By Sam Gafford.
Over the last few years, an interesting development has arisen in the world of Lovecraft collecting: plush Cthulhus.
It began, as all invasions do, slowly with a line of (more or less) classic versions of Cthulhu and a few other Lovecraftian monsters in varying sizes. Then, the trend got heavier and larger. Suddenly, there was Santa Cthulhu, Men in Black Cthulhu, Superhero Cthulhu, Summer Beach Cthulhu and, perhaps the most insidiously evil of all, Elvis Cthulhu. And it didn’t stop there. Soon there were Cthulhu slippers, hats and backpacks. Then came the ultimate merchandising of all: action figures.
Since then, we have seen even more Cthulhu themed items like CTHULHU MONOPOLY, CTHULHU YAHTZEE, role playing games with Cthulhu tokens, Cthulhu hourglasses and more and more and more. Cthulhu could easily give Superman or Sherlock Holmes a challenge for highest revenue generating non-existent character and maybe Elvis as well.
Not bad for a monster that only made one brief personal appearance in a Lovecraft story.
Still, it left many of us Lovecraft fans with a bitter quandary: can something that is supposed to be mind-shatteringly terrifying be cute? And would we even want it to be?
Lovecraft himself would likely be terrified by the very concept of his creation being used to sell t-shirts, toys and plushes. He might have appreciated that Cthulhu had become something that is recognized all over the world but it’s doubtful if he would have enjoyed some of the ways that Cthulhu has been used. So we are left with debating if all these things cheapen the meaning of Cthulhu? (“Yes, Virginia, there is a Cthulhu.”)
It was not so long ago that there was practically no Lovecraft merchandise of any kind around. Probably the first big, non-book related item was the release of the classic CALL OF CTHULHU role playing game by Chaosium back in 1981. It didn’t come with any figures but, at last, one could create your own Lovecraftian adventures using a RPG system created especially for the game. (There had been an early edition of the D&D sourcebook, DEITIES AND DEMIGODS in 1980, which included a section devoted to Lovecraftian monsters and, boy, were we excited to see that back then! Honest. We really were.)
Other than Chaosium expansion sets and scenarios, it was pretty lean for Cthulhu collectibles for a number of years. Then, in the 1990s, businesses woke up to the fact that there were a whole lotta Lovecraft fans out there eager to pay anything for Cthulhu related items. This led to an explosion of items including t-shirts, metal miniatures for RPGs, models, statues and the like. Some were pretty darn good like Randy Bowen’s sculpture of Cthulhu (modeled after the one done by the young artist Wilcox in “The Call of Cthulhu”) and some were just baffling (like the Horrorclix Cthulhu).
Most of these were, for the most part, trying to keep with the monstrous nature of Cthulhu himself. All that changed with the plushes.
Almost immediately, Lovecraft fandom divided like the Red Sea. Some didn’t care about them while others felt that they demeaned the intent of Lovecraft’s work. And yet, they sold an awful lot of those plush Cthulhus.
Because I’m an old fart, I was quite amused by them and picked up some myself. They’re displayed on a shelf in my home and I get a kick out of seeing them. But I can do that because I can separate them from Lovecraft’s work. To me, they neither enhance nor detract from the stories and are just a source of mild amusement.
In 1969, a reporter visited novelist James M. Cain (DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and many more books) and asked if the writer was upset about what Hollywood had done to his book. His reply, “They haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf.” That’s a powerful statement which, at its heart, means that nothing can truly affect the original work. It remains whole and unchanged. “The Call of Cthulhu” is, in a sense, still resting undisturbed on Lovecraft’s shelf.
Those plush dolls can’t hurt Lovecraft’s work because they cannot change the words he wrote or the worlds he created. But, the one area that they can have an impact is in perception.
Lovecraft’s influence is cultural now. It is not purely limited to books. One of the most interesting realizations to come out of organizing the recent NecronomiCon conventions is our discovery that, while everyone knows Cthulhu, not everyone knows Lovecraft. The creation has surpassed the creator much in the same way that Sherlock Holmes is known far more widely than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who first created the detective.
Why this is important is because, in today’s culture, someone is less likely to first know Cthulhu as a cosmic entity whose very existence is terrifying and soul-shattering and is more likely to recognize him as a plush doll or a character that popped up on a cartoon. That’s the real shame in that some people don’t know the real Cthulhu. And, worse yet, they might think that the Cthulhu in the books is a rip-off of the toy.
Sadly, thought, there’s not all that much we can do about that. There’s no need to look down on the toys or those people who appreciate or love them. Some have even found their way to Lovecraft through them. They’re all meant to be just good fun and enjoyed with a wry chuckle every now and then.
Until, of course, a pair of Cthulhu slippers comes alive and starts chewing on your feet!
(This post was written by Sam Gafford. Check out his excellent William Hope Hodgson blog here.)