I have learned never to use the word definitive again. Just when I think I’ve gotten to the bottom of something, I discover a new layer. I discovered another one in just writing this piece.
Those in my circle are well acquainted with my love of the nuances of myth, literature, and legend. I’ve discovered another one. My current reading shed new light on Pickman’s Model by H.P. Lovecraft.
I just read through Gnole House, an introductory adventure that accompanies the Quick Start Rules booklet for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. It’s based on the original short stories that inspired the Gnoll from Dungeons & Dragons.
The original short story was by Lord Dunsany. Margaret St. Clair wrote a sequel years later. Their depictions are remarkably different. The adventure includes both creatures. That set me thinking and sent me back to Pickman’s Model.
A simple rereading reveals that there are, in fact, several different types of ghoul presented within Pickman’s Model at different stages of their life cycle. Several are scary, but there’s only one that the narrator describes as being a panic-inducing horror—something so dreadful that, when spooked, he is momentarily paralyzed. Reading the sequel, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, reveals the reactions people have to the average ghoul. Reading the stories side by side elucidates their portrayal within Dungeons & Dragons. This is important because Lovecraft is said to be a strong influence in their creation. It certainly seems so from the lore. There may, however, be something else at work. I’ll cover that later.
The small and man-sized ghouls might set your heart racing, might make you cry out, but only the horrendous ogre on the final canvas induced a panic attack. There should be at least two ghouls. Interestingly enough, in Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, the Troll is described as being akin to a ghoul.
In conclusion, it’s only the gigantic monster that is petrifyingly terrifying. Given that Anderson’s work was adapted as D&D’s official troll, it comes as something of a surprise that the two influences didn’t produce monsters more faithful to their literary sources.
Ghouls also appear in the official tabletop roleplaying game of Lovecraftian Horror, Call of Cthulhu. While the rules are different, no greater ghoul is described.
A contradictory influence comes from Lord Dunsany himself. Within his work we find what may be the answer to the gaming enigma. The literary origin of the ghoul’s paralyzing touch may come from a single line within How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon The Gnoles, although the effect is left to the reader’s imagination. So the D&D ghoul may be a mostly Dunsany inspired creature. Track down the story for a frightfully fun Halloween read. You’ll find it in The Book of Wonder.
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am mistaken and I will remove it without hesitation.