It Looks Xothic, But Is Really So Thin...

by Arthur B

Lin Carter's Cthulhu Mythos pastiches illustrate how otherwise-good authors can make a complete hash of it if they come under bad influences.
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Roleplaying game publishers getting into fiction publishing is nothing new, and often doesn’t earn high praise. A major exception over the years has been Chaosium’s fiction line, which has generally been rather special. Although its pace of publications has waxed and waned over the years as a result of Chaosium’s various business troubles, it’s usually been of a bit more interest than your typical fantasy RPG tie-in fiction range.

A large part of this comes from the fact that Chaosium’s major lines have involved very distinctive settings. Their first games, including RuneQuest, introduced the world to the idiosyncratic world of Glorantha, and though they haven’t put out an enormous amount of Glorantha-based fiction those pieces they have, such as King of Sartar, is generally well-loved by fans of the setting. The cult classic RPG Pendragon, a game of playing not just single knights but entire family dynasties set against the pseudohistorical backdrop of the rise and fall of King Arthur, gave them all the prompting they needed to seek out and release some high-quality Arthurian fiction.

Chaosium’s most high-profile and widely-loved game, however, is the Call of Cthulhu RPG. On release in 1981 it became the first majorly successful horror-themed roleplaying game, and even though Chaosium themselves have had their fortunes wax and wane and wax again over the years Call of Cthulhu has retained a major following, with extensive support from fan writers and third-party publishers bolstering Chaosium’s offerings and extremely healthy fan communities thriving across the world. I could write an entire article about the secret of its success, but in summary I’d say it’s the combination of a fairly intuitive game system with a cerebral, investigative style of RPG play that instantly creates a contrast with more action-oriented games, along with the distinctive flavour offered by being set in the world of the Cthulhu Mythos.

It’s no surprise then, that out of all of Chaosium’s games, Call of Cthulhu has the most extensive fiction line associated with it - especially when you consider the simple advantage that even before the game came out there were numerous stories written in the Lovecraftian vein by a wide range of authors. As a result, whilst Chaosium have put out original collections of new Mythos fiction too, a good swathe of their Call of Cthulhu fiction range consists of reprints of classic Mythos stories, as well as tales that influenced the early Mythos writers (such as the supernatural tales of Robert Chambers). Some of the more interesting reprint collections offered by Chaosium have been the author-specific ones, which allow for a complete overview (or at least an informative cross-section) of an author’s Mythos-relevant writing to be collected between two covers.

Such a collection is The Xothic Legend Cycle, a collection dedicated to the Cthulhu Mythos work of writer, editor, and anthologist Lin Carter. (It is not actually as complete a collection of his Mythos material as the cover claims it is, but it does encompass more or less all the stuff he wrote dealing with the “Xothic” material - of which more later.) As well as having worked extensively with L. Sprague de Camp on the expanded Conan the Barbarian series (to the point where the pastiches he and de Camp wrote almost ended up drowning out the original works by Robert E. Howard), Carter was also the editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series which ran from 1969 to 1974. This was kind of the era’s answer to today’s Fantasy Masterworks series - a series of affordable paperback rereleases of high-quality fantasy literature, much of which had languished out of print prior to Carter bringing it back into the limelight. On top of that, Carter produced an extensive amount of original fiction of his own.

So, on that level, Carter is certainly an interesting figure in the history of the genre. Unfortunately, his Cthulhu Mythos material doesn’t exactly rank among his best efforts. Prior to the publication of The Xothic Legend Cycle it had tended to crop up a lot in the Chaosium Mythos collections, mostly because the line editor was Robert M. Price - a reasonably prominent figure in Lovecraft studies and criticism but also a good buddy of Lin Carter’s back when Carter was alive and therefore a bit partial to his material.

That said, Price isn’t uncritically partial. His introduction to the anthology seems to consist of a concerted effort to argue for the artistic validity of Carter’s Mythos material whilst at the same time acknowledging that a lot of his stories just aren’t actually that good. Specifically, Price tries to defend Carter’s stuff on the grounds that Carter was writing his own personal take on the Mythos, just as much as anyone else, and it should be judged on its own merits. This is fair enough - despite his declaring himself The Last Disciple, Carter doesn't seem to have tried to push his personal headcanon as the One True Mythos to remotely the extent that August Derleth did. Nonetheless, the “you’ve got to judge it by its own terms” defence falls down if the stories themselves aren't actually any good!

Even Price thinks Carter tended to be a bit too much in love with Mythos lore in its own right, to the point of writing stories which boil down to “look at this weird factoid I have glued onto the structure here” - this is not exaggeration, adding some minor bit of trivia to the lore pile was literally Carter’s stated purposes for writing some of these tales. For Price, a self-confessed lover of such details, to go so far as to criticise Carter for this says an awful lot, but he still ties himself in rhetorical knots to try and dignify this as being anything more than masturbatory, expositionary wiki-tickling. (It certainly feeds my long-standing suspicion that Price is a hack author who specialises in providing academic cover for other hack authors.)

Price’s introduction does at least offer some important explanations about the connections between the stories in the collection. Most of them refer in some capacity to the titular “Xothic legends” - Xoth being the name given by Carter to the world where Cthulhu spawned his children. In Lovecraft’s revision story Out of the Aeons, a major influence on Carter’s Mythos fiction, the entity Ghatanathoa is, in-context, blatantly just Cthulhu given a different name and some alternate powers, so Carter tries to do the Derleth thing of trying to hammer contradictory stories into consistency by declaring Ghatanathoa a child of Cthulhu’s, one of three siblings - the other two being Zoth-Ommog and Ythogtha.

One admittedly nice side effect of Carter’s concentration on these three Cthulhu younglings (Cthulings?) is that it does at least mean most of his stories very recognisably take place in his own corner of the Mythos, rather than spilling over to make more general declarations about other people’s inventions, but at the same time I never feel in these stories like Carter really enunciates any particular distinctions between Ghathanathoa, Zoth-Ommog and Ythogtha.

Price also explains that five of the stories here were intended to form a Trail of Cthulhu-style episodic novel, The Terror Out of Time, though the episodes are not presented here in the order Carter had planned because, due to their many ties to the other Xothic-themed stories collected here, a slightly different running order ended up making more sense. Price mentions that Carter had tried to get Terror published via Arkham House, but they didn’t take him up on it.

Price tries to blame this on Arkham House’s shift away from publishing Mythos material, but this excuse doesn’t make sense when one considers the timing. It seems likely that The Terror Out of Time is the same book as The Stones of Mnar, a Carter book which never emerged but which was listed among his forthcoming works in two 1976 anthologies put out by him. This being the case, it certainly seems likely that the stories in question were completed by around 1976; even if The Stones of Mnar were a different book, three of the five episodes in the sequence had already seen publication elsewhere by the end of 1976, and the remaining two were published by Carter in 1980 and 1981 in his own anthologies, presumably after Carter had come to the conclusion that they would never see light in the intended novel format.

Unfortunately, the idea that Arkham House had given up putting out Cthulhu Mythos material by 1976 isn’t supportable. That year they’d put out two volumes of Lovecraft’s Selected Letters, in 1977 they’d put out Brian Lumley’s Mythos-heavy collection The Horror At Oakdeene and Others, and in 1975 they’d put out Lin Carter’s own volume of Mythos poetry Dreams From R’lyeh. Moreover, Arkham House actually published one of the episodes from the novel in 1975, with the story Out of the Ages appearing in the anthology Nameless Places.

On the weight of the evidence it seems that this isn’t a case of Arkham House turning their nose up at Mythos material - they hadn’t entirely done so yet - or an instance of them not being interested in an untested author (they’d put out several bits by Carter before), but simply them deciding that The Terror Out of Time wasn’t something they were interested in - I suspect on grounds of overall quality, perhaps combined with a hesitancy to put out material which they’d already partly published in an anthology. (Indeed, it’s entirely possible that because of the release of Out of the Ages in Nameless Places, they’d had a chance to assess people’s response to the story, and found that there wasn’t an appetite for more.)

The first story here is The Red Offering, which works quite nicely as a sort of prologue - it’s an offbeat sword and sorcery tale in the vein of the ancient prehistory story-within-a-story from Lovecraft’s Out of the Aeons, and indeed takes place in the same general setting - the time of Mu, when the Ghatanathoa cult reigns supreme. It is presented as an account written by sorcerer and cultist Zanthu, in which he speaks of his quest to find a powerful magical artifact that would allow his Ythogtha-worshipping sect to become a power to be reckoned with.

Now, the narrator here is a snivelling little dickweed, but that's fine because he's a Ythogtha cultist and servants of the alien gods aren't expected to be good guys. The story itself is fun enough as a self-contained tale, and it lays groundwork for future stories quite effectively. Carter, of course, churned out buckets of Howard pastiches for the Conan series until the backlash against textual tampering happened, and also wrote a bunch of sword and sorcery tales in his own original settings, so he’s working well within his comfort zone here, and I quite like how Carter is able to do the thing of using meaningful-sounding names to imply a far more detailed world than he actually develops here.

Zanthu’s writings apparently survived to the present day as the Zanthu Tablets, and the text of The Red Offering here is presented as a translation from the tablets by Professor Copeland - Copeland’s discovery of Zanthu’s artifacts being a motivating factor in subsequent stories in the Xothic cycle. This discovery is the focus of The Dweller In the Tomb, originally intended as part 2 of The Terror Out of Time. It offers up Copeland’s diary from his doomed expedition to find Zanthu’s resting-place.

Copeland ends up rather the worse for wear as he begins to succumb to a strange delirium, lending an off-kilter air to the narration, but the main upshot of his mental state is that he ends up jabbering a lot about bits of Mythos lore, much of which not especially germane to what is going on - for instance, actual honest-to-goodness Mi-Go show up, but Copeland spends more time alluding to Chaugnar Faugn from Frank Belknap Long’s The Horror From the Hills.

As a result, the story is a bit of a chore to read. The final revelation is narrated in an especially absurd way, which asks the reader to accept that Copeland was writing in a manner which doesn’t even remotely resemble the way people actually write. The story would make more sense if we were told it was a transcript of Copeland’s audio diary, rather than an extract from a written journal, though then of course Carter would have had to abandon the idea of setting the story in 1913 (which would mean that the timeline wouldn’t allow him to set the bulk of the rest of the stories during the classic Lovecraftian era of the 1920s-1930s).

The major plot twist of the story is that Copeland seems to be some sort of reincarnation of Zanthu. This makes a certain amount of sense given his obsession with Mythos lore, and the fact that he is depicted as a ruthless bully who doesn't care about other people save as means of getting his way - much as we know Zanthu to be from The Red Offering. Certainly, the idea that there is a thin line between scholars and cultists has a rich tradition in Mythos stories going back to pieces like Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. However, there’s a nasty implication here: since we are presented with the story’s lone representative of Mu as being identical to Copeland, the overall implication is that the great civilisation of Mu was not run by Asians or Pacific Islanders but by mighty whitey himself. I don’t know whether Carter intended that - his racial views aren’t exactly as widely infamous as Lovecraft’s or Robert E. Howard’s - but it’s an unfortunately viable reading of the story.

The Thing In the Pit, originally intended as part 1 of The Terror Out of Time, is another translation from the Zanthu Tablets prepared by Copeland after his return from the expedition. Here, Zanthu tells of his part in the fall of Mu - specifically, of how he tried to free Ythogtha from his abyssal prison in order to cast down the cult of Ghatanathoa, only for the offended Elder Gods to show up and blast Mu. It naturally comes across a little Derlethian, given that it buys into Derleth’s Great Old Ones/Elder Gods division, and indeed the depiction of the Elder Gods here reads a lot like the one from The Lair of the Star-Spawn.

Still, it does kind of work, if only because the whole “war in Heaven” concept works better in a sword and sorcery context than it does in actual horror, and to have the Elder Gods sink an entire continent for having the temerity to unleash an imprisoned Old One does go some way towards undermining the idea that they’re altogether benign. (A universe where two warring pantheons of asshole gods who either hate us or think we are too unimportant to care about duke it out is much better for cosmic horror purposes than a universe where there’s a pantheon of gentle cuddlegods who want to tuck us up in bed and reassure us that it’s all going to be alright.) As Price points out, the ending here is rather ripped off from Lovecraft’s Under the Pyramids, but - like The Red Offering - this is rather more satisfying than most of the more conventional horror offerings in the anthology.

Out of the Ages constitutes part 3 of The Terror Out of Time, and advances the timeline to 1928. Copeland has died, and has left a bequest of his discoveries and notes to the Sanbourne Institute of Pacific Antiquities in Santiago, California. Dr. Blaine, the Institute’s Curator of Manuscripts, sets about the job of cataloguing the collection, and soon begins to uncover curious correlations between the various items found.

The treatment of Pacific peoples by Lovecraft and subsequent writers was often shoddy - August Derleth, in particular, seemed very keen to depict Pacific cultures as being near-invariably sinister. Carter impressively steps back from rote repetition of this racism by pointing out that the vast majority of items in the question are not disturbing by themselves - where they become disquieting is where the similarities between them and items originating in entirely different cultures in radically different areas of the Pacific start to suggest a common history with dark secrets. Carter clearly recognises that the Pacific is a more diverse place than Derleth and Lovecraft gave it credit for.

Likewise, Carter seems to have a keen sense of how he could be accused here of writing a double pastiche - specifically, a pastiche of Derleth’s pastiche’s of Lovecraft - and the way he has Copeland’s books and notes referring to Derlethian sources like the R’lyeh Text is an interesting tip of the hat to how Xothic stories are building on Derleth and on Lovecraft before him. The description of the truly dangerous item in the collection - the idol of Zoth-Ommog - is quite good, showing a similar flair for imaginative monster design to Lovecraft in stark contrast to Derleth’s tendency to resort to the same cop-out tentacle mass over and over again.

So much for the merits of the story. Unfortunately, they are wasted; the tale is little more than a big fat lore dump. Carter is a bit better at structuring these and making them readable than Derleth, but it is still a lore dump. It is certainly unacceptably wiki-heavy and plot-light as a standalone story, being as it is more reminiscent of a bunch of notes from which a story could be derived if you could attach a substantial enough plot to it. In the context of The Terror Out of Time, one such section could be potentially useful in order to contextualise the horrors of preceding and later sections. Since the previous two episodes are quite short and this is half the length of the meatiest slice of the pie, in the original novel configuration this would still be well within the first half of novel, and so would have been much better placed than the absurd lore dump at end of Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold. (Unfortunately, as we shall see, the subsequent parts of the novel won’t be much better than this.)

This is the story where Carter lays out the whole Xothic thing with Cthulhu spawning Zoth-Ommog and others out in deep space. Although Lovecraft does allude to Cthulhu having some ill-defined spawn, so the idea that some creatures out there might be his eldritch offspring isn’t entirely without precedent, Carter’s depiction of Cthulhu’s reproductive process is depressingly mundane here. Moreover, the story lurches into self parody when Carter throws in a mention of Cthulhu’s mate Idh-yaa, “with Whom He copulated awesomely”, because I mean come on, COPULATED AWESOMELY. It's like Cthulhu is doing the I-just-lost-my-virginity thing and is bragging to people “Hey, guess who COPULATED AWESOMELY last aeon?”

A handful of pages towards the end Carter seems to have remembered he is supposed to be telling a story and rushes in some notes on bad dreams Blaine suffers, most of which do nothing beyond confirming things we have already been told, and then has Blaine go mad after seeing a Yugg, one of the worm-like servitors of Zoth-Ommog. And that's all the plot you get - a cursory dribble of events that clearly were of secondary importance to Carter next to his wiki-whacking. To give you a measure of how sparse Carter’s plots are, over the entirety of The Terror Out of Time he delivers a story which is only marginally more substantial than the entire plot of Lovecraft’s Out of the Aeons. (For that matter, how shameless a pastiche artist do you need to be to call your Out of the Aeons-referencing story Out of the (Synonym for Aeons)?)

In short, Out of the Ages is a story with barely any story in it, an empty exercise in worldbuilding chronicling details that only Carter really cares about in the first place. If Arkham House based their decision to reject The Terror Out of Time on this, then that’s sensible on their part - if anything, Arkham House’s error of judgement was in accepting it for release in Nameless Places in the first place.

The next episode of The Terror Out of Time was originally published as Zoth-Ommog, before Price made the editorial decision to revert to its working title - The Horror In the Gallery - for this anthology. We have a new narrator, Arthur Hodgkins, who has taken over Blaine’s job (due to Blaine’s breakdown) and continues preparing Copeland’s artifacts for display. This prompts another lore dump, which is irritating enough in a short story but would be absolutely infuriating as part of Carter’s planned novel, since it would be largely redundant with the lore dump in Out of the Ages! (In fact, the textwalls here go beyond repeating the lore established in Out of the Ages and Lovecraft’s own Out of the Aeons, descending into Carter rambling interminably about any Mythos topic that caught his attention.)

This time around Carter’s lore dump is more Derlethian in tone, to the point where if you deleted chunks of it and replaced them with corresponding sections of Derleth stories nobody would notice. It also, hilariously, manages to be wildly self-contradictory with the previous episode. When he repeats the description of the idol of Zoth-Ommog, Hodgkins suggests that Blaine’s description doesn't communicate the sense of unease you get looking at the thing… despite the fact that in the preceding story (which remember is presented as a document written by Blaine which Hodgkins is here quoting from), Blaine goes on to describe precisely this uneasiness in the same terms Hodgkins does, less than a paragraph after the bit Hodgkins extracts stops! This is simply incompetent writing, and makes it clear that The Terror Out of Time would not actually have worked as a novel.

Although something at least resembling a plot seems to be happening this time, its developments are never allowed to upstage the lore dumps for long. Carter is less interested in telling an effective story and more keen on emphasising his headcanon ideas, like his concept that Ubbo-Sathla (from the Clark Ashton Smith tale of the same name) and Azathoth were co-leaders of revolt of the Great Old Ones against the Elder Gods. Carter is especially keen on describing intricate family trees connecting the various Mythos entities. Now, to be fair, both Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith had down such family trees for their correspondents, but the trees provided are contradictory and it doesn't appear that either Lovecraft or Smith took them especially seriously or considered them at all important to their respective mythologies. Carter’s fascination with this stuff eclipses Derleth’s weird insistence that Hastur and Cthulhu are siblings (what does it mean that they are siblings? Derleth doesn’t ever appear to have decided…) and is incredibly tedious and pointless, reminiscent of the worst excesses of the masturbatory wiki-whittling tendency in geekdom in general.

Carter seems intent on continuing Derleth’s doomed attempts at reconciling all contradictions in Mythos fiction - an endeavour in which he can’t help but work in new contradictions. For instance, he repeats Derleth’s regular claim that Nyarlathotep is imprisoned, and aside from Lovecraft offering no evidence that any external force has deliberately imprisoned any of the Old Ones or Outer Gods, Lovecraft regularly and reliably shows Nyarlathotep as being more or less entirely free to act.

This attempt to cross-reference all the major preceding Mythos fiction works its way into the plot when Hodgkins decides to go and visit Miskatonic University to consult its copy of the Necronomicon. He ends up being grilled by various academic Mythos investigators from Lovecraft and Derleth’s stories - Armitage from The Dunwich Horror, Seneca Lapham from The Lurker At the Threshold, Wilmarth from The Whisperer In Darkness, and so on.

On the one hand, the idea of an informal “Mythos studies” department at Miskatonic comprised of the veterans of past stories isn’t entirely silly - as I argued when talking about Brian Lumley’s take on the idea in The Burrowers Beneath, it’s a reasonable consequence of the various crossover appearances of the academics in question in Lovecraft’s own stories, and it isn’t impossible that Lovecraft himself may have formalised the idea himself had he lived long enough, and it certainly makes sense that such a group would want to collar someone who suddenly showed an interest in the Necronomicon to suss out whether they were a cultist who needed quiet disappearing or someone in trouble who needed help.

The execution here, however, leaves something to be desired; all the characters in question were pretty darn flat in their original stories and not really interesting as figures in their own right, which is a flaw which could be overlooked if Carter had only chosen to use one of them, but instead he gathers them all together; this prompts him to try and impart some semblance of personality to them to distinguish them from each other - which inadvertently means they don't especially resemble their original appearances.

What really doesn’t work about the sequence, though, is Hodgkin’s consultation of the Necronomicon. In his History of the Necronomicon Lovecraft wisely decided not to give an exhaustive accounting of what the dread book actually contains, realising that its utility as a plot device was improved by the fact that more or less any dark lore imaginable could be in there. Carter, however, took a different approach; as well as working on his own draft of the Necronomicon (published by Chaosium in their compilation, er, The Necronomicon), he seems to have gone so far as to work out a chapter structure for the thing and decide which chapter each of the Necronomicon quotes he offers here comes from.

Carter also walks into a classic blunder of Mythos pastiches: namely, trying to convince the reader that the revelations of the Necronomicon are sanity-shakingly terrible, when the quotes we’ve been provided with are a) extensive enough that we know more or less everything relevant the protagonist has read and b) dull enough that we can’t see how they’d really disturb anyone’s peace of mind. You can get away with making the Necronomicon a source of foreboding mysterious knowledge only for so long as you keep the knowledge actually mysterious.

Another classic blunder that Carter falls into is not thinking about the format of the story and what bits of narration make sense for that context. Supposedly, the story is a transcript of a verbal statement given by Hodgkins to the police. However, Carter botches it by having Hodgkins include in his testimony massive quotes from books he has read and conversations he has had, with a level of recollection that’s completely unbelievable. Even if we were to believe that Hodgkins had a photographic memory (though we aren’t told that), it would surely be more natural in a verbal statement to merely provide a paraphrase of what was written. And are we really to believe that the police interrogating Hodgkins over a murder would sit through all of these lore dumps? (Carter makes this exact same error with the standalone story The Fishers From Outside.)

The final part of The Terror Out of Time is The Winfield Heritance is an almost completely disconnected story - and what’s more, it’s a story that many readers of secondary Mythos fiction would have encountered many times before, because it’s an almost textbook rendition of August Derleth’s Standard Narrative (as I defined it in the first of my anti-Derleth screeds). To add to the Derlethian spin on the story, the protagonist is none other than Winfield Phillips - the “Watson” to Seneca Lapham’s Holmes from The Lurker At the Threshold.

The only links this story has to the rest of the novel is its California setting, the fact that Winfield heard about Hodgkins’ troubles from Dr Lapham, and the fact that Winfield’s Uncle Hiram - the dead ancestor leaving behind a cursed house and a bunch of spooky books in this iteration of the Standard Narrative - is the one who set events of the other stories in motion by selling some Mythos tomes to Copeland, which gave him the clues needed to put him on the trail of Zanthu and the other artifacts of Mu that feature in the other stories.

The story lavishes more attention on Hiram’s collection of macabre fictions than his actual Mythos tome collection, which is perhaps a point in support of Robert Price’s idea that Carter was basically writing about the experience of being a Mythos fan. Certainly, Hiram’s collection of unpublished story manuscripts and the like offer Winfield the chance to do some editorial archaeology, much as Derleth had with Lovecraft and Carter himself had aided de Camp in with respect to Robert E. Howard. But this potential interesting direction goes away quickly once the Mythos tomes are found, and feels less like a well-developed point and more like a bit of self-referentiality for the sake of self-referentiality.

True to all too many of Derleth’s renditions of the Standard Narrative, the story comes to a hasty end just as anything interesting starts to happen, mercifully bringing the whole Terror Out of Time mess to an end. I am left absolutely convinced that whoever at Arkham House turned down the idea made the right call, because as mixed as the individual episodes are, taking the piece as a whole leaves you with a godawful mess that doesn’t seem to have any idea what it wasnts to be or do. The sword and sorcery episode, The Thing In the Pit, is pretty decent, but on the whole the novel, like each individual episode, spends too much time in prologue and exposition and forgets to include an actual story.

If Price’s theory - that Carter was writing a Mythos story based on his participation in the Mythos fandom - has any validity to it, then that’s at least a mildly interesting twist, but this is surely far too niche of a theme to make it of interest to anyone who wasn't a similarly hardcore fan, and the actual execution is too outright incompetent in too many respects to be of interest to all but the most wiki-huffingly tasteless of fans.

The compilation now moves on to less Terror Out of Time-related material. Perchance to Dream is a piece in Carter’s ongoing Anton Zarnak series, Zarnak being an occult detective and his series sitting nicely in the tradition of “weird menace”. The weird menace subgenre was a pulp niche that neighboured horror and hardboiled crime fiction; the supernatural was not mandatory, but often in play, and the emphasis was less on creating a sustained sense of dread or helplessness and more on the protagonists getting into violent tussles with sadistic, nigh-cartoonishly evil villains, with sex and violence often being especially prominent.

In terms of material we’ve looked at on Ferretbrain previously, the most classically “weird menace” tales would probably be Robert E. Howard’s Skull-Face and the Steve Harrison stories. In fact, Carter tips his hat to Howard by having Zarnak living in the general proximity of Steve Harrison’s River Street beat - and by uncritically reiterating the racist tropes of the pulp era in a fashion which is at best thoughtless, at worst hypocritical in the light of Carter attempting to simultaneously distance himself from racism whilst at the same time utilising its tropes in constructing the story.

As far as that distancing goes, Zarnak’s client here is overtly racist in terms of despising and disparaging other races, in a manner which I think is meant to be disapproved of by the reader; it’s the narrative equivalent of Carter saying “Look, I’m not racist because I know that direct and overt hatred is bad”. However, the narration still connects the undesirability of Zarnak’s area with the high immigrant population, and most of Zarnak’s interests seem to sweep to the opposite extreme of exoticism and Orientalism that was just as much a part of pulp-era racism as direct xenophobic hostility was. Zarnak’s Indian manservant, for instance, is made to seem exotic and mysterious mostly on grounds that he is Indian. In short, the story follows the lead of hoary old racist adventure fiction genres of the past without really examining it beyond making Zarnak’s client a bit bigoted.

The story is extremely brief, written as it was for Price's Crypt of Cthulhu fanzine, and as a result it’s slightly too brief to get a satisfying detective story or weird menace spectacle out of it. There’s no real sense of threat because Zarnak shows up, spots what the problem is, and solves it with absolutely no fuss, with plot dumps of recycled Xothic lore dropped along the way and absolutely none of the clever detection we read detective fiction for, he sense of atmosphere we read horror fiction for, or the garish violence and transgressiveness that the weird menace subgenre dealt in. In short: it’s not weird, and it’s not menacing.

Strange Manuscript Found In the Vermont Woods may borrow its title conceit from Robert Bloch’s Notebook Found In a Deserted House, but in its content it’s more of a riff on Derleth’s The Dweller In Darkness, joined at the hip with an attempt to do a semi-sequel to The Lurker at Threshold with the Tsathoggua connection put back in. The tale is almost entirely pointless, save to circulate the idea that Tsathoggua sired his kids on Neptune - a data point of relevance to anything and of no interest to anyone. Carter also indulges another classic bad habit of Mythos pastiches by having the writer of a diegetic document continue writing at the end well after the point where they really should have stopped, so the ending is less of a shock and more of a risible “how and why did this idiot keep scribbling away?” moment. Admittedly, this is an error which Lovecraft occasionally made himself, but that doesn’t make it sensible to repeat the error, since it accomplishes absolutely nothing save to wreck suspension of disbelief right at the moment it is most needed.

Carter was also one of those pastiche artists whose enthusiasm for Lovecraft is so great that they don’t just mimic his fiction, but actually try to emulate his poetry. Dreams From R’lyeh is a sonnet-cycle in which Carter attempts to mimic the format of Lovecraft’s Fungi From Yuggoth, but with consistent narrative across all the sonnets. As poetry, it’s pretty terrible and riddled with technical sloppiness - Carter tries to rhyme “man” and “Necronomicon” at one point. However, if you read it less as good poetry in its own right and more as the product of a horrible process of enlightenment suffered by the poet, it works better; Carter provides notes on the purported author, WIlbur Hoag, and actually quite cleverly manages to tell a more interesting story “between the lines” than he does in any of the poems. As such, it’s the most successful non-sword and sorcery story in the collection so far, if only because the sonnet format makes it impossible for Carter to do big fat plot dumps of the sort he loves doing.

This is followed up by Something In the Moonlight, which is actually comparatively fresh and original. One narrator is character is stuck in an asylum but appears to be entirely sane, but for his conviction that the lunar patron of Bokrug from The Doom That Came to Sarnath has it in for him. He tries to recruit the other narrator, a doctor at the institution, to try and obtain suitable occult notes to perform the necessary rituals of protection and banishment, fails, and dies.

On the one hand, there doesn’t seem to be much point in the Sarnath connection because monster in the story seems no different from any random Deep One. On the other hand, it does add some intriguing depth to the narrator’s fanciful theories, and also feels like a better fit for a story about someone whose occult explorations have given them this magically heightened view of the universe, so the world as they see it is strange and fantastic and therefore in some sense in tune with the fantasy tone of Doom That Came to Sarnath. The plot dump is more deftly handled this time because it genuinely is the ramblings of an obsessive character, and for once doesn't get in the way of there being an actual plot. On the whole, it’s fairly competent, which would be faint praise were a basic level of craft and skill not otherwise lacking in the collection.

The Fishers From Outside is Carter’s attempt to develop the hints Lovecraft had dropped in the poem The Outpost and the revision Winged Death that there’s some sort of site of Mythos significance in Zimbabwe. Carter makes the interesting decision to connect this to Groth-Golka, the entity from Robert E. Howard’s The Gods of Bal-Sagoth, but rather than focusing on this he gets side-tracked in once again trying to forge a grand unified theory of Lovecraft, Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith’s fiction.

The gruesome outcome of the rather thin plot is spectacularly daft on victim’s past, since he pretty much summons hell-birds to kill him with no apparent plan. In his commentary on the story Price tries to justify this on grounds of the Faustian impulse in fiction being essentially for knowledge of death as a greater reality than life, but I don't buy it - Faust analogues still have their motivations and plans, the unfortunate professor here does not.

It’s also worth noting that Carter has managed to tell an entire story about Africa here without black people being a significant presence in the story, save as wailing victims and cut-throat priests in a flashback sequence. The implication that an actual world historical site was made by aliens is, as always, a little dodgy, but I would argue that it’s actively offensive when applied to sub-Saharan Africa, a region which racists and imperialists over the years have regularly insisted isn’t home to any real civilisations or major technical accomplishments on the part of the residents. Trying to write off one of the most famous counterpoints to such allegations by claiming that Zimbabwe’s archaeological treasures weren’t actually made by black people plays into that narrative nastily.

The last all-Carter story in the collection is Behind the Mask, a fumbling, nigh-plot free burbling of Mythos trivia leading up to the climactic revelation that the Elder Pharos, the lama of the plateau of Leng, isn't human - a truly “well, duh” statement, given that Lovecraft pretty much directly covered that point exhaustively in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. As Price points out, this might be a bit more effective if the reader hadn’t read their Lovecraft before getting to this, but the odds of that are frankly slim.

We are left at the end with some fragments. The Strange Doom of Enos Harker is a piece left unfinished by Carter, which Robert Price completes (more than trebling it in length in the process of doing so). Price finished it by waffling on and on in a Carter-esque fashion, with perhaps more of his personal gnostic hobby horses worked in for good measure. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the story is that it’s convincingly written in Carter’s customary style for his Mythos tales - it’s just that Carter’s Mythos style is just plain bad. The Bell In the Tower was Carter’s attempt at finishing Lovecraft’s unfinished fragment The Descendant. Unlike Derleth’s fake collaborations with Lovecraft, a substantial portion of it consists of Lovecraft’s own text; like most of Derleth’s fake collaborations with Lovecraft, it’s utterly forgettable.

The collection is rounded out with Robert Price’s own The Soul of the Devil-Bought. (The only thing in the Chaosium fiction line more irritating than Robert Price crowbarring a Lin Carter piece into one of the collections is Robert Price crowbarring one of his own stories into the mix.) The fact that Price writes it as a pastiche of Carter’s style, which was a pastiche of Derleth’s, which was a pastiche of Lovecraft’s, makes this a pastiche of a pastiche of a pastiche; an additional layer of double pastiche is offered by the fact that this is an Anton Zarnak story in the Robert E. Howard “weird menace” style. In this yarn, Zarnak takes down the possessed Winfield Phillips, making this a sequel to The Winfield Heritance, and in the process Price tries to push the idea that Carter’s yuggya were the entities behind the events of Lovecraft’s The Festival. It’s a good tribute in sense that it perfectly mimics Carter’s bad habits, but couldn’t those have been buried with Carter?

Then again, the thing about Carter’s Mythos writing is that his bad habits often aren’t actually his habits - they’re Derleth’s habits that Carter has adopted and turned up to 11 because Carter seems to have decided that’s how you write in this mode. Whilst having a model to follow when you are writing in a genre or style you are not accustomed to can be helpful, choosing the wrong training wheels can hobble your work before you begin, and this is an excellent example of that.

What’s truly frustrating about The Xothic Legend Cycle is that there’s flashes of a much better writer buried under the Derlethian sewage. The stories here may be light on plot and heavy on lore dumps, but they’re actually usually more readable and less stiff than Derleth is, especially on those rare occasions when he tears himself away from repeating Derleth’s bad habits. Still, it says a lot that the absolute best stories in the collection are the two spooky sword and sorcery pieces, The Red Offering and The Thing In the Pit. There, Carter is writing within his comfort zone, and as a result the stories flow better, are free of Derlethian habits, and manage to be engaging, entertaining, and interesting. I suspect that if I ever do go back to Lin Carter’s fiction, it will be to check out his sword and sorcery material, because there’s clearly nothing to be reclaimed from the wreckage of his Mythos work.
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Comments (go to latest)
Jubal at 05:22 on 2016-12-23
Two main thoughts spring to mind from all this. The first is that I need to start using the term "Copulated awesomely" as often as possible. The second is that rhyming "man" and "Necronomicon" does work if it's read in a Jamaican accent, which raises all sorts of interesting prospects of mythos Dub poetry. Can someone get Benjamin Zephaniah onto this?
My favorite Lin Carter anecdote has got to be this one from John Crowley.
Arthur B at 00:23 on 2016-12-27
I love that if only because I cannot think of a single pair of fantasy writers so far apart on the highbrow literature/lowbrow hackwork spectrum than Crowley and Carter.
Ichneumon at 19:09 on 2017-01-20
For all of his various glaring faults as a writer of fiction, of which sources suggest he was actually well aware, I have a lot of respect for Lin Carter as someone with a great eye for talents which he did not himself possess. In particular, I recall a rather extensive anecdote, I think by Robert Price, about how towards the end of his life Carter became a very avid fan of the young Thomas Ligotti, saying outright that not only did his own output utterly pale in comparison, but that even at that early stage Ligotti was well on his way to surpassing Lovecraft as a master of the form. Indeed, the Silver Scarab edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer may have been the last book that he ever read.
Arthur B at 21:23 on 2017-01-20
True enough; you just have to look at the Ballantine Adult Fantasy lineup to see that Carter had great taste when it came to other people's work.
Bill at 18:48 on 2017-01-24
The Ballantine series introduced me to Cabell, Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith, so I will always have a certain fondness for Carter.
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