Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 1

by Arthur B

First of a series about the most famous Cthulhu Mythos anthology, and the collections that tried to take its crown.
Despite the fact that even during Lovecraft’s own lifetime the Cthulhu Mythos was well-established as a multi-author shared world type of affair, and despite the fact that the various contributions to it tended to be in the short story format, it took a surprisingly long time for a fully Mythos-themed short story anthology to appear. In the first few decades of Mythos fandom, when August Derleth exerted a lot of influence over the field and Arkham House as close to being the de facto “official” publisher of such material as anyone could claim to be, Arkham didn’t really put out any all-Mythos multi-author anthologies, unless you count books put out under H.P. Lovecraft’s byline that included falsified collaborations by August Derleth or essays by Lovecraft Circle members. Instead, Mythos stories were sprinkled among other material in Arkham House’s genre anthologies.

That changed in 1969 with Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos; this inspired a trickle of other all-Mythos multi-author anthologies, like the Lin Carter-edited Ballantine Adult Fantasy series entry The Spawn of Cthulhu from 1971 (an anthology now largely redundant due to the material mostly being reprinted in other, more easily-available sources), or the DAW Books release The Disciples of Cthulhu from 1976, to Arkham House’s own New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos from 1980. In the 1990s, the pace of such publications picked up, in part because of figures from fandom like Robert M. Price gaining prominence as anthologists and in part because of Chaosium starting up their own fiction line as a tie-in with the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

The anthologies I am going to review in this article series will cover Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and subsequent Arkham House releases that can be seen as sequels to it, as well as two series of anthologies that can be seen as attempts by prominent Lovecraft critics to craft their own take on Tales - one anthology grouping is by Robert M. Price, whilst the other is by S.T. Joshi.

These by no means constitute the majority of Mythos anthologies out there. There are plenty of approaches to producing such an anthology that people have taken since then that haven't gone for a "best of" approach - for instance, concentrating on presenting all-new stories, as Joshi's own Black Wings of Cthulhu series does, or by concentrating on stories from a particular author or relating to a particular topic, which is the case with many of the anthologies Robert M. Price edited for Chaosium over the years.

I've selected these particular anthologies for this article series on the basis of two important criteria. The first is that each of them in its own way attempts to be a followup to Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos; the second is that they hail from figures who for better or worse have at points been considered authorities in the field. The anthologies put out by Arkham House have the kudos of hailing from what was purported to be the official, legal source of Lovecraft's work until it fell out of copyright (though as S.T. Joshi has substantiated in his biography of Lovecraft, August Derleth's claim to be Lovecraft's literary executor was rather tenuous). With the original Tales being produced by Derleth in his self-appointed capacity as supreme overlord of Mythos publishing, it is about an official a manifesto of the Cthulhu Mythos as exists, and its revision by Jim Turner and followups by Ramsey Campbell and Jim Turner are also highly regarded.

For their parts, Robert M. Price and S.T. Joshi are seen as the leading lights of Lovecraftian criticism within fandom, although Price's star has faded substantially since his glory days of the 1980s and 1990s as people have become impatient with some of the particular axes he regularly grinds; Joshi, whilst in general being more rigorous in his scholarship and discerning in his tastes, has somewhat tarnished his reputation lately with regular flipouts about people who have the temerity to condemn Lovecraft's racism - this despite Joshi having carefully documented that selfsame racism. In the time since the death of August Derleth, there's nobody who can really be said to be the Pope of Cthulhu fandom, but both Price and Joshi have come close at points, and in some of his recent rants Joshi seems to veered towards setting himself up as one.

As previously premiered at the end of one of my Brian Lumley articles, I’ll also be taking measurements on these anthologies on the Boy’s Club-o-meter, to take a measure of how much these anthologies are dominated by the work of male authors.

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos

This is the grandaddy of them all. The original edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos was compiled by August Derleth in 1969, at a time when the store of Lovecraft material for him to publish had run dry - he’d almost entirely stopped writing fake collaborations with Lovecraft (and showed enough taste not to include any here). Though in some respects he seemed to have doubts as to whether the Mythos had any further legs, at the same time he did use it to showcase the future of the subgenre as well as the past; as well as compiling significant Mythos tales from Lovecraft and his peers, Derleth also included a brace of brand-new stories from up-and-coming writers.

The most widely-available version of Tales these days is not Derleth’s original, however - thankfully sparing us Derleth’s inevitable essay pushing his vision of the Cthulhu Mythos yet again (a vision which wasn’t even followed by many of the new writers he was showcasing). In 1990 Arkham House released a reconfigured version of the anthology edited by Jim Turner; for the most part, Turner respected Derleth’s original configuration when it came to the stories selected to represent earlier generations of Mythos writers, but he also dropped several of the then-new stories from the 1969 edition in favour of subsequent stories that he considered more worthy of inclusion. (Though actually, all of these stories were from the 1970s, Turner apparently wanting to fill in the gap between the 1969 release of the original Tales and the 1980s release of New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.)

Turner’s agenda here can be gleaned from his introduction to the volume. In this, Turner is super-harsh about the cottage industry of writers churning out formulaic rehashes and pastiches - even more so than I have been in the past. Based on the notes on the back flap of my hardcover copy, this seems to have been part of a Turner-spearheaded push to make Arkham House a home of high-quality literary genre fiction rather than a place for cheap schlock - hence, presumably, his rejection of Lin Carter’s later offerings. Robert Price’s grumping in the introduction to his compilation of Lin Carter material makes a bit more sense in this context; it is one thing for a critic to slam Carter and other such writers, it's quite another for the chief editor at a publishing house that had formerly released that sort of material to do the same.

Turner also seems intent on his pet theory that, had Lovecraft lived, he'd have kept steering his stories in an increasingly SFnal direction, which on the one hand is consistent with what we know about the development of his work over his lifetime but also constitutes a major bit of speculation presented as undeniable fact. As Joshi has exhaustively substantiated, when he wasn't doing revision work Lovecraft followed the promptings of his muse, and towards the end of his life his inspiration for his more SFnal stories seems to have dried up a bit. Remember, the last story he wrote under his own name was The Haunter of the Dark - very much a return to the New England black magic that Turner suggests Lovecraft had abandoned!

The block of older stories, all of which are common to both editions, consist of material I have already largely covered here. It leads off with Lovecraft’s own The Call of Cthulhu, which to is a bit of an obvious pick but I am not sure about its inclusion; whilst it’s the first major product of Lovecraft’s post-New York burst of writing, it’s arguably neither the best or the first Mythos story - and more to the point, I cannot seriously imagine anyone wanting to read this collection unless they have read the essential Lovecraft first.

The first non-Lovecraft author included is Clark Ashton Smith; the picks here are The Return of the Sorcerer - probably Smith's most purely horror-oriented story to focus on Mythos themes - and Ubbo-Sathla, which neatly showcases Smith's poetic and proto-psychedelic style. Robert E. Howard’s The Black Stone and The Hounds of Tindalos and The Space-Eaters by Frank Belknap Long are probably the best Mythos stories from those respective authors as well as being a cut above the standard of much of the rest of their work. The same is true of Derleth's own The Dweller In Darkness and Beyond the Threshold, suggesting that Derleth was, for all his other faults, at least a good judge of his own work.

Robert Bloch is represented by his collaborative triptych with Lovecraft, consisting of Bloch’s rudimentary The Shambler From the Stars Lovecraft’s Haunter of the Dark, and Bloch’s mature The Shadow From the Steeple - here, I think there is a good reason to include the Lovecraft tale, because having the whole trilogy together between the same covers is quite nice. Derleth seems to have been very keen on Bloch’s material, because he also indulgently added Notebook Found In A Deserted House for good measure, but the standard of The Shadow From the Steeple and Notebook justify this as far as I’m concerned. Henry Kuttner is represented by The Salem Horror, which I think is the best of his Lovecraft pastiches.

In the Turner-tweaked version, the next story is The Terror From the Depths by Fritz Leiber. This reflects a chronological difficulty; whilst Leiber was part of the Lovecraft Circle, and so on that basis belongs in the same section as the rest of them, his most significant explicitly Mythos-focused writing came later in life, and this story actually first saw light in The Disciples of Cthulhu, a 1976 collection of all-original Mythos stories.

As well as muddling the chronological publication order of stories, here, it’s also a frustratingly muddled story in general. On the plus side, the story boasts a very vividly portrayed 1930s California and a truly wild concept (the dreams of Cthulhu having actual physical manifestations, tunnelling under the earth just as they mentally undermine humanity), and that’s good enough that it isn’t quite ruined by an excessive and overbaked effort to try and tie this into as many Lovecraft stories as possible. Lovecraft himself is inserted as a character in a way which doesn't really add much; on top of that, Wilmarth of Lovecraft’s own Whisperer In Darkness also shows up, and of course in that story he was a Lovecraft self-insert. Leiber doesn’t seem to have been unaware of that, because he depicts Wilmarth as being very like Lovecraft, which feels kind of redundant - tribute piled on tribute and eulogy piled on eulogy for the sake of padding the story out.

Between this and the bid to have various Miskatonic professors of past Lovecraft stories acting as a sort of unofficial Mythos Studies Department (a bit like the Wilmarth Foundation in Brian Lumley’s The Burrowers Beneath - in fact, Wilmarth is the main one that appears here), this feels like a culmination of precisely the sort of obsessive cataloguing and boring wiki-whacking that Turner so condemns in his introduction, which makes its inclusion here a bit of a puzzle. It was penned when Leiber was in dire living conditions in San Francisco, battling his alcoholism, so on one level it’s impressive that he was able to produce a story of even this uneven level of quality under such conditions, but at the same time it isn’t prime, top-tier Leiber material.

The original Tales included not one but two Brian Lumley stories, which to put it kindly seems to suggest Derleth had a lot of confidence in him. Both are removed for this edition, but I can see the rationale there since both stories had been subsequently incorporated into Lumley's early novels. (Specifically, Cement Surroundings formed the kernel of The Burrowers Beneath, whilst The Sister-City was absorbed into Beneath the Moors.) Turner replaces them with another Lumley piece, Rising With Surtsey, which is somewhat better than the material it's replacing. That said, it’s not in the top tier of Lumley’s material, which in practice means it feels rather rudimentary compared to the rest of the material here.

(The other two stories deleted by Turner, J. Vernon Shea’s The Haunter of the Graveyard and James Wade’s The Deep Ones, I’ll address later in this article series when I get around to discussing The New Lovecraft Circle and A Mountain Walked respectively.)

When it comes to representing Ramsey Campbell, Turner sensibly follows Derleth’s lead by retaining Cold Print - a legitimate classic and one of the best stories in the collection. It might even be the best of the lot, but it’s given a run for its money by The Return of the Lloigor by Colin Wilson. Colin Wilson was a writer whose books on philosophical and occult topics were quite influential in the 1960s and 1970s; August Derleth first corresponded with him after Wilson gave an extremely unsympathetic writeup of Lovecraft in one of his first significant books, The Outsider (no relation to the Lovecraft story of the same name), probably because Lovecraft’s philosophical pessimism was completely antithetical to Wilson’s philosophical and (at times) pseudoscientific optimism.

On being challenged by Derleth to try his own hand at writing some Mythos stories, Wilson proved game enough to give it a go. His The Mind Parasites felt like a mean-spirited stab at Lovecraft and his fans, implying that their worldviews were due to alien parasites and that human beings’ natural state is optimistic (which is a bit of a “fuck you” to anyone with depression when you think about it); The Space Vampires is notable for being the inspiration for Lifeforce, possibly the most bizarre movie Patrick Stewart has ever been in. Neither appear here, neither have enjoyed much republication or enthusiasm in the Mythos fandom.

The Return of the Lloigor, though, is justly regarded as a classic. Wilson blends flashes of his personal philosophy with, at last, something approximating a sympathetic appreciation of Lovecraft's pessimism - a worldview he ascribes to the Lloigor. The story spends a good deal of time in Wales, which is of course prime Arthur Machen territory, and indeed it’s reminiscent of a mashup of The Whisperer In Darkness - possibly Lovecraft's most Machen-influenced story - and actual Machen. This is particularly the case in the way the actual monsters stay offstage and may even be invisible (though one explanation of the “explosion” that kills some Romany people that Wilson takes the rather disappointing course of presenting as allies of the Lloigor could be great tentacles emerging from beneath the Earth and ripping them apart).

The nice thing Wilson adds is his appreciation of how paranormal research worked at the time he was writing, and - much as with Machen's own works along these lines - the way he incorporates that into the story. For instance, there's the character of Colonel Urquhart, who tells the narrator the Lloigor theory and becomes his co-investigator, and whose theorising mixes up potentially interesting insights with strange nonsense. (In a conversation the narrator has with an apparent agent of the Lloigor, it's implied that Urquhart's whole Mu theory is a massive red herring.)

Wilson seems to have intended the story as a plea for the credibility of his Forteanism, with the mockery the narrator receives in the wake of his attempt to convince the world of the threat intended to parallel establishment dismissals of parapsychological research, but it isn’t essential to buy into WIlson’s worldview to appreciate the story. Of course, Wilson was also acquainted with hoaxes, having been involved in the production of one of the better fake versions of the Necronomicon that float about out there, and the story is cleverly pitched on a level where the dismissal of the narrator and Urquhart’s warnings as a hoax at least makes some sort of sense, rather than making those who disbelieve them seem like blinkered, irrational fools.

This is where Derleth’s version of Tales ended; from here on in we’re looking at the rest of Turner’s additions. My Boat by Joanna Russ is not so much horror as Lovecraftian fantasy in which a troubled black girl and a misfit lad escape the narrow, stultifying 1950s and head to the Dreamlands, leaving the narrator behind to a life of mediocrity. It's largely an update of The White Ship but with a very different spin; I quite like how the two dreamers here have very different Dreamlands, with the nerdboy bookworm populating his with locales from Lovecraft whilst the teenage black woman populates hers with all the bits of history Anglosphere-oriented history education tends to miss out.

Sticks by Karl Edward Wagner is truly magnificent, easily worth the price of entry on its own. If you’ve read the Kane books you already know that Wagner was a bit more thoughtful than your average Robert E. Howard pastiche merchant when it came to writing sword and sorcery, and clearly he was just as much further ahead of the pack when writing Lovecraftian materia. This story of a horror which ends up overshadowing decades of the protagonist's life before finally claiming it is superb, and might even be the best story in the collection. Even though it has the same grab-bag of predictable tropes (and, as is a common problem in this collection, a near-total lack of women), Wagner makes truly masterful use of the tools of the subgenre and produces a piece which, were Lovecraft revising Supernatural Horror In Literature today, could easily take pride of place in his canon of top-tier stories alongside Machen's The White People, Blackwood's The Willows and Chambers’ The Yellow Sign.

Philip Jose Farmer’s The Freshman is another story that imagines a sort of Mythos Studies department at Miskatonic, but this time around the department is not focused on investigating and fighting the Mythos, which is the usual direction people take with that idea, but on exploiting and using it; the story explores what might prompt a mature student to sign up there. It’s a darkly comedic story, as is often the case with stories which have Mythosy stuff basically out in the open. To be honest, the story could quite happily have been about Faust University or whatever and used classical demons instead; uses the Mythos here to provide an off-the-peg aesthetic but doesn’t really engage with any distinctly Mythos-flavoured themes.

Jerusalem's Lot by Stephen King is basically a classic Derleth Standard Narrative job. (To remind you: the Derlethian Standard Narrative for Mythos pastiches goes "Chap inherits a spooky house from a spooky distant relative, reads spooky books, as a result of moving into the house and reading the books he ends up possessed by the relative and doing Mythosy stuff, bad shit happens as a result.") The Derlethian approach comes complete with an old-fashioned prose style, though since the story takes place in the 1850s that's somewhat more justified. It’s actually quite good as far as this sort of story goes, but at the same time it feels like rank hypocrisy of Turner to include this piece since it's exactly the sort of formulaic pastiche he claimed to want to avoid. Evidently, the sales generated for Arkham House by including a King story justified Turner tossing aside his declared principles.

Turner’s declared agenda is better served by Richard Lupoff’s Discovery of the Ghooric Zone. It’s a bizarre proto-cyberpunk, proto-transhumanist tale (from 1977, would you believe) which tries too hard to make androgyny, gender fluidity, polyamory and pansexuality shocking; Turner intended this to represent the future cutting edge of Mythos writing, but between its weird-for-weird’s-sake excesses, dated sexual politics, and attempts to make a “feminist world order” seem sinister, this has dated almost as badly as, say, Lovecraft's political poetry.

Ironically, it also falls victim to a different cliche of Mythos writing from the ones Turner identifies in his introduction - namely, the excess memorialising of Lovecraft, which has become just as much of a tired-out trope as the Derlethian Standard Narrative. Stuffing Lovecraft into a Mythos story as a character has been done so often that it’s very rarely interesting these days, and doing to for the sake of paying tribute to and eulogising him almost invariably results in a story shifting focus from providing the sort of cosmic horror he’d have enjoyed to the sort of sentimentalised flower-scattering on his grave that he probably wouldn’t have had much time for.

For Cthulhu’s sake, folks, Lovecraft has been dead so long that pretty much everyone who knew him is also dead; the constant bowing and scraping and flagellating and sobbing needs to stop, not least because the longer it goes on the less it sounds like “What a shame that someone born well over a century ago is dead!” and the more it sounds like “What a shame it is that I never got to meet someone who died decades before my parents were born!” If you want to pay tribute to Lovecraft, offer up the sort of remorseless nightmare he’d have treasured.

To be fair, though, that’s exactly what most of the writers in this collection do. Derleth’s original selection of stories for this was pretty solid, but for a few stumbles here and there, and Turner’s choice of which stories to cut and which to add is for the most part sound and to the overall benefit of the anthology. It’s notable that, despite the boom of Mythos anthologies, the stories collected here haven’t been reprinted all that often elsewhere - probably because, just as I argued above that anyone interested in this anthology probably already owns all the major Lovecraft stories, equally anyone interested in the wider world of Mythos writing probably owns this anthology. Since 1969 it has been an obvious starting point for the exploration of Mythos writing outside of Lovecraft, and it remains an excellent one to this day.

Before we move on, let’s have a look at the Boy’s Club-o-meter for Tales of The Cthulhu Mythos - because for the longest time Mythos writing has been a bit of a boy's club, and it's anthologies like this which go a long way towards keeping it that way.

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 12 in the Derleth version, 16 in the Turner version.
Number of said authors who are male: 12 in the Derleth version, 15 in the Turner version.
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 100% for the Derleth version, 93.75% for the Turner version.

The Boy’s Club can toast Derleth’s memory for yielding a perfect score there, but has reason to raise an eyebrow at Turner for allowing the score to drop - though given that Turner added some six new authors (remember, J. Vernon Shea and James Wade’s entries were entirely omitted from his version), the rating hadn’t dropped as much as it could have.

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Comments (go to latest)
Ashimbabbar at 18:01 on 2017-10-09
concerning the Leiber story, according to wikipedia it was begun in 1937 but not finished until 1976 ( talk about artistic dedication ! wait, no, I believe he did write some other stuff in between ), so there's a point in including it with stories of HPL's contemporaries
Arthur B at 21:51 on 2017-10-09
That much makes sense, and of course Leiber was a contemporary of Lovecraft - but at the same time I taste more than a bit of the 1970s Leiber in the actual writing. Given the long gestation time I can't believe that the story we finally got in 1976 resembles especially closely the story as it would have stood were it finished in 1937.
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