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December 22, 2003

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  Plush Cthulhu Must Die!

With Christmas just around the corner, I found myself hunting around for something I could write about that was appropriate to this festive yuletide season.  Not at all an easy order to fill, given that these editorials are also supposed to have something to do with the Pulps.  What could I write about that was both about Pulp and about Christmas?  Then I recalled that I had promised several times to write an editorial about Plush Cthulhu and now seemed as good a time as any.  So, what about Christmas, you ask?  Be patient.  You'll soon see why Plush Cthulhu is indeed an appropriately Christmasy topic.  Just you wait...the answer is more horrible than your worst nightmare...

Now, I don't want to be an old stick-in-the-mud.  I try to be open to new ideas and changing times.  True I still believe rap music is just a passing fad, and I think the modern use of computer generated special effects in today's movies look really, really cartoony.  But other than that, I wouldn't say I was completely closed minded.  But, honestly...Plush Cthulhu!?!

Surely, there is a special place reserved in hell for whomever it was first dreamed up the idea of marketing H.P. Lovecraft's supremely powerful, cosmically evil, eldritch, eternally-dreaming in the underwater city of R'yleh, uber-god as a cuddly, green-felt, beanie-filled Plush Cthulhu. Surely we have to draw the line somewhere! 

Let me step back a bit, and fill in the backstory FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO CAME IN LATE.  Plush Cthulhu is a plush and beanie-filled cuddle toy marketed by Toy Vault, Inc.  It is cute as all get-out.  It is also based on a supremely powerful ancient god invented by H.P. Lovecraft called "Cthulhu", a name which, by the way, was supposed to be as unpronouncable as it seems, since, according to Lovecraft himself, the spelling was simply an attempt to duplicate sounds which were never meant to be uttered by human tongues.  (As far as I know, most fans pronounce it something like kuh-THOO-loo.)  Cthulhu himself was the chief deity of a whole imaginary pantheon dreamed up by Lovecraft, and added to by other pulpsters such as Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, which featured in their famous "Cthulhu Mythos", a sort of writer's game whereby Lovecraft and friends would throw into their stories references to imaginary beings as well as imaginary sources of ancient and evil lore -- the most famous being of course the dreaded  "Necronomicon".  The purpose of all this was to add verisimilitude to their fiction, since obviously if readers found references to the Necronomicon in stories by different authors they would be more inclined to believe that such a forbidden tome actually existed.

I myself can vouch for the effectiveness of this.  For several years I really believed there must be a Necronomicon -- after all, I had read about it in different sources, hadn't I?  Disillusionment came only when I read the late Robert Bloch's introduction to a collection of his own Cthulhu Mythos stories called The Mysteries of the Worm (itself named after an imaginary tome which the author of Psycho had contributed to the Mythos).  Bloch let the cat (or the Cat-hulhu?) out of the bag, and for this young reader the effect was like discovering there is no Santa Claus.  (And, no, that wasn't the Christmas connection I promised.  Be patient.  It's worse than you can imagine...)

Too be fair, Toy Vault isn't entirely to blame for this little plush affront to all things eldritch and blasphemous.  Apparently, Lovecraft fans were already manufacturing plush Cthulhae all on their own and Toy Vault just recognized a nascent market when it saw one.  At the same time, Toy Vault even has competition.  Another company called The Outsider, which specializes in Lovecraft knick-knacks, markets its own Plush Cthulhu which looks suspiciously similar to Toy Vault's version, albeit not quite as detailed.  Then a company called Stuffe & Nonsense also offers a stuffed Cthulhu but their version is beige and much more thin and humanoid, rendering it far less cuddly.

But whether beige or green, cuddly or not so much, all the versions have certain traits in common -- batwings and a face full of tentacles.  This is because Lovecraft gave a fairly detailed description of his  Uber-monster in a story called "The Call of Cthulhu" in which a detective in New Orleans comes upon a statue of the little fellow, which he describes in this overheated way:

"It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful."

Chances are, you'll already be familiar with the name "The Call of Cthulhu", but not necessarily as a short story.  That's because a wildly popular role playing game by the same name was marketed a few years back and is still selling great guns today.  Which brings me to the main point of my essay.  Today, Lovecraft has achieved a kind of pinnacle of public awareness.  He still hasn't quite gained literary respectability (although he's coming pretty damn close), but his fans are legion if we go by the sales of The Call of Cthulhu role playing game and the various Plush Cthulhae out there.  And yet, I suspect, very few of these supposed fans have actually read the stories he wrote.  For them, H.P. Lovecraft is a name on a T-shirt.  He is an icon, a kitschy collectable that sits on their PC gazing down in plush-filled vacuousness  while they play the latest version of Tomb Raider XXI: Lara Croft in the Vatican!

As a fan of all things Pulp, I can't help but feel we have won the battle but lost the war.  (Or, as doctors say, the operation was a success, but the patient died.)  Don't get me wrong.  Its nice to see all those H.P. Lovecraft websites, its fun to visit sites like the hilarious "Tales of the Plush Cthulhu", but there is a part of me that cringes all the same.  Cthulhu was not a cute little cuddle toy.  He was a scary monster dreamed up by a remarkable author and his scariness was a part of the stories in which he appeared.  Take him out of those stories and what's the point?  And as scary as "The Call of Cthulhu" role playing game may be (and I understand it's pretty scary), surely we owe something to the original story that gave it its genesis.  (To be fair, I understand Chaosium, marketers of the role playing game, have included a copy of the original story in their latest version of the game...but still, how many will actually read it?)

Okay, I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking, Chill, dude.  It's only a toy.  Aw, but it gets worse, my friends, infinitely worse.  You see, impressed with the great sales they enjoyed marketing their Plush Cthulhu, Toy Vault decided to expand its line and get really creative.  Now they offer plush versions of other creatures from the Cthulhu Mythos -- namely a Plush Nyarlethotep and a Plush Shoggoth.  To be fair, the Plush Nyarlethotep in particular does manage to be remarkably creepy for a cuddle toy, but still, I can't help but feel there must be a Commandment that covers this sort of thing.  Something like THOU SHALT NOT DEPICT BLASPHEMOUS DEITES WITH HIGH-QUALITY STITCHING.

But of course, Cthulhu remains the real star attraction, and so the demoniac hordes at Toy Vault have come up with variations on a theme. Now you can buy Gothic Cthulhu, which, as the name implies, is a Goth version done in black and silver felt, with long claws suitable for an evening at a rave.  Then there is Secret Agent Cthulhu with its Sam Spade trenchcoat.  And Superhero Cthulhu complete with mask and cape.  And even Dracthulhu, with vampire fangs!  Where it will all lead, I shudder to think.  The Apocalypse, maybe?

I wrote my own Lovecraft imitation, the serial "In the Dark of Kingston", because I think we can learn a lot from such a past master of the macabre.  Yet, for all that Lovecraft's fans are legion, even the more serious "scholars" seem obsessed with the nuts and bolts of his mythos, with endlessly debating whether or not his gods were "elementals", whether they were evil, or merely alien, minutiae that, however interesting, have little to do with why his stories worked.  There is little attempt to consider and analyze the techniques he employed to get the effects he did.  Indeed, more often, modern Lovecraft scholars usually dismiss those very techniques as outdated idiosyncracies, lapses for which Lovecraft is best forgiven, if not outright criticized.  To my mind, these scholars are no different than the manufacturers of Plush Cthulhu.  Lovecraft knew how to write, damn it, and his techniques, outdated as they may be, were an essential part of what made his stories the kick-ass fear-fests they were.  Dismiss those techniques and you have missed the whole flaming point.  (I'll have more to say on that topic in a later editorial, you can bet on it.  Stay tuned, Bat-fans!)

So, what does all this have to do with Christmas?  Brace yourselves, Faithful Fiends, I've saved the best for last.  Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, just when the mind teeters on the brink of unholy madness, now Toy Vault has come up with one final mind-reeling monstrosity against which there can be no rational defense.  That's right.

Santa Cthulhu!

Santa Cthulhu

Merry Christmas!!!

(My rabid editorial not-withstanding, you can't help but love the little guy.  I highly recommend you check out the "Tales of the Plush Cthulhu" site I mentioned earlier.  It'll put a great big blasphemous smile on your tentacles, if anything will.)

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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