Disciplined Anthologies

by Arthur B

The two Disciples of Cthulhu anthologies have a fine reputation. Is it merited?
In the heaped masses of Cthulhu Mythos-themed short story anthologies that have been published over the years, The Disciples of Cthulhu from 1976 (originally published by DAW books, reprinted in the 1990s by Chaosium) occupies a special place. It might not quite be the first such anthology to come out independently of Arkham House (in the sense of not either being published directly by Arkham House or being a reprint of an Arkham House release); Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy line had released The Spawn of Cthulhu in 1971, edited by the line’s mastermind Lin Carter. That said, Carter was not exactly a stranger to Arkham House, and Spawn entirely consisted of reprints, the majority of which were decades-old tales from Lovecraft’s peers and influences.

However, there’s every reason to believe the claim of Edward P. Berglund, editor of The Disciples of Cthulhu, that it was the first professional collection of all-original Mythos stories. Moreover, I would add something to that: it’s one of the first major expressions of the post-Derlethian Cthulhu Mythos. Coming out as it did five years after Derleth died, it’s a collection produced by someone who consequently had absolutely no need to keep Derleth happy, and features a set of authors that Derleth was in no position to veto the involvement of (what with him being dead and all). Whereas Derleth had previously acted as a gatekeeper for the Mythos playground, Disciples found a range of new voices invading it and making it their own.

Let me get the Boy’s Club assessment out of the way first: every single one of those voices was male, and that’s annoying. It’s especially annoying when in 2003 Chaosium had Berglund do a sequel volume and he almost-but-not-quite turned in another woman-free collection (I’ll dig into that point a bit deeper later). Taking a certain level of sexism as read, does Berglund at least show taste in the stories he picks? Let’s have a see.

The Disciples of Cthulhu

The original collection is actually, so far as I’m concerned, pretty good. There’s several pieces here which have been picked out for the more tasteful, discerning “best of the Cthulhu Mythos” collections out there; Jim Turner selected Fritz Leiber’s Terror From the Depths for his revision of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and S.T. Joshi selected Where Yidhra Walks by Walter C. DeBill Jr. for A Mountain Walked.

By and large, Berglund erred towards new-ish voices in the scene, with the most established authors represented here being Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley, whose careers were still pretty new. (Fritz Leiber, of course, had been writing for much longer - but prior to this he'd produced comparatively little Mythos material compared to Lumley and Campbell, who'd already written entire anthologies of the stuff by this point.) Campbell provides The Tugging, a classic of his which most readers would probably already own in Cool Air; conversely, Lumley’s The Fairground Horror was reprinted in one of his short stories anthologies but I prefer to own it here rather than keeping hold of the otherwise lukewarm set of stories it got reprinted in.

Other, more obscure stories that are harder to find outside of this collection by and large acquit themselves well. The Silence of Erika Zann by James Wade is another one of his 1960s period pieces, this time delving even further into the hippy scene than The Deep Ones; it’s quite effective at that, and I suspect quite influential. The idea of rock groups taking inspiration from the Mythos is not exactly original - particularly when various outfits have done that in real life - but this is the earliest story to play on that idea which I’d consider to reasonably successfully pull off the idea.

All-Eye by Bob van Laerhoven is a better Wendigo-inspired story (and a more original one) than any of Derleth’s; it does have a mild blemish in that it’s one of those Mythos stories which has alien entities talking like supervillains, which never comes off well. Darkness, My Name Is by Eddy Bertin is also quite good, with a wildly trippy conclusion that manages to riff on the ideas of Through the Gates of the Silver Key better than that story managed.

The original release of Disciples included The Feaster From Afar by Joseph Payne Brennan and Zoth-Ommog by Lin Carter. When Chaosium did the rerelease, Robert M. Price (who was at the time the overall line editor for their Cthulhu Mythos fiction) removed both and put in two substitutions; Feaster had to be yanked due to difficulties in sorting out the copyright clearance, and was eventually reprinted in later editions of The Hastur Cycle, whilst Zoth-Ommog was instead reprinted in The Xothic Legend Cycle under the title The Horror In the Gallery in order to restore it to its intended place in Carter’s planned sequence.

The first substitution in the Chaosium edition is Glimpses by A. A. Attanasio, chosen because it was originally intended for release in Disciples but eventually came out in the Arkham House collection Nameless Places instead. It’s nice that it was originally restored to its original place, but the story itself is risible. It starts out evocatively atmospheric until the main character gets flung into the future, then it starts to resemble a second rate Dr Who episode with all the dialogue replaced with increasingly large dollops of New Age-flavoured gobbledegook, which is more or less what you expect from Attanasio.

The second substitution, because Robert M. Price has absolutely zero shame, is Dope War of the Black Tong by none other than...Robert M. Price. It’s a crossover between Robert E. Howard’s racial xenophobia-driven Steve Harrison stories and Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak crap, doubling down on the racism and far-right violence of the source material. The first page isn't done before we are treated to Steve Harrison pulling out two pistols in an opium den worthy of any Yellow Peril story, and using them to “discharge a hail of white man’s justice into the knot of Oriental thugs". We are also treated to such delightful turns of phrase as “slant-eyed devils” and “yellow devils”. To be honest, I think Chaosium ought to be profoundly ashamed of letting this material come out under their watch, though the fact that Price no longer works with them (to my knowledge) at least soothes things.

On the whole, then, the two substitutions in the Chaosium edition of Disciples are pretty poor, but aside from the entirely unwanted injection of racism Robert M. Price brings along they don’t really affect the overall quality of the collection that much, since the two stories they replace weren’t so hot either. Overall I’d call the collection decent but flawed - it’s got more hits than misses easily, but the misses it has are pretty goddamn bad.

The Disciples of Cthulhu II

For 2003 Chaosium asked Berglund to produce a sequel to the original anthology, and whi;st the authors represented involve a few contributors to the original these are outnumbered by the new voices cropping up here. The first returning author is Walter C. DeBill Jr., whose The Bookseller’s Second Wife is more of an old-school Lovecraft pastiche than Where Yidhra Walks; on the plus side, as far as such pastiches go it’s actually really good, being reminiscent of the more Lovecraftian work of Clark Ashton Smith. DeBill does seem to like his femme fatales, but then again Smith wasn't averse to them either. The other returnee is A.A. Attanasio, who offers us the brief super-trippy vignette Time In the Hourless House; this sort of short, sweet trip is more or less exactly what Attanasio is good at. He invokes too much overelaborate verbiage in his attempts to mimic Lovecraftian prose, but then again purple events call for purple prose so I can just about forgive that.

A quasi-returnee is Robert M. Price, who was never meant to be in the original anthology but inserted himself there anyway. His contribution here is Acute Spiritual Fear, which is much better than his usual fare, mostly because he stays away from stylistic mimicry of hardcore racists (complete with hardcore racism) and also deals with subjects dear to his heart (Biblical criticism and alternate texts). The “divinity school at Miskatonic" concept is fun too, as is the alternate spin offered of The Dunwich Horror. I particularly like how the extracts offered from Wilbur Whateley’s diary read like extracts from The White People, which is a nice nod to how the one story may have influenced the other.

As for the newcomers, what they have to offer is a mixed bag. Brad Linaweaver and Fred Olen Ray turn in Eldritch, a femdom-themed sequel to The Island of Dr Moreau with added Lovecraftian spice, which is best described as “fun but forgettable”. The same “fun but forgettable” tag could be used for Passing Through by Robert Weinberg, a competent pastiche, with an obvious but entertainingly executed premise riffing on some of the more SFnal features of Lovecraft’s stories (especially The Dreams In the Witch House), as well as Lujan’s Trunk by Donald R. Burleson (a competent piece which has an entertaining twist but not much deeper thought behind it) and The San Francisco Treat by C.J. Henderson (another bit of fun fluff, though at least Henderson keeps it brief and to the point).

Other stories just kind of miss the mark. The Web by Gary Myers is a brief vignette on the theme of “what if someone put the Necronomicon online"? It’s not incompetently delivered, but by 2003 this sort of thing (“it's X, but on THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY!”) was already feeling a little stale. An Arkham Home Companion by Brad Strickland is an unsubtle spoof of Prairie Home Companion, and is clearly only included here as amusing filler of a sort that I’m not sure a horror anthology needs.

The Idol by Scott David Aniolowski is a clever riff on The Shadow Out of Innsmouth. There's nothing overtly supernatural in the story, and it can be read as a simple tragedy of what happens when a teen idol doesn't get the help he needs to deal with his psychological baggage because his agent just wants him out on the road earning money. (Note that it didn’t actually get its first publication here - Robert M. Price put it out in 1999 in Tales Out of Innsmouth, another Chaosium publication. Of course, given Chaosium publication delays around this time, it’s not inconceivable that Disciples II got delayed until after Tales despite being ready earlier.)

Special Order by Henry Lee Forrest deserves comment because it actually breaks the anthology’s run of misogyny, since “Henry Lee Forrest” is a collective pseudonym used by John Henry Campbell, Terry Lee Sanders and Oreta Forrestine Hinamon Taylor. Thus, whilst looking at the table of contents here you’d think this had a perfect Boy’s Club score, in fact its score is a mere 93.75% (based on there being 16 authors whose work is represented here, 15 of whom are male). As far as the story itself, it’s a welcome exception since it has a woman as its protagonist, and even better a protagonist whose interactions with other human beings feel like they make sense. (She genuinely feels like they have a social life and interests outside the context of the story.) The tale manages deep characterisation in the small space available to it; it’s a bit quasi-Christian in its outcome, but the trio manage to depict more benign entities from higher realms with far more sense of cosmic enormity and alien-ness than Derleth ever did - the alien angel here is both a better alien and a better angel than any of the Elder Gods Derleth had scramble onstage.

We are left after this with some decent pieces about which I don’t have an enormous amount to say. The Eldridge Collection by Will Murray is a pulpy adventure story with morbid twists, Lovecraftian threats and an X-Files aesthetic - but fun and nicely executed, both flowing better to modern eyes than the prose of pulp-era classics and being vastly less big on the racism than said stories were. The Last Temptation of Ricky Perez offers a rather touching conclusion, being not so much horror as a cautionary tale and a coming-of-age story; that said, its treatment of Hispanic street gangs about as convincing as a Grand Theft Auto rejected script.

Disciples of Cthulhu II is an entertaining read in general, but on the whole it doesn’t feel as important a contribution as the original anthology was. Part of this is that it comes out in a time of plenty whilst the original offered delicious Mythos treats during a time of comparative famine, of course; there’s way, way more Mythos anthologies out there competing with it. But even then, none of the stories here seem to be quite as significant as the stories in the original collection - they don’t seem to represent any solid new directions in Mythos writing so much as they are competent exercises in current forms.

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Comments (go to latest)
Bill at 18:45 on 2018-07-08
I take it the implication that Lumley and Campbell were more established authors than Fritz Leiber is a slip of the pen? Or do you mean they were the most established of the newer authors?
Arthur B at 21:09 on 2018-07-08
I'd say they were more established as specifically Mythos authors; Leiber, you're correct, had enjoyed a much longer career, but he hadn't actually done that much Mythos writing, whereas both Lumley and Campbell put out entire Mythos-focused anthologies by 1976. I'll update accordingly, though, because you're right that that's an oversight.
Raymond H at 09:55 on 2018-07-09
Man, I really love Clark Ashton Smith. During my brief bout of homelessness I devoured Zothique until I realized that the stories probably weren't the best for my then-current mental state. I read Boku Girl after that. I think though, the moment I realized that Smith was something special was when I read Checkmate. It wasn't simply that it was entirely different from the Lovecraftian horror that I had come to expect, but rather that it somehow managed to retain the exact brand of morbid humor I had found in those horror tales, just in a completely different context. Also, it's a wonderfully written and tightly edited story. It's a shame that Smith isn't more famous.

Also Arthur you should totally team up with H. Bomberguy. You're both English, how hard could it be to meet up (I say this as someone who must repeatedly explain to friends and family how just because something happens in Japan, that doesn't mean I'm anywhere near it)?
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