When He's Right He's Right, When He's Wrong He's Frank Belknap Wrong

by Arthur B

Frank Belknap Long is mostly known as a friend of Lovecraft's, but is his own writing any good?
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It’s been said of Frank Belknap Long that he is famous mostly by association. Whilst this may be an unfair fate, there’s a ring of truth to it. Long was a close friend of H.P. Lovecraft, and hanging out with Long was one of the few bright spots in Lovecraft’s otherwise miserable stint of living in New York City. It was Long and his family who, having expressed concerns about Lovecraft’s well-being if he stayed in New York, encouraged Lovecraft’s aunts to invite him back to Providence, kicking off perhaps the most intensive burst of high-quality creative work he would ever produce. And it was Long who wrote the first stories to borrow ideas and the names of various plot trappings from Lovecraft - the first, in other words, to partake in the interchange of ideas that Lovecraft called “Yog-Sothothery” and August Derleth would christen as the Cthulhu Mythos.

Long’s status as a Mythos author would be enshrined by Derleth with the inclusion of two of his stories in the anthology Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, but the exchange of concepts had been noted by Lovecraft previously; in one tale, Long alluded to a version of the Necronomicon associated with John Dee, and when Lovecraft wrote his History of the Necronomicon - the closest thing to a “writer’s Bible” the Cthulhu Mythos has, in the sense that it represents the only time Lovecraft chose to clearly state the canonical “facts” about an aspect of his fiction - he decided to incorporate that by having Dee produce an English translation of the legendary tome. Moreover, the particular tales selected by Derleth for inclusion in the anthology - The Space-Eaters, where the Necronomicon reference comes from, and The Hounds of Tindalos - represent Long’s attempts to specifically tackle Lovecraft’s nihilistic philosophy and cosmology.

Both stories also offer character portraits of Lovecraft himself; indeed, The Space-Eaters has a narrator called Frank and his buddy, an intellectual horror author named Howard, and you don’t need to look too hard to work out who they are supposed to be. Long depicts Lovecraft with the sort of warts-and-all harshness that characterises a true friend’s loving tribute, and sets Lovecraft and himself against an alien threat with an interesting memetic component to it (in that it insinuates itself into your brain to appear in terms you can understand).

Through this avenue the story gives rise to some terrifically spooky features, like how people seem to apprehend facts about the horrible manifestations simply by looking at them, beyond even what you'd expect to suss from visual examination. There’s a brain surgery sequence where the doctor performing the operation freaks out a bit at what he sees, which is rather reminiscent of the bit in Arthur Machen’s The Inmost Light a doctor talks about someone they did an autopsy on having the brain of a devil. Since Machen also wrote stories in which dwelling on unwholesome ideas or being confronted with a powerful enough image could have a physical effect on you - in particular, this is a key to the riddle of The White People, Lovecraft’s favourite Machen piece and one he and Long almost certainly discussed - this seems to be an instance of Long carefully picking up an idea from one of Lovecraft’s influences and then passing it through a Lovecraftian filter to see what it looks like on the other side.

Another Machen habit which Long resorts to here is the crowbarring-in of Christian symbolism, which rings a bit false in the bleakly materialistic context of the rest of the story. In some respects, the manifestations of the Cross here seem to prefigure August Derleth's Elder God manifestations, and as in that case it reads like a desperate attempt to have one’s cake and eat it. Like Derleth, Long here seems to want to to play with a Lovecraftian conception of the world but then retreat from the implications, or attempt to defend Christianity as a viable defence against the bad thought that must inevitably arise with a wider appreciation of the cosmos.

No such safe haven is available in The Hounds of Tindalos, perhaps Long’s best story (it lent its name to an Arkham House collection of his stories) and the most widely-anthologised and praised of his Mythos tales. This portrays a ritual of postmodern magic in which studying mathematical equations and using alchemical drugs are key steps in plumbing mystical past lives and expanding one's consciousness into the fourth dimension, and offers up a cosmology where there is no borderline between the mystical and the materialistic and the distinction between cosmic good and cosmic evil come downs to different geometric first principles.

Indeed, “good” and “evil” are explicitly stated as being meaningful in our universe but meaningless in that of the hounds, a cosmological spin on the idea that all morals and ethics are strictly local in scope. This is close enough to Lovecraft to feel like a meaningful take on the Mythos but different enough to save the story from being an exercise in thematic mimicry - in that in Lovecraft good and evil would be equally irrelevant in both the curved and angular universes. Once again, there seems to be a healthy Machen influence at work; references to Doels may be references to similarly-named things in The White People, and likewise the references to charmingly familiar mythic beasts like satyrs and magical procedures with names like the “scarlet circle” feel like they come into the proximity of that story with its Scarlet Ceremonies.

The worries of the narrator for the mental state of the visionary protagonist can't help but put the reader in mind of Long's concerns for Lovecraft, though the story as written some time after Lovecraft's 1926 return to Providence. The part where the protagonist declares that whilst Frank has a good intellect the protagonist's own is superhuman might be a friendly jab at Lovecraft's aristocratic pretensions; certainly, a similar elitism is ascribed to the Lovecraft stand-in in The Space-Eaters, though this story outclasses that one massively, despite having some clunking errors. (It does have the rather basic blunder - more common in Mythos pastiches than it ever was in Lovecraft’s own writing - of presenting a document whose author kept writing it even as he is killed. In this case, Chalmers even writes down his own screams has he died! The dictaphone can't be invented soon enough.)

Though on first readings the ending of the story can seem kind of abrupt, a careful reading offers up some oft-missed suggestions of a greater horror to come. Consider: even though Chalmers suggests that there is an existential threat to the world as a result of the Hounds finding their way into our world, they don't apparently do very much beyond killing Chalmers, but they do leave behind slime on him. The final sections of the story include a report from a biochemist talking about how the slime contains living cells that somehow function without enzymes, and that this discovery opens up entire new biotechnological vistas. The last bit of the story is a quote from something written by Chalmers in anticipation of the experiment, talking about bringing stuff from another universe that can spawn a new sort of life here. Could the proliferation of hound-cells be a herald of apocalyptic disaster?

If it is, then it would certainly be more interesting than the catastrophe that is The Horror From the Hills, Long’s final major Mythos work. This novella kicks off with Algernon Harris, curator at the Manhattan Museum of Art, being pleased to receive a new crop of items from around the world for display. However, one sinister item is included - an idol of the dark god Chaugnar Faugn, an idol which might not actually be a statue after all - and by putting it on display, Harris shakes hands with danger.

This last point makes it the first instance of a subset of Mythos stories in which supposed idols turn out to be the actual deities they depict. Lovecraft himself spoofed the idea with The Horror In the Museum, in which the idol in turn is passed off as a waxwork - until it’s too late for the victims to realise what it really is. Lin Carter did a serious pass on the idea in Zoth-Ommog. Out of all three stories, only Lovecraft’s is any good, mostly because Lovecraft maintains a healthy sense of just how comical the central premise is and therefore has fun with it.

The Horror From the Hills is also absurd, but in a “I cannot believe anyone finds this bullshit interesting” way rather than a “haha, this is amusingly silly!” sort of a way. Compared to Space-Eaters or Tindalos it’s extremely pulpy and exhibits the most dated and risible features of the pulps of the era - the characters talk in exposition (sometimes when they are on their own) and they beat Chaugnar by blasting him with a time gun that a random occultist friend of theirs just so happens to have invented.

There’s also some pulp-era racism which comes into play. Although Chaugnar’s vaguely elephantine appearance is explicitly presented as being at most coincidental (his ears are webbed and tentacled, and his “trunk” is a sort of feeding tube with a nasty sucking mouth on the end), but the Ganesh link is still somewhat problematic especially when the Asian worshippers idol is acquired from are specifically referred to as savages. (Even though the high priest is an Oxford graduate, the fact that this is the case is presented as being astonishingly weird rather than actually kind of part of the course for an era when Oxford specialised in turning out assimilated Asian graduates to help administrate the colonies.) There’s also a Chinese character who falls under Chaugnar’s influence, who is presented by means of an astonishingly racist caricature of a level of crudity that makes the whole story feel like a farcical cartoon.

Long also seems to be following the time-honoured pulp tradition of padding out the story to a longer word count so he can spin it out over more instalments and thus earn more money from it. There’s multiple instances where he spills long waffley paragraphs outlining one character or another’s rationalisation of the nastiness, such as a whole chapter-long lecture about how Chaugnar must be the product of some sort of decadent and decayed race based on spurious ethnological ideas.

What’s especially infuriating about these sections is that the reader knows full well that these theories can’t possibly be true, because we know we’re reading a horror story and it’s pretty unambiguously signalled to us that (for instance) the statue isn’t actually a statue at all, so all this theorising about the artistic principles behind it is entirely irrelevant. Whilst there can be a purpose to showing the characters raising possible explanations only for these to be dashed by new discoveries, Long lingers over these rationalisations for well past the point where that purpose has been served and then keeps the characters waffling on for pages after that.

This isn’t the only aspect of the novel where Long seems to be just spinning out words like a NaNoWriMo author trying to hit their word count target. For instance, there’s a lot of daft back-and-forth banter in the conversations between the characters which pads them out with needless tangents and asides and misunderstandings - and not in a fun way or an interesting way or a way which advances the narrative, but in a way which just wastes time in a dull and unfunny way. The overall impression given is of a bad sitcom script where the characters just blurt out pointless dialogue that’s supposed to include jokes somewhere but where the jokes not only fail to land, but it’s hard to see what the jokes are actually supposed to be in the first place.

The last bit of padding I want to highlight ironically ends up being the best bit of writing in the book, so it’s a shame that it largely isn’t Long’s work. You see, Lovecraft once had an extremely vivid dream in which he felt like he was actually living the existence of an ancient Roman sent to investigate dubious cult worship in the hills of Spain; the dream account has been published under Lovecraft’s own name posthumously as The Very Old Folk, but Lovecraft had also encouraged Long to construct a story around it, and The Horror From the Hills is what resulted.

The issue is that most of the action of the story is quite distantly removed from the flashback, and the flashback doesn’t really substantially affect the narrative in any way, neither advancing the story nor giving us much of a fresh lens through which to view the action of the tale. It could happily be removed entirely and the course of the story would not be changed, and we wouldn’t really know much about Chaugnar Faugn or its followers that the rest of the story hadn’t already told us. It’s almost like Long already had the general narrative in mind and then inserted the flashback and did the bare minimum of adaptation of his existing idea required to make the flashback fit.

If you took out all the padding, what would be left wouldn’t constitute a novella; it would be more suited as a relatively brief short story, if a rather silly and pulpy one. And that’s a mode which Long was much more comfortable working in, and which is more representative of much of the rest of his work than The Space-Eaters or The Hounds of Tindalos ever were. Although much later in life he would contribute Dark Awakening to the 1980 anthology New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, he more or less abandoned it after The Horror From the Hills, save from his contribution to the round-robin story The Challenge From Beyond where he had the unenviable task of trying to provide a suitable conclusion to a hilarious mess created by Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore and Abraham Merritt and did about as well as anyone could have hoped to.

Much of Long’s work from the intervening years would take a much more jocular, pulpy approach to his subject matter. He still made occasional forays into horror - like A Visitor From Egypt, a fun little skit about a mysterious visitor to an archaeological museum who turns out to have an extensive personal knowledge of the subject and which offers an impressively intimidating depiction of Osiris, but often these stories would be tripped up by an over-reliance on a daft gimmick.

Take, for instance, The Black Druid, a tale about a man who ends up contaminated by an ancient Celtic evil which starts out strong but is ruined by the bit where he overcomes this vile influence by thinking really hard about his glorious Roman and Saxon ancestry. It’s conceivably meant to be another friendly rib of Lovecraft - the protagonist shares Lovecraft’s intellectual, social, and racial elitism - but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a tale based on dated and offensive ideas about the superiority of some races over others.

Now, of course to an extent The Space-Eaters and The Hounds of Tindalos are both based around gimmicks, but they succeed because Long is willing to put in the effort to do the con job and trick you into taking them seriously anyway. He doesn’t in The Black Druid, which makes it come across less like the sort of interesting philosophical horror those stories offer and more like a trite joke.

Even when not based around concepts which are outright offensive Long’s material would all too often take a potentially good concept and then ruin it with a tacky, frivolous treatment of the subject. This would be the case for his horror (Fisherman’s Luck, Grab Bags Are Dangerous), his fantasy (The Refugees, Golden Child), and his science fiction (Census Taker, A Stitch In Time).

A classic example is Beachhead. This starts off as an intriguing time travel story with a novel invasion-from-the-future concept. It’s rendered completely infuriating by dint of the main characters, a 20th century couple who think and talk in quips, like every single line they speak is meant to be some sort of super-witty bon mot, though the dialogue often just comes across as overwritten try-hard bullshit. The tendency towards a dialogue style which at its best times ends up badly dated and in the worst case is outright irritating is a regular habit in Long’s fiction, but what’s more fatal to his body of work is the way he frustrates the reader by hitting on an interesting idea and then botching the execution and failing to explore it satisfyingly.
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