Strange Bedfellows (2023) by Caroline Manley (Raph)

With the release of this zine I hope that Lovecraft is screaming and crying and spinning in his grave.

product description for Strange Bedfellows on etsy

Roleplaying games as currently understood and popularized begin with the publication of the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set in 1974. The players and designers of that period were typically white, heterosexual, cisgender males—reflecting in many ways the audience of fantasy and science fiction fans at the time—and D&D developed in the middle of a boom in paperback publishing that saw the mass market publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and H. P. Lovecraft’s Mythos fiction, among many others. It should come as no surprise that in this environment, with fiction from the 30s and 50s being interpreted for gaming for a 70s audience, a great deal of prejudice was effectively “baked in.”

Yet gaming has never been exclusively male, white, cisgender, or heterosexual—and as the hobby has expanded the gamers and game designers have only become more diverse, and the games have increasingly become aware of and confronted many of the prejudices that passed without question in earlier editions. It is not unusual in the 2020s to run across disclaimers like those in Harlem Unbound (2017) by Darker Hue Studios, or this one:

Fate of Cthulhu is a game that deals with many hard topics, including mental health, systemic abuses of power, and the deaths of huge portions of the human species. Make sure all the players are aware of these things and give enthusiastic ocnsent before they begin playing.

Also—Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a racist and an anti-Semite.

There. We said it.

We could give a litany of examples, but they are easy to find with a simple Internet search. Look up the name of his cat, for instance (HPL was over-the-top, even for his time). Go ahead, we’ll wait.

Fate of Cthulhu (2020)

If there is a bit of animus in declarations like those for Strange Bedfellows and Fate of Cthulhu, it has to be remembered that for decades prior to these products very little thought was given to implicit and explicit discrimination against folks based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality in gaming products. Many early fantasy settings were implicitly based on a fantasy version of medieval Europe with the assumption that the default human population was largely or exclusively white, and depictions of non-white characters and settings were often rife with stereotypes. Items like the girdle of femininity/masculinity in Dungeons & Dragons were cursed; early editions of the Palladium Role-Playing Game had an insanity table derived from editions of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that still listed homosexuality as a mental disorder—which spawned the joke that just seeing Cthulhu could turn you gay.

It sounds relatively obvious today that a players need not fear discrimination for their race, gender, or sexuality, and that they can likewise roleplay a character with those identities with discrimination—but historically that has not always been the case.

Having created and explored their characters in the game, played through adventures, developed their backgrounds, it isn’t surprising to see gamers create art and fiction about those same characters. The nature of such works is as varied as gamers themselves; from the first drabbles and sketches in a notebook to lengthy original epics and detailed portraits, from acceptable to all audiences to sexually explicit works intended for adults only.

Such a work is Strange Bedfellows by Caroline Manley (Raph): a 24-page ‘zine on their Call of Cthulhu character Laurence “Laurie” Metzger, an art student at university with a penchant for fencing and the occult. It consists of eight sexually-explicit homoerotic encounters between “Laurie” and various Mythos entities, and the twelve-page short story “In Sleep, What Wakes” starring Laurie, which is really an extended erotic lucid dream-sequence bookended with brief episodes in the waking world.

A tongue ghosts over the seam of his lips, over the still-fresh scar that bisects them, and he opens his mouth eagerly. This time as they kiss, that hand sill holds him in place. It does wonders for his buzzing brain, keeping all its edges dulled, despite how intent it is on drawing him back into paralyzing fear. Back into questioning the way malleable tentacles cling to his form as though trying to crawl beneath his skin. If they weren’t so alien, their curiosity would almost be endearing, but—

“In Sleep, What Wakes” in Strange Bedfellows

Raph has described Laurie as a “nerdy twink with a taste for the occult” and this represents a very different approach to a lot of other homoerotic Lovecraftian works. “Le Pornomicon” (2005) by Logan Kowalsky for example focuses on bears, Dagger of Blood (1997) by John Blackburn is a bisexual medley. In all of those stories, the characters tend be sexually aggressive; by comparison, Laurie is more passive and receptive, and that dynamic reflects the odd circumstances of the story. There is a slight BDSM element to the story, but it has to do with the nature of power and leverage rather than the the rather severe submission and pain depicted in “Under the Keeper of the Key” (2015) by Jaap Boekestein.

Like Widdershins (2013) by Jordan L. Hawk, “Moonshine” (2018) by G. D. Penman, or “(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft” by Clinton W. Waters, the story works in part because it is a story about relationships instead of just sex. Raph explores Laurie’s psychology a bit, their intimacies with the eldritch entity called Gabriel. The psychological trauma which is measured in Call of Cthulhu by the loss of Sanity points is here addressed in narrative terms, as an inability to sleep restfully because of traumatic memories and stress.

Taken as a whole, Strange Bedfellows doesn’t spell out an entire campaign or dive deep into the background of Laurie and Gabriel—but what is there is intriguing, well-crafted, and well-depicted for those interested in such art and fiction. The adult content is unabashed, but then what is there to be abashed about, when it is clearly labeled and everyone who picks up this ‘zine presumably has some idea of what they are getting into? Anyone that wants to clutch their metaphorical pearls at the idea that if they open up pages 10-11 they’ll see a double-page spread of Cthulhu spearing Laurie with an inhumanly oversized phallus should ask themselves what they expected to find in a ‘zine clearly advertised as 18+ and homoerotic.

Tabletop roleplaying gaming has come a long way since its beginnings, and while we cannot say what Lovecraft would have made of it all had he lived to see it, we know that during his life he appreciated and took joy in the fact that other people were having fun with his creations:

I like to have others use my Azathoths & Nyarlathoteps—& in return I shall use Klarkash-Ton’s Tsathoggua, your monk Clithanus, & Howard’s Bran.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 3 Aug 1931, Essential Solitude 1.353

The collaborative nature of the Mythos as it was originally conceived by Lovecraft is very much in line with the collaborative narrative of the tabletop…and the nature of such collaboration is that the ideas expressed and how they are expressed are not limited by the imagination of a single creator. Even Lovecraft had limits to his imagination, and to how he could express that imagination. Lovecraft delighted in his metaphorical strange bedfellows…and perhaps Strange Bedfellows will delight those with an interest in Mythos erotica.

Strange Bedfellows (2023) by Caroline Manley (Raph) may be purchased at Etsy.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

One thought on “Strange Bedfellows (2023) by Caroline Manley (Raph)

  1. Hello there! Raph herself here! Imagine my delight at finding this completely at random, three links deep, while scrolling Twitter after searching my own name out of curiosity. I’ve never before received a review on my work that approached it with an academic lens like this– especially not my porn! It’s funny at times to remember that I’m the one with all the Laurie lore (har har) in my head, and that others only know what I show them. Seeing your thoughts about him makes me want to share all the half-finished projects I’ve got gathering virtual dust on my hard drive. I’m sure that some will see the light of day!

    Many, many thanks, and I hope you enjoyed Cthulhu’s salacious side! ;^) I’m @raphdoods on Instagram/Twitter if you ever feel like reaching out.

    Liked by 1 person

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