Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Come on in: the uuater's fine...

Like, I suspect, most HPL fans, I consider that “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” represents one of the quintessential masterpieces of his oeuvre. The story is tightly-paced and the action gripping; the menace is palpable and the characters doom-laden and desperate. It speaks directly to the investigative nature of the horror genre, the peeling back of layers of mystery before the final, mind-numbing revelation. To my mind it has defined the form that the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game uses for its narrative tales: the slow unspooling of information towards uncovering the hidden mystery. Further, the story ties itself up neatly, in and of itself, but there are enough points of interest raised to generate further tales; enough unsaid material, allusive references and throwaway lines to string out many more stories and plumb many more terrors. This has been the source of such publications as Chaosium’s “Return to Innsmouth” and Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green game.

I fully understand why fans of Lovecraft, and of the roleplaying that descends from his works, would want to explore Innsmouth and all that it represents; I’ve done it myself. However, there is one niggling little point that bothers me:

It’s “Devil Reef”. Not “Devil’s Reef”. Seriously people: go check the source material.

I suspect that this is a symptom of proof-reading gone mad, much as it has with the final sentence of “The Haunter of the Dark”: a draft prepared for publishing has been ‘amended’ by an earnest editor who feels that they know what was intended by the author and has ‘set things aright’. (Seriously though, anyone who claims to know what HPL intended should probably have a quiet lie down somewhere...) In that particular instance, the error has been perpetrated even to the silver screen: an HPL-based episode of the TV show Supernatural re-enacts the final moments of “Haunter” and the text that they display is also incorrect. But back to Devil Reef...

As most serious fans of Lovecraft should know, he was a man born out of his time. He was a Twentieth Century writer that should have lived in the Nineteenth. His style of writing clearly derives from an earlier age and he’s not alone in this regard. Most of the writers to whom Lovecraft owed a debt for stylistic tendencies, were somewhat contemporaneous, or men of the previous century, who also felt that the earlier writing styles were more conducive to the tales that they wished to tell. Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Sheridan leFanu – they directly inspired HPL in matters literary and he - unconsciously or otherwise – adopted their styles. In particular, M.R. James the British writer of ghost stories, reflects Lovecraft’s point of view: it was well-known of him that he could pen a story, accurate in terms of setting, voice, tone and style, of any time period offered at a moment’s notice. And he could do it well enough to fool the expert eye. And so could Lovecraft.

What I’m wending my tortuous way towards is the fact that HPL deliberately chose to write in the way that he did; the fact that he didn’t make more money in his lifetime than he did from his stylistic leanings shows that he was an artist of high idealistic stringency, if not much pecuniary nous. So why are we so eager to alter what he took such pains to create? It smacks a little of arrogance, I think. There are other issues too.

The stories that Lovecraft wrote are part of a writing tradition that is woefully out of favour at present. Writers generally dismiss horror writing as part of a category referred to as ‘Genre Fiction’. The current taste is to regard any form of narrative that uses standard tropes and mechanics as unworthy of the name ‘literature’. Genre fiction includes science fiction and romance writing, period drama, detective stories and thrillers. Dismissing any one of these categories is sure to offend every reader on the planet but nevertheless the literati would have it so. To an extent I see their point: ‘paranormal romance’ is another form of genre fiction and, on balance, I would get behind any movement that wants to deride Laurel K. Hamilton, Stephenie Meyers, Maggie Stiefvater or any of the other promoters of bestiality or necrophilia who seem intent on flooding the market with their crapulence. But I digress.

Despite the current literary fashion, there was some great writing going on in the horror field at the turn of last century. Nowadays, much of that material is unavailable except at venues like Project Gutenberg, or released by the big publishing houses in omnibus editions which make good monetary sense because ownership of this material has by and large passed into the public domain and it’s therefore cheap to produce. In these instances, we readers are at the mercy of editors who pick and choose what to include and what to leave out; fortunately, enough of these collections appear that a wide selection is available for those who want to shop around.

Chief among these kinds of omnibus re-printings is the company Dover Publications, Inc. Theirs are cheap and cheerful productions, often seen in academic remainders stores, and, let it be said right here and now, I applaud their dedication to seeing older works of literature re-issued for later generations of readers. The downside to their product though, is technology; specifically Optical Character Recognition (OCR).

Obviously, this process allows printed text to be turned into a digital format far more quickly than by hand, and it’s obvious why a company like Dover would choose to use it in recovering works of literature that have languished for too long away from any audience. Sadly though, a computer program is unable to differentiate between an ‘!' and an ‘l’, or a ‘1’, or between an ‘m’ or ‘nn’; occasionally, a ‘b’ is even transcribed as ‘lo’, amongst myriad other permutations. That these errors make it into print is part of a publishing throughput that focuses on lowering the price point by waiving textual integrity (and the integrity of the text didn’t exactly put any brakes on the Fifty Shades of Grey juggernaut!).

Not that I’m damning Dover (or Wordsworth, or any other low price publisher). Three cheers for keeping literature alive and ensuring a breadth of material in the publishing world! The upside of OCR publishing – and I’m citing the benefit of the doubt here – is that a looseness in the textual transcription forces us to become better readers, to practise discernment as we peruse the text, and to question that which is before us, in order to seek out, correct, and to better understand.

It’s easy and perfectly acceptable to jump on Project Gutenberg and edit a text so, if you spot a transcription error in a published work, why not fix it? After all, perpetuation of a textual error is the equivalent of gagging a beloved author by stifling their intent and, in the case of HPL, anyone who feels his texts aren’t extremely carefully considered and should be minutely preserved, should think again. I’m sure no-one would be so cavalier about Jane Austen’s writing.

I’ll leave it there for now; if you want me I’ll be out torpedoing Devil’s Reef...


Bibliophily & Tentacles

Let's face it - Call of Cthulhu players are book-lovers. At least they should be. Or at least, I think that they should be. Most tales of the Cthulhu Mythos revolve around the mayhem and chaos that comes from poking around in tomes that were better left for the bookworms to dipose of. Some of my favourite stories are the ones that focus on the sinister pages of crazy writers and the games that I run revolve around foetid tomes of unspeakable evil. When I put together material for games and other forums, I become fascinated by the histories, contents and the physical properties of various books - it's probably due to the fact that I work with old books for a living and I like what I do.

What bothers me - and it's from the perspective of a bibliophile and bookseller that I speak - is when writers for the Lovecraftian genre throw stuff together that's blatantly wrong. Like getting the publishing house of a book incorrect. Or mistranslating XVth Century French. I know it's a bit obscure, but I always feel that if you're going to do something, you might as well do it right. After all, the fundamental aim of most roleplaying games is to enact a story in the context of a past time or era; if you play a wrong note in your scene-setting overture, the rest of the symphony is going to collapse in a heap.

So, I'm throwing this blog together. It will contain various musings, writings and other source material which I'm happy to put out there free for others to use in their own games and other Cthulhoid efforts. Some of it will take the form of cranky rants - so be it. I'm opinionated and forthright (at least about my Mythos cogitations) and I'm happy to start an argument over things I'm passionate about. This is a Debating Club after all.

I hope you enjoy what is to follow!

Cthulhu f'tagh'n!  

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

"La Massa di Requiem per Shuggay"

This Mythos work was kick-started in the magazine “The Unspeakable Oath” and became a mainstay of the Delta Green canon. While it’s fine as far as it goes, the premise of the document seemed to ignore the traditional manner in which such works came into being. The following is my re-working of Brodighera’s musical indiscretion that takes into account existing historical evidence and the standard music-production process extant at the time. This is not meant to replace the published material of Chaosium or Pagan Publishing; in fact the essential mechanics are the same as that canon information. However, if you want a deeper awareness of the process that the publishing of such a document would have entailed, then I submit this re-work for your delectation.


The circumstances surrounding this infamous production would seem to be fairly well known; however, things aren’t as straightforward as they appear at first pass. Undoubtedly, Brodighera’s contribution to the writing of this work cannot be said to be completely innocent, but a closer look at the material would seem to exonerate him somewhat, or at least open a window upon the possibly that he was assisted, or perhaps coerced in his blasphemous misdeeds. The evidence lies in the nature of the writing and composing of choral works of this type.

Despite the fact that the composer tends to get sole credit for the construction of these kinds of pieces, no choral work is normally the effort of one single person, especially back in the 1700s. Unless the musical work was an adaptation of an existing piece of literature, the process usually began with a libretto. This is a synopsis of the story, accompanied by lyrics and stage directions, often including background or historical information necessary to the plot and sometimes the notation for various musical motifs which should recur throughout the piece. Libretti were often shopped around in the Age of Reason to various court composers and other musical wunderkind (such as Mozart or Salieri) and their purchase, or acceptance as joint commissions, formed the basis of the livelihoods of the librettists. The tradition has continued through until today with the collaborations of Gilbert & Sullivan and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Obviously, Brodighera’s composition work in the “Massa” is extraordinary and strange, but did he work from an existing libretto, and was it (unusually for one so young) his own? And, if it wasn’t, who was his librettist?

Benvenuto Chieti-Brodighera (his last name is adopted, and is probably a combination of both his parent’s birth towns) was born of working-class stock in Rome in 1746. Showing incredible musical aptitude from an early age he was apprenticed to various composers and musical instructors as a copyist, many of them attached to the Vatican. He is known to have made minor contributions to various masses and operatic works from an early age, most of these with a heavy ecclesiastical tone. Records within the Vatican show that he was occasionally cautioned against wilful pride for episodes of writing which were “too complicated” and once for an outburst of “impiety” whilst in class. Once free to earn his own living as a composer, he is known to have travelled to Paris and to Vienna, where he contributed favourably with many other composers, copyists and librettists, before returning to Rome to write his infamous mass.

Unusually for the time, the Massa di Requiem per Shuggay is a pure fantasy, and reads like an ‘imaginary voyage’ (a very popular literary genre at this juncture) set to music. It tells of the demise of the land of “Shuggay”, home of a clan of people known as the “Shan”, and their efforts to flee to a new homeland. The Shan worship an ancient deity called “Azathoth” but their prayers for him to intercede against a malevolent creature called “Baoht Z’uqqa-Mogg” – “the Bringer of Pestilence” – and its followers go unheard, forcing the Shan to take to the skies in their wondrous flying craft. The story concludes with the Shan realising that their faith in their deity had dwindled to an insufficient degree, thus bringing upon them their own punishment: as they watch their homeland burn in the distance, they offer new prayers to their god with hope for a new age of co-existence with his will to guide them.

Musically, the work is complex and convoluted, baroque in the best sense and as mathematically precise as anything by Bach; however, the mathematical principles which the piece addresses are hardly suitable for the format, let alone the instruments available for its execution (notes in the original sheet music call for the radical mis-tuning and modification of many key orchestral instruments). Certain refrains repeat as motifs and form the basis of the music; however it is unlikely that Brodighera – precocious as he undoubtedly was - would have come up with this notation without some kind of assistance. Added to this, there are no ‘imaginary voyages’ published before this period which bear any resemblance to the story contained in the Massa. All of this prompts the hypothesis that the young composer was working from a libretto of some kind and probably not one of his own devising.

An examination of working librettists of the time reveals a likely candidate as a collaborator - one Louis de Cahusac. De Cahusac was born in Montauban France in 1706 and died in Paris in 1759. During his career, he worked as a librettist mainly in collaboration with the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), a composer of many strange Orientalist operas notable for their heavy Masonic influences and non-Classical mythological settings. Their collaborations include “Les fêtes de l'Hymen et de l'Amour” (1748), “Zaïs” (1748), “Naïs” (1749), “Zoroastre” (1749, a reworked version of which emerged in 1756), “La naissance d'Osiris” (1754), and “Anacréon” (1754): this last opera was the first of several by Rameau to bear this title. The presence of Egyptian, Persian and Zoroastrian myth elements in this short list alone might suggest the creation of such outlandish terms as ‘Azathoth’ and ‘Shan’ in the “Massa” libretto, but there’s more:

De Cahusac’s last libretto was for an opera entitled “Les Boréades” (probably finished for Rameau around 1763); this story was set in the mythical land of Hyperborea and involves the tensions surrounding a proposed marriage between two noble and semi-mythological houses, which almost precipitates a clan war until a solar deity intervenes to prevent bloodshed. Rameau did not begin work on the opera until after de Cahusac’s death and the staging of the piece was fraught with difficulties from the start. The music was finished and rehearsals were set to proceed in 1763 at the Paris Opéra, with funds provided by a private patronage based in Choisy. Early on, however, disputes arose because of references to “subversive material”, which managed to embroil several figures at the Royal French Court, causing factional ructions resulting in a death by duel; the musicians staged a strike because the musical notation was “too difficult”; and finally, the Paris Opéra unexpectedly burnt down.

Rameau was never to see his work performed: a heavily-rewritten version of “Les Boréades” was performed in the French township of Lille after his death. Rameau’s biographer J.J.M. Lacroix collected all of Rameau’s writings posthumously, including both versions of “Les Boréades”, for later storage in the Bibliothèque Nationale, along with all his associated documentation; but the original libretto by de Cahusac was never found.

Brodighera’s “Massa di Requiem per Shuggay” is strikingly reminiscent of “Les Boréades” in that it concerns an ancient culture disrupted by internal politics and encroaching external forces which are resolved by the sudden emergence of a fiery entity of worship. The difficulties in musical notation are a distinct hallmark and the fact that – as ascertained from investigations by metaphysical investigators – the last act of the performance is an encoded ritual which summons Azathoth to this continuum, could at least go part of the way towards explaining the previous fire at the Paris Opéra.

It begins to look likely that Brodighera may have encountered de Cahusac during his stay in Paris around 1759; that he could have begun work on his own composition for the “Les Boréades” libretto, possibly with de Cahusac’s encouragement, and completed the task, after de Cahusac’s death, in 1768. The difficulties surrounding the original operatic version in France began to be replicated once more in Rome, before Pope Clement XIII shut down the first performance of the “Massa di Requiem per Shuggay” prior to its finale; the work has been banned by the Church ever since. In 1770, Brodighera was imprisoned on charges of heresy, ironically while the first performance of Raneau’s “Les Boréades” was being performed in Lille; he was burnt at the stake as a heretic in 1771.

(Source: Scott D. Aniolowski,, Unspeakable Oath #3: “Mysterious Manuscripts”)

Italian; Benvenuto Chieti Brodighera; 1768; 1d3/1d6 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +4 percentiles; 2 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: None; however, completing a full performance of the opera has the same result as casting the spell, Summon Azathoth

Monday, 29 October 2012

Bibliophily &Tentacles - Part 2

“There were, besides, great formless heaps of books on the floor and in crude bins; and it was in one of these heaps that I found the thing. I never learned its title, for the early pages were missing; but it fell open toward the end and gave me a glimpse of something which sent my senses reeling...”

-H. P. Lovecraft, “The Book” (c. 1934)

Why write a blog about books in the Cthulhu Mythos? What point does it serve? After all, there are already published bibliographies, on-line wiki sources, websites and encyclopediae out there in the world which do more than commendable justice to the subject. Why not be content with these?

From my perspective this is, first of all, a labour of love. This is something which I’ve always wanted to do so I figured, what the Hell? Why not? Further, I run my own Call of Cthulhu games and I thought that these essays would serve to put a bunch of things straight in presenting material to my players. After all, there are a lot of discrepancies in the Cthulhu universe: conflicting information, multiple histories, contradicting sources. I wanted to ‘cherry pick’ the bits that I wanted to use and streamline the canon lore into something that would make sense to my players. The trouble is, there is so much stuff and putting it all in order is a mammoth task.

My other issue is that I’m a sucker for canon material: ‘what has been said, cannot be unsaid’, and all that. I didn’t want to trample on any information which had already been committed to print; I didn’t want to belittle or undermine the work of others who had gone before. So it quickly became obvious that I had to make everything work and get all of the background into the mix. Fortunately, in a milieu where extra-dimensions occur, magic exists and realities shift and change, this is not as hard as it seems. And there is plain, ordinary reality to help out with things as well.

The complexities of tracing a book’s history are often insurmountable. Dedicated bibliographers spend years examining a single field, or area of publishing lore, and battle incredible odds in pinning down definitive lists of tomes to facilitate the efforts of dealers, collectors and researchers. Anyone who has catalogued a book to enumerate its points of issue will know what I’m talking about. Antiquarians examine books minutely, as even the lack of a single page can dramatically affect the pricing of a rare work. However, even the most accomplished cataloguer or bibliographer cannot account for things which never make it into print about a work. Take the following example:

Sometimes, a printer will execute the printing of a limited-edition run of a book and, just because it’s good business, will knock off a few extra copies for the publisher, the author, or their associates. Most often, these extra copies will never be accounted for, and thus a limited run of 500 books is in fact a run of 503 (or so): while most publishers will do the right thing and note this fact, oftentimes these ‘unnumbered copies’ will fall through the cracks and be ignored – after all, a sale is a sale. This can result, years down the track, in good copies being called ‘fakes’, or ‘later edition’ copies, and the resulting arguments can become very fierce indeed - amongst academic circles, at least.

As in so many other areas of life, the more we attempt to pin down the issues on a certain subject, the more slippery it tends to become. How often are you certain of something only to find out that what you thought is wrong? How often have you counted a series of things, only to count them again and discover that you were out by one or two? Perfection, like reality and truth, is a matter of refinement and consensus. With books, as in most things, everything boils down to the lowest common denominator: if most copies of an edition of a work have 96 pages, then your copy with 95 or 97 pages is going to be considered faulty.

Try this experiment for a particularly pertinent example. Gather together all the different editions of Lovecraft’s collected short fiction that you can find; turn to the last sentence in the “Haunter of the Dark”. What you will see is:

“I see it – coming here – hell-wind – titan blue – black wings – Yog-Sothoth save me – the three-lobed burning eye...”;


“I see it – coming here – hell-wind – titan blue–black wings – Yog-Sothoth save me – the three-lobed burning eye...”;


“I see it – coming here – hell-wind – titan blur – black wings – Yog-Sothoth save me – the three-lobed burning eye...”

So which is it? Somewhere a typographical error has crept in and the ‘Powers That Be’ themselves seem unable to reach a consensus. Is the Haunter a titanic blur? Is it “titan blue” (whatever that is) with black wings? Or does it have titanic, blue-black wings? I think that, with common sense, the answer is obvious, but it’s going to take someone with access to original manuscripts and corrected proofs to really sort it out.


“You need to tell those people at Harvard to be more careful. They really ought to burn the damn thing, but I know that they won’t.” He shook his head dolefully. “Book people! They’re more dangerous than you can imagine!”

-Alan Dean Foster, “A Fatal Exception Has Occurred At...”

Of course, this kind of thing only means something to bibliophiles and other types who are obsessed with the ‘book as object’. Other people couldn’t care less if their copy is a first edition, or bound in cloth rather than calfskin, or missing the front free endpaper: as long as the material is all present and accounted-for, then the book has value to them. These are the sort of people who, eschewing bookmarks, will fold down the corners of pages to mark their place; will scribble in the margins; and will (shudder!) cover their books in adhesive plastic. These are the people who make the lives of bookdealers very difficult indeed.

Of course, the damage accrued by books is part and parcel of their history as they travel into and out of the world; their ‘lives’, if you will. The sheer weight of history that can be discerned by holding an exceedingly old book is little short of overwhelming; the heft of laid paper and a leather binding, the smell of well-thumbed parchment and the accumulation of nicks, chips, stains and scratches lend a true sense of ‘individuality’ to the tome, as if it too, somehow, is truly alive in some sense.

Interestingly, the majority of books and people in this catalogue do not exist and are not ‘real’, according to any meaning of the word. Regardless, they have as much history attached to them - if not more in some cases - than similar texts which do exist. The Necronomicon is part of our popular culture; facsimiles have been made of it; references have been made to it, and its title (and associations) stolen, by people as varied as Stephen King, H.R. Giger, Terry Pratchett and Tori Spelling. It’s arguably Lovecraft’s greatest single contribution to Western culture, probably even moreso than the works which he did write.

Mythos stories, no matter what your feelings are on the subject, are about books; books are where the clues are found; where the true meanings are pinned down; where the danger is discovered. Without them there is no Mythos: those things which bubble up unbidden from our sub/un/whatever-conscious, are found between the covers of moldy old tomes, regardless of whether they are found in the most modern libraries or online caches. To be a Mythos fan is to be a bibliophile, and, deep down, we all know it to be true.

The other thing about the Cthulhu Mythos, proven again and again by all of the stories and gaming material out there, is that this is a personal journey: Cthulhu is where you find him. There is a ‘looseness’ to the Mythos which allows for personal interpretation (no matter how much Colin Wilson would like it to be otherwise!) and I have tried to maintain this as much as possible. Some authors resonate with me where others don’t; that’s as it should be: I haven’t curtailed their efforts; I haven’t negated them. I hope that I have put them in a context where they can speak authoritatively without undermining anyone else’s contributions. In the end, I guess, this is my journey which I’m sharing with you; I hope it spurs you on.

Cthulhu f’tagh’n!