After four months of lugubrious wrangling, the LNN is pleased to finally announce the completion of the latest entry in our reckless crusade of in-depth celebrity interviews. Today we tread a path few journalist dare to, well, be on the record as having trod upon. It is a path marked by foul monstrosities, mind shattering vistas of horrifying reality (which goes without saying these days), and velvety soft, extra dimensional entities.
Today is the the day we present our interview with Paul Blake, a developer from ToyVault--the maniacal purveyors of the blasphemously adorable Plush Cthulhu line.
Blake: First, an introduction. My name is Paul Blake, and apart from being ToyVault's Game Developer, I'm also the resident Lovecraft Geek (possibly surpassed by Jon in that respect - possibly), so it fell to me to fill in the blanks for this interview. The answers I give here are a mixture of my rephrasing Jon's answers, my rephrasing elements of our company history, and (where he specified that I should use them) Jon's exact words. In these answers, when I say "I", I'm referring to myself, individually. When I say "We," I'm referring to ToyVault as a company.
LNN: Tell us about how the Cthulhu line got started and what was behind the decision to turn him into a cute, cuddly, stuffed animal.
Blake: Initially, Jon's response included phrases such as "While I was studying at Miskatonic University," and "My good friend Herbert West," so I'm not entirely sure how seriously he was taking the matter.
In truth, Jon's decision to make Lovecraft-based plush toys was, as so many things are, the intersection of several unrelated events. ToyVault has, in many ways, been a showcase of the personal interests and fascinations of the creative minds within the company - most notably Jon himself.
Jon's an avid gamer, a voracious reader, and a diehard fan of almost every media franchise in our product catalog. He had long wanted to make Lovecraftian toys, but during its earliest days, ToyVault primarily made action figures.
While a Cthulhu action figure might have a market, technical limitations of the form would likely alienate just as many potential customers as it would attract. For instance, how posable should such a figure be? Which specific artistic representation should be used? How detailed should the sculpt be? Action figures of this type have a rigidity, not just of material, but also of concept. Fans have an image in their minds eye of what a character should look like, and an action figure representation should match that image as closely as possible. With comic book or film subject matter, that matchup is fairly easy. With literary subject matter like Cthulhu, it is substantially more difficult, and so he tabled the idea.
Some time in late 1999, ToyVault was approached by another company - I'm not at liberty to name them specifically - to produce their version of a Cthulhu plush toy. The toy was manufactured, but a payment dispute prevented the product from reaching the market.
In the process, however, Jon learned the ins and outs of plush manufacturing, and the idea of a plush inversion of the Cosmic Horror trope appealed to him. A new design was commissioned, and the prototype was displayed at San Diego Comic-Con. Attendees were told that we would produce it "if there was sufficient demand." At the show, two major distributors committed to enough pre-orders to cover an entire production run, and the line has been self-sustaining ever since.
LNN: What is is about Lovecraft's fiction that makes it marketable as opposed to, say for example, the works of a better known author such as Jane Austen, and what does this say about your target demographic?
Blake: In terms of ToyVault's marketability of Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian horrors, part of it is recognizability. Show a Cthulhu toy to anyone who has read Lovecraft and they should be able to recognize it as Cthulhu. I would be surprised if any Jane Austen fans could differentiate between, for instance, Elinor from Sense and Sensibility, Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice, Fanny from Mansfield Park, and any other Victorian-era lady of refinement. You could make a line of Sense and Sensibility dolls, and without changing anything but their labels, rebrand them as Wuthering Heights dolls.
However, that only speaks to the visual distinctiveness of Cthulhu, which doesn't completely answer your question. It seems that, to some extent, Cthulhu's popularity specifically as a plush toy is down to a growing trend of postmodern deconstruction in media and culture in general. Cthulhu is a widely recognizable icon not just of Lovecraft's work specifically, but of the Cosmic Horror genre as a whole - and by extension, an icon of undefinable fear, creeping madness, and abstract nightmares. Contrastingly, plush toys are an icon of the innocence of childhood, and all that is cute and cuddly. Merging the two creates a complete inversion of both of the concepts.
What that says about the demographic - Either that they have a sense of humor, or that it comforts them to see an incomprehensible terror from beyond the reach of time reduced to cuddly, huggable teddy bear.
LNN: What significance does the Cthulhu line have for you company, and what percentage of your business does it comprise?
Blake: Cthulhu was the first plush toy we manufactured, and its popularity completely changed our business model. It turned us on to the fact that Geeks (and I use the term to include myself - I'm possibly the nerdiest guy Jon knows) have an interest in plush toys that are conceptually ironic.
Our General Business Manager won't let me discuss exact sales figures, but I will say that Cthulhu products are consistently our most profitable plush toys, and we have no plans to stop making them.
LNN: Your website says that you acquired the license for Cthulhu in 2000. Who currently claims ownership of the franchise now in terms of memorabilia, and what are your thoughts on literature and the public domain? Does your business affiliation make you a de facto supporter of the Swedish Pirate Party and Electronic Freedom Foundation?
Blake: The phrase "Cthulhu license" on our website is a bit poorly phrased on our part, and somewhat confusing. Its usage is due to the fact that we were approached to manufacture the product by an external company - As I mentioned before, I can't name them - and a license was involved for that specific product, as the toy was based on their artistic interpretation. That product never made it to market.
ToyVault does not have any official business relationship with any parties claiming ownership of Lovecraft's copyrights. To my knowledge, no such parties have contacted us claiming infringement. Such a claim would, after all, need to be backed up with sufficient evidence that the work in question is not in the public domain, and that the plush toys did not represent a non-infringing parody. Either way, if the matter were to be brought to trial, it would at least settle the question officially.
As for who claims ownership of the license, we don't have any additional information beyond that which is already known. Derleth's claim of ownership is the only one with any credibility at all, and even that is dubious. In any event, his estate seems singularly disinterested in pursuing it. Chaosium's claims of ownership are only over specific elements unique to their RPG line, and the use of the phrase "The Call of Cthulhu" in gaming products. Whether this last would stand up to a true legal test remains a matter of much debate.
The purpose of the public domain is for the general improvement of culture and the arts. The arguments against its existence seem transparently greedy in nature. Such arguments are never made by an artist or author with regards to his or her own works: They are instead made by those who have purchased or inherited rights, and fear losing the stream of revenue those rights have generated. However, the complexity of copyright reform is well beyond the scope of us as a toy company. On this subject, I would recommend Spider Robinson's short story "Melancholy Elephants." (Note to editor: This link is legal. Baen is Spider Robinson's publisher, and routinely makes much of their catalog available for free)
ToyVault, as a company, does not have any political stances or affiliations. We make toys and games. If there existed a political party opposed to the manufacture and/or sale of such things, we'd probably be in opposition to them. To my knowledge, no one in the company has any direct ties to either the EFF or the Swedish Pirate Party.
LNN: Well, don't be surprised when an honorary membership arrives in the mail. . . The plush Cthulhu doll has become something of its own Internet meme and has developed its own sub culture, including such websites as "Tales of Plush Cthulhu" and "Calls for Cthulhu." How do you perceive your product is shaping the history and current culture of Lovecraft and his fiction?
Blake: All things will be parodied. It's a natural part of all fandoms, especially those for which the subject matter is no longer ongoing - A canceled television show, a completed series of movies, or the body of a late author's work, for instance. It allows the fans to express their enthusiasm in a new, creative, and unique way. Our plush toys were simply the most convenient tool at hand for some of these expressions.
LNN: What is the most peculiar place you have seen or heard of a plush Cthulhu showing up?
Blake: I've seen at least one university professor who wore our Cthulhu backpack, and more than a few computer repair places with a mini Cthulhu on staff - presumably to terrify the computers into working again. However, the strangest instance I've personally witnessed was during a trip I was taking to visit family out-of-state last year. In a shopping mall in a semi-rural North Carolina area, I happened to see a child no older than 8 holding a Medium Cthulhu. It was the Christmas season, and the child's parents were taking him to see Santa. When he caught sight of the jolly old fatman, he clutched Cthulhu tight to his chest, and buried his face in Cthulhu's head - apparently terrified of old Saint Nick.
I swear I heard him crying "F'tagn!"
LNN: ToyVault now has a "evil" version of the plush Cthulhu that is darker in color, sharper in its features, and more malevolent in its product description. Whence the need for an evil counterpart to its cuter cousin?
Blake: Are you referring to Cthulhu the Wicked?
Strictly speaking, Cthulhu is not evil - he (or more accurately, it) is completely alien to our underlying concepts of good and evil. Cthulhu the Wicked is a hypothetical scenario - what if Cthulhu understood our model of morality... and embraced evil?
Just kidding. We made him because he looks cool. "Wicked" seemed the best descriptor for the visual style.
LNN: Were you disappointed you were not contracted by the special effects department at the HPLHS for their silent film project?
Blake: Yes. At the very least, we would have liked to have seen our Cthulhu toy used in place of the stop-motion model as an alternate take or easter egg on the DVD. Alas.
LNN: Obviously you are a business and want to make money, but where is the line between genuine affection and shameless commercialization when it comes to the creation of products based on the works of a well respected author? How do you address this ethical dilemma in your corporation, and what is an example of something you would consider to be literary sacrilege?
Blake: Jon Huston's official answer: "That line is somewhere in orbit around Alpha Proxima."
The line is not well defined, but we definitely try to remain respectful. I would personally think that the line can be defined in two ways: Firstly, if a derivative product is thematically irrelevant to its source material. Secondly, if the derivative product purposefully attempts to replace the original in the minds of the public.
Some might see the Judy Garland version of The Wizard of Oz to be guilty on these counts, just as an example.
LNN: What impact do you think it will have on Lovecraft's reputation as an author, public perception of his work, and your business if either Del Toro or Ron Howard go through with a big budget Lovecraft movie in the next few years?
Blake: We're cautiously ambivalent regarding the possibility of a big budget Lovecraft film. Past efforts have been enjoyable, but not what anyone would classify a "commercial success." Del Toro has expressed that the studios are pretty much completely opposed to Lovecraft's themes, saying that they want "a love story and a happy ending." It seems more likely that a television series would be able to remain faithful to his work - the BBC would be the most capable of pulling it off, although HBO could also do it well. Until the public domain issue is officially settled, though, it's unlikely that any big budget approach gets past the "purely hypothetical" stage.
LNN: With the recent success of viral movie trailers, has ToyVault ever considered creating an online trailer to promote plush Cthulhu where he devours your other stuffed animals in the office? If you did, which would be the first to go?
Blake: Kiss versus Cthulhu. I'd watch it.
In all seriousness, the terms of our licenses specifically exclude exactly this kind of thing. Sure, it would be fun, but our legal department can't repel threats of that magnitude. The only ones we could do would involve our unlicensed toys, such as the Egyptian Gods, Here Be Monsters, Norse Gods, or Nightmares.
LNN Edit: We found one here. Its authenticity is questionable, but it does appear that Cthulhu likes Edgar Winters.
LNN: Can we ever expect to see jello molds, spaghetti products, bathtub sponge capsules, or a chia pet with Cthulhu's likeness from your company?
Blake: From our company? Unlikely. Partly due to our current manufacturing capabilities, partly due to our primary markets.
From any company, ever? Possibly. There are companies who do those kinds of things, and who cater to the geek culture market. Business abhors a vacuum.
LNN: Would it be ethical for our readers to purchase and then donate a plush Cthulhu to a charitable organization for kids like Toys for Tots, or is this inadvisable?
Blake: We don't have an official stance on the matter. I would think that would be more a matter of whether the toy would be appreciated.
LNN: Any thing else you would like to put on the record?
Blake: Jon's official response: "A few tracks from The White Album, some Dark Side of the Moon, and a 10-minute loop of the Wilhelm scream."
We think that the HPLHS has done a fantastic job of presenting Lovecraft's work, and hope that they continue to do so for a long time to come. We're especially fond of their audio dramas, but then, we like audio drama in general.
Speaking as fans, we'd love to see someone approach the Cthulhu mythos as an ongoing retelling of Lovecraft's original stories, but bringing them together as a connected series of events. Audio theatre would be a great way to do this.
Also, a personal gift from me to you: The Miskatonic University Alma Mater song.
Go, Fight, Miskatonic, Miskatonic Squids,
Our Alma Mater hail!
Crush the opposition with your terrible visage!
Squids shall never fail!
We shall overcome them,
And drive them mad with grief:
In disturbing dreams they shall
Beg for death's relief.
Fight again, Fight again, Ya Ya Ya!
ToyVault Game Developer
& Lovecraft Nut
Learn more about the History of ToyVault and Plush Cthulhu:
Order Plush Cthulhu online: