Cthulhu and the American Experience in Horror: Review of The Cthulhu Wars

The Cthulhu Wars: The United States’ Battles Against the Mythos is the latest book in the Dark Osprey series from Osprey Publishing. The series focuses on alternate, usually supernatural, history relating it the classic condensed and focused Osprey style. For those of us who love both these classic Osprey works and the mystical and bizarre worlds of Fortean history, these books have been a delight. The Cthulhu Wars is no exception, and for fans of the horror writings of HP Lovecraft in particular, it was a joy.

This most recent book is historian and game designer Kenneth Hite’s second contribution to the series. His first, The Nazi Occult, still feels like the most complete and serious of the books in the line. This time Mr. Hite is joined by Kennon Bauman, who appears to inject a wry sense of humor and overt Lovecraft reference, almost as a balance to Mr. Hite’s overt historical style. This contribution is evident from his introduction to the book, in which we learn of Mr. Bauman’s involvement due to the tragic death of Mr. Hite and destruction of much of his library in a mysterious fire.

The book initially opens with an overview of mythos elements and events in North America dating to before there was a United States. This was probably the most surprising part of the book for me as I was expecting something referencing the United States to begin with the United States. Also given that it starts when it does, it calls for a second work attempting to look in more detail on the Mythos’ history with Native Americans. It touches upon this and implies a potentially extensive connection, but does not go into any detail here. All in all though, I quickly accepted this overview as it laid the groundwork for later stories and consisted largely of clear references made by Lovecraft himself. Keziah Mason and Joseph Curwen both make their appearances here. The discussion of the contributions of the people of Innsmouth to the American Revolution is particularly appreciated.

As the history works its way through the 19th century we learn a great deal about the impact of NREs (a term used throughout the book short for Necronomicon-Related Entities) on the Nineteenth Century. This section, citing lack of official records from the period, focuses on the breadth of the Mythos in the US rather than depth. However, in good Dark Osprey fashion, the book manages to reference Lewis and Clark, Ambrose Bierce, and Harry Houdini tying them into the idea of a war the US has been carrying on for centuries without even knowing.

As befits a book on this topic, the meat of the text occurs after the events of the US government’s raid on Innsmouth, Massachusetts in 1928. This story, first referenced in Lovecraft’s own Shadows over Innsmouth and again expanded upon in the classic Call of Cthulhu scenario Escape from Innsmouth, has taken on a large role in tales of the US government’s involvement with the Cthulhu Mythos. Mainly this outsized role is because it references a coordinated federal assault inside one of Lovecraft’s own writings. It makes sense, therefore, that histories where these writings are historical would put the event front and center.

Being an avid role-player, probably the second most surprising thing about the book was the realization that Delta Green would not make an appearance. In hindsight, this was probably obvious. Why use a copyrighted organization created for table-top gaming, when there is an actual conspiracy more popular and broadly known to Americans in the form of the mysterious MAJIC clearance? After all, Majestic-12, the shadow organization responsible for the Roswell cover-up, is actually referenced in FBI files. Nonetheless, as a Delta Green player and GM, I found myself frequently bemused reading of the successes and failures of MAJIC at fighting the NREs, after so long thinking of Majestic primarily as antagonists. Following in the vein of the rest of the book, Mythos connections are made to various historical UFO sightings, nuclear weapons tests, and US anti-communist interventions across the globe.

It is in this Cold War section that the similarities with other eliptonic alternate US histories is best seen. And while in this story the US government are the good guys, we still see the hallmarks of conspiracy and cover-up that are so rampant throughout American culture. In this case, this sense of conspiracy recasts our history as a dark battle against horrible entities. The obvious boogeyman of our training of Tibetan paramilitary troops is not fighting Chinese communism, but the NRE deity known as Chaugnar Faugn. The flaw in our support of contras in Nicaragua, was not the intervention in general, but the specific attempt to use an NRE to do it.

This commonly used idea of retelling historical failures or mistakes in a new light is not a weakness of the book. In fact if it tried to find a new angle on many of these events, it would not be as enjoyable as it is. The book carries you through the logic of its alternate history mainly because the tropes are ones we all recognize. This sense of the conspiracy as history makes sense to us and the Mythos explanation is just the latest twist on that story. Sometimes it is more enjoyable to think that dark forces are manipulating humanity and attacking us. That there is some dark conspiracy behind a tragedy is often easier to read than the alternative, which is that people are often the biggest causes of the suffering of other people. For this reason, as well as its wry, entertaining flavor, I suspect I will enjoy the alternate history of The Cthulhu Wars for many years to come.