What a Fucking Nightmare

What a Fucking Nightmare is the name of the latest album by the English street punk band The Chisel. It’s also the name of the opening track, in which music drones and front man Callum Graham repeats the words with increasing agitation until the wave breaks into the first real song of the album. I have a t-shirt with the slogan emblazoned on the back. It seems like a motto for modern living and pops, unbidden, into my mind with an alarming frequency. Today, for instance, I was looking at Chaosium’s late ‘80s and early ‘90s Call of Cthulhu books and I thought, “What a fucking nightmare.” Why? I’ll tell you why.

Several of Call of Cthulhu book from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – the fourth edition of the rules, Masks of Nyarlathotep, Curse of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Classics, Cthulhu Casebook, Cthulhu by Gaslight, and H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands – featured color plates, mostly bearing paintings by Tom Sullivan, Lee Gibbons, Nick Smith and Les Edwards. These books all reprint earlier game material, so some of the plates were the old covers. A small handful of the plates are work commissioned by Games Workshop for their editions of the game. In fact, that’s where the color plates originate – they’re part of the early GW house style and are featured in the UK editions of Call of Cthulhu (the US third edition is essentially an import of GW’s UK edition), RuneQuest and Stormbringer (Chaosium’s softcover fourth edition also has color plates), as well as many Warhammer books.

“Chiller,” by Les Edwards

Some plates feature new work that directly illustrated scenes and characters from the scenarios, as is the case with most of the plates in Masks (the exception is a reprint of the original box art). Others illustrate scenes in scenarios that don’t seem to exist or were recycled from horror novel covers. The most interesting of the latter is a Les Edwards painting called “Chiller,” which originally appeared on a novel of the same name by David Sale (1983). It showed up in both the third and fourth edition Call of Cthulhu rulebooks without any real explanation (along with Edwards’ “The Croglin Vampire,” probably most famous for fronting the Krokus album Alive and Screaming) and apparently served as the inspiration for Mr. Shiny, a character in the Cthulhu Now campaign At Your Door (1990). He isn’t human at all, but rather a Shoggoth Lord (a type of creature invented by Michael Shea for his 1983 story “Fat Face”), an evolved form of protoplasmic horror than can mimic humans, though not without some uncanniness. The campaign is a mess, but Mr. Shiny is a memorable part of it thanks to the bizarre roleplaying opportunities he affords (perhaps carried a bit on the strength of Edwards’ painting) and has since developed a minor cult following, even appearing in the most recent version of Malleus Monstrorum.

“The Crawling One,” by Nick Smith

I’ve since replaced my original copies with ones that are whole. Or so I thought. On the evening of May 3, 2024, one Mr. Benjamin Blattberg posted a message in the Vintage RPG Discord, offering several ‘90s-era Call of Cthulhu books for sale, including one with plates, Cthulhu Classics. Whenever I encounter one of the books with plates for sale, I panic, wondering if I replaced that one (I did!) and that’s what I did this time. I went to the shelf, checked and saw the plates. Huzzah. I don’t have to spend any money. Unfortunately, when I woke up this morning, I was thinking about the color plates in Cthulhu Classics. I went back to the shelf and, sure enough, one of the plates that I expected to be there – “The Crawling One,” by Nick Smith – wasn’t. I second guessed myself, and supposed it was in one of the other sets of plates. It wasn’t. I also recalled another, “The Hell-Plant,” by Dell Harris and Nick Smith, which I also did not see anywhere else. I went back, yet again, to Cthulhu Classics and it has no evidence of razoring; the binding looks completely intact and I can’t see the plate having been pulled out of the glue. Moreover, I am sure this is a replacement, because Tom Sullivan’s “R’lyeh” definitely spent some time in the binder, but it is intact in this copy.

“The Hell-Plant,” by Dell Harris and Nick Smith

Back in the early ‘90s, when I first discovered and began purchasing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu books, I was an idiot. The color plates were a big part of why the game’s aesthetic appealed to me. They’re almost all strange, in composition or technique in addition to subject manner (this is partly because many have a whiff of that hard-to-quantify aesthetic of UK horror and fantasy art). Many are bright and garish, some are hilarious (“Eloise the Werewolf,” my god), a couple are surprisingly crude. Most importantly, they adhere to a whole different visual language than what I was familiar with from mainline Dungeons & Dragons and its immediate derivatives. For school, I used a three-ring binder, one that had a clear vinyl pocket on the front for your own insert. See where this is going? I used Monstrous Compendium dividers inside, and I razored out my favorite Call of Cthulhu color plates to stick in the cover sleeve. Like I said, an idiot.

“R’lyeh,” by Tom Sullivan

Like a protagonist in a Lovecraft story, I now feel like I am losing my mind. I turn to PDFs. I have two. The first was an ancient download from the Usenet – it has “The Crawling One,” but not “The Hell-Plant” nor “R’lyeh.” The second, from [REDACTED], has both “The Crawling One” and “The Hell-Plant,” but not “R’lyeh.” The table of contents for all three versions I have at hand list eight plates, but have just six or seven. Another member of the Discord looked the book up on a French database, which records there being seven full color illustrations. Their two different PDFs also lack “R’lyeh.”

There are a couple possibilities. We can dismiss the PDFs, perhaps, as being down to scanning errors, and there is no way to be certain that the four files we have consulted aren’t all permutations of the same original scan (I should point out that there is no official PDF version of Cthulhu Classics currently available for purchase, nor, I believe, was one ever produced). My copy is harder to dismiss, but it is possible that the plates were carefully pulled out by a fiend of similar mind as 1991 Stu. It is also possible that my copy is a lone printing error. The nightmare scenario, of course, is that there are many variant copies out there. I’ve written this account, in part, in the hope that brave individuals will come forward with additional evidence.

Why is that a nightmare? Well, for most people, I suppose it isn’t, though if there are multiple variants or high-volume printing errors, it’s daunting for a certain set of collectors and vaguely interesting that it took so long to discover (I have not, thus far, found anything on the internet that indicates that this is a known thing) and that the discovery was stumbled across because I was a little happy-go-lucky with an X-acto blade thirty years ago.

Mostly it’s a nightmare for me, because I’m about to drop sixty bucks on another copy. At least I thought to confirm with the seller that all the plates are there!

2 thoughts on “What a Fucking Nightmare

  1. I would assume this is just a printing issue. I have a at least one 80s/90s Chaosium book with a doubled up plate, with a single plate appearing twice. Unfortunately all my non Miskatonic books are in storage so I can’t tell you which one.

    1. If you come across it, do let me know. I expect you’re right, that it boils down to intermittent print flaws — I don’t know a ton about book binding, but I do think color plates like this are often dipped in last, so it makes sense that issues of order and duplication might crop up.

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