October 4, 2019 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
I first heard of H. P. Lovecraft indirectly, though ads for the Call of Cthulhu RPG I had seen in issues of Dragon Magazine and from seeing the game and some supplements on the shelf at some hobby shops (RIP Falcon Hobbies and Little Shop of War). I think it was the cover of The Asylum that first inspired me to pick up a book and flip through, though I’m pretty sure Cthulhu Now, which I had borrowed from my friend Mike (RIP Mike) was the first CoC book I read, probably over the summer of 1988.
It was in the fall of 1988 that two things happened (to me, I’m sure wikipedia can offer all sorts of things that happened that year) – one, I took the time to read The Dunwich Horror and Others, the Arkham House collection of some of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, and two, I listened to my cassette of the They Might Be Giants album Lincoln on practically continuous repeat. This is a particularly strong sense memory as I have a hard time of thinking of one without the other. I probably read the whole thing over a weekend – luckily for me I was living in the attic of my house then, so I didn’t drive everyone nuts. (Even today I have the sneaking suspicious that “Cowtown” is somehow secretly about Cthulhu:
I’m going down to Cowtown
The cow’s a friend to me
Lives beneath the ocean
And that’s where I will be
Beneath the waves, the waves
And that’s where I will be
I’m gonna see the cow beneath the sea
I don’t think I read the book from start to finish, but jumped around a little. The first story I have a clear memory of reading is “The Outsider“, perhaps because of its clear link to Poe’s stories (which I had been rereading recently thanks to the inclusion of “The City in the Sea” in Cthulhu Now). You can read the text here.
What struck me then, and has only been reinforced in time, is how much this story is about loneliness. I suspect this was an obvious hook for a mid-teen who had to contend with all the typical adolescent traumas of that age, including feeling, as the title says, like an “outsider”. I was also impressed, after a first read, that the story, while never shying away from making clear, that there is something profoundly unnatural about the narrator (who cannot recall his youth or upbringing, or anything before his age of isolation), it entices the reader to focus on other mysteries so that the final revelation of the degree to which the narrator isn’t human at all, still holds on to some degree of narrative punch. Rereading it now I’m impressed at how certain perspective shifts are presented – such as the fact that he is living underground and climbing up a tower into a cemetery rather than on the surface of the earth – in a manner fitting of the tale. It may be a Poe imitation, but it is very well done.
Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile.
Sounds fun, sign me up.