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Monthly Archives: August 2015

So, as you* may have noticed, I’ll now be posting longer written pieces about weird fiction Wednesday and Friday, not Monday/Wednesday/Friday.  This is mainly because graduate school is graduate school, and I didn’t want the longer pieces to suffer for quality as a result.

So!  I am still here, and will still be posting on a regular basis, with the caveat that this schedule may be revised as time goes on.  I may go back to 3 a week during the winter break, for example.  Or in the weeks prior to my defense, I may just post Wednesdays or Fridays, and the entire post may be nothing more than a single, wordless, scream.

You know.  Just business as usual.

The Cultist

*Mom, maybe Dad, maybe a few college friends

I have to admit, this is one of Lovecraft’s original works that I read and wasn’t super taken with…but I think this take on it is absolutely stellar.

And who’s above enjoying a little terrifying claymation, really?

The Cultist

Despite the issues I raised in the last post, Innsmouth and Deep One mythos fiction can be done extraordinarily well.  Some of my favorite mythos fiction revolves around that strange, backwater town, and I’ll mention a few of them here.  No cuts, because I’ll try to avoid spoilers as best I can.  (The stories I’ll reference today come from a handful of anthologies, but if you’re looking for one to try out, The Book of Cthulhu is extraordinary.  I haven’t read Shadows over Innsmouth yet, but it makes me hopeful and is probably next on my list.)

“The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”, by John Hornor Jacobs: Like the ukiyo-e print that inspired its name (no, I will not link to it here, and if you choose to Google that at work be prepared to explain to your boss that it’s a valid and extremely historically significant piece of art rather than the frank depiction of bestiality that it appears to be), this extremely brief story, set in a modern tourist-oriented beach town, combines the erotic and the disturbing in the most alluring way possible.  (And it’s one of the most interesting takes on the sacred Oaths of the Esoteric Order of Dagon that I’ve ever encountered.)

“Boojum” and “Mongoose”, by Elizabeth Bear:  I know Elizabeth Bear like the lepidopterists of yore probably felt they knew Vladimir Nabokov: they applauded him for a handful of highly specific, specialized exploits (he was only an amateur entomologist, but was dedicated and knowledgeable to the point where he described several new species of butterfly), while being only vaguely aware that he did something else for his main line of work, something about novels?  Didn’t he write something about a young girl that got him a lot of attention?  Which is to say, I’m kind of…sort of…aware that Elizabeth Bear is kind of a big deal in the land of sci-fi…or something…did she win a Hugo or something like that?  Those are important, right?

http://www.catherynnemvalente.com/sf-squeecast-wins-2013-hugo/

Those things that they’re holding are Hugo awards, right?

But anyway, I only know her from the Lovecraftian-inspired universe she created in “Boojum” and “Mongoose” (and also the alternate-history narrative of “Shoggoths in Bloom”, HOLY CRAP is that one good).  The former is a sci-fi take on the Mi-Go, the latter deals with the Hounds of Tindaloos.  But the incorporation of the traditional Lovecraft characters into the realm of space travel is seamless and endlessly interesting.  They’re never at the forefront of the action, just another inhabitant of deep space occasionally , but the bulging-eyed, vaguely amphibious Gillies are a far cry from the stereotyped fishy residents of Innsmouth.

So…this Elizabeth Bear, she’s pretty darn good at modern weird fiction.  Did she write anything else worth reading?

“The Doom that Came to Innsmouth”, by Brian McNaughton: “The Doom that Came to Innsmouth” is definitely my favorite Deep One piece of all time.  That may change as I read more, you never know, but it’s extremely hard to top.  The narrator is a descendant of the Innsmouth inhabitants come back to visit his old town, now a hollowed-out shell due to government intervention.  There are whispers of a holocaust, whispers of research-related atrocities…and now, to make amends, the government is offering reparations to anyone who can prove they share Innsmouth blood.  With his bald head and bulging eyes, the protagonist assumes he’s a shoe-in, and makes his way to an outlying research station.  Because it’s known that the narrator is a member of the clan, seasoned readers are stripped of their expectations and are forced to enter an alternative Lovecraft existence without any preparation whatsoever.  The ending kicked me in the gut, and, having read as much mythos fiction as I have, that’s rare to the point of being remarkable anymore.

The Cultist

 

First of all, sorry about missing the Monday post.  I have no excuses.  But I’m back now!  And I’m here to whine about stuff again!

Specifically, I’m here to kick off my new series: Problems in Lovecraftian fiction!  (Or, more informally, Things in mythos fiction that drive me up the fucking wall, and what can be done about them.)

I’m not trying to be a total jerk about it. World-building in fantasy and sci-fi is hard, but on some level, I think that utilizing the world and characters of another writer can be harder. Creating something new within pre-established boundaries results in numerous pitfalls that can (and do) trap even the best writers. So, in this series, I’ll be discussing a handful of what I think are the most common issues that reduce the appeal of modern Lovecraftian fiction—by highlighting both stories that fall prey to these problems as well as stories that blaze new paths to avoid them, my goal is to ultimately come to a better understanding of what makes good horror.

At this point, I think it’s fair to say that I am highly specialized in modern weird fiction.  And, to be sure, specialization has many rewards, but I’ve found that with the rewards come unexpected trade-offs. As I read more and more Lovecraft/Lovecraft-inspired anthologies, I began to realize that stories that I would have loved unreservedly in the past were now inspiring a kind of dull frustration. To highlight what I mean, I ask you to examine the following phrases:

Bug-eyed. Pop-eyed. Fish-eyed. Something about him reminded me of Peter Lorre. Glassy stare. Her face was reminiscent of Betty Davis. Squat. Recessed jaw. Protuberant eyes. I didn’t like the way they never seemed to blink. Frog-like. Clammy hands.

Bug-eyed. Pop-eyed. Fish-eyed. Something about him reminded me of Peter Lorre. Glassy stare. Her face was reminiscent of Betty Davis. Squat. Recessed jaw. Protuberant eyes. I didn’t like the way they never seemed to blink. Frog-like. Clammy hands.

If you haven’t read much Lovecraft, you’ve probably sussed out that these traits are all describing a very specific, probably somewhat moist and amphibious character, but you don’t really see a problem beyond that (and thus you think I’m a huge snob). If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s works but don’t’ read a lot of mythos fiction, you’ve probably recognized these qualifiers as a way of characterizing an inhabitant of Innsmouth, but again, you don’t see what the big deal is (but here I am making a fuss, and therefore I am a huge snob). So, to be completely fair, I should clarify—I don’t mind these descriptors in and of themselves, but they can be easily problematic.

I feel a little guilty pointing this out, because the stories themselves are often fantastic and beautifully written—and it is truly a problem on the part of a very specific class of reader who knows too much through experience.  For example, take a few of the stories from The Book of Cthulhu. Here’s a line from the beginning of “Bad Sushi”, by Cherie Priest, as a chef catches a glimpse of the new delivery boy bringing a shipment of fish from a mysterious new seafood company:

He walked like a sea lion, with a gently lumbering gait—as if he might be more comfortable swimming than walking. His big, round eyes stared straight ahead as he made his deliveries.

So, while we’re surely intended to recognize the delivery boy as weird or off, he’s juuuust a little too familiar to the experienced mythos reader. And sometimes that’s okay, depending on where the story will go.  For example, if it takes place in Innsmouth, I think all bets are off, and it’s okay to describe the inhabitants as they are.  But if the story relies on surprise, like in the case of “Bad Sushi” (just who is behind this mysterious seafood company, anyway?), the punch is completely gone, and the dramatic buildup suffers terribly.

IMG_7018Innsmouth Bus Driver, by Casey Love

But herein lies one of the catch-22s of Lovecraft mythos fiction. Here I am whining about a rather blatant application of dramatic irony (*I* know these people aren’t fully human, but our fearless protagonist hasn’t got a clue! WHOA!) and, at worst, a complete spoiling of a surprise.

But can you really write mythos stories about Innsmouth that don’t involve a few of these qualifiers?  I can only imagine the tone my complaints would take then.  WTF, you know, this is Innsmouth, why is everyone just trotting around like everything is normal.  How were we supposed to know those were Deep Ones?  You can’t just spring that shit on us.   To be fair, this is a problem with short fiction in general, summarized neatly by Chekov’s gun, which I will write more about later: if you don’t drop enough hints at the beginning, the ending will be surprising in the most unsatisfying way possible. A crappy deus ex machina.

A prime example of Chekhov’s gun.  Except for not really.  Mostly I just love this sketch and was waiting for an opportunity to post it.

So, what can be done?  How can Innsmouth mythos fiction be written in a way that it’s approachable for the newcomer and yet still surprising and frightening to someone familiar with Lovecraft’s universe?  It is difficult, but by no means impossible.  And, more importantly, it’s unbelievably fantastic when the subject is handled well.  A handful of weird fiction authors have succeeded masterfully, and I’ll write about a few of my favorite examples on Friday.  Stay tuned!  (And if you have any personal favorites, feel free to add them to the comments!)

The Cultist

I’m not a game person.

the rapture is coming

I never was allowed to play video or computer games as a kid, so I don’t really have the hand-eye coordination or basic know-how to do so as an adult.  And for the most part, I’m fine with that.

rapture3

But sometimes a game comes along that I’m just desperate to play, and when that happens, I make one of my more skilled friends play it for me while I watch over their shoulder.

TRIHAYWBFRFYH-ss-1

I have very patient and wonderful friends.

The Rapture is Here And You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home is one such game.  Thankfully for them, it’s only 20 minutes long.

Buzzfeed (yes, I did find this on Buzzfeed, and no, I am not ashamed of this fact) wrote up a pretty good piece on it.  It’s visually striking but simple.  There’s no real goals, nothing to do.  It’s an exploratory game, and the premise is simple.  The world is ending in 20 minutes.  You have 20 minutes in which to walk around, and do whatever it is one might want to do in the last 20 minutes of the world.

For my money, the stark beauty, the growing oppressiveness, and the feeling of hopelessness encapsulate the best aspects of Lovecraftian horror.  I’d recommend it to anyone who loves the existential side of weird fiction.  If you’re all about the tentacled monstrosities and the protoplasmic jello…well, there’s none of that here.  But it’s only a 20-minute commitment, so I feel comfortable recommending it anyway.

The Cultist

P.S. Does anyone have any recommendations for weird horror games?  I’d love to check them out, and by check them out, I mean holler directions, commentary, and expletives over my husband’s shoulder as he makes his way through them.

H.P. Lovecraft would have turned 125 yesterday, and as such, the internet was chock-full of interesting stuff.  So, in lieu of the ordinary essay, I figured I’d show you all the best of what I found!

First, there’s this song by the Mountain Goats, about a man living in a big city beset by loneliness, confusion, and anxiety who finds himself relating to Lovecraft’s year-long exile to NYC:

Then, I happened across this compilation of Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers.  Some of it didn’t quite speak to me (study the King James bible?), some of it did (please, for the love of god, stop using nouns for verbs, everyone–he said/she said/they said will always work beautifully), but all of the tips and tricks give really interesting insight into how he created his stories–from the careful outlining to the use of unusual vocabulary with care.  (Care needed not because he was concerned about alienating his readers, but simply because it’s easy to use unusual words incorrectly, and that simply would not do.)

Relatedly, here’s the original outline for At the Mountains of Madness!

MadnessPlotOutlineFinal.jpg.CROP.article920-large

I posted this to the Facebook page yesterday, but in case you missed it, here’s a Lovecraftian alphabet.  (Bonus nerd points if you watch it for the first time with the sound off to see how many you can identify.)

…okay, I will admit, I didn’t actually read this one (and I likely will not), but it contains all sorts of…links…and stuff…for those of you who might be…interested in this sort of thing: The Posthumous Pornification of H.P. Lovecraft

(Without reading it whatsoever, I would just like to say: I blame hentai.  Hentai is that which wrought this.)

Lovecraft’s stories are always good to read on your own, but they have potential to be mind-blowing if read out loud.  Check out this playlist for some good examples (although I’m certain there’s plenty more floating around the internet that I just haven’t found yet).

And lastly, if you didn’t celebrate enough yesterday, here’s a fine list of fun suggestions to honor the man this weekend.

Happy birthday, H.P.L!

The Cultist

So, as you’ve probably already heard, the hackers that stole data from Ashley Madison (a website explicitly devoted to extramarital affairs) and threatened to publish it did indeed make good on their promises.  I’m guessing A LOT of uncomfortable preemptive conversations right now.

And, as I complained about just a short time ago, I’m a little pooped out re. horror fiction right now.  (Never fear, though!  I’m in the middle of a Caitlin Kiernan story, though, and those never fail to pep me back up–I really ought to write a blog post devoted to her Lovecraftian fiction, it’s in a world of its own–so on Friday, I anticipate a return to a more normal state of affairs here.)

But anyway, this is just a round-about way of explaining today’s blog post: a short meditation on the brief, awkward love life of H.P. Lovecraft, inspired by the Ashley Madison hacks and cemented by my temporary lack of inspiration re. modern mythos horror.  (Fucking water elementals…)

H.P. Lovecraft grew up lonely and sheltered, frequently sick.  His family was a wreck: initially wealthy, mismanagement forced them into abject poverty.  His father had died of neurosyphilis when Lovecraft was 8 (which Lovecraft stubbornly maintained was “paralysis due to nervous exhaustion”).  The a shock caused his mother (a frail, needy woman) to cling to her son desperately.  They maintained an uncomfortably close, love-hate relationship until his mother was admitted to a mental institution in 1919.  She died as a result of a mismanaged gallbladder operation in 1921.  Lovecraft was 31 and more or less a complete hermit.

Things would start to change very quickly for Lovecraft, though–throughout the course of his seclusion from the world, he maintained contact with his writer friends.  (By the end of his life, he had written over 100,000 letters, a figure which apparently puts him second only to Voltaire in terms of written correspondences.)  His support for his friends and his devotion to his craft would prove to be his salvation time and time again, and this was no exception.  At an amateur press conference, mere months after his mother’s death, he was introduced to Sonia Greene.

Sonia Greene is…well, I feel like she doesn’t get enough attention.  She sounds like an absolutely remarkable woman.  She was seven years older than Lovecraft, but several orders of magnitude more experienced in life.  She was married at 16 and had two children by the age of 19, one of whom died when he was only 3 months old.  Her husband was, according to her friends, “a man of brutal character”.  The marriage was brutal, but (thankfully? I feel like you shouldn’t say that, but maybe?) he killed himself in 1916.

Nevertheless, she was fiercely independent.  She had bootstrapped her way into the middle class, working as a milliner and traveling frequently for her job.  Not only was she able to rent a house for her and her surviving daughter, but she was able to afford her writing hobby, traveling to conventions and supporting independent magazines.

And so they met, the virginal xenophobic anti-Semite with terrible mother issues and the older, world-wise, Russian Jew.  Surprisingly (although maybe not entirely surprisingly, given the “Naaaah, man, I mean, sure, I don’t like the blacks/Jews/gays/etc., but you’re not like them, you’re super cool!” tendency of most racists), they hit it off.  They started writing.  He edited one of her stories (“The Horror at Martin’s Beach”, published 1923 in Weird Tales–I’ve read it, and it’s pretty damn good).  In 1924, they were married.

sonia greene

And how did that go?

God bless him, but Lovecraft was no slouch.  Wrote one of Lovecraft’s friend’s after the fact:

Sonia told me that prior to their wedding, HPL purchased and read thoroughly all subject matter he could obtain regarding the marriage, sex and the duties of a husband in the connubial bed. He was perforce a conscientious lover.

This was no small feat, considering how ashamed he seemed to be when it came to sex (he hated listening to his writer friends joking about it) and how much damage his mother had inflicted.  (It’s all well and good to joke about bad mother-son relationships, but consider this: the main motivation for H.P. Lovecraft’s seclusion was due to the fact that growing up, his mother told him constantly that he was grotesque, and should go out only at night to avoid frightening the neighbors.)

They seemed happy, but tragedy (and Lovecraft’s stubbornness) struck.  Sonia’s hat shop closed and she grew ill.  Lovecraft tried (a little) to support his wife, but no one really wanted to hire a 34-year-old with no job experience.  And he turned down a job offer to edit weird tales because it would have necessitated a move to Chicago.  In 1925, Sonia had improved enough to take a job in Cleveland, and Lovecraft moved into a single apartment in Red Hook.

This was not an acceptable state of affairs for Lovecraft.  There were far too many people speaking different languages.  “The Horror at Red Hook” should pretty much sum up all you need to know about Lovecraft’s feelings for New York.  He stuck it out for one year, hightailing it back to Providence in 1926.

Lovecraft still loved his wife, but he loved his family and his routine more.  His aunts told him how terrible it would be for his wife to set up shop in Providence (their nephew was of the gentry–he couldn’t be seen with a tradeswoman wife!) and he made no effort to contradict him.  Sonia pleaded with him, cajoled him, sent him a weekly allowance as she worked on the road, but it was over.  Functionally, the marriage had lasted two years, but they weren’t formally divorced until 1929.

Sonia moved to California in 1933.  She married again (learning much, much later that Lovecraft had neglected to sign the final decree of divorce, making her technically a bigamist).  Lovecraft stayed in Providence for the rest of his life, dying of intestinal cancer in 1937.

I’m not really sure what to make of this story, really.  I don’t have a good moral or a pithy ending to close with.  I mean, you can’t really make the argument that Lovecraft wasn’t an emotionally immature jerk.  Sonia deserved a far more loving and supportive husband, and I’m glad she finally got that.

However…and this is sort of a weird trait for Lovecraft horror fans…in my little cultist heart, I feel a strong, irrational warmth for the man.  He had a horrible life.  I believe (without exception) that everyone on earth is trying to do the best that they know how to do with what they have.  And Lovecraft did that.  Despite a cold, abusive upbringing, despite violent depression and nervous breakdowns, he stubbornly maintained contact with his friends.  He devoted himself to his true passion.  And I admire that.  And, on some irrational level, I’m so glad he got to experience adult love and sex.  He deserved it.

The Cultist

Sources:

A short biography of Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi

Wikipedia article on Sonia Greene

Lovecraft and sex, as told by one of Sonia’s friends

A note on today, and the previous week: I’m pretty uncomfortable with the apparent tendency of Lovecraft scholars to write off Derleth entirely. But I knew almost nothing about him as a writer, so I picked up The Watchers Out of Time and The Cthulhu Mythos. Having read an arguably representative sample of his weird fiction, I realized my feelings toward his work were extremely complicated, difficult to organize into a single post. Last day, last day, I swear…

So. I’ve now read approximately 500 pages worth of Derleth’s take on Lovecraft. I’ve got about 200 more to go before I exhaust my very limited library. I’ve been surprised by the ending approximately once in twenty-odd stories. Not once have I been frightened, unnerved, or even mildly off-put (unless you count all the babbling about elemental beings). If Derleth had tried to submit one of them to a modern weird anthology, I doubt very much it’d ever make it out of the slush pile*.

However, in the middle of this somewhat reluctant education, I read “The Lamp of Alhazred”, published 1957. It’s not a horror story by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a tribute to Lovecraft, but calling it a tribute seems a little too trite.

The story is an imagined history of H.P. Lovecraft’s life—from sad childhood to lonely adulthood to death by cancer. The only difference is the source of his inspiration: an oil lamp, inherited from a mysterious relative, said to show the most beautiful and the most horrible things. He lights it, and realizes that where the lamp shines, he can see images of the most spectacular and horrible landscapes imaginable. He begins to write, applying names and inventing stories. The reeking, recently exposed island of black basalt becomes R’lyeh. The decaying, gray ocean-side town with the malign black reef becomes Innsmouth. And so he continues, writing (to no great success) until it becomes clear that he is ill, and the illness is grave. Weak, with only days left to his life, he lights the lamp again, and sees now the wooden groves of his childhood that he’s loved and missed all his life. And this time, he’s able to enter them.

It’s a love letter, but not in the usual sense of the term, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it almost made me cry. I might be wrong, but I think everyone loves or has loved someone whose life has been too hard, too sad, or just so much less than it should have been. It’s not fair. It’s heartbreaking. And so this story, published 20 years after Lovecraft died, feels raw. It’s by far the most emotional mythos story I’ve ever read, because the subtext is so bright and painful and clear: I’m sorry your life turned out this way. I wish it had been better. I hope you were happy, I hope you died satisfied, but if I’m being honest with myself, the sad, horrible truth is that I’m pretty sure you weren’t, and you didn’t. You deserved more.

It’s not a tremendously relevant story to this narrative, but it’s one of the most unexpectedly beautiful things I’ve ever read.

But, to step back, and put this entire week into perspective:

How to explain how I feel about Derleth? In an odd way, it can best be understood in the context of a conversation about modern art. (Fair warning: It was a conversation that made me feel—and will doubtlessly make me look—like an unevolved simpleton at best and a misogynistic philistine at worst, but it illustrates the point better than anything else I can come up with.)

The subject of the conversation was an artist named Judy Chicago. We were talking about one of her prints that—to summarize my really, really long diatribe—I didn’t like at all. It expressed a fear of aging in a way that struck me as horribly privileged, out-of-touch, and whiny. And this, of course, led me to rant about her other work.   For example, I wasn’t sold by the argument that a photograph of a woman removing a tampon was IMPORTANT, because this was a sight familiar to pretty much every woman and yet it was never once shown in the world of art. This was because I felt that there were far more universal sights and experiences that the art world had chosen not to celebrate**. And I was deeply irritated by The Birth Project, in which she celebrated her “primordial female self ” despite the fact that she was childless—it struck me as she was trying to vicariously win value and validity as a female.

The artist wasn’t phased by my irritation. Instead, he pointed out that it’s not tremendously meaningful to view Judy Chicago outside of a historical context. By being so loud, so strident, so irritating, so gratuitous (okay, these are mostly my words) she made it possible for women to be in art in a way that they hadn’t before. And once those women were in art, they didn’t need to just parrot her style and message—they could be themselves. If life were fair, Judy Chicago shouldn’t have had to exist—but it’s not, she got frustrated and protested through her art, and the resulting benefit to the field (in the panoply of new and exciting perspectives from female artists) was undeniable.

Judy_Chicago_The_Dinner_Party

The Dinner Party, 1939 (image from Wikipedia)

And that is, more or less, how I feel about Derleth. For the most part, I don’t enjoy his stories, not even a little bit. I’ve been dragging on writing this week’s posts, and I really couldn’t figure out why, until I realized that instead of being inspired and excited by the horror stories I was reading in my free time, I’m just sort of clumping along like a high school student reading My Ántonia***. (But don’t worry—I rushed off and bought two new promising anthologies this weekend, so I’ll be back to my breathless nerdy self in no time.)

But, in order for horror to evolve, for modern Lovecraftian fiction to be able to embrace the delightful protean form it has today, I truly believe that Derleth had to exist. He single-handedly rescued Lovecraft from obscurity. I mean, the man made up his own freaking publishing company when that failed, because he truly believed that these works were too important to be ignored—and if that’s not beautiful, I don’t know what is. And no, I don’t like his writing, but he showed everyone what the genre could do. Lovecraft created one of the most beautiful and flexible literary framework I’ve ever encountered. Derleth inserting water elementals and black masses and italics for emphasis does nothing to cheapen that. And I wouldn’t be surprised if his take on Lovecraft inspired many a horror fan, who read his works and said—“No, this isn’t right at all, I can do better.” And that’s not an insult to Derleth. That desire, to improve and expand and explore, is what has kept the field alive, and so tremendously rich.

And so, that is why I will always be grateful to Derleth, and on some level, I hope you will be too.

The Cultist

 

*Unsolicited manuscripts sent directly to a publisher or agent. I…might be…writing a little bit outside of the realm of the blog, and so that term has entered my vocabulary.

**For example: Sneezing and farting simultaneously in public, and wondering which one everyone heard.

***The famous 1918 novel by Willa Cather, much lauded by literary critics for its bold decision to not include any trace of a plot whatsoever.

Foreshadowing a bit of a cinematic kick next week, for this Saturday I’m sharing my favorite film adaptation of Lovecraft of all time.

shot_nyarlathotep_movie_director_christian_matzke_2001This was my computer wallpaper for the LONGEST time.

If anyone else has any favorite short film adaptations, send ’em my way!

The Cultist

A note on this week: As I wrote a few days ago, I’m pretty uncomfortable with the apparent tendency of Lovecraft scholars to write off Derleth entirely. But I knew almost nothing about him as a writer, so I picked up The Watchers Out of Time and The Cthulhu Mythos. Having read an arguably representative sample of his weird fiction, I realized my feelings toward his work were extremely complicated, difficult to organize into a single post. As such, this week’s longer posts (and now, a bonus post on Monday!) will be devoted to Derleth.

Lovecraft scholars don’t like Derleth. Just on principle, this struck me as tremendously wrong—like remembering someone who risked life and limb saving Mozart’s original scores from a fire as, first and foremost, a person with a terrible ear. Don’t we owe him at least a little of our respect and consideration?

But, there’s a key difference between respecting a person and insisting he’s a great writer. So, while I definitely want to honor Derleth and give him his due as a key figure in the history of modern horror for the role he played in popularizing Lovecraft*, I also wanted to take the opinions of those far more learned than I into consideration. So, in today’s posts, I’ll try to address what I see as the main academic criticisms of Derleth’s fiction.

Criticism: It seems that Lovecraft wanted the central figure of his horror stories to be Yog-Sothoth, a mysterious, all-powerful cosmic entity. Derleth shifted the focus away from Yog-Sothoth to emphasize Cthulhu: hence, the Cthulhu Mythos instead of Yog-Sothothery.

Do I agree? Not really, though I see how it raised the potential for future problems

Why? Yog-Sothoth sees all and knows all. He grants his followers knowledge, but too much knowledge brings certain doom—given this aspect of his nature, I completely see why Lovecraft wanted him at the forefront of his mythos, as it encapsulates the key aspects of his horror philosophy. But, in terms of seizing the public’s imagination…Remember my post in which I complained that squids aren’t scary? Well, get a load of Yoggy**:

Imagination called up the shocking form of fabulous Yog-Sothoth—only a congeries of iridescent globes, yet stupendous in its malign suggestiveness.

Yep. He’s literally made out of bubbles.

mrbubble_logo

I’m the gate, I’m the key!

Derleth, I think, was much more politically savvy than Lovecraft. He worked as an editor for the Madison Capital Times, and so I think he had a much better idea of how to get attention. So, in addition to toning down the unbelievable racism and sexism, he also found a figure that was much more conventionally monstrous, and thus more likely to grab attention. And in that, he succeeded tremendously. But therein lies the key, unavoidable problem in making Cthulhu the central figure: he IS much more conventionally monstrous. By focusing on him, you’re running the risk of cheapening the mind-bending, cosmic element that makes Lovecraft horror so great.

Criticism: Derleth focuses too much on the battle between good and evil. Many of his stories involve blatant references to Satanism in the same breath that they mention Cthulhu. In doing so, he puts the mythos in distinctly Judeo-Christian terms: it oversimplifies the themes immensely, and cheapens them.

Do I agree? Yes, although I’d argue that excellent mythos fiction *can* embody themes of good and evil.

Why? From a fan’s uninformed perspective? Honestly, it’s just really jarring. Black masses, demon familiars, witches and sorcerers…I love mythos fiction for its sheer inventiveness, and none of these things are particularly novel. They can be made to be novel, absolutely—but Derleth doesn’t really seem to strain himself to try. So, I would have to agree: whenever the focus is on devil-worshippers and whatnot, the stories themselves just seem much, much less compelling.

But! Two points in Derleth’s favor. The first is the fact that, despite several criticisms I’ve read, the sense of inevitable doom remains the same regardless of whether or not the abomination is evil or just incomprehensible. Most of his protagonists don’t make it out unscathed—the narrator might be fine, but the unsuspecting/undereducated victim that saw fit to monkey around with skin-bound tomes is almost certainly fucked beyond any recognition. And I would argue that themes of good and evil can be blended seamlessly into a great mythos story. It’s very easy to mistake the Lovecraftian abominations as evil: they’re so destructive (and their cults are so bloodthirsty) that of course they seem almost satanic in nature. And even if they’re not evil, those surrounding them usually are. Take T.E.D. Klein’s Black Man with a Horn, one of my favorites of all time. It begins with a missionary fleeing a group of, in his words, the most purely evil people he had ever encountered. Straightforward, Judeo-Christian—but it’s an amazing story, because the theme of good versus evil is used to advance the plot, not define it. And it does make sense. Evil-doers, potential evil-doers, evil cults, or sorcerers—why wouldn’t they be attracted to a source of inconceivable, destructive power? The problem with Derleth isn’t that he incorporated religious struggle—it’s that he didn’t do it in a very interesting way.

Criticism: Seriously, WTF is with all the elementals?

Do I agree? No in principle, yes in practice

Why? This requires a bit of clarification. Derleth liked to define his abominations as of the earth, air, fire, or water. For example, Cthulhu is a water elemental (obviously); Ithaqua (basically the Wendigo) is an air elemental; and C’thalpa (Ithaqua’s mortal enemy, don’cha know) is a fire elemental. I HATE this. I don’t get the point, I don’t think adds anything to my understanding of the story, and whenever it comes up, I feel like I’m watching Captain Planet.

captain planet

 

Ithaqua!  Ithaqua cf’ayak vulgtmm!  Cthulhu fhtagn!  Shub-Niggurath!  C’thalpa!  With our powers combined…

But…as I’ve said many a time, the beauty of Lovecraft’s writing is how flexible it can be. So, in principle, I fully support Derleth’s right to experiment with this. But—I am only about halfway into The Cthulhu Mythos at this point. If the heart elementals show up, I might have to quit.

I’m ending on a snarky note, but on Monday, I’ll tell you about the one story Derleth wrote that made me completely re-think his work. Stay tuned!

The Cultist

 

*I will actually be giving a talk to this effect in the near future! Look for a short video sometime in September, assuming I figure out how to work a camera and upload a movie to the internets.

**Forgive me, oh Yog-Sothoth, and accept this paean in your honor.