Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 3

by Arthur B

Cthulhu 2000 is basically a massive extension and revision of New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos under a different title.
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The story so far: August Derleth's original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthology (revised later by Jim Turner) proved a hard act to follow for Arkham House, with their first attempt at a followup - New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by Ramsey Campbell - being a bit of a mixed bag.

Jim Turner made no secret in his introduction to his revised version of Tales that he had a bit of an axe to grind in terms of the Mythos as a literary subgenre, but under his auspices New Tales never, so far as I can make out, got a reprint (and hasn't had one to this day). Instead, a new anthology was devised which would take the best of the New Tales, drop the rest, and replace them with fresher meat...

Cthulhu 2000


This 1995 release was one of Jim Turner’s last projects with Arkham House, before creative differences between him and April Derleth (daughter of August Derleth and co-owner of Arkham House) led to his departure. As with his revision of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, it has Turner banging the drum against unimaginative pastiche and pushing his very personal aesthetic take on the Mythos. In his introduction he asserts, as he did in his introduction to Tales, that the overall trajectory of Lovecraft’s writing was more SFnal than horror-based. This time around he gives a slightly more convincing argument by more directly discussing Lovecraft's cosmicism, though I disagree with his assertion that horror intrinsically requires a malevolent universe - the implications of an indifferent universe are horrifying in and of themselves to anyone who appreciates how small, insignificant, and precarious our place in it is.

This anthology has been more extensively reprinted in recent years than New Tales, and it feels like it’s intended as a replacement for it. For one thing, it reprints the absolutely essential stories from there - Black Man With a Horn, Shaft Number 247, and The Faces At Pine Dunes. For another, whilst Turner’s revised take on Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos covered stories ranging from Lovecraft’s time to the 1970s, aside from a single Joanna Russ story from 1964 Cthulhu 2000’s stories all saw first publication in the time span from 1980 to 1993, so it does feel Turner's attempt to present the hottest stuff that came out after the cut-off from his revised take on Tales.

The major shift in approach between New Tales and this is that Cthulhu 2000 consists solely of reprints, whereas New Tales consisted of all-original stories debuting there for the first time. Possibly this represents a shift in approach, Turner wanting to include stories that had had at least some opportunity to gain critical acclaim rather than offering a range of fresh, untested pieces which hadn't had the benefit of critical exposure or a little time to settle. Alternatively, it could reflect a shift in the fortunes of Arkham House; the way the short story market works, it’s substantially cheaper to reprint a story that’s already had its first publication elsewhere than it is to publish it for the first time.

Either way, I personally find that the overall quality of the stories here to be, on average, much better than in New Tales. The anthology kicks off with The Barrens by F. Paul Wilson, a Mythos masterpiece complete with a real-seeming protagonist (an actual woman too!) and an enticing mystery and setting. Wilson either knows the Pine Barrens very well or is good at convincing the reader that he does. There’s lots of Mythos nods but no overt namedropping beyond reference to Miskatonic, but thematically the story is unmistakably Lovecraftian. Between the repeated stories from New Tales and the new material, for the most part the remainder of the anthology manages to retain a similarly high level of accomplishment whilst also incorporating an impressively broad range of approaches.

For instance, strand of stories in here can be seen as being droll little jokes. Pickman's Modem by Lawrence Watt-Evans is just such a joke story, though with a very dry wit and a bit of additional bite. The titular device ends up filtering everything young Henry Pickman types, so his posts on the BBSs and Usenet newsgroups of the early Internet end up erudite but old fashioned, in a decent impression of Lovecraft's tone. The clever bit here, of course, is how this plays on how Lovecraft's early APA activities resemble such bulletin board interactions from the all-text pre-web era of computer networking. The ending of the story has inadvertently become more powerful over time, because of course swearing off interaction with computer networks these days is much harder than it was in 1992.

The Adder by Fred Chappell is another joke story, though this time it's so audacious as to loop back around to horror. It plays on the idea of Mythos knowledge as memeticaly toxic and the Necronomicon as a cursed book - in this case, a sort of cannibal text which eats other texts to sustain itself and make itself more powerful. It can be seen as riff on how Lovecraftian ideas have propagate through pop culture.

Perhaps the slyest pop culture satire offered here, though, is by Poppy Z. Brite (who goes by Billy Martin these days, but is credited under his old name in the collection). His contribution is His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood, and as with much of his early material, the mode is gothic homoeroticism rooted in New Orleans; there also isn't much of a Mythos angle here, since the supernatural events are more to do with voodoo and the main nasty is basically a gothy vampire; in both style and substance, this isn’t so much Call of Cthulhu as Vampire: the Masquerade. (Or, more accurately, the sort of thing Vampire wants to be even though in game system terms it’s more suited for Underworld.)

However, there is a strong Lovecraft connection, since this is basically a big riff on The Hound - complete with two central characters with a shared fascination with the morbid who go graverobbing and steal something they shouldn't have. Martin teases out the homoeroticism in the scenario whilst also spoofing both the goth scene he'd been a part of and the whole Anne Rice thing. (The fact that one of them is called Louis and owns a plantation house is surely a nod to Interview With the Vampire.) It’s done in the same sort of “ha ha, only serious” style as The Hound, wherein the morbid gruesomeness of the protagonists’ activities is so over the top that it feels like a joke, but the narrator isn't laughing.

Another story I would describe as being comedic, though being based more around the “Aha, I recognise that reference” school of cheap and easy comedy, is The Big Fish by Kim Newman. Newman is basically a pastiche artist whose schtick is taking the trappings of one genre and deploying them with the techniques of a different one, thereby tricking the reader into thinking they've read something new when they really haven't. This is a hardboiled detective story in the Chandler/Hammett mode, only our hero is investigating the Deep Ones. It's a fun read, but not much more than a fun read, and certainly isn't the liberating departure from cliche Turner is after - merely a too-clever-for-its-own-good embrace of a different cliche. Genevieve from Newman's Warhammer novels and Anno Dracula shows up again (this being the first entry in his Diogenes Club series which I previously crossed paths with), a move which if you were feeling charitable you could say is an instance of Newman riffing on Moorcock's Eternal Champion stuff and the way particular characters recur across his multiverse, except Genevieve is way less interesting than Jerry Cornelius or Elric or Colonel Pyat. If Newman is going self-consciously Moorcockian here, then it is yet another example of him engaging in empty mimicry, rather than building something interesting on the foundations set by Moorcock’s precedent.

Still on the comedic stories, Gahan Wilson offers up HPL, one of the more original stories out there to ask the question of “What would Lovecraft be doing if he were still alive?” As it turns out, it’d involve living it up Joseph Curwen-style thanks to the occult favours of his dark masters, in return for sacrificing third-rate pastiche authors to them. It’s nice to see Clark Ashton Smith get some onstage time in one of these tributes, since he’s rather neglected otherwise. Meanwhile, The Unthinkable by Bruce Sterling is a parable about Cold War WMD research that utilises occult cosmic horrors as an allegorical stand-in for them. This isn’t terrible, but on the other hand WMDs are plenty horrifying enough and use of fantastical simile weirdly feels like it trivialises the subject matter in question; you could tell more or less exactly the same story without dipping into the Mythos toolbox.

By far the most over-the-top and silly of the comedic stories is Love’s Eldritch Ichor by Esther M. Friesner. Stuffed to the gills with punning references to Lovecraftian story titles, it presents us with a conflict in which an apparently naive romance author defeats her cut-throat publisher and wins the hand of her weak-willed editor thanks to her Great Old One BFFs. It’s mostly an authorial revenge fantasy against sharp practice in the publishing industry, though not necessarily an unmerited one.

Standing in stark contrast to the more comedic stories is a strand of more purist horror, into which category I'd put the stories reprinted from New Tales and a brace of others besides. For instance, Fat Face by Michael Shea is not at all funny. It is an utter nightmare, one of the flat-out nastiest Mythos stories ever. It concerns a Hollywood prostitute who stumbles across a shoggoth colony in the run-down part of Los Angeles where she does most of her work. The climactic sequence is particularly good for how it brings together all these odd little details scattered through the story and sets them into a horrible context, and how it quickly establishes a lot about how the shoggoth colony works without having to spell it out for us laboriously. As far as the journey there goes, the slow build-up of incidents really establishes this sense of impending doom, including a heartbreaking opportunity for the protagonist to avoid her fate entirely, and the story has excellent rereading value once you know what to look for (and indeed is somewhat enhanced by that, because you’re in the terrible position of knowing just what the protagonist is missing).

Its depiction of sex work may make for uncomfortable reading if you have strong feelings one way or the other about it - on the one hand, Shea doesn’t go the route of portraying it as a nightmare whirlwind of misery and vice, but on the other hand you could never accuse this portrayal of glamourising prostitution, and the assumption that the prostitutes are generally poorly educated sorts who more or less got into the life consensually seems tenuous (though admittedly that might reflect the particular niche of the industry depicted - I haven’t had the opportunities to go hang out in shabby Hollywood hotel lobbies with prostitutes that Shea had). If that isn’t a deal-breaker for you, though, it’s perhaps one of the best pure horror efforts in the collection, on the level of the Ligotti or Campbell contributions.

Joanna Russ’s clumsily-titled ”I Had Vacantly Crumpled It Into My Pocket… But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life! is essentially a character study about a dude who meets a strange lady who destroys him, and how empty and pitiful his life is, and how disquieting it is that he has this odd empty little life but doesn't see anything wrong with it, all narrated by a woman who as a colleague of the man in question finds himself observing the situation from the outside. The conclusion is a little vague and indistinct in an Arthur Machen sort of a way, though as a brief piece maybe it doesn't need a big payoff.

The Last Feast of Harlequin by Thomas Ligotti is an excellent pick for the more pure horror stories in the collection, particularly since of all Ligotti’s work it’s the most overtly Lovecraft-based, though I’d put Ligotti with Campbell and Lovecraft in the category of “people whose collections you almost certainly already own before you get to this”. In The Shadow On the Doorstep by James F. Blaylock a nighttime visitor prompts a narrator to remember a string of visits to different out-of-the-way fish supply shops - which may turn out to be the same enterprise in different locations, shifting to accommodate its growing star attraction. It’s fun, but I can do without the “scary foreigner” trope. Lord of the Land by Gene Wolfe is deliciously sinister, with all sorts of coincidences and dreamlike associations building to the final revelation, whilst On the Slab by Harlan Ellison is basically a Prometheus story, with only the Providence setting and a thick streak of misanthropy making it remotely Mythos-relevant.

The collection concludes with Roger Zelazny’s 24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai. This is Zelazny indulging in his habit of airing as much of his erudition about world religions and mythologies as he possibly can cram into his stories, and at points edges towards the same sort of fetishising Orientalism which got Lord of Light shot down in flames back in The Text Factor. Our protagonist is a Japanese former spy in what was, at the time of writing, the futuristic age of the mid-Noughties. She is terminally ill with cancer and slumming it in the vicinity of Mt. Fuji, her main companion being a selection of prints from the titular painting series, on a quest to track down and destroy her husband, who having uploaded himself to the Internet through meditation has become a callous AI quasi-god with no morals. Along the way she deploys espionage skills, martial arts prowess, a rather cyberpunk staff designed to disrupt data entities, and uses her sexual wiles and a bit of ki-robbing magic to gain advantage.

When you strip the plot right down to its basics, what you have here is a sexy ninja-spy in the near future who’s out to take down a malevolent AI - you literally could not cook up a more cliched cyberpunk narrative. (Indeed, with the addition of the mild supernatural elements it’s a bit like Shadowrun without the elves and orcs.) Zelazny pads out the affair with the protagonist’s ruminations on her impending mortality, the prints themselves, and a vast cross-section of mythology and folklore she’s interested in. The Mythos reference comes in when she tells a story to herself about a lost shrine to Cthulhu along the way, but though Jim Turner seems to thinks that the monks who show up in service to her AI husband at the end are Deep Ones out to propagate a far more ancient evil, it seems clear to me that they are just working for the AI and Zelazny threw the reference in as a riff on the potentially apocalyptic events that could ensure if the AI got its way.

The story has dated rather poorly in some respects, particularly in the fact that the AI doesn’t seem to know what cloud computing is and can be destroyed by isolating it in one terminal and wrecking it, but we can’t really hold an inability to see the future against Zelazny. What we can do is see through the trick he tries to pull; Zelazny immerses us in lots of deep contemplation of Japanese culture in order to convince us that he can believably write from the point of view of a Japanese woman, but of course actual Japanese women wouldn’t feel the need to constantly emphasise their Japanese-ness to the degree our protagonist does here, any more than my internal monologue consists of “I’m English, so English, so very very very English” on loop. Zelazny has clearly done an awful lot of research, but the amount he shows it off ends up dragging own the story and makes the protagonist difficult to believe in as an actual person. It’s a fun supernatural-cyberpunk yarn, but it’s so desperate to establish Zelazny’s credentials as a super-smart smartypants who really digs foreign cultures that it ends up tripping itself up.

Jim Turner evidently realises that his inclusion of the story is pretty damn tenuous, because it’s the only story he really discusses in the introduction to this volume in an apparent attempt to justify its inclusion. To be honest, I’d respect it more if he just admitted that he really liked the story and left it at that. And as with the Stephen King story in the revised Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, I wonder whether the story would have made the cut had it been written by an author who didn’t have Zelazny’s big-name drawing power.

Still, the hit/miss ratio in this anthology is extremely impressive, and despite Turner’s particular agenda prompting him to include more parodies and SF pieces and less horror than I’d prefer I think it’s a far better successor to Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos than New Tales was. The Boy’s Club has reason to be concerned too:

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 18
Number of said authors who are male: 16
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 88.9%

Note that at the time of publication the general public would have known Billy Martin as Poppy Z. Brite, Martin having not gone public about his gender identity at that point, so the readership at the time of publication would have seen it as having a meter reading of 83.3%. Either way, this proportion isn't brilliant compared to the general population, but for the purposes of undermining the Boy's Club it's a great improvement over both versions of the original Tales and New Tales.
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