Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 5

by Arthur B

The New Lovecraft Circle bears a certain unfortunate resemblance to the Crypt of Cthulhu Circle.
The story so far: Arkham House's major multi-author state-of-the Mythos anthologies - Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and Cthulhu 2000 - held a special position in Cthulhu Mythos fandom, but come the 1990s this was challenged by other sources.

One of those was Robert M. Price's two-part alternate take on the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, the first half of which - Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos - dredged up some diamonds but was also hampered by some utter dross, included more out of historical interest than out of any actual quality involved.

The New Lovecraft Circle

The second half of Price’s attempted riposte to Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos follows the lead of the second half of that tome, focusing on authors who had not been in correspondence with Lovecraft in his lifetime. The title is a nod to Lin Carter, a friend of Price whose work Price has tried to keep in the public eye even when the results aren’t actually that flattering to Carter and who had identified a set of new authors such as Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley as constituting a sort of “New Lovecraft Circle”, though I am not sure there is sufficient social glue between these writers (beyond that which naturally exists between writers working in the same genre for the same general audience, feeding from the same trough as it were) to really compare to the circle of friends around Lovecraft.

As we’ve come to expect from him, in his introduction Price makes yet another argument in defence of pastiche. In this he sets up the idea that in Lovecraftian fiction you have a skeleton of underlying themes and then the “meat” on top of it - the various names, entities, locations and so on which denote a Mythos story. He then makes the analogy that when pastiche fails, it does so because it’s reconstructed the skeleton again without putting any new meat on the bones, conjuring up Cthulhu and the Mi-Go and whatever without really showing us anything we haven’t already seen and learned to expect from them. Conversely, what he refers to as “new wave” Mythos stories that seek to deliberately avoid pastiche fail, in his estimation, when they end up reproducing the meat without the skeleton - applying the old names and labels but discarding the mythological or thematic underpinning to them, with the result that the use of the names is basically quite arbitrary.

To an extent, I agree with him that those are both types of bad Mythos story; in particular, the arbitrary use of Mythos names without any real thinking about what previous connotations and contexts those names have picked up is what made me seriously dislike Lois H. Gresch’s contribution to Singers of Strange Songs. I don’t think you need necessarily consider yourself bound by previous canon - Lovecraft certainly didn’t - but to my thinking there should be at least a thematic connection in your use of the terms involved, otherwise your use of them comes across as arbitrary and meaningless at best, bandwagon-hopping at worst. For instance, if you say “Cthulhu” without offering any implications of impending apocalypse, or international conspiracy, or vast undersea tombs, or malignant manipulation of people’s dreams… well, there comes a point where the use of the word becomes incongruous and jarring simply because you’re not calling on any of the thematic ideas the word recalls.

(OK, Colin Wilson’s massive recontextualisation of Lloigor in The Return of the Lloigor is a major exception to this, but that’s because August Derleth’s original Lloigor story was godawful, forgettable trash with no mythic resonance in the first place.)

However, Price’s analogy misses crucial points about style and technique. The issue with a lot of pastiche writers isn’t just that they repeat the skeleton of the mythology by wrote - it’s that they try to write like Lovecraft or other Mythos writers that have impressed them, rather than developing their own voice. Ramsey Campbell, who provides a preface here, expresses disdain for the stylistically primitive fumblings of the very early stories of his own that Price chose to include, and I rather tend to agree with him - a later Campbell piece from when he had mastered his own voice would be greatly preferable and leave readers with a much better impression of his work.

It is style and technique that provides the infusion that makes the thematic skeleton or the “meat” of motifs and details come to life. Without that animating breath, both are equally dead. Style and technique are like any other skill: they demand practice and atrophy without it, and therefore whilst there is much bad “New Wave” Mythos fiction just as there is much bad pastiche, I tend to have more time for writers who at least make an effort to find their own voice - because if you don’t do that, all you’re left doing is cranking out shaky imitations of something someone’s already done, which is where all the bad pastiche is coming from. You don’t have to take it from me - listen to Lovecraft himself, lamenting the state of his own material: “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces & my ‘Dunsany’ pieces - but alas - where are any ‘Lovecraft’ pieces?” Lovecraft agonised over developing his own distinct voice (he wrote that in 1929, when he was just about on the verge of finally doing it).

The fact that he put so much effort into it when so many of his imitators put so little effort into developing theirs really illustrates the problem with pastiche. It’s a cheap, easy, lazy way out, acceptable as early career training wheels but not something you should be doing later in your career unless you have developed your art to the point where you can follow the substance of Lovecraft’s technique (like the way he developed careful timelines of events for his stories, and then gave careful thought as to when each fact in the timeline should be revealed to the reader for maximum effect), rather than just mimicing its outward tics. It’s the difference between actually learning to talk and being a parrot.

A writer who does the work to master their own voice can come back to Lovecraftian work and produce something far superior to a writer who has never grown beyond using their favourite Lovecraft collection as a style guide. Lovecraft’s work improved and was enriched when he diversified his tastes and his work outside of the rut of Georgian poetry he’d crammed himself into; if you really want to follow his example, you could do a lot worse than peeking outside your own rut.

(To go back to the example of Colin Wilson’s Return of the Lloigor, that story is so successfully written in his own voice - one informed by Lovecraft and Machen and others but still synthesised into his own and presenting his own distinct view of things - that that’s an important part of that story’s success. Fandom generally associates the Lloigor these days with Wilson’s depiction rather than Derleth’s, and whilst that might partly be due to the more prominent reprinting of Wilson’s story in successive editions of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos as opposed to the comparative obscurity of Derleth’s Lloigor-related work, I think it’s also because Wilson was able to give that breath of artistic life to his story, whereas Derleth’s story remained lifeless clay.)

The Ramsey Campbell stories in question - The Plain of Sound and The Stone On the Island - were included here because they were left out of early editions of Cold Print, but with current versions of that anthology now including them (and having, in fact, included them for some 3 years prior to this collection coming out!) it’s a bit pointless - particularly since Cold Print would be one of those books which if you care enough about Mythos fiction to want to get this book, you’ll probably want to get that one too.

The other major figure of the UK Mythos resurgence of the 1970s, Brian Lumley, also features here. The Statement of One John Gibson is a piece Lumley wrote for Price’s own Crypt of Cthulhu fanzine, and was thus written pandering to fandom rather than necessarily being intended for broader consumption. (Price mines the Crypt archive for numerous pieces in this collection, in fact, which leads to the unfortunate impression that Price thinks that the Crypt set some sort of high water mark of quality for modern Mythos writing, a position which the quality of stories in this collection stands as evidence against - the Crypt pieces are consistently the worst ones here.)

John Gibson is basically a by-numbers take on the Derlethian Standard​ Narrative - complete with a big fat plot dump explaining the Mythos, which feels especially redundant and irrelevant considering that everyone reading Crypt would have surely been very familiar with this stuff. In the course of it, Lumley plays about with the coincidence of Lovecraft having revised The Diary of Alonzo Typer for a certain William Lumley, who is so far as anyone knows no relation to Brian. It’s basically Lovecraftian bibliophile porn, with Arkham House shilled and Lumley basing plot points around the manuscript history of Diary. It probably tickled the fancy of fanzine readers who were familiar with the backstory, but is of littlebroader interest.

Price also includes a set of two stories by different hands which have become inextricably intertwined. Demoniacal by David Sutton is a fun but kind of lightweight and predictable story based on the idea of a prog rock group putting a Lovecraftian incantation on a side-long LP track. (Sutton may have been inspired by Coven putting a black mass on side 2 of their infamous Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls.) It seems to be rarely reprinted without the accompanying The Kiss of Bugg-Shash by Brian Lumley: for much of its page count this is simply an authorised sequel to Demoniacal, dumping on it loads of Lovecraftian names and clichés that the original story avoided. The final twist is a riff on Chambers’ The Yellow Sign or Derleth’s The Return of Hastur. It’s not great.

Price’s affection for the work of Lin Carter is well-established at this point, so it’s no surprise to see him include no less than three stories from Carter’s hand, well more than his talents merit. The Slitherer From the Slime by “H.P. Lowcraft” is actually a Lovecraft parody cowritten by Carter and Dave Foley, involving gleeful abuse of adjectives and unkind parodying of Lovecraftian prose motifs. This was written in 1958, well before Carter turned his hand to much of the Lovecraft pastiches Price likes to champion. As such, it came out at a time when August Derleth was peddling his faked collaborations with Lovecraft; its presentation as a recently-rediscovered Lowcraft manuscript verified as genuine by Lowcraft's executor, “August September” means that it may well have been intended more as a pop at Derleth than at Lovecraft himself; certainly, for clued-in fans the trickle of “rediscovered” Lovecraft stories must have become truly tiresome by this point.

Had Carter left his Lovecraftian writing there, it would have been all well and good - Slitherer was a much-needed parody of Lovecraftian pastiche in the Derleth model delivered at a time when that bubble needed bursting. It still wouldn’t be a piece that I’d consider notable or groundbreaking enough to make the cut for a “best of the modern writers” collection, but it’s probably the best Lin Carter Mythos story I’ve read.

The other inclusions here, however, are much closer to the low quality I’ve unfortunately come to expect from Carter’s material. The Fishers From Outside wasn’t especially good in the context of the Xothic Legend Cycle compilation and isn’t that good outside of it. The Doom of Yakthoob is a half-baked sword and sorcery story - or rather, brief notes that could be extended into a sword and sorcery story if you could be bothered - extracted from Carter's tedious nerdboy attempt to actually write the Necronomicon, a pointless exercise that serves only to try and demystify the book.

Another author to get the multiple-inclusions treatment is John Glasby, who specialises in sub-Derlethian pastiche tripe. Both The Keeper of Dark Point and The Black Mirror were apparently revised on their original appearances elsewhere to remove Lovecraftian references, which the reprints here restore; they don’t really benefit from it. They read like rough first drafts, the creaky Lovecraft-parroting prose clearly in need of tightening up at numerous points simply on a grammatical and readability level.

The final author who sees two of their stories included is Richard Lupoff, whose Discovery of the Ghooric Zone closed out the Jim Turner revision of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. The first story here of his is The Whisperers, which is actually a pretty good vignette about a duo of high schoolers who have landed a scoop interview with an eldritch synthpop duo for the school newspaper. It’s notable for its excellent establishment of atmosphere, but is slightly marred by an outburst of cheesy supervillain dialogue towards the end.

His other piece included here is Lights! Camera! Shub-Niggurath!, an attempt t do the whole Douglas Adams thing and failing. It’s a mostly science fiction-oriented comedy story, with the jokes too cheesy and dependent on broad stereotypes to fly. The story involves a movie production of The Dunwich Horror by an interstellar cast and crew, but that's just an aesthetic choice and doesn't have much of an impact on the plot - any monster movie with demanding special effects requirements would do. It’s an incongruous inclusion, since it isn’t Lovecraftian in its themes or philosophy and it isn’t really a Cthulhu Mythos story, which is what you are after when you get an anthology like this.

Speaking of stories added to Tales in the Jim Turner revision, Karl Edward Wagner’s Sticks was perhaps the best of the bunch so it makes sense that Price includes some Wagner here. The piece in question is I've Come to Talk with You Again, which Price claims is Wagner's last story completed before his death. It’s a vignette about an author who doesn't age so long as he lets the King In Yellow prey on his fans; it’s decent, but not enough by itself to really satisfy. In particular, it feels like it’s a snippet from a longer story and not in a good way - it feels like it demands continuation, like there is more to be said beyond what can be inferred from the story. Sadly, Wagner's death would make that impossible.

Two authors whose stories were excised from Tales by Turner’s revision were J. Vernon Shea and James Wade, both of whom have pieces include here. Shea’s story is Dead Giveaway, a direct sequel of his Tales contribution The Haunter of the Graveyard. Shallowly-characterised nobodies rattle about in the vicinity of a cemetery at Halloween, arbitrary horrible stuff happens, the word Cthulhu is applied to it because why the fuck not. Pretty bad, all considered; I kind of suspect Price included it so as to illustrate his point about “new wave” Mythos fiction, because this certainly fits that bill. In general, it’s just as poor as the original Haunter of the Graveyard.

James Wade’s story here is Those Who Wait. This is half-rate pastiche garbage, starting off with a blatant paraphrase of the opening of the original The Call of Cthulhu and continuing to play from the Derleth playbook (though not using the Standard Narrative). The plot relies on people making various daft mistakes and impossible leaps of logic for pure story convenience, and Wade unthinkingly works in Lovecraftian racism with the narrator’s aversion to foreigners standing unexamined. In short, it’s just awful, and I couldn’t actually finish it. Wade himself admitted that it was a fannish early effort penned when he was 16; he submitted to a fanzine later in the 1970s with the caveat that it's for completists only, and certainly it does nothing to change that assessment.

Much of the rest of the anthology is padded out by drab pastiches of the sort I’ve exhaustively outlined above, to the point where there’s little to usefully say about them. The Keeper of the Flame by Gary Myers is a sloppy attempt at a Lord Dunsany/Clark Ashton Smith-type story, without the sparkle of either - or, for that matter, Lovecraft's Dunsany-pastiching Dreamlands stories. Price’s very own Saucers from Yaddith is a clumsy mashup of Lovecraftian prose, riffs on UFOlogy, and drug experimentation stories like Long’s The Hounds of Tindalos. Aliah Warden by Roger Johnson is a rushed, clumsy take on The Shadow Over Innsmouth, with appalling prose mimicing the worst habits of Lovecraft and Derleth and offering absolutely no new ideas whatsoever.

Even comparatively big names fall over. The Howler in the Dark by Richard L. Tierney starts out as a competent but unremarkable pastiche but is marred by the pacing falling to bits towards the end and a plot which doesn’t make sense in retrospect, and not in a cool way. (Why do the two antagonists need to lurk about in this castle when much of what they are doing seems like it could be happily location-independent? Answer: Tierney wanted a spooky castle in the story but didn’t bother to link the spooky backstory with the actual manifestation of horror here.) The Horror on the Beach by Alan Dean Foster is sub-Derlethian driven; there’s thankfully no attempt at Lovecraftian prose, but what you get instead is dull, flavourless and lacking in passion, and the plot is straight out of the most hackneyed elements of Derleth, particularly with the way simply moving into a cursed house kicks off bad events for no good reason. Apparently the cult this time has summoned Cthulhu himself, but he does nothing beyond mildly damaging an oil rig and eating someone's house, despite being up and about for days. Where's the apocalypse? There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering apocalypse!

There are some stories of value buried among the dross, however. Vastarien by Thomas Ligotti is, of course, excellent, but also sits firmly in the “anyone interested in this anthology should already have Ligotti’s stuff” category. The Madness out of Space by Peter H. Cannon is consciously a pastiche, but is actually pretty good at points; Nyarlathotep manifesting as a youth shining with majesty and homoeroticism is an interesting feature that more could have been done with. Then again, Lovecraft kind of already went there with Hypnos and The Hound.

The Last Supper by Donald R. Burleson is a brief sketch, but a pretty good one. Its Lovecraftian prose focuses on the lovingly intricate description of a graveyard, which was in itself a recurring thing in Lovecraft and so appropriate. The story deals with the exhumation of the leader of a group of necrophiles who specialise in eating the corpses of the dead; their intention is to eat him in turn. When these twelve disciples open the coffin they find that he has reanimated, and started eating himself. The gleeful blasphemy of the story is obvious but entertaining in its audacity. Meanwhile, The Church at Garlock's Bend by David Kaufman is a genuinely quite good portrayal of the destruction of a community through the action of an invisible, mocking force. Here, Lovecraftianisms are used with purpose and understanding, like the Dunwich Horror-esque discussion of the landscape before getting into the action.

The anthology closes out with The Spheres Beyond Sound (Threnody) by Stephen Mark Rainey, which I actually found very entertaining. I was sceptical at first since it riffs on both the tired old Derlethian Standard Narrative and The Music of Erich Zann, a story which I think needs no sequel or further exposition. Still, having Maurice Zann, relative of Erich, pen a sort of musical grimoire to summon dark powers, which duly show up when a tape of a past attempt to play the music is played (the tape distortion and amplification serving to make the summoning work when it didn't in the live performance) is rather fun… though once you finish reading the story and think back over it, the extent to which it mimics The Evil Dead is rather unfortunate.

On the whole, Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos and The New Lovecraft Circle between them largely fall short of the standards of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Price’s affection for pastiche crowding out material of higher quality. The truly essential stories here are extensively available in other, superior anthologies - in particular, S.T. Joshi’s A Mountain Walked reprints The House of the Worm and Spawn of the Green Abyss along with a bunch of excellent and otherwise hard to find material, which covers the two best stories here which are otherwise quite hard to find; for the rest, compilations by the likes of Campbell, Ligotti and Clark Ashton Smith are readily available.

As well as continuing its low bar for inclusion, The New Lovecraft Circle also maintains its predecessor’s adamant adherence to keeping the Boy’s Club rating high:

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 20
Number of said authors who are male: 20
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 100%

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