Weird Tales: confessions of a horror nerd
I first came into contact with the world of HP Lovecraft aged thirteen, and it wasn't through his books.
My elder brother, John, the two boys from next door and I were into role playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, and when I say we were into it, I mean we were lost in it, obsessed, consumed by worlds scribbled on character sheets and graph paper. One summer we spent every waking hour playing, the curtains drawn tight to block out sunlight and add atmosphere. It's a wonder we never came down with rickets!
Our heads were full of Orcs, Dragons and Gelatinous Cubes (actually, we never did encounter one of them, simply because they sounded rubbish)... until one dark autumn day when a package arrived on our doorstep; an ancient package, a package containing some unknown, intolerable evil.
Some weeks before, my brother had announced, in a conspiratorial manner, that he had ordered a new role-playing game called Call of Cthulhu (which was referred to under the rather unfortunate acronym of CoC). It was a 'horror' role-playing game (a first) based on the work of the great HP Lovecraft. 'Wow' I said 'who's he?' When the package arrived (it wasn't evil or ancient really, just a pristine, well-presented jiffy bag) all was revealed.
Lovecraft wasn't merely straight horror, it had a mythos built around it, with creatures of unfathomable mystery such as the fungal Mi-Go, the Shoggoths, and the rather less exotic Nightgaunts. The rules of the game were also slightly different, in that they had a whole section dedicated to insanity. Amazing; your character could not only have their arms and legs ripped off, but they could also completely lose their minds as well.
Nestled deep in the centre of Lovecraft's mythos was the darkest tome known to man, the anti-bible, the dreaded, the indescribable, the completely unreadable Necronomicon, written by the 'mad Arab' Abdul Alhazred. Now, to our young minds, this book actually existed (I'm still not a hundred percent sure it doesn't) which added to the sense that what we were playing, what we were recounting, what we were experiencing was somehow really evil, that we were actually dabbling on the fringes of the occult, and it all therefore became just that tad bit more exciting.
We only played the game twice. I don't know why as they were the best gaming sessions we ever had. One adventure (my brother wrote and umpired all the adventures) was called The Man Who Made Monsters, which was a sort of 1920s-set Frankenstein/zombie affair, and the other one ended up with us running around a foggy forest with shotguns, whilst being hunted by some hideous beasts from outer space. Can't actually remember what that one was called, but it was brilliant.
And that leads me to the literature of Lovecraft himself. Since discovering CoC (that really is most unfortunate, isn't it?) I've returned time and time again to the short stories. Now, some may say that Lovecraft is not great literature, and they'd probably be right, but what he has in spades is ideas, and the ability to create atmospheres and plant truly horrific imagery in the space of a short sentence. Just give this a go:
I was much less disturbed by the vulgar tales of wails and
howlings in the barren, windswept valley beneath the limestone
clifftop; of the graveyard stenches after the spring rains;
of the floundering, squealing white thing on which Sir
John Clave's horse had trod one night in a lonely field;
and the servant who had gone mad at what he saw in the
Priory in the full light of day.
The Rats in the Walls
Marvellous. 'The floundering, squealing white thing...' what is that about?
Another thing Lovecraft is extraordinarily good at is titling his work, which goes a long way with me as I'm particularly bad at it. The Thing On The Doorstep, The Dunwich Horror, Haunter Of The Dark; these titles reek of the genre that spawned them, as well as having a pungent whiff of pulp about them. If you read The Beast In The Cave expecting a deep and meaningful dissection of what it meant to be human in 20th Century America, well, more fool you.
Now, this leads me to the moment I was asked to pitch for Weird Tales, stories 'inspired by' the work of Lovecraft. Important phrase that 'inspired by' not 'based on'. First I looked for triggers in all I remembered from his work, and the first thing that sprang to mind was one of the titles, my favourite title, The Rats In The Walls, and went from there. I even actually got to use the phrase itself as a direct homage; it was one of the last things I did on the script, when the producer said we needed a couple of lines to insert in the introduction.
The story I've written is, I hope, a modern story. It's not set in the 20s and Lovecraft's beloved Arkham doesn't feature either. There's no reference to tomes of evil magic, and there are no shambling space creatures in search of blood. But it does explore one vital Lovecraftian theme, and that is....ahh, I'll let you find out.
It's been a pleasure though, to write a play based on the work of someone who had such an impact on my early life; not only Lovecraft; but my brother, John, who created stories for us to play all those years ago, and who made supreme evil that little bit more fun than football, hanging out at the rec' and all the usual stuff 'normal' kids got up to in small town England in the early 1980s.
Richard Vincent wrote tonight's episode of Weird Tales
- Bookmark this page for all three Weird Tales blog posts.
- Listen to episode three of Weird Tales tonight at 2300 (and on the Radio 4 web site for seven days after that).
- Follow programme makers audiotheque on Twitter and look out for Lovecraft references during transmission. Use the hashtag #weirdtales if you're listening.
- There are production pictures by Michelle Turner from Weird Tales 2: Split the Atom, on Flickr.
- H.P. Lovecraft has a Wikipedia entry. So does Cthulhu.
- The picture is by Ian Wilson and it's used under licence.