Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 7

by Arthur B

S.T. Joshi turns out to be much better at compiling this sort of anthology than Robert M. Price ever was.
The story so far: Arkham House shapes what it means to put out a Cthulhu Mythos anthology by releasing the seminal Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and major followups in the form of New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Cthulhu 2000. Then Robert M. Price makes not one, not two, but at least three attempts to push his vision of the fandom by producing similar "best of the Mythos" anthologies.

Fortunately for us, Robert M. Price isn't the only big beast of Lovecraft fandom and scholarship; with credentials and a standard of work putting Price in the shade, S.T. Joshi - when he isn't flipping out about people removing Lovecraft's likeness from the World Fantasy Award trophy over Lovecraftian racism that Joshi himself has exhaustively documented - is the major figure in Lovecraft criticism these days, and over the years has become increasingly known as a fiction anthologist too, editing not only general horror anthologies or collections by specific authors but also turning his hand to Mythos anthologies. But it would take a while before he'd produce something that qualified as a potential followup to the original Arkham House anthology that started it all...

A Mountain Walked

Unlike his Black Wings of Cthulhu and Madness of Cthulhu anthologies, which concentrate primarily on brand-new stories published there for the first time, S.T. Joshi’s A Mountain Walked anthology bills itself as “Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos” and is, so far as I can tell, modelled on the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthology more truly than any of Ramsey Campbell, Jim Turner, or Robert M. Price’s latter-day updates of the idea. Specifically, like Derleth’s original and unlike all of the imitators it offers a mixture of classics and new tales - the former spanning from the pulp era to more recent pieces, the latter all original to this compilation. This approach suits Joshi well thanks to his particular competences - his eye for new writing developed in the process of editing the Black Wings series, his encyclopedic knowledge of genre history, and his excellent taste in fiction that shows little tolerance for the sort of dull pastiche that Robert M. Price seems to have this unaccountable affection for.

For instance, he collects here The House of the Worm by Mearle Prout and Spawn of the Green Abyss by C. Hall Thompson, which between them constitute the only really compelling reasons to pay any attention to Price’s Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos (most of the other decent stories in which are compiled in widely-available anthologies by the authors concerned), so if you pick up this you needn’t bother yourself with that one. He also dips into the New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos/Cthulhu 2000 well, reprinting Black Man With a Horn by T.E.D. Klein and The Last Feast of Harlequin - whilst this is redundant for my purposes because I think Cthulhu 2000 is a genuinely excellent anthology by itself, at the same time I think missing these out of a “Cthulhu Mythos greatest hits” anthology would be remiss. His Ramsey Campbell pick, The Franklyn Paragraphs, is superbly judged, since it’s one of the set of truly groundbreaking stories from Campbell’s early career peak from the Demons By Daylight era as opposed to the early pastiches that Price and others keep reprinting needlessly.

Of course, Joshi doesn’t just spend his time reprinting well-known classics. A particular archaeological triumph of his is digging up Far Below by Robert Barbour Johnson, an excellent quasi-sequel to Pickman’s Model to the extent that it was inspired by the reference there to a painting of ghouls attacking subway passengers. Presented as an interview with the chap in charge of a special division of the NYPD fighting a nocturnal war against ghouls on one particular stretch of track, the story gets its real bite from how it reveals the ways this fight has affected the supervisor himself. The only action in the story takes place off-stage, relayed to the narrator and the supervisor via microphone and relayed to us through the supervisor’s monologue describing what's going on - but that monologue is extremely effective in its implications.

Joshi also rescues James Wade’s The Deep Ones from obscurity. It had originally appeared in Derleth’s original version of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, only to be trimmed from later editions by Jim Turner. This was a little unfair, since the combination of paranormal research into dolphin telepathy and sects of hippies trying helplessly to protect the world against the Old Ones makes it an interesting period piece. There's a Derlethian Mythos Dump in it, but it’s delivered as a rant from a hippy leader, which is at least a bit original, and doesn't go too deep into unwanted parts of the mythology.

That said, it does have a few issues. The central horror is “a woman is raped by a dolphin”, and is handled in a manner which, whilst not absolutely clumsy, is at the same time consistent with the insensitivity of the period. The bit where she talks about marrying the man that she believed raped her because she is now pregnant with his child is appalling, and the fact that I think we are meant to find it appalling may not help readers who are put off by the fact that the story goes in this direction.

Where Yidhra Walks by Walter C. DeBill, Jr brings to the table a very original mythology and a distinctive Southwestern US setting. I particularly like how DeBill manages to work in physical corruption without making it all about heredity and miscegenation - worshipping of the titular entity causes her to contaminate you regardless of your origin, making the mutations witnessed during the story a manifestation of memetic rather than genetic infection. In recounting the history of Comanche engagement with the cult, DeBill makes it clear that Yidhra’s corruption was considered beyond the pale by the rest of the Comanche, who shunned cultists; this helps avoid the implication that the cult is bad because of its pre-settler roots. The use of a sexy lady as a focal point of the horror seems a bit tacky, though the final horror does make good use of her, and you could sort of see this being adapted as a low-budget mid-1970s underground horror movie.

Joshi also seems good at picking out the best stories of writers who I’ve personally found have had a very patchy Mythos output. Only the End of the World Again finds Neil Gaiman applying a sense of humour to the Mythos, but a dark, bleak sort of gallows humour that’s far away from the chirpy sub-Pratchett parody of Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar. The central character is a werewolf who seems doomed to avert the end of the world over and over again - this particular apocalypse unfolds in Innsmouth - though a question mark hangs over whether this is necessarily the right thing to do, especially given what he does in his spare time when the wolf form is on him. Likewise, Mandelbrot Moldrot by Lois H. Gresh is just as ostentatiously weird as her contribution to Singers of Strange Songs, but I like it much better because this time the Mythos elements used being appropriate to the themes at work (namely, a scifi-horror adventure yarn about two biochemical quantum computers saving the world, a weird mashup of pulp adventure and transhuman strangeness incorporating an interesting take on The Dreams In the Witch-House).

Another story which takes a very revisionist approach to Lovecraft’s texts is The Black Brat of Dunwich by Stanley C. Sargent, an extensive reimagining of The Dunwich Horror. It takes as its base assumption that Lovecraft’s original story was a summation of Henry Armitage’s version of events, and unfolds its own narrative through the device of an interview between two researchers and a tutor hired by Old Whateley to help Wilbur with some of his translations from eldritch tomes of dark lore. This tutor offers a much more sympathetic portrayal of Wilbur, though there are disquieting aspects to their relationship - such as the tutor insisting on Wilbur watching him take a bath on the theory that this would make Wilbur feel better about his own anatomy, which sounds like a pretext invented to excuse exposing himself to his charge. (Remember, due to Wilbur’s accelerated growth he seemed older than he was, but he'd have been 11 when he met the tutor and the tutor insists that despite being physically extremely mature for his age and extremely intelligent, Wilbur was otherwise emotionally and mentally an 11 year old boy still.) The piece offers up a fun alternate interpretation of the story, with the depiction of the Whateleys as a family under the thumb of an abusive religious zealot making most of them (aside from Old Whateley himself) substantially more sympathetic figures.

(Other writers take Lovecraft at his word. For instance, The Phantom of Beguilement by W. H. Pugmire takes after Lovecraft’s dreamlike Kingsport stories, telling an original story that retains the poetic sensibilities of Lovecraft’s own stories set in the town.)

The super-recent stretch of stories kicks off with Hungry… Rats by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., a riff on The Rats In the Walls serving mostly as a character study of the Vietnam vet narrator. We’ve all encountered “‘Nam vet loses his cool because of untreated PTSD” stories before, and this is a reasonable enough example of the type. Speaking of cliches, Virgin's Island by Donald Tyson is basically a high-quality pastiche, but a very fun one making good use of an underused Mythos beastie (in that I think the creatures in it are inspired by Rhan-Tegoth from The Horror In the Museum). In the Shadow of Swords by Cody Goodfellow is set during prelude to Iraq War, in which a weapons inspector finds that there really were WMDs in Iraq - but not for use against humans. Excellent update of At the Mountains of Madness and its “the Old Ones made life on Earth" angle for modern concerns, though it’s undermined by the way some of the characters are cheap national stereotypes.

Like Jim Turner, Joshi clearly appreciates the occasional more humourous take on the Mythos, as reflected by some of the picks here. Mobymart After Midnight by Jonathan Thomas is a gratifyingly vicious slam in Wal-Mart and similar corporate cultures, reminiscent in that sense of Ramsey Campbell’s The Overnight, with cleverly incorporated nods to a particular Lovecraft story adding flavour. A Gentleman from Mexico by Mark Samuels has a plot which gently teases the cottage industry churning out Lovecraft pastiches. It includes a fresh take on the old “Lovecraft brought back from the dead” angle - a device used so often by pastiche authors that it’s practically a hackneyed trope of the form - by having him insist that he can't possibly be Lovecraft, but is merely a deeply unwell individual who has the delusion that he is Lovecraft - after all, Lovecraft’s death was well-documented, and he’d be ancient now if he were still kicking about. This, of course, makes this story’s Lovecraft far more authentic than most of the resurrected HPLs who clutter the field, because that’s exactly the level of scepticism that the real Lovecraft would apply to such an incredible situation. Samuels also uses the Mexico City setting to work in a respectful nod to Robert Barlow, who was very badly treated by the early bosses at Arkham House and marginalised in fandom history for far too long.

The Man with the Horn by Jason V. Brock reminds us of Black Man With a Horn by its title, but it isn’t of an especially similar style. It starts out strong but suffers from a weak ending where various odd scenes are shown and the protagonist stands there like a lump instead of doing anything about it. In addition, the narration seems remarkably keen to make us condemn the protagonist without giving us much of a reason to go along with that; it just tells us she was a bad person and expects us to take that on faith, with the only real character flaw we are shown being that she was a disloyal girlfriend who cheated on her man, who she didn't appreciate enough. That seems kind of bitter to me.

Probably the strangest story in the setting is Caitlin R. Kiernan’s John Four, an evocative story of a world plunged into utter darkness and chaos by the coming of Azathoth. In atmosphere and general concept it’s a bit like William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, but thankfully much briefer and far more readable. At the pulpiest end of the spectrum is Sigma Octantis by Rhys Hughes, in which an eccentric Welsh plantation kingpin in Patagonia, driven by bizarre racial theories, constructs an audacious plan; the narrator is drawn into it and eventually is witness to its unravelling. Nothing overtly supernatural happens, but it leaves you convinced something would have were it not for one engineer's heroic actions.

Gemma Files contributes [Anasazi]; note that “Anasazi" is a Navajo word meaning “ancient enemy", and it isn’t a word modern Puebloans apply to themselves. The use of square brackets around it throughout the story suggests it is a placeholder for an alien word that has severe cognitive and cosmological consequences if you see it. (In fact, in its last phases the story makes these points clear.) So far, so that one episode of The X-Files; things depart from expectations when we find ourselves getting to know a protagonist who is unabashedly, actively gay - and if you go back through the previous entries in this article series you might realise what a rarity that is in Mythos writing. Files loses representation points by throwing in some slightly glib descriptions of a transgender person contrasting them with a “real girl"; I suppose that could be meant to be the imperfect protagonist’s prejudices showing rather than the writer flubbing the narration, but it's really not clear whether that is the case. Aside from that misstep, it’s overall a nice riff on the whole invasion-by-psychic-bodysnatching idea.

In The Wreck of the Aurora by Patrick McGrath nothing overtly supernatural happens; you could sell this as non-genre literature. It’s a good character sketch, and certainly has the sort of doomy atmosphere that Barlow and Lovecraft managed in the similarly low-key The Night-Ocean, though it feels a little lightweight.

The collection finishes with Beneath the Beardmore by Michael Shea, and I hate to say it but it’s really kind of bad - a clear step down in quality compared to more or less any other story in the collection. I suspect that this was only included by way of tribute to Shea, who died shortly before this collection was published. The plot, such as it is, goes like this: three family members are on a stroll in the Antarctic - without a trace of the sort of extensive support structure people used for such expeditions even back in Lovecraft’s day, let alone in modern times - when they encounter a human being apparently all by himself. It turns out to be an Old One from At the Mountains of Madness wearing a human like a skin suit; it then raps some exposition at them.

The monster disguising itself as a human was, of course, a trick Shea pulled in Fat Face with the shoggoths there. There, however, it felt thematically suitable - being polymorphic slime thingies, it made sense for the shoggoths to do such a thing, and it was also thematically appropriate since the original At the Mountains of Madness strongly hints that humans are, along with all life on Earth, descended from shoggoths and makes much of the shoggoths’ skill at mimicry. Applying the “human suit” concept to one of that story’s Old Ones is daft - the size differential turns it into a sort of gory clown car gag, with the reversion to its true form being one of many risible parts of the story, and even allowing for Old One super-science it seems somehow unlikely that they’d be able to make the skin suit work that easily without it being obviously someone’s recently-removed skin. (It’s worth noting in Fat Face that, as I recall, the human suits aren’t hollowed-out human beings - they’re suits that the shoggoths wear to hold themselves in the right general shape, and they can use their shapeshifting capabilities to get reasonable approximations of heads and hands and all the other exposed parts of the body sorted.)

Also, Shea’s habit of having the Old One talk in poetry makes the whole thing seem rather Dr Seuss, which isn’t really the impression you want to give in a cosmic horror story.

The human characters fare little better; compared to Fat Face they are risibly flat, barely behave with distinct motivations, and are occasionally extremely foolish - one of them gets killed photographing something horrific and the Old One talks about what a wonderful person she was, which is odd because it barely spoke with her and has little basis for making this statement. The characters are also very good at observing things which Shea wants them to observe, but fail to notice things which the reader, unfortunately, notices all too well - such as the fact that we still don’t know who the person the Old One killed and made into a skinsuit was, or who their buddy was, or what the hell they were doing out there. You would think that our family of explorers would have been briefed about other expeditions on their potential route for safety’s sake, and it’s really odd that they never find some other sign of who these people were - it doesn’t even seem like the Old One knows.

In comparison to Fat Face, this is a drab and miserable little story, which I can only conclude is the result of being a first draft that Shea was unable to polish prior to his death. The fact is that if Joshi was happy to dip into Cthulhu 2000 to the extent that he already had for this collection, he may as well have taken Fat Face from it for the Shea story.

It’s a particular shame that the anthology ends on this note, because otherwise it’s an excellent collection. Whilst I don’t think any of the newer stories represent fabulous, groundbreaking new Mythos works like Campbell’s Cold Print or Wilson’s Return of the Lloigor were in the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, they are for the most part pretty solid - and the reprinted stories are uniformly excellent. Out of all the anthologies I have covered in this series, the three I would most highly recommend are Jim Turner’s revised version of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Cthulhu 2000, and this one; I am particularly glad to note that Joshi’s putting out a followup collection to this soon, The Red Brain; I will be keen to see if it keeps up this one’s standards.

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 22
Number of said authors who are male: 19
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 86.3%

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