Lovecraft Lives: Shannon Applecline

(Introduction by LL

At some point, I think, every Lovecraft fan wants to create his own addition to the Mythos. Shannon Appelcline comes at that proposition from a unique angle. He is a published roleplaying and short fiction author and was a line editor for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu for a few years. Shannon is a regular game design theorist and also the Vice President of Skotos Games, among whose titles may be found the Lovecraft-inspired Tomb of the Desert God and Arkham by Night. And somewhere along the way, he found the time to write an original comic, Lovecraft Country:Return to Arkham, which is available on the web.)

I first found myself upon the road to Lovecraft Country in my college days.

I’d always seen the books on the shelves of my local used book stores, nestled between the stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and those of Elric and Hawkmoon, and I must admit that some of the covers called to me–particularly the couple of Lovecraftian books found in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. However, until college days I never delved into those blasphemous tomes to read the archaic, crabbed writings found within.

As I suspect is true for many of my generation of readers and Lovecraft aficionados, a game changed all of this: Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. I actually never played Call of Cthulhu much, but I adored many of the other literary games that Chaosium produced, including King Arthur Pendragon, Stormbringer, and Ringworld, and if anything I liked the stories underlying them even more. So, I figured that I might like the fictional basis of their most well-respected game as well–and I was right.

It was easy enough to find Lovecraft’s works, but what really intrigued me was the ever-expanding web of mythology that lay scattered across the writings of many, many others–and those stories weren’t nearly as simple to track down. I remember well scouring used book store after used book store, hoping to chance upon volumes that I had only heard of in quiet whispers, passed from one fan to another. Lumley’s Beneath the Moors I discovered jammed under a table at Other Change of Hobbit, all but forgotten. I found Carter’s The Spawn of Cthulhu at an upscale used book store, pristinely packaged in a Mylar bag; a sticker on the front sadly reflected its correct value.

Each new find was an epiphany, to be followed by discoveries of new gods, new tomes, and new mysteries … all new additions to a mythology as rich as that constructed by the Greeks or the Egyptians.

Today, sadly, that has all changed. A new fan can just type “The Spawn of Cthulhu” into eBay and quickly find a VG++ copy (whatever that is) available for $20 plus shipping and handling. The mystique of the past is gone.

But that is how I became a fan of Lovecraft.

The Coming of the Comic!

The road to Lovecraft Country (the comic) also began with a game. Skotos Tech, the online game companylc1 cover small Lovecraft Lives: Shannon Applecline which I still work for, was preparing to launch a Lovecraft-based text game, Arkham by Night (which you can try out for free. At the time we were experimenting with a multi-media approach to our games. I’d already written a comic book for Castle Marrach, our first release. A Lovecraft Country comic seemed like an even more obvious multi-media experience, thanks to the existing interest in the genre.

The toughest decision behind the creation of the Lovecraft Country comic was actually figuring out how it would relate to our game. Working with a parallel property like that can be tricky, because you don’t want to contradict the other work and at the same time you want your own work to have its own voice and to be able to tell its own story.

I finally settled on setting the comic a few years before the 1935 start of the game, giving me a more wide open canvas to work with, while still touching upon some of the characters and locations that people might see while playing online. I also had an obvious starting point for my comic’s plot. The game had begun with a one-off event called “The Tomb of the Desert God”, set several years earlier. I used that event as the prime mover of my comic, where Seth Fletcher journeys to Miskatonic University in search of his brother, who disappeared upon that very expedition, years before.

Choosing the Setting

Any modern-day Lovecraftian creator has to decide where and when his work will be set, and how close he will adhere to the Mythos as laid out by Lovecraft in his own writings. Arguably some of the most successful writers of the Mythos are those who really made it their own and didn’t worry how their stories might (or might not) contradict those of the old Gentleman from Providence. I’d put both Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley stories and Charles Strauss’ Laundry novels into this category. Contrariwise, I think some of the most brain-numbing Mythos hackery is that which adheres too closely to what Lovecraft wrote.

Nonetheless, the boundaries of the game suggested that I needed to write in Lovecraft’s traditional time period, and I took that as a challenge to create a story very true to Lovecraft’s writing, but also one that might have more characterization and a wider view of the historical period that you would find in a contemporary piece.

However, I had one other goal when I was writing that first Lovecraft Country comic. As I already mentioned, I enjoyed the writings of many other who had created an interconnected web of stories and myths–both those who came after Lovecraft and those who came before. I wanted to play freely within that context, to move from Lovecraft to Chambers, from Campbell to Strauss, all as part of an interconnected world. Lovecraft Country #1 was just a setup, as much of a teaser for the game as for any comics that might follow it, but still you can see the hints of this Mythos mapping, when Seth Fletcher, student at Miskatonic University, first sees the Yellow Sign, itself a creation of R.W. Chambers and Kevin Ross, two men separated by many decades.

Looking Back at the Project

Looking back at Lovecraft Country #1, which I wrote four years ago now, I’m still relatively happy with it. I think I could have cut down the narrative captions a bit, but at the time I was still enthralled by both the writing style of Neil Gaiman (who used captions to great effect throughout The Sandman) and by the idea of telling a Lovecraftian comic through journal entries.

I decided within the comic to keep the horror mostly off-stage, which itself took a page from the game, whose theme is “Act as if Nothing is Wrong”. As a result, there are dreams, shadows, and flashbacks, but no actual horrors walking down the streets of Arkham. I think the best horror is that which remains out of sight, just off-stage in our own safe modern world, and that’s what I wrote.

My biggest problem in producing Lovecraft Country was the artwork. I’d had considerable writing experience, so I felt good about the script, but Skotos had no one on staff with similar artistic experience. Thus, we contracted out the drawing of the comic.

pg01 206x300 Lovecraft Lives: Shannon AppleclineSaffronrage Media, the company who drew it for us, did a great job, creating a comic that had a very nice, classic look. However, they weren’t experienced with the comic book form, and this showed up in the lettering, which generally ended up too small–and which will be difficult for us ever to correct because we never got layered art files, just the final composites.

We got some great attention for Lovecraft Country, including a mention on Slashdot, which almost killed our server for a day. However, it never did much to drive customers to our game; thus, as a marketing tool, it was a much more limited success. Which means that today we can best measure it by how well it does justice to the Mythos itself.

Looking to the Future

Despite the numbering, Lovecraft Country #1 was intended to be a standalone issue. Skotos was already having troubles creating a continuing series of Castle Marrach comics, and we didn’t want to get into the same bind here, so I did my best to tell a complete (if open-ended) story.

Despite our initial plans, there was some real interest in continuing the comic, and so a year or two later I went back to my standalone story and started figuring out how to turn it into a story arc. I’ve since written two of the five additional scripts that I’d need to tell a complete story.

If those stories ever enjoy full production, like the first issue did, you’ll see that they really build on the idealc2 cover small Lovecraft Lives: Shannon Applecline of an interweaving web of stories. Issue #2 builds upon the introduction of the Yellow Sign by drawing heavily from R.W. Chambers. Issue #3 spins that by taking lost Carcosa and looking at it from the prism of the Dreamlands. If I ever write it, issue #4 is planned as a bit of a homage to Robert E. Howard’s Lovecraftian writings. The goal is to come back to Lovecraft with the final issue, but only after having expanded the canvas to include many of those who came before him or walked beside him.

I hope you’ll be able to see it some time.

The problem remains, as ever, the artwork. If you’re an artist who’s interested in drawing a Lovecraftian comic mainly for the love of the genre, feel free to ( drop me a line (