Scritch, scratch, see the rat,
Bright eyes and twitching tail,
Scritch, scratch, chase the rat,
‘Cross hill, and stream, and dale.
—Lynne Hardy, “Scritch, Scratch” in Cthulhu Lives! 158
In the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales a story appeared by H. P. Lovecraft titled “The White Ape.” It wasn’t Lovecraft’s title. In conscious imitation of Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft’s original title had been “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family.” An annoyed Lovecraft explained to the editor Edwin Baird on “The White Ape”:
I wish I could convert you to my point of view regarding the annoying literalness and flaccidity of that latter title…but all I can do is say that it is the only title which I could never possibly have applied to that particular tale; that it is at war with the spirit and internal harmonies of the narrative, and clashes fearsomely with the effect of the opening paragraph. One thing—you may be sure that if I ever entitled a story The White Ape, there would be no ape in it. There would be something at first taken for an ape, which would not be an ape. But how can one ever get those subtleties across?
—H. P. Lovecraft to Edwin Baird, 3 Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.294
The problem with “The White Ape” is that it gives the game away at the start. For Lovecraft, the point was to stave off the moment of ultimate revelation, to let the reader’s imagination fill in the details while building up the events, letting things sink in. Readers can certainly read “Arthur Jermyn” more than once, and appreciate what Lovecraft does with the story, but the revelation can only really be experienced once.
The effectiveness of this approach can be seen in another of Lovecraft’s stories: “The Rats in the Walls” (Weird Tales Mar 1924). The title might be the greatest trick that Lovecraft ever pulled: there are no rats in the story, not a one, though the narrator reads of them, dreams of them, and thinks he hears them scurrying about. The rats, it turns out, are not the ultimate horror of it all…
…which brings us to Lynne Hardy and her story. Which isn’t about rats either, exactly.
“Scritch, Scratch” works as much as it does because it is essentially an update on the old moral about progress sweeping away old traditions which ought not to be fucked with, and that hoary old Aesop slots well into a Lovecraftian milieu. Readers can sense what’s coming, the only question is the specifics, and Hardy delivers without either rushing it or drawing it out too long.
The story is an appropriate “eldritch tribute” to Lovecraft without falling into the domain of pastiche. Hardy hints, but doesn’t show her hand; there are no gods with strange names, no tentacles, not even any cults or strange tomes, as such. It is close to folk horror, and with a little bit of work could easily have become a full-blown part of the Mythos and a pastiche. Genre-savvy readers could easily see an investigator dropped into the strange goings-on, more of the history of the strange little church and its carvings discovered, some solution discovered before the end…
That would be a very different and less effective work of fiction. It might make for a decent game.
Hardy has a long history with roleplaying games, having written extensively for the Cthulhu Mythos Roleplaying Game and Achtung! Cthulhu. In 2018 for Free RPG Day she and Chaosium released a version of “Scritch, Scratch” adapted for play, which readers can download for free. It’s worth pointing out that what works for a standalone Lovecraftian story doesn’t necessarily work for a roleplaying game: the story itself doesn’t have a protagonist as such, while the player characters in the game very much like to think of themselves as protagonists and want to accomplish something. In that regard, Call of Cthulhu cases like “Scritch, Scratch” (2018) become interactive storytelling experiences: the players aren’t just reliving the events of “Scritch, Scratch” (2014), they get to have a say in events.
The basis for this scenario came about as the result of a bit of an emergency. I was just about to set off to the airport for a convention when I received a message from the organizer—one of their guests was no longer able to attend, but was supposed to be running a tailor-made Call of Cthulhu scenario for a Kickstarter backer. Could I step into the breach?
So, on the plane, I got my head together with my husband, Richard, and, after batting a few ideas around, decided to base it on a short story I’d written for the Cthulhu Lives anthology, published by Ghostwoods Books. Not exactly the same—that wouldn’t work—but looking at the events from a different viewpoint. Following its successful premiere at OrcaCon, the scenario has been run at a number of conventions with the pre-generated investigators provided. It’s always great fun to see how different groups tackle the character interaction and their investigators’ fate.
I hope you enjoy it, too.
—Lynne Hardy, “Foreword” in “Scritch, Scratch” (2018)
The scenario has to go into a little more explicit detail than the story. Readers who enjoy the mystery should probably give it a pass; some of the glamour of the Mythos tends to be lost when it’s packed into the relatively dry explanations that are sort of necessary. While readers of the story don’t need to know what’s going on to appreciate Hardy’s prose, gamemasters who are supposed to be running the event absolutely do.
“Scritch, Scratch” was published in Cthulhu Lives!: An Eldritch Tribute to H. P. Lovcraft (2014). It has not yet been reprinted.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).