A long time ago*, in a little town in New England, lived a writer. His stories were in the pulpy style of his time: the characters were melodramatic, the writing lurid, but the subject matter… it was unusual. Special.
The writer was Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and he invented the Cthulhu Mythos.
My first introduction to Lovecraft was through the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. I was very struck by the richness and the soul-crushing futility of the central premise: that Mankind is not the first tenant of this planet, nor indeed the only intelligent inhabitant now, and that our troubles and concerns are of no interest to these alien others. Further, the earliest inhabitants were great alien gods who now lie in unquiet slumber until the stars are right once more and they can return to ravage he Earth and the paltry smattering of life which it possesses.
Cthulhu is one of these monsters, but there are others yet more powerful and unknowable: Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep.
Lovecraft’s stories concern the discovery of this hidden history by unfortunate individuals – nerdy rather than heroic – and chronicles their efforts to survive these revelations.
It’s powerful stuff, and its popularity was helped by Lovecraft’s prolific correspondence which encouraged many writers to work with these ideas.
The Mythos is a tremendous universe for roleplaying, too. Call of Cthulhu I have already mentioned, but there are board games, card games, dice games, and multiple roleplaying supplements set in this noosphere – there is even a setting for Toon, the cartoon RPG, and let me tell you that playing a cartoon drum combattting nameless horrors is a bizarre experience!
But aside from roleplaying, Lovecraft’s concepts turn up everywhere. They are a pervasive undercurrent, a subtle corruption touching everywhere. I use these themes occasionally myself, although sometimes what begins as a Mythos story turns into something else more tractable when the characters need to win.
My favourite author working with the Mythos at the moment is Charles Stross. His books about The Laundry (a secret British agency dedicated to containing these horrors) are consciously pulpy themselves although they written more to subvert the conventions of the espionage genre rather than those of horror.
But do try reading some of Lovecraft’s original stories. They’re by no means all wonderfully written, but they’ll stick with you for a long time.
[*] It has been said that the problem with Europeans is that they think 100 miles is a long way, but that the problem with Americans is that they think 100 years is a long time.