Lovecraft's Last Apprentices

by Arthur B

Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner went on to have distinguished writing careers after learning their craft at Grandpa Howard's knee.
Among H.P. Lovecraft's more laudable qualities was his eagerness to encourage other writers in their work, a trait that would develop early in his amateur press association writings and would continue right up to his death.

Two of his later proteges were Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner, two pals who were both fans of his work. (Kuttner, in fact, would only correspond with Lovecraft in the last year of Lovecraft's life). Though their early work involved a lot of Lovecraftian pastiches, they would each grow to be distinctive authors in their own right. Bloch is mostly famous today as the author of Psycho, whilst Kuttner would become extremely well-regarded in the science fiction, both in his own right and his creative team-up with fellow Lovecraft correspondent C.L. Moore, who he met and later married as a result of their mutual inclusion in the network of authors around Lovecraft.

Lin Carter, once again demonstrating that despite his deficiencies as an author he was certainly a discerning editor, hit on the idea of publishing collections of the Cthulhu Mythos stories of both authors. In his lifetime he did manage to put out the first edition of Mysteries of the Worm, the Bloch collection, named in honour of the Mythos tome that Bloch invented and added to the canon; unfortunately, he never got around to producing the intended Kuttner-focused equivalent, The Book of Iod.

When Carter's friend Robert M. Price ended up overseeing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu fiction line, he naturally made reprinting an expanded version of Mysteries of the Worm and bringing The Book of Iod to fruition an early priority. As a result, it's now pretty easy to get a good look at this early work by both authors, with both collections putting the stories in chronological order of publication and, as a result, offering a cross-section of their early development as authors.

Mysteries of the Worm

Chaosium and Price have actually put out two editions of this one. Following on from Lin Carter’s first edition, Chaosium issued a second edition which added some more stories, which is the one I have, and then a third edition which added further pieces. To be honest, I am disinclined to upgrade - I figure that if any of the stories were truly must-haves, they would have been prioritised for inclusion in the second edition.

Another thing the Chaosium versions add is an introduction by Robert M. Price, and of course his intrusive and overlong introductions to the stories. This is an annoying habit of his as an editor driven by his presumption that people care more about his opinions than they do about the stories themselves, and usually involves him wasting enough pages that if he hadn't bothered another story could have been slipped in to replace his ramblings. Still, his story introductions usually at least have some tangential relevance to the subject matter at hand, which is more than I can say for his introduction to this volume, which has him banging on about one of his usual hobby horses - namely, his insistence that August Derleth's shitty writing and incoherent headcanon about the Mythos weren't that bad.

Specifically, Price tries to argue that those who have argued against Derleth's interpretation of the Mythos start from the assumption that Mythos is a body of lore, not a set of stories, which contradicts the assertion that Derleth's stories are ruined by overemphasis on lore. Firstly, this is not a contradiction. Bad writing is bad writing regardless of the lore involved. Secondly, for my part my objection to Derleth's interpretation is not that it clashes with some canon body of lore, but that it makes blunt assertions about Lovecraft’s fiction and the wider Cthulhu Mythos body of writing which flatly contradicts what Lovecraft and the majority of his peers actually wrote. It is a bad interpretation because it constitutes bad criticism, to the point of near total critical illiteracy.

Once we brush past Price and get to the Bloch we’re actually here for, the first thing we are confronted with is The Secret In the Tomb, which is clearly a very early and rudimentary story (it hails from 1935, when Bloch was just 18), though when it comes to very slavish Lovecraft pastiches it's actually reasonably effective. The plot is sparse, yes, but it’s got a decent atmosphere; Bloch indulges in the sort of thesaurus abuse and adjective-wrangling that those trying to imitate Lovecraftian prose tend to be prone to (along with, at times, Lovecraft himself), but at least the fancy words he digs up are effective and seem to mean something and establish and build to something rather than being empty waffle. Bloch expresses his embarrassment with the story in his personal reminiscences at the end of the book, but everyone has to start somewhere and the earliest works of Lovecraft himself or Ramsey Campbell are easily worse.

The story also establishes an early Bloch fascination with undead monstrosities lurking about in tombs and their hidden underground realms. This would later be expressed in stories like The Grinning Ghoul, a parodic riff on Statement of Randolph Carter with narrator being a psychiatrist who keeps coming up with increasingly tenuous armchair psychology explanations of what he is being told and shown until it is too late, and The Creeper In the Crypt. This last one is a bit of a misnomer - most of the action of the story takes place in a cellar, not a crypt - but it’s a fun story anyway, with Bloch experimenting in diversifying his narrative voice; the narrator is aristocratic Arkham old money, hence his Lovecraftian diction, but he is kidnapped by New York gangster, who speaks much more colloquially (and pays for his contempt for local superstition). The story is rather marred by the use of really crude Polish stereotypes in the portrayal of the gangster's assistant.

Bloch’s development as a writer was clearly rapid; by The Suicide In the Study, the second earliest story here, Bloch’s prose style has greatly improved, with the thesaurus abuse greatly scaled back. He does end up working in one rather major absurdity - namely, the main character writes in his diary to provide us with the necessary exposition, then declares his intent to immediately burn it so that others will not have a record of what he has done. Why, then, does he write his diary in a manner clearly intended to explain his thoughts to others, not as a reminder to himself - and why does he even bother to write a bunch of waffle that he fully intends to burn immediately after writing? Answer: Bloch was being clumsy. Still, the story’s central idea of hypnotising yourself into a state where your shadow-self can be physically embodied separate from you is fun, even if - as narration acknowledges - it owes a little to Jekyll and Hyde.

The most famous of Bloch’s very early stories may be The Shambler From the Stars, since it’s the story where Bloch depicted the killing-off of a character who was clearly modelled on Lovecraft, and sought permission from Lovecraft to do this. Not only did Lovecraft provide a writ of execution signed by various Mythos entities and sorcerers, but he also had a bit of good-natured revenge with The Haunter of the Dark, his final work of fiction under his own name and a late high water mark of his craft.

Were it not for the Haunter of the Dark connection, though, Shambler wouldn’t have loads to recommend it, and is interesting only if you play spot-the-caricature with it- aside from the Lovecraft character and Bloch’s self-insert narrator there is also a “hermit in the western hills” - presumably Clark Ashton Smith - and a “savant in the northern wilds”, who I think is probably August Derleth.

That said, Bloch does make pretty good use of little details of Lovecraft’s biography that would have been known to his correspondence. For instance, the unnamed Lovecraft insert is killed by an invisible creature in a manner much like the fate met by Abdul Alhazred in Lovecraft's worldbuilding essay History of the Necronomicon - and remember, Lovecraft as a child called himself Abdul Alhazred when he was playing at being in the Arabian Nights. (Alhazred actually sign the death warrant.) The story also spends much of its word count offering a similar historical essay on Bloch’s own De Vermis Mysteriis.

The major fault of the story is that, once you get past that history, the main plot is rather thin and wraps up abruptly, and I rather think that in writing The Haunter of the Dark Lovecraft was attempting to illustrate an important lesson: it’s cheap and easy to kill someone gruesomely in a horror story, but isolating them, torturing them, and driving them out of their mind is where the true art is.

Two other stories in this collection seem to be continuations of this game of authorial tributes. The Dark Demon though not a direct sequel to The Haunter of the Dark, has to be considered a riposte to Lovecraft's bloody revenge, and benefitted from Bloch’s rapid maturation as an author. The Lovecraft character here is much more vividly depicted than the rather simple cartoon in Shambler, and all sorts of Lovecraft's habits and eccentricities can be detected therein - though, unlike Gordon here, Lovecraft never bought into William Lumley's assertion that the Weird Tales authors were channelling messages from beyond.

Bloch’s major response to Haunter, though, would come over a decade after Lovecraft’s death; when Lovecraft died in 1937 Bloch was sufficiently shaken that, as he puts it in his essay here, writing Mythos stuff didn’t seem fun any more, and so he almost completely stopped until 1949’s The Unspeakable Betrothal. In 1950, he finally delivered his riposte to Haunter in the form of The Shadow From the Steeple.

Here the main characters are a certain Edmund Fiske, a riff on Fritz Leiber, and Dr Ambrose Dexter, who played a minor role in the original and, based on the name, I suspect was meant to be August Derleth. (Certainly, Derleth seems to have lent some credence to this by using the very similar-sounding “Ambrose Dewart” as a character name in 1945’s The Lurker At the Threshold.) The plot point here about Dexter nabbing Mythos tomes from the Starry Wisdom Church before the authorities got hold of them could, in fact, be a playful (or critical) spin on Derleth asserting control of the Mythos after Lovecraft's death.

Lovecraft is also given his own non-pseudonymous role in the story as a previous investigator of the strange events of Haunter, which are mostly taken as canonical here; Bloch makes only a small alteration to Lovecraft’s narration by adding the detail that Lovecraft was, in fact, Bloch’s host during his stay in Providence, and therefore was in a privileged position to obtain the facts he narrates in the story, but left his involvement out of his writeup. From this jumping-off point and the investigations of Fiske the story cleverly builds both on Lovecraft's wider body of work (the Nyarlathotep poem from Fungi From Yuggoth is drawn on) as well as matters left unsaid in original story.

One feature Lovecraft worked into Haunter was a connection between the Shining Trapezohedron and the sinister Nephren-Ka, a malevolent heretic Pharaoh who either was Nyarlathotep or at the very least worshipped the dude, depending on which Mythos author is using the character at the time. This was probably inspired by Bloch’s enthusiasm for Egyptological themes, which he expressed in a range of his early tales.

1936’s The Faceless God is a rather rudimentary one - it’s your basic pulp story about an Egyptian archaeologist who shakes hands with danger, with plenty of Nyarlathotep-themed nastiness. Tired stereotypes of the colonial era creak out, and whilst the white trophy-hunter is depicted in condemnatory terms that doesn’t really excuse the dismissive and patronising depiction of the locals. That said, it’s a good use of Lovecraft’s established Egyptian connections to the Mythos (as well as the Nyarlathotep stuff there’s an allusion to the subterranean horrors of Under the Pyramids) and builds on them excitingly, which makes me wonder if this is the story which made Lovecraft choose to inflict Nyarlathotep on Bloch in Haunter.

In The Brood of Bubastis, a riff on the theory about the Ancient Egyptians having tin mines in Cornwall combined with some speculation about what they stashed down there, De Vermiis Mysteriis is the only overt Mythos connection, though the strange hybrid creatures that a renegade Egyptian priesthood supposedly created do seem to riff on some of the monsters seen in Lovecraft’s Under the Pyramids. Riff on theory about Egyptians having mines in Cornwall. Meanwhile, The Secret of Sebek sees Bloch riff on his pen-pals again; it’s set in New Orleans and features a cameo from Etienne-Laurent de Marigny (E. Hoffman Price’s self-insert from Through the Gates of the Silver Key), the narrator is in the midst of writing a string of Egypt-themed horrors for the pulps, and the ending’s dependence on Masque of the Red Death is specifically lampshaded. Despite the generally parodic take, the depiction of serious occultists hiding in plain sight among a throng of society poseurs is pretty good, and it’s a significant step in Bloch’s shift away from Lovecraftian prose.

The best of Bloch’s Egyptian-themed stories, despite the return of problematic colonial tropes, is Fane of the Black Pharaoh. Here, Bloch takes up Lovecraft’s invention of Nephren-Ka and runs with it, building on the mythology around him and adding the detail of Nephren-Ka’s secret tomb beneath Cairo, where he produced a mural depicting Egypt’s future history prior to his death under the inspiration of Nyarlathotep. The feature about his priesthood erecting a curtain in front of it and, right up to the modern day, daily drawing it back it by bit to reveal the events of the coming day is especially nice; whilst the associated story is a tad predictable, the imaginative structure around the story is fun.

The 1930s stories here are rounded out by The Mannikin, which uses the concept of a vestigal twin for a gruesome spin on the old witches’ familiar idea and accomplishes a dead-on imitation of Lovecraft's style without indulging in his worst stylistic habits, and The Sorcerer’s Jewel, in which the only overt Mythos reference is a mention of De Vermis Mysteriis, but the general concept - in which the angles of a ground jewel allow perception of higher realms - is reminiscent of Long's Hounds of Tindalos (and, via that, Lovecraft's From Beyond).

From the early-vintage stories here we can put together the general gist of early Bloch Mythos: he was clearly big on Egypt, big on underground tunnellings where ghoulish entities lurk and very keen on intersection of two (Under the Pyramids). The stories create an overall picture of a world honeycombed with secret underground passages from which dark gods exert their power to this day and sometimes emerge to take direct action, the dark ones using apparent antiquity and decrepitude of tombs as cover for their activities.

Aside from The Shadow From the Steeple, the stories here from Bloch’s post-1940s return to Mythos writing tend not to follow on from these early themes, Bloch apparently having moved on in his interests or decided he’d already said all he wanted to say about it. Bloch’s grand return to the Mythos is 1949’s The Unspeakable Betrothal, a fascinating character study of a woman intent on reconnecting with her childhood friends from Yuggoth. The way she withdraws under their influences and becomes disinterested in being the well-behaved betrothed of a handsome soldier boy adds an interesting subtext which can be read as her rejecting social expectations for the sake of something different from the norm - even when that seems awful to her friends and family.

1951 found Bloch penning what is perhaps his greatest Mythos effort, Notebook Found In a Deserted House. The story is presented as exactly that - a story written in haste in the titular notebook by a 12 year old country boy, and as with Machen’s The White People this lends the story a distinctive voice. Bloch successfully walks a fine line between working in implications that the kid doesn't spot but careful genre-savvy readers will (for instance, Cousin Willie probably really is Cousin Willie, rather than the impostor our narrator suspects he is, but he hails the branch of the family that had witches in it and is in league with the evil and willing to sell out his own relatives) whilst not treating the boy as outright stupid. It’s yet another Mythos story that ends with the narrator writing about their own doom, but at least the closing words refer to the front door busting open (which the boy could have believably jotted down before hiding the notebook) and not “I am being killed” like some authors who use this trope. It’s also Bloch’s most high-profile story to include the particular depiction of shoggoths used, in which they adopt a form which could be mistaken for tree-like if seen in silhouette; this is probably the inspiration for the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath in the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

The latest story in to be collected (in my edition, at least) is 1958’s Terror In Cut-Throat Cove. Here, Bloch was tasked with writing a story to fit the title and starts out making it look like you are getting a modern day adventure story about the search for pirate gold - before the treasure turns out to be much nastier. It’s a great example of a Mythos story that uses the underlying ideas of Lovecraft’s fiction without either going for Lovecraftian prose or resorting to the iconic names of entities, wizards, and tomes that usually get namedropped when people want to signal that they’re doing a Mythos story. The narrator exhibits classic Nice Guy symptoms but turns out to be not so nice after all, so that my be deliberate. Overall, it’s a capably done piece which, especially in this context, illustrates just how far Bloch had come after his rudimentary early efforts.

The Book of Iod

Another anthology, another opportunity for Robert Price to irritate me. This time, his commentary on the stories and introduction aren’t what I have beef with - it’s his astonishing decision to take what is supposed to be a collection of Henry Kuttner’s Mythos writings and mar it by including two stories that Kuttner had no hand in writing! Using the flimsy excuse that the tales in question happen to use Mythos concepts introduced by Kuttner, Price adds egotism to injury by picking one story by himself and one story by his good buddy Lin Carter.

The Price story here is Beneath the Tombstone, a brief little nothing, whilst the Carter story is Dead of Night, an Anton Zarnak story exhibiting most of the qualities I’ve previously noted about the Zarnak series - the racial stereotype assistant, the lack of any real meat to the detective work, the way Zarnak always has the right spell or procedure to hand to solve the problem and never seems to be in any serious danger (even though in this case others are endangered)... it’s all very tiresome. I think the lack of significant detective work is what irritates me the most; to my mind, if you are going to write an occult detective story, there needs to be some actual detectiving going on and some actual, substantial mystery involved, rather than your detective just looking up the answer in a book with minimal effort.

Price’s self-indulgent inclusion of these stories of only tangential relevance will be no surprise to those who know Price’s work. There’s only one thing Price is more enthusiastic about than promoting the dubious merits of Lin Carter’s writing, and that’s promoting his own stuff. The inclusion of the stories adds nothing to the collecton beyond page count, but then again they’re brief enough that it's hard to see how the book would be rendered non-viable if they were just left out, and I don't believe there isn't some more appropriate thing that could go there. Why not include Kuttner's debut story, The Graveyard Rats? It is not explicitly a Mythos story in the sense that it does not deal with named entities or tomes, but it shares the Salem setting of other early stories, the monster in it feels like a cousin of Lovecraft's ghouls, and Lovecraft’s stylistic influence is all over it.

Even some personal reminiscences of Kuttner by those who knew him or a critical essay on Kuttner's early work would feel more appropriate than this attempt by Price to promote himself and Carter on the back of what’s supposed to be someone else’s tribute. It’s kind of like being hired to do the catering for someone’s funeral wake and deciding that you should cut the mix of the departed’s favourite music short so that you can play your band’s demo tape on the PA system.

In terms of actual Kuttner material here, the earliest piece is The Secret of Kralitz: although passing references are made to the Mythos, largely this tale has a Gothic atmosphere taking its lead more from Poe than Lovecraft - which probably accounts for why Lovecraft liked it to the extent that he did. Some resemblance can be seen to The Festival, concerning as it does the narrator's initiation into dark family rituals in a haunted underworld. Price's introduction to this one betrays a slack grip on the facts, because he claims Lovecraft was still working on the poems of Fungi From Yuggoth as late as 1936.

Kuttner seems to have been following an accelerated version of Lovecraft’s literary development, following up his brief Poe phase with a diversion into Lord Dunsany-esque fantasy in the form of The Eater of Souls, whose prose style owes a lot to Dunsany (though the extraterrestrial setting is more reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith). This is the first of Kuttner’s stories of the alien city-state of Bel Yarnak. Here there are no overt Mythos references, though in spirit and approach it’s in keeping with early Lovecraft fantasies spliced with some of the more fanciful settings of late Lovecraft works, like the alien worlds glimpsed in The Dreams In the Witch-House or Through the Gates of the Silver Key. It suffers from insisting that the inhabitants of Bel Yarnak are not remotely human-like but not really offering much idea of what they actually are like in terms of physiognomy - leaving us with a void where our mental picture of the action should be - and not really giving many details of their culture which do not have clear and obvious parallels in human culture.

The second Bel Yarnak story is The Jest of Droom-Avista, which depicts the destruction of Bel Yarnak as a joke by the titular deity, the Black Shining One. It’s largely a stab at Clark Ashton Smith-esque irony which misses the target (it’s really hard for anyone who isn’t Smith to do Smith), though there is a fun turnaround at the end where it turns out that gold and jewels are commonplace on this world, and the local alchemist’s search for a philosopher's stone (in the course of which Droom-Avista is summoned) focused on the transmutation of common gold to iron.

Kuttner destroying Bel Yarnak in its second appearance may have been a sort of authorial throwing in the towel, a result of him realising that there wasn’t quite enough substance to the idea to make it a central foundation of the story. Where Bel Yarnak and the concepts associated with it showed up in his later fiction, it did so as a passing reference to the ancient alien past, following Lovecraft’s trick of namedropping ideas from past stories to lend a bit of mythic weight behind the events of subsequent stories. This is seen in, for instance, Bells of Horror, whose Black Silent One is possibly the same entity as the Black Shining One of Jest of Droom-Avista. That one is rather pulpy in execution, with a predictable ending, but it gets under your skin with the way the entity's presence causes people to involuntarily gouge out their eyes. (And not just people - the most disquieting scene in the story comes early on, when the narrator observes a toad that has been driven to scrape its own eyes out on a rock.)

Kuttner’s most extensive use of the Bel Yarnak material, however, is The Invaders. This largely reads like a mashup of Frank Belknap Long’s two best Mythos stories, The Space-Eaters and The Hounds of Tindalos. The main Hounds element is the time drug that allows visions of past lives, taken by an author who through use of the drugs comes to the attention of hostile aliens from another dimension; the Space-Eaters angle arises mostly from the story’s siege atmosphere, and the way the resolution relies on calling on supernatural aid from a higher power.

On that last point, The Invaders was written in 1939, which would have been around the time August Derleth was heavily pushing his good-vs.-evil cosmology within the Lovecraft circle in the wake of Lovecraft's death. (It pops up in some of his correspondence with Clark Ashton Smith, for instance.) However, I’m not convinced Kuttner was wholly sold on the idea, because he subverts it here by including within the pantheon of gods worshipped by early Earth folk who saw off the invaders in ages past - the group which would naturally be seen as corresponding to Derleth’s Elder Gods - such friendly, cuddly sorts as Yig and Cthulhu! Fortunately for the heroes here, the deity they choose to invoke is Vorvadoss, the deity worshipped in the Bel Yarnak stories, and if you’ve read The Eater of Souls you’ll know that Vorvadoss seems less like a benign, caring force and more like a god which just isn’t interested in being actively malevolent but doesn’t give more help than it absolutely has to in order to defeat its enemies.

Kuttner’s authorial mimicry also extended to Robert E. Howard; this is illustrated here with Spawn of Dagon, a piece which is more Mythos-influenced than truly Mythosy, the main link here is the titular god and his tentacular minions. This is part of the Elak of Atlantis series of sword and sorcery stories that Kuttner turned out to hop on the post-Howard sword and sorcery bandwagon. Whilst it doesn’t quite have the obsession with racial conflict yoked to tension between barbarism and civilisation that characterises so much of Howard’s work, it’s otherwise very much in Howard’s style, complete with the sole woman in the story being a sexy prize rather than a character in her own right. The flow of the story is suitably action-packed except towards the end of the story, which feels rather rushed; a lot of exposition is delivered in an unseemly hurry and to an annoyingly redundant extent.

As well as mimicing the styles of Poe, Dunsany, Smith, Long, and Howard, Kuttner also did his share of straight-up Lovecraft pastiches too, usually focusing on the style of one story or another. The Frog, for instance, is a fairly basic “smug modern person ignores superstition, breaks taboo, all hell breaks loose” story where the influence of The Dunwich Horror is evident in its depiction of a rural small town under siege by the creature. Likewise, Hydra is a riff on the self-referential style of The Haunter of the Dark, with a sceptical-sounding narrative voice outlining the deaths of characters who are supposed to be Lovecraft, Bloch and Kuttner. It’s notable for its gentle escalation of bizarreness as the characters take increasingly desperate measures to try and set right the wrong they have done, only for their problems to become progressively worse.

Kuttner’s most widely-read Lovecraft pastiche, thanks to its appearance in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, is The Salem Horror, which is transparently based on The Dreams In the Witch-House - you have the house formerly occupied by a 17th Century witch, you have the witch manipulating events when she's supposed to be dead, you have the rat familiar, you have the protagonist doing the bidding of the witch when he sleeps, you have a slightly racist treatment of Polish immigrants as being superstitious peasants which ends up subverting itself when it turns out the Poles know full well what is going on and their supposed superstitions are basically accurate. Still, I can’t entirely blame Derleth for giving it the spotlight, because as well as being a very fun story it’s actually quite impressive how Kuttner somehow manages to borrow all of those trappings and still give himself space to put his own spin on proceedings.

Still, there’s a mild goof here: as Price notes in his introduction, Kuttner throws in a Necronomicon quote which has Alhazred talking about the Great Khan of the Mongols in a context which is clearly not intended as a prophecy of things to come, and yet as per Lovecraft’s History of the Necronomicon (which, admittedly, Kuttner may not have read) Alhazred died well before the Great Khan was an office. (You could, I suppose, rationalise this as Alhazred's sense of past, present, and future eroding as a result of his dealings with Yog-Sothoth, but that would feel like a stretch.)

The Salem Horror is notable for introducing Kuttner’s character Michael Leigh, an occult investigator who in the vein of Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost-Finder is armed with the right charms and precautions to save the day. His role here is as a bit of a deus ex machina as a result; in particular, it seems rather convenient how he sees fit to barge his way into the house in question to save the day at the moment when he does.

Like Bel Yarnak, Michael Leigh seems to have been the nucleus of an attempted series that didn’t really progress beyond its second entry. The second Michael Leigh story barely even features him in fact. This tale is The Black Kiss, a piece cowritten with Robert Bloch. This 1937 story reads like an attempt at the Derleth Standard Narrative before the Standard Narrative was even a thing (The Return of Hastur, the first Derleth story using the Narrative, wouldn’t come out until 1939).

The main Standard Narrative elements missing here would be are a shelf of Mythos tomes and an accompanying lore dump. In fact, this is an early example of a post-Lovecraft story which thematically seems to fit the Mythos but the namedropping of Mythosy tomes, locales, and entities is avoided. The main connection is the role of Michael Leigh, who here arrives perhaps too late to save his nephew, sensitive artist Graham Dean, from the titular Black Kiss and its threat of a fate worse than smooches. The story also introduces Dr Yamada, Japanese character portrayed thankfully without cartoonish stereotyping.

Yamada claims that Leigh is a far more accomplished occultist than him, though at the same time Yamada actually accomplishes more in the story, with Leigh basically tagging along, and I have to say that the idea of a Japanese Mythos investigator working in California in the years leading up to World War II offers a much more engaging hook for a potential series than the rather personality-free Leigh does. (It’s not clear what Bloch contributed here and what Kuttner offered, but Kuttner seems to have been at least partially involved since Yamada drops a reference to Arthur Machen, and whilst Bloch’s stories wouldn’t have overt Machen references Kuttner’s Hydra and The Hunt cite the Sixtystone of Machen's Novel of the Black Seal as a Mythos tome.)

Lovecraftian in theme but entirely original in delivery and conception is The Hunt, which despite a mild goof (it refers to a pentagram as being a six-pointed star) may be the most original Kuttner story in the collection (it’s also the latest, hailing from the tail end of 1939). This has the protagonist head out to his cousin’s lonely cabin to murder him in order that their rich grandpappy’s inheritance will come to the protagonist, not the cousin. As it turns out, the cousin is deep into a summoning ritual to call up something awful; surely, shooting him in the head whilst he’s distracted by his incantations can’t possibly backfire, can it? The story illustrates how it can.

The stories in this collection were written in a very narrow window of time, emerging as they did between 1936 and 1939, so we don’t get such a broad view here of Kuttner’s development as a writer. What the collection does very clearly establish was that early-career Kuttner was a very good mimic of others’ styles; what we don’t see so much is how he gained a distinct voice from 1940 onwards when he shifted into science fiction.

It is possible - even likely - that this was due to the influence of C.L. Moore; the pair had married in that year and from that point until Kuttner’s death in 1958 were extremely close collaborators, to the point where an extremely large proportion of their work during that period was collaborative and the name ascribed to one work or the other was rather arbitrary. (The magazines of the day were often disinclined to obviously have multiple works by the same authors in the same issue, so by putting out their stories under one individual name or the other - or by one of their communal pseudonyms - rather than crediting them as collaborations they could boost their income accordingly.)

It is entirely conceivable that in this collaboration Moore was the ideas wizard, whilst Kuttner was the workhorse who could reliably churn out prose which fit seamlessly with what Moore had done. (They basically had a tag team act going, with one of them bashing away at the typewriter until they got tired and tagged in the other one.) That said, this wouldn't be compatible with the anecdote about how once their stories were written they could never remember which of them had contributed what feature. Furthermore, The Book of Iod stands as evidence that whilst stylistically Kuttner could write in any mode he chose to set his hand to, he was more than capable of producing distinctive ideas in his own right, and that whilst his career really got going once he and Moore teamed up, it would be a mistake to write Kuttner off as the lesser partner in that creative relationship.

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
Robinson L at 19:59 on 2017-06-24
it’s cheap and easy to kill someone gruesomely in a horror story, but isolating them, torturing them, and driving them out of their mind is where the true art is.

I wish more authors would take this lesson to heart, and not just horror writers. It’s beyond ridiculous the extent to which writers use character death as a crutch to inject drama, or tragedy, or to motivate another character—and sometimes it’s warranted, but often it feels like just going for the low hanging fruit. Come on people, get a little more creative.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in February 2017