In this interview, we have some preview material from Pelgrane Press’s latest Trail of Cthulhu offering in the form of some page spreads and a close up of some of the monstrous art. There are tips for keeping these horrors suitably scary and, finally, where to find Pelgrane at the next few gaming conventions.
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is one of the five authors who worked on Trail of Cthulhu: Hideous Creatures. The book is a bestiary of the Cthulhu mythos and deliberately contracts itself. Through the power of unwholesome magics, Geek Native reached out to Ryder-Hanrahan to ask why…
Which are your three favourite monsters in the book? Why?
That’s like asking me to pick a favourite child – they’re all equally malignant and hungry to destroy the world.
Right now, I’m very fond of the Bat-Things, for their implications about how the Great Old Ones manifest; the Vampirish Vapours, because they’re a bridge between human and Mythos, and the Gaseous Wraiths, for sheer weirdness. They’re all “new” monsters – they’re all drawn from the obscure corners of Lovecraft’s work (or a hybrid of Lovecraft and other sources), but haven’t had the same attention lavished on them like the better-known horrors like Shoggoths or Deep Ones.
Why do you think the Cthulhu mythos has found such longevity?
I don’t think there’s one single reason. I can think of several. It’s immensely flexible and adaptable – you can crossbreed the Mythos with almost any trope or genre and get a viable result. The Mythos can be universal – while it’s strongly associated with Lovecraft country and the 1920s, there’s no reason you can’t set stories elsewhere. It’s easy to work with, and open to new interpretations. It’s not tied to a single entity – Cthulhu may be in the name, but you’re not obliged to use him. Finally, it’s a horror for the modern era: atheistic (or maltheistic, even), full of impending doom at the hands (or tentacles) of uncaring entities, fear of knowledge, fear of corruption, fear of insanity.
What mistakes do you see narrators and GMs tend to make with Lovecraftian monsters? Does this supplement help avoid any of them?
Lovecraft came up with new monsters because he thought that the traditional horrors of vampires, ghosts and werewolves were played out and could no longer evoke surprise or dread. Now, Lovecraft’s own creations risk becoming staid and predictable. You can wring a little more juice out of a particular creature by changing the context – vampires on a spaceship, shoggoths on a plane – but that has severely diminishing returns. You need to change the context, but also know how to evoke the core horror of the entity. Hideous Creatures tries to show you how to do both, to see the monsters in new ways but also show you the essential nature of the thing.
Why does Hideous Creatures contradict itself?
Partially because you want the players to be uncertain. Too much mystery, and you lose the cultural weight of the monster. It feels more meaningful to be up against a Deep One than a Zlroblfhfuhui, even if they’re both aquatic humanoid monsters, just like “Darth Vader” has more impact in a story than “Darth Blozbor”. However, too much certainty is equally bad – if the players know exactly what a creature wants, how it’ll behave, and what tactics work against it, that diminishes the game. You want to be in that evocative grey area between total ignorance and understanding. Making the write-ups contradictory means the players can never be sure what interpretation the Gamemaster is using.
The other reason is that contradiction is one way to convey the cosmic strangeness of these entities. The universe of the Mythos cannot be comprehended by human minds – what we think of as fundamental limits don’t apply to alien entities.
What other three tips would give narrators to help them keep the mythos monsters scary?
Foreshadow the creature long before it appears. Drop hints and obscure references – newspaper reports, diary entries, entries in old books – that suggest the creature’s presence. Build up the monster into a looming presence long before it’s actually encountered.
Look for ways to disturb the players. Monsters that just rip people apart with claws are scary but not horrific. Take cues from other branches of the animal kingdom – have monsters that dissolve flesh, that lay eggs, that infect you with spores, that hijack your nervous system. Think about things that disgust or disturb you, and wrap a monster around that revulsion.
In most cases, don’t have the monster speak. If you need it to communicate something, give it human worshippers/agents/survivors of a previous attack – who can convey the necessary information. The exception are creatures tied to humanity; there, you can generate horror in the contrast between the monstrous and the mundane.
Are there any novels or essays you recommend to Trail of Cthulhu fans?
Graham Walmsley’s Stealing Cthulhu is a great breakdown of how to write Mythos-inspired adventures.
I just finished reading Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, a travelogue of the subterranean, which has great inspiration for monsters inspired by deep time and dark places.
I’d also recommend Tim Clare’s novel The Honours, which is basically an investigation of a weird cult in a 1930s country house, only the investigator is a precocious thirteen-year-old with a shotgun.
Pelgrane Press will be exhibiting at the UK Games Expo in a few weeks. Where will fans be able to find you?
We’re at booth 1-594 in Hall 1.
Pelgrane Press will also be at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio in June 12th – 16th, 2019, and at Gen Con from August 1st-4th 2019.