Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 4

by Arthur B

Robert M. Price's attempt at an alternate take on Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos delivers a lot of trash and a few diamonds in the rough.
The story so far: August Derleth's put out the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthology through his Arkham House publishing imprint, and after he died the original Tales was revised by Jim Turner. Arkham House attempted to follow it up first with New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by Ramsey Campbell, which was a bit hit-and-miss, and the rather more successful Jim Turner-edited Cthulhu 2000.

However, Arkham House's star was well and truly fading by the 1990s, despite these Mythos-related efforts and others (such as the issuing of new editions of Lovecraft's works with the texts corrected by S.T. Joshi). With the death of August Derleth and the copyright on Lovecraft's work coming closer to lapsing worldwide, the fandom was less inclined to look to the publisher as being the be-all and end-all of the Mythos; the backlash against Derleth's heavy-handed pronouncements of canon gathered pace, and new sources of Lovecraftian writing and criticism appeared here and there. In addition, Jim Turner's personal take on the Mythos and his lauding of high literary value and science fiction-oriented works over pastiche earned its own backlash.

Against this background, a new publisher arose - Fedogan & Bremer. This small press aimed to produce books more oriented towards the old style of Arkham House, before Turner's custodianship took the publisher on a different path from the one it had taken under August Derleth. (This was not an overly adversarial situation, though - they saw their books distributed via Arkham House, for one thing.) Like Arkham House, some of their material has disappeared into the aether whilst others have been reprinted as trade paperbacks by other publishers - with a few even making it into Ballantine's line of Lovecraftian releases, putting them on the same level as their issues of Arkham House material.

Among the more prominent Fedogan & Bremer releases are a number of anthologies edited by Robert M. Price, who at this point had established himself as a loud voice in Cthulhu fandom. Up to this point, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos had tended to represent an unattainable high point in the ranks of Mythos anthologies; Price tilted directly at this windmill..

Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos

This 1992 anthology and its sequel, The New Lovecraft Circle, were concocted by Price as together forming an alternative take on the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. For this volume, Price concentrated on those writers who were correspondents of Lovecraft himself, or who at least were writing back in the pulp era, which would tend to correspond with the first half or so of Tales.

Price's introduction has him attempting to defend August Derleth and his particular take on the Mythos, though most of his attempts to do so fall flat. The fact that Derleth adopted the elemental system of Old Ones from another fan doesn't absolve him from pushing an idea which falls down when you consider that it has no textual support. The fact that Cthulhu and the Deep Ones are aquatic does not make them water elementals, and the arguments for ascribing other Lovecraft entities to other elements are nonexistent. The fact that wars were fought between alien races in Lovecraft's backstory does not mean that one side or the other was benevolent, and does not mean that the victors imprisoned the losers. Out of all the Old Ones Lovecraft deals with, only Cthulhu can really be said to be imprisoned in any real sense, and even then it isn't really clear whether Cthulhu is imprisoned by external forces or is simply hibernating. For these and other reasons, more or less none of the cardinal points of Derleth’s conception of the Mythos that Price tries to defend here stand up.

What rationale does Price use for choosing the stories for this anthology? He makes the reasonable decision not to include any Lovecraft stories here, on the grounds that (as I groused about when reviewing Tales) anyone interested in this book can be reliably expected to be already familiar with Lovecraft’s stories. Beyond that, he explains that he wanted to make available those stories - some of them quite obscure - in which a particular Mythos deity or book or locale or whatever that was oft-referenced in later stories was first introduced. This, along with his defences of Derleth’s work, reveal a prioritising of worldbuilding and historical interest over entertainment value and literary quality.

The fact is that, precisely because of the process of contradictory recontextualising and reimagining that every Mythos concept undergoes in the hands of different writers (or, as in Lovecraft’s work, the hands of the exact same writer), it honestly doesn’t matter who first introduced any particular concept - what matters is whether they do anything interesting with it. (Colin Wilson’s Lloigor have become in the minds of many the canonical one in place of Derleth’s own invention because, quite frankly, they’re far more interesting than the monster in The Lair of the Star-Spawn.) Moreover, as we’re about to see, Price often deviates from this declared policy.

Modelled as it is on Tales, the compilation kicks off featuring a lot of the “usual suspects” that we’ve covered on here before. In keeping with Price’s appreciation of Robert E. Howard (in and of itself an indication of his questionable taste), we lead with some stories from Howard; the inclusion of The Thing On the Roof is reasonable enough, but Price makes the bizarre decision not to include the version of The Fire of Asshurbanipal which actually includes supernatural Mythosy action - instead, he uses the original draft, which didn’t include any supernatural goings-on and which Price himself admits is just Orientalist-themed adventure fiction with mentions of ancient cults in the backstory for pure flavour (and presumably because it was easier to just invent shit than to use actual local folklore). Thematically, it’s more or less nothing to do with Lovecraft’s work, so calling it part of a thematically-linked “Lovecraft Mythos” is a huge stretch.

Where Lovecraft and Howard are found, Clark Ashton Smith cannot be far behind, and this time he’s represented by The Seven Geases, prominently featuring Tsathoggua. Setting aside the fact that The Seven Geases is not the first story Smith wrote to feature Tsathoggua, thus breaking Price’s “stories originating concepts” model, it’s also worth noting that tonally it isn’t really especially Mythosy or Lovecraftian. Though Lovecraft namedropped Tsathoggua a lot in his Mythos stories. Sure, he’s a big sort of toady batty sloth god who lazily sits around waiting for tasty sacrifice, basically a sort of cosmic Mochineko from Saturn, what’s not to love?

But the story is more of an ornate fantasy, a mashup of Dunsany and sword and sorcery and maltheistic comedy that is classic Smith but is a rather different flavour of fish to Lovecraft’s material. Whilst Smith would write stories in imitation of Lovecraft’s style, this is not one of them, any more than a Conan story is especially Lovecraftian even if Howard slips in an eldritch space elephant here or a dark serpent god there. Smith, as a peer and a friend of Lovecraft’s, was very much doing his own thing, and whilst it’s a thing worth sampling, it does it a disservice to try and subsume it into the “Lovecraft Mythos”.

Price chooses Fane of the Black Pharaoh to represent Robert Bloch and The Invaders to represent Henry Kuttner, which are probably the two best Mythos stories by those two authors not to be included in Tales From the Cthulhu Mythos. Additionally including Kuttner's Bells of Horror, though, is a bit of a Kuttner too far, since it’s not one of his best. As far as the included August Derleth stories go throwing in Lair of the Star-Spawn and his first two Ithaqua stories (Ithaqua and The Thing That Walked On the Wind) are perhaps the closest Price comes to his claimed agenda of picking out stories that introduced significant Mythos concepts, though it’s a shame that most of the concepts in question are rather poor, as are the stories themselves - Lair, in particular, is absolute garbage.

Historical interest wins out over quality again in the case of Lord of Illusion by E. Hoffmann Price, which is interesting mostly because on reading this unauthorised sequel to The Silver Key Lovecraft was inspired to rewrite it as Through the Gates of the Silver Key to make it less of a disaster. It stands as a historical curio and as testament firstly to how pointless it truly is as a Silver Key sequel (that story wraps up perfectly well by itself) and how good a job Lovecraft did of salvaging it. At one point it simply degenerates into a New Age lecture about our spiritual place in the cosmos, delivered to Randolph Carter by his higher self. Lovecraft's major improvements seem to have been tightening up the framing story (and using it as an actual framing story rather than a perfunctory conclusion), making Carter's higher god-self Yog-Sothoth​, and having Carter incarnate into the body of an alien wizard. Without these twists, and with Price’s trite, cliched dialogue intact, the story is a wreck. (Modern readers often, with some justification, criticise Lovecraft’s poor command of dialogue, but Creepy Howie was practically Tom Stoppard compared to the standards of some pulp authors like Price.)

Another story appraised by Lovecraft himself is The Warder of Knowledge by Richard F. Searight, which decades later found its first publication in this anthology. Lovecraft apparently liked the draft he read, but Farnsworth Wright rejected it from Weird Tales, and on balance I think Wright made the right call: it's a standard and rather predictable “dusty old academic recites a spell from an ancient book, gets killed by thing he summons” story, a little interesting because of the depth to which it explores the protagonist's conflicting motivations for doing so but otherwise nothing particularly special.

Special in a “utter trainwreck” sort of way is The Scourge of B’Moth by Bertram Russell. It’s little more than an uncredited rewrite of Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, recasting the tale in an extremely pulp-oriented style and displaying no appreciation of the aesthetic or philosophical vision of the original. Early stretches of the story include painfully overwrought attempts at Lovecraftian prose whose shortcomings illustrate just how carefully constructed Lovecraft's style actually is by comparison. This style is abandoned partway through for the sake of wham-bam pulp action. You get a cult orgy depicted in transparently titillating terms, and there's an ending when Behemoth's armies rise from the deep only to be driven back by the massed military forces of the “civilised” world, narrated in the breathless “and then this happened, and then that happened, and then that happened” pace of an overexcited child on a sugar rush trying to narrate their day to you.

B’Moth is, for all intents and purposes, Cthulhu in the shape of a hippo; his name is revealed to be an abbreviation of the Biblical Behemoth, which allows him to be contextualised in a Christian framework, and very conventional pulp-era morality holds sway here. Russell associates B’Moth’s worship with “savages” and frames that in even stronger and more racist terms than Lovecraft himself did - remember, Lovecraft at least had Cthulhu influencing the California Theosophists, about as white and middle-to-upper-class a group as you could hope to find. Moreover, the basic tenet of the story is that is that Behemoth is what makes people think society is a hollow, artificial facade over chaos and want to tear it down, but whilst tearing down society is obviously not what Lovecraft wanted, Lovecraft would have also broadly agreed that it is in fact a facade. On that level it is hard to call this a “Lovecraft Mythos” story when it does not engage in any way with a Lovecraftian aesthetic or philosophy.

Hot on the heels of the worst story in collection comes one of its best: The House of the Worm by Mearle Prout. It’s structurally a lot like Frank Belknap Long’s The Space-Eaters, in that it starts off with two dudes discussing some point of philosophy and then has them confronting some awful threat which illustrates that point, but it’s actually much tighter than that story. The central conceit of a group whose embrace of death is so strong it creates an actual aura of death that begins to sap the life out of an ever-expanding area is reminiscent of Thomas Ligotti (especially the cult in The Last Feast of Harlequin). Prout is perhaps the most mysterious author in the collection, with few works known beyond this and a tiny number of other short stories, and Price’s restoration of the tale to the attention of Mythos fans is a laudable accomplishment of this collection.

Similarly praiseworthy is the reprinting of Spawn of the Green Abyss by C. Hall Thompson; like The House of the Worm, it doesn’t make use of any specifically Lovecraftian names, but it’s undeniably Lovecraftian in execution and theme. August Derleth infamously pressured Thompson into ceasing to write such work; out of all his decisions made as the pushy, overbearing, self-appointed custodian of Lovecraft’s work, this ranks as one of Derleth’s more reprehensible acts, because through such bullying he may well have deprived us of an important voice.

Green Abyss is, as you might have guessed from the title, heavily influenced by The Shadow Over Innsmouth, though interestingly race is much less of an issue in this story - most of the alien Deep One-esque entities are truly alien, rather than being intrinsically linked to a specific real-world culture, and crucially in this story alien-human hybrid status seems to be something that can be conferred on people through mere contact and baleful influence, rather than solely being passed down genetically. The prose style mimics Lovecraft’s strengths but largely avoids his weaknesses - in particular, there’s a believable human relationship at heart of the story, plus actual dialogue which sounds reasonably natural. The concluding remarks, in which the narrator says he's glad he's going to be executed, because he fears that one day eventually the living will envy the dead, would in many contexts seem cheesy, but combined with the well-judged delivery and the careful building of atmosphere and premise up to that point it ends up very powerful.

Having passed through an oasis of quality, we return to the dross. The Guardian of the Book by Henry Hasse is an extremely overbusy “spooky book” story; Hasse seems to have worked on the basis of throwing as many ideas as possible at the page in the vague hope that some will stick, which in a story of this brevity means that no single idea ever gets adequately developed. The narration just rattles through incident after incident artlessly, breathlessly going “and then this happened, and that happened, and that happened” without entirely finishing a thought. Some of the ideas raised are simply outright clumsy or risible, like the idea that Cthulhu is an alien college professor who tampered with forbidden knowledge in a manner more appropriate to a bumbling mystic than a malevolent otherworldly god - a concept sufficiently out of the scope of traditional Lovecraft pastiche that if there were any hope of making it work, it would need to be set in a much less traditional context than this.

The anthology rattles on with pastiche after pastiche. The Abyss by Robert W. Lowndes reads like a promising beginner's first attempt - a lot of it is a bit vague, and not in a cool allusory way but in a frustrating underdeveloped sort of a way. Music of the Stars by Duane W. Rimel is a lukewarm pastiche with racist aspects - a take on From Beyond where the entities are summoned by music, with parallels drawn between this and “the negro jazz element” and music played on Haiti to summon “evil Gods”. The Aquarium by Carl Jacobi is yet another pick where historical interest outweighed quality - apparently Derleth insisted on removing Lovecraftian references from this one because of its heterodox take on the Elder Gods as clam-like slaves of Cthulhu, which is interesting to know, but with these references restored it reads like a sort of precursor to Brian Lumley’s conchologically-themed stories. Lumley did it better. The Horror Out of Lovecraft by famed SF publisher Donald A. Wollheim is a trite parody without a single memorable feature.

We close on To Arkham and the Stars by Fritz Leiber, one of the earliest stories to explore his idea of a sort of informal “Department of Mythos Studies” at Miskatonic University. It has literally no plot - just a slapdash gathering of old Lovecraft protagonists having a conversation about Lovecraft and their work following on from his stories. It’s not so much a story as an exercise in cramming as many references as possible into as small a space as possible. Now, of course Lovecraft’s regular use of Miskatonic was a feature of his stories, and the way Miskatonic academics from some of his stories popped up in later ons implied just the sort of big crossover action that this story implies - but in retrospect, I tend to consider this an aesthetic error on Lovecraft’s part, for in theme and mood each of his stories is specific enough that having a relic of a previous tale show up in a subsequent one is tonally incoherent.

Arkham and the Stars was clearly written more to memorialise Lovecraft than to provide an entertaining weird fiction in its own right, a basically masturbatory exercise that is broadly excusable in Leiber because he was an actual friend of Lovecraft’s but which has been indulged in by way too many pastiche-slingers since. Then again, I can see why Price would include it, since in his tastes he seems to be a bit of a fanboy of Derleth-era Arkham House, which might predispose him to seeing more merit than me than the maudlin memorialising of this sort of piece (written at Derleth’s behest to pad out the odds and sods collection The Dark Brotherhood).

Price follows Derleth’s lead in another way here by keeping the doors of the Boy’s Club firmly guarded against The Women On the Doorstep - check out the Boy’s Club-o-meter readings on this collection:

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 17
Number of said authors who are male: 17
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 100%

To give Price his due, Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos was not a completely worthless project. There's several good stories in here, including some which had genuinely fallen off of fandom's radar before Price did us all the favour of reprinting them. Unfortunately, there's also an awful lot of dross - and more or less all the good stories are reprinted in other anthologies with a much better hit/miss ratio. As such, whilst it was a juicy alternative in 1992, here in 2017 I can't say it's aged well.

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