Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 6

by Arthur B

Though not overtly billed as such, Robert M. Price's Acolytes of Cthulhu collection is basically "Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos/The New Lovecraft Circle Take Two".
The story so far: Arkham House puts out a string of major state-of-the Mythos anthologies - Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and Cthulhu 2000 - and come the 1990s Robert M. Price delivers a response in the form of the two-part set of Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos and The New Lovecraft Circle, put out originally through Mythos upstart small press Fedogan & Bremer.

As it turns out, Price wasn't done yet...

Acolytes of Cthulhu

Ranging from the pulp era to contemporary works, Acolytes of Cthulhu doesn’t bill itself as a followup to Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos or The New Lovecraft Circle, but it was prepared for the same publishers originally (Fedogan & Bremer) and has a sufficiently similar approach that I’m willing to consider it a sequel to that set. In his introduction, Price talks up Lovecraft fandom as a substitute for religiosity, and if that weren’t bizarre enough proceeds to push a geek supremacist argument framing Lovecraft fans as having discovered Lovecraft during adolescence and identifying with his solitary preferences, an elite of people who “get it" set apart from the drone-like zombies of the mundane masses. This is where I say “speak for yourself, Price"; what he proposes here is exactly the sort of closed clubhouse approach that makes fandoms toxic.

He then slams cosplayers at conventions, suggesting that they render the whole thing frivolous and mundane, and also criticises attempts to win mainstream respectability for Lovecraft. (This was before the Library of America put out a Lovecraft volume.) Because it's not enough for us to be Lovecraft fans, apparently - we have to be fans within the set bounds of Price’s sensibilities, keeping things just respectable enough for quasi-academic blowhards like Price to feel like scholarly gentlemen but not respectable enough to get the attention of experts who’d recognise Price’s Lovecraft scholarship as the slipshod amateur work it is.

(Note that I am reviewing the Titan Books paperback release, which does not include Black Noon by C. M. Eddy, Jr.; this may be a casualty of the ongoing dispute between Eddy’s estate and Lovecraft fandom, which has also seen probable Eddy-Lovecraft collaborations/ghostwriting pieces The Loved Dead pulled from collections of Lovecraft’s collaborations. This feels like a mistake on the part of Eddy’s descendents - I am pretty confident that without the Lovecraft connection, audience interest in Eddy’s work would be near-nonexistent.)

It starts off reasonably strong with The Doom of the House of Duryea by Earl Pierce, Jr., a vampire story with no Mythos content beyond a passing reference to an author “Prinn”, who might be Ludwig Prinn of De Vermiis Mysteriis fame. The final twist you will almost certainly see coming, but it’s one of those stories which get more power as a result of that, as the characters march to their downfall through entirely reasonable - but erroneous - conclusions. Following that up is The Seventh Incantation by Joseph Payne Brennan - according to my notes from when I read it it’s “a brief but atmospheric piece, capped off with some delicious irony”, but evidenty it’s quite a lightweight number because despite having read it through only recently for this review I cannot remember a single thing that happens in it.

This isn’t the only highly forgettable story in the collection. There’s Horror at Vecra by Henry Hasse, clumsy hodge-podge of Lovecraftian and Derlethian babble amounting to nothing. There’s Out of the Jar by Charles R. Tanner, decent enough in its own way but overall a bit tame, its punchline being reasonably Lovecraftian but otherwise a tale out of fairly well-trod folklore with a few Lovecraftianisms sprinkled on solely for spice. There’s The Earth-Brain by Edmond Hamilton, which takes a very vivid central premise (Earth is an organism which ignores us so long as we don't poke its brain) and then spoils it by taking too long padding things out once the central horror is revealed. Through the Alien Angle by Elwin G. Powers stands out mostly as a casualty of breathless “and then" storytelling - vaguely Lovecraftian incidents are strung together without subsequent scenes having much relevance to subsequent scenes, as the story builds up to a rushed conclusion where someone sees a shoggoth and runs away and there's no consequences and nothing of substance is said. And then there’s trash like Legacy in Crystal by James Causey, a comedic Satanic pact story with a nasty, misogynistic sense of humour and which isn’t Lovecraftian at all. Oh, it namedrops the Necronomicon, but this is pretty much an arbitrary call on Causey[‘s part - any other grimoire name could have been used in its place and the story would be no different, and the explicit existence of Satan in this cosmology and effectiveness of name of God irreconcilable with Mythos.

Things take a turn for the worse with From the Pits of Elder Blasphemy, billed as being by Hugh B. Cave and Robert M. Price; on the basis of the declared copyright date it appears to be a completion by Price of an unfinished story by the late pulp veteran Cave. Like much of Cave’s pulp-era material, it’s highly reliant on using Haitian voodoo as an object of fear and loathing. The protagonist spends most of the story in blackface, apparently intending to do an anthropological study but acting in a way which would get his thesis thrown out by any anthropology department over the last 70 years, either on ethical grounds or simple sloppy methodology, and naturally when Haitian culture isn’t being demonised it’s fetished with a sex scene in which the woman involved is exotified to a massive extent. The whole mess is capped off with a cheap, lazy deus ex machina ending.

Oh, and at one point the protagonist witnesses a procession of Old Ones including Cthulhu and a giant chicken with a man’s head. The chicken does not add dignity to proceedings.

We continue wading through pulp dross with The Jewels of Charlotte by Duane Rimel, a story I suspect was included on the same “historical interest over quality” criteria that drove Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos. For one thing, the story is more or less entirety narrated by Constantine Theunis, who'd appeared in the Rimel-Lovecraft collaboration The Tree On the Hill, though in contrast to that one it’s narrated in a conversational style, the way you would relay the story in actual speech. Whilst this can be quite characterful - as it was when Lovecraft made uncharacteristic use of it in Pickman’s Model - here the device seems to serve mostly to allow Rimel to gloss over a lot and not develop most of the story. You get the overall impression of what he was going for, but he cops out of actually showing anything happen or developing any of his ideas.

The pulpiest story in the collection - and the story whose pulp elements are the most badly dated - is Manly Wade Wellman’s The Letters of Cold Fire, part of his John Thunstone series. Thunstone is an occult hero in the vein of pulp heroes like Doc Savage, where in principle they aren’t superheroes because that trope wasn’t in operation yet but in practice they have effectively arbitrary levels of capability and competence. The extremely pulp-oriented approach, dictated by the commercial tastes of the day, rather ruins this story - there's ideas involved which are deliciously atmospheric, but they are smothered by crass stock characters and formulaic dialogue. Characters tend to talk in exposition - sometimes to themselves - and in such a clumsy, wooden fashion as to make Lovecraft’s often clunky dialogue seem crisp and natural and vivid.

The Purple Death by Gustav Meyrink is presented in a new translation by Kathleen Houlihan & Robert M. Price. It had originally appeared in translation in a 1935 issue of Weird Tales, but the translation was extremely loose; this is meant to be a tighter variant. I am not sure whether the story suffers from an over-literal translation or whether it reads just as poorly in the original, but either way it’s very amateurishly done, with a cast of stock characters and one of those breathless “and then…” plots, with a fat dollop of racism against Tibetans mixed in.

It’s tempting on the part of some to see the pulp fantasy/horror/science fiction era as a lost golden age, but it’s worth remembering that the best remembered authors from that time - your Lovecrafts, your Robert E. Howards, your Clark Ashton Smiths and C.L. Moores and Dashiell Hammetts and Ray Chandlers and so on - represent the cream of the crop, who stood out precisely because in some respects they were uncharacteristic of the mass of basically disposable dross that made up the bulk of the pulp magazines. The various pulp-era stories collected here are, I suppose, a reasonable enough reminder of why we’ve forgotten most of those authors to begin with.

An author who stands apart from the pack is C. Hall Thompson, whose other major Mythos work is presented here. The Will of Claude Ashur is largely a riff on The Thing On the Doorstep, with the titular Claude menacing his wife and brother with his body-swapping antics. It’s written in a style which seems to draw as much from Poe as Lovecraft - under the Lovecraft column you have the body-swapping motif and the use of “Inneswich” as a town name, whilst under the Poe column you have the Ashur family not merely phonetically riffing on “Usher” but actually living in a rambling old castle-like mansion which includes a cursed room where an 18th Century witch used to live.

As with Spawn of the Green Abyss, the story is excellent on a stylistic level, reading like an authentic Lovecraft tale without Lovecraft’s stylistic weak spots, and this sets Thompson at the absolute head of the pastiche pack. That said, I find the story itself rather flawed. For one thing, it involves insipid fetishisation of the innocence of Claude’s bride Gratia Thane: the narrator referring to her as “virginal”, Claude wants to become her solely because she’s pretty, and she seems to exist solely to provide a damsel in distress. (The “virginal” thing is particularly weird; she’s introduced when she’s been married to Claude for a while, you’d think the narrator wouldn’t naturally assume that the marriage was unconsummated.) The tale also involves some nasty racial othering, with Ashur’s dealing with voodoo priests and use of ritual drums being made to seem very sinister.

Setting aside prejudices far more acceptable at the time of writing, there’s still some significant issues. The early parts of the story include interesting hints that Claude may have been the reincarnation of that 18th Century witch, but they don’t really come to anything. The ending, in which Claude swaps bodies with his brother Richard from his involuntary confinement in a mental hospital so that Richard is unable to convince anyone of the terrible truth and Claude is free to do his deeds, is telegraphed well in advance and feels a bit clumsy and abrupt when it does happen. It also doesn’t entirely make sense; earlier in the story it seems like Claude needs his drums and smoking braziers and place of power and all sorts of other magical bits and pieces to effect the psychic exchange, but at the end he does it remotely, from a padded cell where he wouldn’t have been allowed any of his ritual implements.

The particularly frustrating thing about this story is that I felt like it was fumbling towards a much more interesting story than the one that is delivered - but that would require any of the characters involved in this piece to be anything other than precisely the sort of cardboard stereotype they are presented as being.

The collection’s final pulp-era selection is The Final War by David H. Keller, M.D. - and I can only assume it was intended as an illucid parody, cranked out for funsies, because if this represents a serious attempt to tell a story it’s just kind of embarrassing. Cthulhu is namedropped but the actual characteristics attributed him are more reminiscent of a mashup of Tsathoggua (being toadlike and hailing from Saturn), and Ming the Merciless (especially in his dialogue). Then, partway through the story he undergoes a weird transformation in the desert to turn into a sexy woman who is then crushed to death by a “masculine hand". Keller was a psychiatrist, making me wonder whether this is some sort of Freudian parable; at any rate, his storytelling technique is awful, with characterisation nonexistent and absurd incident piled on top of absurd incident without any heed paid to tonal consistency or atmosphere or even the sense that this is anything more developed than improvised babble.

We move on into the post-pulp era with two stories by a writer unashamedly calling himself “Arthur Pendragon”. The first of these , The Dunstable Horror: not is not even remotely Lovecraftian save for some drab fumbling at something that could resemble Lovecraftian prose if you squinted. It’s a predictable story of a native American shaman’s curse striking future generations. The second story by the Once and Future King here is The Crib of Hell which, again, has no Lovecraftian motifs or themes - it’s really more of a Poe pastiche. Stick to yanking swords out of stones, Pendragon.

Similarly, Price for some reason seems to think that Steffan B. Aletti is a decent enough writer to merit the inclusion of three of his stories here, and… no, just no. The first Aletti here is The Last Work of Pietro of Apono, is a brief piece reliant on absurd behaviour by the narrator in undertaking ritual given in a grimoire of vampirism that he's just discovered for absolutely no conceivable reason. The Eye of Horus is arushed, amateurish bit of Egyptological horror with no Mythos or Lovecraftian content, whilst The Cellar Room is a Jekyll and Hyde riff with Victorian-era Spiritualist trappings. I have no idea what merit Price sees in these stories, but then again his tastes are constantly baffling to me.

Mythos by John Glasby is based around Easter Island, continuing the “scary Pacific cult” theme that could really do with a rest in Lovecraftian fiction, and also betrays a major lack of knowledge of the chosen subject matter. The story hinges on the idea that the locals refuse to talk to Europeans about their religious traditions, when in fact that isn’t the case at all, and ever since missionaries first game to the island in the 1800s there’s been extensive learning on the subject; it’s one thing to demonise invented Pacific Island cultures, and another to do the same to a real culture we actually understand quite well.

We snap abruptly from ignorance to erudition in There Are More Things by Jorge Luis Borges, the inclusion of which rather undermines Price’s pose of geekboy disdain for seeking mainstream approval of the Mythos. A similar surprise is the inclusion of The Recurring Doom, a pastiche written by a young S. T. Joshi - it’s pulpy hokum of the sort that Joshi has publicly expressed quite a distaste for, though entertaining enough in a vapid fanboy sort of a way. With its sprinkling of different references, it would come across as an early one of Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow stories, which is ironic given Joshi’s dismissive attitude to Lumley’s work. The inclusion of this story seems to have no real purpose beyond pranking Joshi by putting this indiscretion before a wider audience.

There isn’t much to write home about after this; John Lehmann Alone by David Kaufman is quite good, but is basically a rehash of the Garlock’s Bend stuff from The Church at Garlock’s Bend, right down to how the terror manifests. Checking ISFDB I note that Kaufman wrote at least one more story about the aquatic nasty in that area and then precious little else, so his store of ideas seems to have been pretty shallow. The collection stumbles to a halt with a reprint of Neil Gaiman’s Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar - originally written, as you might guess from the title, for a compilation of comic fantasy stories. It’s vaguely amusing in a trying-too-hard-to-be-Pratchett sort of a way, but not what you're after when in the mood to scratch your cosmic horror itch - not that your itch would have got much of a scratch for the majority of this collection anyway.

Price’s rant about the wrong types of fandom in the introduction becomes ironic when you consider how the compilation takes in such wildly different tones - from pulpy nonsense to goofy parody to the occasional more literary attempt. Just about the only purist faction it could possibly please is the Boy’s Club; once again, Price makes sure that no matter how broad his Mythos tastes go, writing by women doesn’t feature into it.

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 27
Number of said authors who are male: 27
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 100%

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Comments (go to latest)
Robinson L at 00:02 on 2017-10-31
He then slams cosplayers at conventions, suggesting that they render the whole thing frivolous and mundane, and also criticises attempts to win mainstream respectability for Lovecraft. (This was before the Library of America put out a Lovecraft volume.) Because it's not enough for us to be Lovecraft fans, apparently - we have to be fans within the set bounds of Price’s sensibilities, keeping things just respectable enough for quasi-academic blowhards like Price to feel like scholarly gentlemen but not respectable enough to get the attention of experts who’d recognise Price’s Lovecraft scholarship as the slipshod amateur work it is.

That’s a reasonable interpretation, but it to me it sounds equally likely that Price is just a massive hipster.
Arthur B at 10:27 on 2017-10-31
Why not both?
Robinson L at 20:36 on 2017-10-31
Hmm, could very well be that, too.
Ichneumon at 02:33 on 2018-06-10
Regarding Joseph Payne Brennan, while noted primarily as a short story author, Thomas Ligotti has argued that, with a few major exceptions such as “Canavan’s Back Yard”, he was far more accomplished as a poet, displaying a deeply pessimistic, crushingly melancholy sensibility which much of his prose only hints at. Ligotti actually asked Brennan about this in a fan letter towards the end of his life, to which he replied that prose work which actually reflected his worldview as his poetry did would be basically unpublishable in the climate in which he wrote.
Ichneumon at 02:47 on 2018-06-10
(Incidentally, it is worth noting that Manly Wade Wellman and Gustav Meyrink were capable of far better writing than demonstrated here; if anything, Price’s skills as an editor impugn themselves far more harshly than they do the skills of the authors he so poorly showcased.)
Arthur B at 17:35 on 2018-06-10
Interesting. Was their better writing directed to the pulp market, or was it presented elsewhere? If they were deliberately writing trash for a market they regarded as trash then... well, I guess that pays the bills. But as you say, it doesn't speak well to Price's capabilities as an editor that he chooses this dross from their back catalogue if there really are superior choices available in their portfolio.
Ichneumon at 04:00 on 2018-06-11
Wellman is primarily known for his extremely evocative horror yarns set in Appalachia, many strung together by the recurring character of the balladeer and amateur occult sleuth John Silence, which while not entirely my cup of tea are beautifully written, but I think those were indeed written more for the slicks than the pulps. As for Meyrink, I am most familiar with his grisly vignette "The Dissection", which is a favourite of Ligotti and VanderMeer's.
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