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'The Anatomical Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors' cuts beneath the surface

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‘The Anatomical Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors’ cuts beneath the surface

Risk your sanity and see what they’re really like!

There are many notable books about the monstrous possibilities created through the shared literary collaboration of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle of writer friends. While there are elements from Lovecraft’s writing that show hints of a paracosmic possibility, his individual stories typically don’t share a common world so much as they share an evolving set of common ideas and entities that serve as a kind of “cosmic seasoning” to flavor the narratives with terrible dangers beyond human ken.

Because the monsters of Lovecraftia are usually rare, hidden, and quite detrimental to the casual observer, the very idea of a single tome that might serve as a guide to understanding these entities is paradoxical. Yet notable examples exist, perhaps most famous among them being Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities (1988).

The name Sandy Peterson is inextricably tied to the roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu, and to extensive gaming properties across a spectrum of platforms (table-top gaming, roleplaying, and video games), so when one sees his name on a Lovecraftian project, it’s expected to be of a certain quality. That notwithstanding, Petersen Games’ The Anatomical Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors is something of an oddity.

Anatomical Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors entry

The tome

The Anatomical Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors is written from a secular, scientific perspective, and is presented as the published research of the author, Luis Merlo. The conceit is that Merlo, in the role of biologist/ethnographer, spent a few decades traveling the world (and beyond) to collect entities from Lovecraft and Lovecraft-adjacent stories, which he dissected and studied. The book is introduced as being the incomplete surviving text, as found in Merlo’s demolished home.

Each entry, in encyclopedic style, details the appearance, nature, and behavior of one of these often terrible creatures. There are many detailed illustrations offering scale, shape, and even internal anatomy of things that would normally be sanity-shattering. The art is in the style of pencil and ink — a shame it didn’t occur to Merlo to take a few photos?

Dissecting these beasts, even while acknowledging that some of them are at least of human-level intelligence, suggests a hidden narrative about the book’s creation that begins with curiosity, escalates to hubris, and ends with an exploded domicile and nothing left of the author to lug off to the cemetery. At least Peterson managed to save the manuscript.

Byakhee, Deep Ones, Elder Things, Ghasts, Shoggoths, Yithians, Night Gaunts — more than 30 entries of the kinds of foes that would be appropriate to any game of Call of Cthulhu fill the pages. There are short essays at the start that explain the challenges of cataloging these creatures, as well as providing some narrative rules for the various classifications Merlo assigns to them.

I especially like the brief “explorers note” entries that accompany some of the creatures.  These are sometimes the source of droll and subtle humor, but the book is not written for laughs. Like an improv performer who commits fully to the often absurd challenges contrived by drunken audiences, Merlo doesn’t break character, or the fourth wall.

The Anatomical Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors is not full of stats. It doesn’t have sidebars on how to combat these monsters. Where there is speculation on how to negotiate with the more sentient beings, it gives no tips.  It’s not written like a “gaming book” from a mechanics perspective. Which brings us to the question which struck me from the very first look at the work.

Who is the reader?

The Anatomical Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors feels very much like the kind of thing a player character might find as an in-game reference book, but that poses a fundamental problem, in that the very nature of gaming in HPL’s world tends to drive people mad. If we’re to take it that the book’s secular, scientific take on these creatures is accurate, then it tends to undermine the cosmic horror which is at the root of the game, so I must presume it isn’t intended for player characters.

Players themselves might find the book useful for giving them better mental images of the things their characters are (or could be) encountering within their gaming sessions?  But most Keepers (the Call of Cthulhu term for game masters/storytellers) tend to introduce their own spins on the monsters of the Lovecraft mythos, and a cold and unflinching deconstruction of the anatomy and behaviors of these things also seems a bit antithetical to the investigative role that playing the game creates.  In other words, the knowledge within this book is the end goal of a long and productive amount of game experience, and in that sense, reading it could feel like kind of cheat.

So I presume the target audience is either someone who actively runs (or aspires to run) Call of Cthulhu (or adjacent games like Ken Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu). Because Anatomical Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors isn’t full of stats, it also becomes a plausible source book for any roleplaying ecosystem that could use strange, monstrous entities that are alien and transdimensional, but not tied into stuff like the demons of Judeo-Christian cosmology. People who aspire to do such things and Lovecraft completionists will also find much to enjoy here.

'The Anatomical Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors' cuts beneath the surface

The horror?

I do have a couple of tiny criticisms. First, the book lacks an index.  Since it’s laid out alphabetically, individual entries are still easy to find, but this is supposed to be a reference book, and unless you have the digital version and the built-in search capabilities that format affords, you might get annoyed when looking for specific references. Also, I understand this book is written as though these entities are real, but if this is the first Lovecraftian book a reader encounters, they’ll be no closer to finding the source material from whence these entities are derived.

A well-written, beautifully illustrated tome of biology and behaviors, The Anatomical Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors would be a lovely addition to the shelves of any gamer who wants to ground their cosmic horrors in pseudo-realistic biological terms.  What it lacks in direct usefulness to gameplay, it makes up for by providing expanded visualization and conceptualization for these entities.  It’s far more narrative than Petersen’s Field Guide, but it still makes a nice companion to that venerable volume.

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