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Mythos But Not

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Apparently I’m not done with True Detective after last time. The thing that lodged in my head: if True Detective is a vein of the Cthulhu mythos, what else might be? How many things have branched off of Lovecraft’s work in the nearly hundred years since?

After all, True Detective originally had nothing to do with The King In Yellow. Nic Pizzolatto originally had Dora Lang writing in her diary about ‘The Cypress King and his Stone Court.’ Let’s pretend for a moment that the last thing Pizzolatto did to the script was find/replace ‘Cypress’ with ‘Yellow’ and throw in a few references to Carcosa—every other element of the show remains as aired. Is it still in some way a mythos tale?

Seems like it to me. Hell, some dedicated nerds might have even decided that ‘The Cypress King’ is an alias of The Yellow King anyway. The bones of the story feel like a mythos tale through a modern lens. The show would have probably drawn a little less fevered speculation, but the quality of it would have changed very little.

With this already rattling around in my head, I hit an interesting footnote in Graham Walmsley’s excellent Stealing Cthulhu: “Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum mentions Cthulhu once, so I decree it part of the canon. Get over it.” (This is one of the notes scrawled in by other authors, not Graham, but I can’t be clear whom based on the handwriting. Maybe Ken Hite?)

That’s obviously a bit of a joke, but the grain of truth is interesting. Most things that I can think of that are generally accepted into the Cthulhu canon:

  1. Maintain a certain dark tone
  2. Build on ideas of forbidden knowledge, the frail human mind, and the unknown
  3. Make significant use of already established elements of the canon

#3 is kind of an outlier here. True Detective covers all three, but the third is rather incidental. Foucault’s Pendulum (arguably) covers #1 and #2, but makes only a passing reference (in a huge tome) to #3.

What happens if we drop #3 entirely?

What happens beyond that if we relax or refocus the other two?

Before we look down either of the roads here: this isn’t an attempt to fix anything. The Cthulhu Mythos is just fine as a limited orbit around Lovecraft’s nucleus. This is just an exploration, for fun, to see in particular what gaming ideas might lie in these satellite portions of the canon.

The first outcome here is really just for fun: once you look for obtuse references to Lovecraft instead of literal mentions, and apply the transitive property, I think you can argue that Cthulhu lies dreaming in just about every work of fiction, probably retroactively back to the Epic of Gilgamesh. The logic is basically the text reflection of Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere, so I’ll just point out one salient step and leave the rest as an exercise. If we take the origin of the name Carcosa as a link—it was based on Carcassonne—things get way too easy and we also suggest the next expansion for a worker placement game.

The more interesting thing for tabletop gamers, I think, is looking at what works with no stated tie to the mythos fit right in.

How about Infinite Jest? A video recording that drives anyone who sees it to complete dependence on the video circulates around a near-future Boston (with some interesting similarities to the future in the Repairer of Reputations, actually), pursued by assassins, government agents, and hapless bystanders. The ghost of the film’s creator haunts the school he created. The film’s star is horrendously disfigured and wears a head covering.

Maybe Slaughterhouse Five? A fatalist military veteran claims to have been abducted by aliens and to have gazed through time.

I’m just reading it now, but 2666 seems like another likely candidate.

These aren’t perfect fits. My pithy summaries above ignore huge swathes of how the book approaches these elements—there are darkly scary moments in Infinite Jest but it’s far from horror, Slaughterhouse Five is maybe even hopeful (so it goes)—but that’s kind of the point. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror looks a little different almost a hundred years on. Filtered through existentialism, magical realism, and probably a few dozen other -isms, I don’t think it’s a stretch to see those same themes approached in a different way in modern fiction. If True Detective is within the canon maybe a few other things can be as well.

For me, this is a really rewarding area to play into in gaming. To play with the elements of the mythos that still entice and frighten us but also pull in a hundred years of shifting perspective. It’s not the only way to approach mythos gaming, but I think it’s an interesting one. What else falls into the outer orbits of the Cthulhu canon?

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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