Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Sandy Peterson and the reading list of doom

It’s October! One of the twelve best months to talk about the Cthulhu Mythos!

During a recent conversation about how the Cthulhu Mythos has become mainstream, I commented on how much Call of the Cthulhu (the RPG, not the short story or the telephone joke) and Sandy Peterson had to do with that. One of the other folks in that conversation proceeded to send me a link to Sandy Peterson talking about just that.

I am just barely old enough to appreciate how obscure Lovecraft and his influence was before Sandy Peterson began to share his love of Lovecraft and the Mythos. I work with kids who have always had plush Cthulhu’s in the world but there was a time when Lovecraft was basically a footnote in fantastic literature. Yes, August Derleth kept his name and work alive but Arkham House was a niche publisher at best.

These days, scholars write about Lovecraft. There’s a whole genre of cosmic honor named after him that includes literature, movies, video games and music. He is held up as second only to Edgar Allen Poe. But there was like half a century when obscure and thought  of as a hack if he was thought of at all.

And, while Call of the Cthulhu and Sandy Peterson didn’t single-handedly change that, they were one of the first dominos to fall.

According to Sandy Peterson, he had been a big fan of Lovecradt way before it was cool. And Chaosium picked him to design the game because he wouldn’t view it as a joke and he would be able to make a serious game.

Looking back, I realized that Sandy Peterson did one thing that was crucial to introducing audiences to the wider world of the Mythos. (Plenty of authors were influenced by Lovecraft, even when readers weren’t) He didn’t just include a list of source materials like Gygwx did with Appendix N.

No, for every entry in the bestiary, he included a quotation from a work that introduced or used that particular horror. And he cited the name and author of that work. Peterson integrated the reading list into the rules. And he didn’t just use Lovecraft’s own works. He also quoted August Derleth, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, Clark Ashton Smith, and that’s not the end of the list. Sandy Peterson gave me a reading list that I’m still not done with, literally decades after I first read  book.

And I’m going to argue that that is why Call of Cthulhu didn’t just have an impact on RPGs but on literature in general. It didn’t just introduce us to Cthulhu or H. P. Lovecraft or the idea of Cosmic Horror burning away sanity like cobwebs under a flame thrower. It showed us a broader picture of the literature of Cosmic Horror. 

Sandy Peterson didn’t single handedly make it possible for me to buy Cthulhu t-shirts. (The fact that Lovevaft is now public domain has a lot to with that too) But he had a lot to do with making the Mythos part of mainstream culture.

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