic Investigators’ tragic choice is to choose to face the universe squarely, to learn about its truth — the Mythos — and by so doing, go mad. Only by dooming oneself to tragedy can you preserve the illusion — again, per Lovecraft, that’s all we have — of safety and goodness for those innocent others.

And that, as it happens, is also the central agon of the other great American narrative art form (besides fantastic fiction), the Western film. The agon, the central conflict, of every classic Western from The Toll Road in 1920 to Unforgiven in 1992 is as follows:

Barbarism can only be defeated with the gun.
All those who pick up the gun are barbarians.

    This central tension is most visible in the Westerns of John Ford, such as The Searchers, in which John Wayne’s violent Indian-killer Ethan Edwards is needed to rescue Debbie from the Comanche, but his violence and hatred have no part in the civilization he returns her to. Another, even clearer, example is Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This 1962 film tells the story of three men: Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance, an outlaw who terrorizes the town of Shinbone, John Wayne’s Tom Doniphan, a rancher and deadly shot who keeps Valance at a distance, and Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard, an Eastern lawyer who rejects the gun and tries to use the law and social pressure to defeat Valance. In a tense showdown, Valance is shot and killed. The town hails Stoddard as “the man who shot Liberty Valance,” and thanks to this reputation, he is able to secure statehood — and therefore peace and civilization — for Shinbone’s territory. However, this is a lie. The man who actually shot Liberty Valance is Tom Doniphan, firing from the shadows across the street. From that moment, Doniphan’s life falls apart. He is rejected by his ideal woman in favor of the newly confident and lionized Stoddard, and dies a failure, drunken and unmourned. To secure the blessings of peace for Shinbone, Stoddard must allow the world to “print the legend.”

    This is the fate of the Call of Cthulhu Investigator, then. He is the Tom Doniphan of Arkham. He must defeat the Mythos in secret, from the shadows. To do so, he must understand, and perhaps even utilize, the Mythos — spells from the Necronomicon, or greenish star-stones from the Elder Things’ necropolis. Even telling the world of his actions endangers it, and should a Ransom Stoddard learn the truth, he must erase it, “print the legends” of decency and morality and conventional Euclidean geometry. And by those legends, those rules, the Investigator cannot be allowed. The Investigator becomes that which he destroys, a being tainted by the Mythos, eventually driven mad by it. Recasting the tension:

    Those Outside can only be defeated by understanding the Mythos.
    Those who understand the Mythos have moved Outside.

      The “gun” of the Western becomes the Mythos tome, or star-stone, or Gate spell, or simple understanding of the threat in Call of Cthulhu. Game-mechanically, it’s the Cthulhu Mythos skill, ever creeping upward and always eroding Sanity as it does. Lovecraft’s stories bear this out less mechanically — some of his heroes, such as Professor Armitage and Doctor Willett, presumably remain useful members of society. Others, such as Robert Olmstead or Walter Gilman, give way to the horrors. Some few have their veracity, or their very sanity, questioned. In general, Lovecraft’s less sane narrators are the ones who failed — Thurston in “The Call of Cthulhu,” Dyer in At the Mountains of Madness, etc. But you can see the skeleton (perhaps in pieces) of the Call of Cthulhu agon present in Lovecraft’s overarching narrative structure none the less.

      There is a way out, and it’s one that Robert E. Howard, for example, would have jumped at. The Western is almost always about the moment in time in which the frontier moves on and civilization arrives, the “frontier moment.” But presumably in the past, before that moment, the “necessary barbarian” could stay on, if only on the outskirts. The gunfighter Tom Doniphan begins the movie, after all, as Shinbone’s favorite son. Another example: in the “past” of High Noon, Marshal Kane once rallied the townsfolk to drive out the villain Frank Miller. But in the filmic “present,” the town is too civilized to help him. At the end Kane takes on Miller alone — and leaves civilization behind.

      Lovecraft will occasionally set his “frontier moment” in the past. Take, for example, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The evil sorcerer Joseph Curwen (the “Frank Miller” or “Liberty Valance” of the tale) meets a fiery doom in 1771 at the hands of a posse of heroic Investigators. They were able to go on with their lives, and Lovecraft notes that “every man of those leaders had a stirring part to play in later years.” (HPL populates the posse with a number of Revolutionary War heroes from Rhode Island history.) But even then, they had to print the legend, to keep silence. “There is something frightful,” Lovecraft writes, “in the care with which these actual raiders destroyed each scrap which bore the least allusion to the matter.” Even in the wide-open heroic past, too much heroism was dangerous: “Hardest to explain was the nameless odour clinging to all the raiders…”

      Although it may be less immediately apparent, one other parallel between the Lovecraftian story or Call of Cthulhu scenario and the Western obtrudes itself. That is the role of space, physical extent, and of the hostile and forbidding landscape. John Ford was fond of filming his heroes small and insignificant against the vast vistas of Monument Valley, emphasizing the mighty challenge of civilizing such a desert. Almost every Western worth the name is an interaction with the setting, with the land itself, if only in the cinematography. (Liberty Valance, filmed mostly on a backlot, is a rare exception — although Tom Doniphan’s abandoned ranch has a very Dunwichian aspect to it.) Sometimes, as in Shane, the landscape almost becomes a character, and its character becomes an issue. Is it destined for (barbarian) ranching or (civilized) farming? Which will the land choose? Lovecraft, of course, used the wild hills and woods of western New England — and then the vast frozen plateau of Antarctica — just as surely as Ford used the Arizona desert, and in almost exactly the same way.

      HPL himself ascribes the American horror impulse to the landscape, in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” where he describes the Puritan reaction to “the strange and forbidding nature of the scene … the vast and gloomy virgin forests in whose perpetual twilight all terrors might well lurk.” Lovecraft even notes “hordes of coppery Indians [with] strange, saturnine visages and violent customs” that might come right out of the John Ford playbook. (Although Ford was far fairer to the Indians than was the racist Lovecraft.) And as Philip Shreffler notes in The H.P. Lovecraft Companion:

      The scope of Lovecraft’s horror stories becomes cosmic in nature; vast sweeps of space and time are the rule rather than the exception. And this is what gives Lovecraft such a peculiarly American character. From the days when English Anglicans hacked Jamestown out of the Virginia swamps and the Puritan Separatists braved the hostile environment of eastern Massachusetts on through to the present time, American writers have responded one way or another to the sheer immensity of their national landscape. What Daniel Boone used to refer to as “elbow room” has been transmuted in the hands of our artists into a kind of huge blank canvas on which grandiose philosophical ideas can be painted on a cosmic scale.

      Thus the Western and Lovecraftian cosmicism spring, at least in part, from precisely the same stimuli. Is it any wonder that their responses to the demands of drama are so similar? Once you begin to look for it, you see the frontier everywhere in Lovecraft — the pure exploration of At the Mountains of Madness, the terrors of native captivity in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (where the Mi-Go are the real First Americans), the frontiers of time itself in “The Shadow Out of Time” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” But the frontier means danger, and the danger to Arkham and the world cannot be plowed under by sodbusters or talked away by Ransom Stoddards. It requires constant vigilance, and constant sacrifice. Every moment of mankind’s history is the “frontier moment,” because the Mythos transcends time. We must all of us — from 1890s Golden Dawn members to 21st century Delta Green ops — become the man who shot Joseph Curwen.

      Footnote 1: One can make the argument, and I have, for a handful of other RPGs as bearers of moral weight, and thus worthy of serious critical examination. The world of Ray Winninger’s Underground is explicitly designed as a critical examination of the superhero genre. Further, the direct connection in Underground between the characters’ advancement and the increase in social justice in their neighborhood is almost nonexistent in other games, though Greg Stafford and Robin Laws’ HeroQuest presents community service and improvement as one goal of heroquesting. John Tynes and Greg Stolze’s Unknown Armies, although replete with cool powers and secret destinies, strongly foregrounds the question of consequences in a way most RPGs do not. And Vince Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard is the first Western RPG to genuinely confront the moral core of the genre, and it mechanically enforces that confrontation to produce a masterful examination of the twinned concepts of justice and responsibility.Return to Article

      This essay appears, in slightly earlier form, in the collection Dubious Shards, available from Atomic Overmind Press and Ronin Arts.

      About Kenneth Hite
      Kenneth Hite is an author of the best introductory primer (Cthulhu 101), the second-best roleplaying game (Trail of Cthulhu), the fourth-best book of criticism (Tour de Lovecraft: the Tales), the best alternate comics history (Adventures Into Darkness), the fourth-best Tarot treatment (Tarot of Cthulhu: Major Arcana), the seventh-best RPG supplement (Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity), and the two best children’s books (Where the Deep Ones Are and The Antarctic Express) about the Cthulhu Mythos. He has also written 70 or so books and games that barely touch on Cthulhu at all. He blogs, if you can call it that, at PrinceofCairo.livejournal.com.

      He lives in Chicago with two Lovecraftian cats and one non-Lovecraftian wife.

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