Hastur Be Seen To Be Believed

by Arthur B

The very first of Robert M. Price's "Cycle" anthologies reveals the weakness of the concept.
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In the 1990s Chaosium decided to put out a series of Cthulhu Mythos short story anthologies as an adjunct to the Call of Cthulhu RPG. To oversee the line they engaged the services of Robert M. Price, who at the time was prominent in Lovecraft fandom as the editor of Crypt of Cthulhu. The Price-edited entries in the series tended to fall into one of two categories; compilations of works by a particular prominent Mythos author (such as the Lin Carter, Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner collections I’ve covered previously), and “Cycle” books.

These latter tomes were based around the idea of choosing a particular Mythos entity or subject and collecting together the major stories that dealt with the concept in question, as well as stories which seemed to influence the original conception of the idea in question. In principle, this is actually a pretty good idea, because it would allow you to place Lovecraft’s stories in the context of the broader tradition they were a part of. The concept stumbled when Price took the approach of building these cycles around individual creatures and entities, rather than around broader themes.

To illustrate this point, let’s take a good look at the first of these (and the first book released in Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu fiction line), The Hastur Cycle. It leads off, naturally enough, with two stories by Ambrose Bierce which introduced the names of Hastur and Carcosa that were later adopted by Chambers and, following him, Lovecraft. Haïta the Shepherd is the story that coined the name of Hastur as a term for a deity, though the benign Hastur here is almost nothing to do with his hideous later manifestations. It’s a parable about how fragile happiness and contentment is, and how it will go away if you question it and stay only a smidgen longer if you don't, so it’s mostly an exercise in classic Biercean cynicism. (It also uses a capricious woman as allegorical figure for old-school misogyny reasons.) An Inhabitant of Carcosa comes much closer to the direction later authors would take these Bierce names in; here, Carcosa is established as a city which some manner of disaster has befallen. Otherwise, it’s largely a riff on the same basic concept as Bierce’s own An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.

From Bierce, who just threw those names out in two essentially unconnected stories, we move on to Robert Chambers, who wove them both into a richer mythology in The King In Yellow. The two stories selected here, The Repairer of Reputations and The Yellow Sign, are far and away the best stories in that collection, as well as the ones which were most drawn on by subsequent writers playing with this mythos.

At this point Price makes the smart decision to sidestep strict chronological order of writing to present two more recent stories which specifically follow the lead of the King In Yellow mythos rather than drawing on later works by Lovecraft and others. The first of these is The River of Night’s Dreaming by Karl Edward Wagner. Following an opening premise is a lot like the start of Silent Hill: Downpour, it then wavers between the modern-day and the 1890s, with the 1890s denoted by Chambers-esque prose. At first it reads like eldritch antique erotica with the sex scenes glossed over, but there's a point to that - the protagonist’s sexuality refracted through their maybe-delusions leads them into a scenario which could have come right out of a vintage pornographic story, but for the touches of wrongness like the dissolution of their memory and the mystery of a disappeared daughter. The conclusion revisits the secure psychiatric ward they escaped from and offers us some information which recontextualises all that has gone before.

The second latter-day tribute to the King In Yellow is James Blish’s More Light. This was inspired by Blish’s youthful correspondence with Lovecraft, in which he suggested that an actual Necronomicon be written only for Lovecraft to point out that not only would that destroy the grimoire’s mystery, but also he’d already established in his stories that the damn thing is supposed to be around a thousand pages long, making producing a fake that matched the parameters he’d set for the book enormously difficult.

The premise of More Light is that Lovecraft sent a friend of Blish’s a copy of The King In Yellow - the actual play, which Lovecraft claimed Chambers had tried to write as a sequel to the short stories. The story thus avoids demystifying the cursed play by muddling the origin of the text we get here, since it might just be Chambers or Lovecraft’s or Blish’s pal’s approximation of the play rather than the thing itself. (The story also doesn’t give us the complete text, and mentions that there were notes for revisions included and so presumably it was just a first draft.) And yet, apparently it cuts close enough to original for some wacky shit to happen as Blish himself recounts his attempt to read the thing.

Blish cleverly comes up with a racial angle to proceedings which would be disturbing to Chambers and Lovecraft for one reason and to us for another; this is the idea that the nobility of the doomed city of Yhtill are all black, and that the “Pallid Mask” that is the mark of the King In Yellow constitutes white skin. This sounds reminiscent of the ideology of some black nationalist groups, and the idea that Caucasian features are no hallmark of nobility but merely the blemish of an alien curse would I suspect simultaneously revolt and intrigue Lovecraft himself.

Speaking of Lovecraft, the only significant mention of Hastur in Lovecraft’s own stories is in The Whisperer In Darkness, in which it is mentioned that Hastur and the Yellow Sign are associated with a cult working against the interests of the alien Mi-Go (though given who says this, it could well be bullshit). Still, that’s enough of a connection for Price to want to include the development of the Mi-Go idea in here. As well as Whisperer itself, the anthology includes an important precedent by Arthur Machen, The Novel of the Black Seal, which influenced The Whisperer In Darkness enough that Lovecraft worked in a little nod to Black Seal in that story. In his introduction to the story Price drastically misstates the premise and structure of The Three Impostors, which the story forms a component of, to the point where I question whether he'd even read it.

We then get a brace of Mi-Go related stories by later hands. Documents In the Case of Elizabeth Akeley by Richard A. Lupoff is apparently Ramsey Campbell’s favourite Lovecraft pastiche, and justifiably so - it's an excellent sequel to Whisperer playing on a passing mention in the story of Akeley having family out in California. Casting Elizabeth as the leader of a spiritualist sect who starts receiving telepathic instructions from her returning great-grandfather nicely plays into how UFOs and aliens had become part of pop culture since Whisperer, and conclusion has gained extra eeriness since the Heaven’s Gate incident. (Ti and Do, the leaders of the cult, were known in UFO literature at the time thanks to a profile in Jacques Vallee’s Messengers of Deception, and the story shows enough familiarity with UFO lore to make it possible that this was an influence.) The other two Mi-Go stories here are not particularly distinguished. The Mine on Yuggoth by Ramsey Campbell is one of his extremely early stories, and it really does show. Planetfall on Yuggoth by James Wade is a brief little joke and nothing more.

It’s well-known that before August Derleth coined the term “the Cthulhu Mythos” to describe the body of work Lovecraft and his peers and imitators were producing, he proposed that it instead be called “the Mythology of Hastur”, only for Lovecraft to shoot him down by pointing out that he himself had written barely anything about Hastur. Weirdly, though, despite namedropping Hastur a lot Derleth himself didn’t put Hastur at central stage on many stories, though his allusions to Hastur have shaped some subsequent usage.

For instance, Derleth regularly declared that Hastur and Cthulhu were opposed to each other somehow, and had Hastur providing various forms of aid to the protagonists in The Trail of Cthulhu. (You may recall that one of my major beefs with that novel is that the heroes make extensive use of all that without Hastur corrupting them or screwing them over or otherwise doing a single damn thing you’d expect a malign Great Old One to do - and the whole “beyond good and evil” thing is not an excuse here because in Derleth’s interpretation of the Mythos the Great Old Ones are specifically evil.) This and other aspects of Derleth’s take on Hastur were primarily developed by his only story to put Hastur on central stage, The Return of Hastur, compiled here. I’ve already covered it but in summary, it’s shit, Derleth should have been ashamed of writing it, and Price should feel ashamed of perpetuating it.

The compilation stutters to a halt with two random scraps. The Feaster From Afar by Joseph Payne Brennan, originally published in 1976’s The Disciples of Cthulhu anthology, is a formulaic pastiche with a sarcastic, parodic tone. It’s OK, but not especially memorable, and certainly doesn’t seem significant enough to merit inclusion here. Tatters of the King is ascribed to Lin Carter, but it’s basically various dissociated Hastur-themed scraps of Carter’s writing compiled and dumped before the reader by Price; none of it is very distinguished, but it’s all in keeping with Price’s idolisation of Carter and his determination to inflict Carter’s writing on the audience.

The Hastur Cycle isn’t a bad anthology as such - just a very patchy one. More Light, The River of Night’s Dreaming, and Documents In the Case of Elizabeth Akeley haven’t been widely anthologised elsewhere, so even if you already have a pretty expansive cosmic horror collection you probably won’t already have them. If you haven't read The King In Yellow and are only interested in the really fully developed supernatural stories in that, then you've got the best two here, and whilst most fans of this flavour of horror probably already own decent Lovecraft and Machen collections, setting The Novel of the Black Seal and The Whisperer In Darkness next to each other really helps the ol' compare-and-contrast. If you are absolutely fresh to Lovecraftian and Lovecraft-adjacent horror and don't have anything beyond a few Lovecraft compilations, the anthology is a useful sampler of a nice cross-section of writers for you to explore further or suprn as you see fit.

That said, the anthology's faults also stand as an indictment of the limitations of Price’s whole “cycle of stories about particular entities/concepts” approach. The thing is, out of all the things Price has attempted to cobble these Cycle anthologies out of, Hastur is the one who by far the most merits this treatment because it’s the only entity with an with extensive pre-Lovecraft history. Even then, he struggles to fill the collection. The whole Mi-Go connection is super tentative, and in terms of theme and mood doesn’t sit nicely next to the King In Yellow stuff (unless, perhaps, the decadent pleasures offered by Machen’s Little People-connected cults can have a parallel with the intellectual luxury offered by Mi-Go galactic tourism - but Price doesn’t make that connection). In addition, the book contains very slightly too many typos to seem professional, even in recent reprints.

Plus, check out this Boy's Club rating:

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 12
Number of said authors who are male: 12
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 100%
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