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Monthly Archives: August 2015

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 will be devoted to Derleth.

Well, you were warned: Today and Friday, I’ll be discussing that which drives me nuts in Derleth’s fiction. Friday will be all about the content—specifically, the changes Derleth made to Lovecraft’s original vision that really seem to irk serious Lovecraft scholars. Today’s post is about things that irk me*:

Nothing is allowed to stand alone: One of the things that kind of grew increasingly irritating as I read more and more was Derleth’s dogged determination to link every part of the mythos together. Pretty much every protagonist encountered in a Derleth mythos story is, in some way, tied to the residents of Innsmouth or the Whateleys. You can’t just have a story about Cthulhu—it has to be noted that he’s allied with Azathoth and Dagon and everyone else, and he’s the half-brother of Hastur, and the lot of them were expelled into space by the beneficent Elder Ones (more about that on Friday). Lovecraft is definitely guilty of mythos info-dumps in his incantations and scrawled notes written by people going insane (“AAAAAAHHH ai’alghyay’a Nyarlathotep Chthulhu Tshup Aklathep**” and so forth), but Derleth is determined to tie everyone together into one delightful infernal family. And I don’t think it always works so well. By emphasizing the pantheon—family ties, inner battles, and the like—we’re putting the unthinkable into deeply human terms. I think the overall effect is weak.

Derleth is VERY concerned that you’ll find the unthinkable a little too thinkable, and as a result, everyone’s priorities are skewed: The abominations of Lovecraft are unknowable and incomprehensible. We know this because everyone who encounters one either goes completely insane or completely fails when he tries to put words to paper. (Yes, the “It was just so terrible there’s literally no way I could be expected to describe it” does get old, but it is, at least, completely in line with the universe Lovecraft created.***) Derleth really, really wanted his abominations to be equally incomprehensible. He did this by making his protagonists tell you that they really, REALLY didn’t understand what was going on. At all. Despite the fact that point #1 (the fact that all of the gods are organized into neat lineages, with clear goals and motivations) necessarily refutes a complete lack of understanding. Even more weird, the protagonists are all very clear that the HORROR of NOT REALLY GETTING IT is far worse than the horror of, say, getting their face eaten off. It’s a little perplexing when the narrator pauses while getting menaced by Nyarlathotep and his faceless, formless minions to fret that his true fear is that he will never fully comprehend the situation.

You’ll only be surprised if you’re not paying attention: I’m not sure if it was the style of the times or he had little faith in his readers (or he was afraid that they’d be lost by Lovecraft’s subtlety), but Derleth is by no means a master of foreshadowing. And by that I mean, he foreshadows all the damn time, in the most obvious possible way, and uses these hints over and over and OVER again in all of his stories. It’s really kind of disappointing. The Watchers Out of Time ends with a fragment that was uncompleted when he died, but I was not perturbed by the lack of an ending.  I was 98% confident that I knew where the story was going. AND ALL OF HIS STORIES ARE LIKE THAT. I can’t even blame being too familiar with the mythos because he goes off-script too much for that to be the reason. But let’s see…Let’s say you’re a Derleth protagonist. You’ve bought a mysterious, evil professor’s house. The professor died, recently, but no one really saw his body, and he was buried on the grounds. You keep smelling the scent of reptiles (whatever that might be), and then you find all his old notes indicating that the secret to immortality might lie in attaining a semi-human, semi-reptilian form. You keep seeing this strange figure haunting the grounds, and you suspect that your neighbor is parading around in a reptile mask to mess with you. (I’m not even making this up.) If you register one ounce of surprise when an ageless, half-man half-lizard creature shows up to reclaim his property, you pretty much deserve whatever’s coming, abomination-wise.

Everyone is an idiot: BUT EVERYONE IS ALWAYS SURPRISED. Many of his stories feature the world’s most moronic protagonists. To be fair, this gets a bit better as time went on and his work got stronger, but it’s still unbelievably off-putting. Everyone tries to explain away their TOTAL CREDULITY—I’m a man of science, I’m a logical person, I know this sort of thing isn’t real even when a freaking tentacle is making its way through the foyer and a succubus has taken up residence in the attic—and it falls unbelievably flat. Derleth also has an annoying habit (probably taken from Lovecraft, though I don’t honestly remember seeing it that much) of concluding each story with a sentence in italics that ends in an exclamation point, regarding some summarizing detail of the inexplicable horror just to drive the point home.

I’m not exaggerating in the slightest. You remember that story above, with the reptiles and silly lizard mask? How do you think it’s going to end? Well…

flogging_a_dead_horse

Just a little more…

All this I saw before a merciful unconscious overcame me,–for I had seen enough to recognize what lay in that coffin—him who had lain there in a cataleptic torpor since 1927, waiting his turn to come back in a frightfully altered form to live again—Dr. Jean-Francois Charriere, surgeon, born in Bayonne in 1636, “died” in Providence in 1927—and I knew that the survivor of whom he had written in his will was none other than himself, born again, renewed by a hellish knowledge of long-forgotten, eldritch rites more ancient than mankind, as old as that early vernal earth on which great beasts fought and tore!

(To the narrator’s credit, this is a hell of a long thought to think before succumbing to unconsciousness.)

But. If someone were to ask me why Derleth was a pale imitation of Lovecraft, I’d show him or her this post, but nearly all serious horror authors would indicate that I’ve been griping about the peeling wallpaper when the whole damn foundation is set to crumble. Stay tuned for Friday’s post…

The Cultist

 

*Because of course a biology grad student who has read a bunch of horror fiction and has OPINIONS on it, goddamn it, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as S.T. Joshi and Robert M. Price. Why the hell not?

**The Infernal Star Toad with A Million Young, who kills its victims by showing them pictures of its children until their brains implode. From Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures.

***I like to think that “The Unnameable” (1923) is more or less a deliberately raised middle finger to everyone who complains about this sort of thing: in this story, H.P. Lovecraft Randolph Carter is talking to a friend who kind of pooh-poohs the notion that some horror can’t be readily perceived by the five senses****, and, as a result, spends the night at an abandoned house where an inexplicable presence is said to lurk. And, wouldn’t you know, they get attacked, and in the final passage, his friend is forced to recognize that Carter is ACTUALLY 100% RIGHT, BOOYAH.

It was everywhere — a gelatin — a slime — yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes — and a blemish. It was the pit — the maelstrom — the ultimate abomination. Carter, it was the unnamable!

****There are in fact way more than five senses*****. For example, touch can be broken down into a number of components (pressure, heat, pain) that count as individual senses. The sense of proprioception lets you know where your body is in space, the sense of balance keeps you upright…but we will give Lovecraft a pass on this one.

*****When I was in grade school, my school counselor told us all there were actually SIX senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and YOUR FEELINGs. Make of that what you will.

A note on the posts to come: As I wrote last 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. As such, this week’s longer posts will be devoted to Derleth.

So, for today: The good

It seems only fair that I start this post with a confession—I was pretty much ready to write Derleth off entirely about halfway through The Watchers Out of Time—and I still wouldn’t include him on my personal list of the best mythos writers in existence.

But the truth is, not only was he responsible for protecting and promoting Lovecraft’s legacy, there’s a lot that Derleth did right.

He’s anti-technobabble*: One of my least favorite tendencies of Lovecraft is the constant dropping of tantalizing hints that go absolutely nowhere. Quick! Tell me about Shub-Niggurath! Yes, she is the Black Goat of a Thousand Young, but where is she from, and where does she dwell? Who worships her? Why do they worship her? I have no idea. If you read Lovecraft and Lovecraft alone, you’ll be familiar with the name and title, and that’s it. I’m not exaggerating. The name is mentioned three or four times in his authored work**: once as an exclamation (a la Iä! Shub-Niggurath!***), and in later works as a name and a title. Praise the Black Goat of a Thousand Young, I guess, but why?

Shub-NiggurathThe Black Goat of a Thousand Young, for a certain definition of the word “goat”

Maybe some readers are much more accepting of the use of this sort of jargon—it’s scene-setting, it’s mysterious. I just find it frustrating. While Derleth certainly uses plenty of mysterious incantations and arcane quotes from various texts, he’s significantly more devoted to explaining the who’s and why’s of old one worship and genealogy. I do take some issue with how he explains the deities and the abominations that occasionally traipse across earth, but that’s a post for tomorrow.

He’s liberal: Lovecraft was, by pretty much every account, a bigoted ass. His stories are chock-full of swarthy, shifty-eyed foreign-types, dark-skinned natives worshipping unspeakable abominations, cats named with ethnic slurs, and absolutely useless woman. (See “The Thing on the Doorstep” for a great example of the woman issue—the strong, menacing female character turns out to be literally possessed by the spirit of her dead father.) None of that is present in any of the Derleth stories I’ve read, beyond a few stereotypes about drunken Native Americans****. And I was very pleasantly surprised by “The Shadow in the Attic”—the protagonist is a typical Lovecraft type, a blustering academic fellow. But he just so happens to have a fiancée: an intuitive, intelligent woman who recognizes the evil machinations underlying a strange clause in a will. Her bookish lover scolds her for her irrationality and begs her to be logical, even as things get stranger and more menacing. And, like all Lovecraftian academics, he gets sucked in beyond the point of escape—but she’s there to save the day. The story ends on a snippy note, by the chastened but still persnickety man of letters:

Women are fundamentally not rational creatures. Nothing will shake her free of her notions about the house on Aylesbury street. It annoys me that I find myself unable to come up with a more rational explanation myself…

He’s a good writer: In On Writing, Stephen King vividly describes the learning process he went through to become the writer he is today. For quite some time, whenever he wrote, he’d unconsciously replicate the style of whichever writer that particularly interested him at the moment. Looking back on it, he notes that this period of replication was both inevitable and essential—by taking on and removing the identities of the authors he admired, he was learning about himself as a writer—likes, dislikes, preferences, you name it. So, if you read The Watchers Out of Time in the order it’s written (each story arranged by date, as I did), you might be tempted to give up the entire experiment a third of the way through the book (as I was.) The first few stories read like an inept imitation of Lovecraft, which, frankly, they most likely were. Ham-fisted country dialect spoken by wizened elders who know too much, batrachian everything, lists upon lists of weird titles found on some mysteriously vanished professor’s shelves, so on and so forth, with endings that telegraph themselves from the opening line and foreshadowing that beats you over the head, leaving you bruised and bloody. But I pressed on*****, and by the end of the book, the fog had lifted. Derleth tried on Lovecraft’s prose and liked it, but with time he found his own voice. The stories in The Cthulhu Mythos are refreshingly clear, and full of new deities and abominations entirely of his own creation.

In essence, Derleth began by parroting Lovecraft, but ultimately he wrote to the point where his own tone—curious, detail-oriented, and wry—began to shine through. He wasn’t a complete acolyte—he recognized that his own world-view was very different from Lovecraft’s, and he came to write accordingly. Buuuuuuuut

(and of course there is a but)

therein lies the problem, or part of the problem, anyway. To be continued on Wednesday…

The Cultist

 

*Or whatever the Lovecraftian equivalent of the term might be.

**He goes into a bit more detail in his ghostwriting/edits, but that’s a post for another day.

***Embarrassing admission for your Monday morning: I never learned what umlauts mean, in terms of pronunciation, so I have NO idea how you say this. Eeee-ahh? Eye-ahh? Eeee-ay?

****It really says a lot about the racism inherent to Lovecraft’s writing that I’m so willing to write off a “half-breed” whose tongue is loosened by liberal applications of fire-water, but here we are.

*****Mostly because I thought I might use the material write yet another hilarious “terrible mythos fiction” post, but hey, you know, I’m of the mindset that it’s okay to do the right things for the wrong reasons.

A friend who almost certainly wishes to remain anonymous sent me this (a real, valid Kickstarter that went tragically unfunded):

Such a shame.

The Cultist

One of the things that I love the most about modern mythos stories is their sheer creativity. I am not a purist in any sense of the word. I’m much less impressed by stories that replicate Lovecraft’s tone and structure perfectly than stories that toss elements of his fiction into the most unlikely settings and somehow—how?—make it work. The weirder the premise, the more intrigued I am. A detective story and tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle in a world where Queen Victoria is an elder god?  Amazing.  A history of the Cold War in which the USSR and USA struggle to weaponize the technologies and powers written about in the Necronomicon? It’s one of the bleakest, realest stories I’ve ever read. And while I can be critical, I do try to keep a lid on my own judgment unless I’m explicitly reviewing a book or story—I’m certain that half of the stories that I hold closest to my heart would make a serious Lovecraft scholar vomit, so who am I to roll my eyes at something that might be just as dear to another cultist?

In summary: I started this blog to celebrate weird fiction, not to shit on it.

But, you guys.

I just read the worst piece of Lovecraftian fiction ever written. The. Worst.

And ordinarily, I would just keep this to myself, because I aspire (in general) to not be a complete asshole, either by ruining works of fiction by picking them apart or insulting authors who love this genre as much as I do, but ultimately I decided to write this post for three reasons:

  • The work was published in 1949, so I’m well past any risk of spoilery.
  • The author died in 1966, so I’m doing nothing to discourage or insult an active writer.
  • It is so sincere in tone and so astoundingly bad in content that it has brought me tremendous, unironic joy, and I wish to share it with you.

 

I won’t hold you in suspense any longer. The worst piece of Lovecraftian fiction in existence is “The Final War”, by David H. Keller. It’s a very short piece, but I promise you, it will linger in your mind long after you’ve closed the book, or thrown it across the room in disbelief or disgust.

A brief biographical note, derived entirely from Wikipedia: David H. Keller was a practicing psychiatrist who wrote for pulp magazines under a variety of pseudonyms. As per a sci-fi historian: “Keller’s conceptual inventiveness, and his cultural gloom, are worth more attention than they have received; it is also clear that he fatally scanted the actual craft of writing, and that therefore he is likely never to be fully appreciated”. (Read: creative enough, dreary enough, but a crap writer.) He was something of an early Lovecraft historian, as he was apparently the first to posit the “influential but wrong” hypothesis that Lovecraft inherited syphilis from his parents.

This last bit is the part that boggles my mind. He loved Lovecraft, he clearly appreciated the man, and yet “The Final War” reads like a short story by an Edgar Rice Burroughs fanatic who once heard the name “Cthulhu” and thought it sounded cool.

“The Final War”, by David H. Keller, MD: A synopsis

A scholar sits alone in his library, reading a grimoire* bound in the tanned skin of some unfortunate sacrifice. He learns of hideous interplanetary beings, of cold, fungus-laden worlds, of “living things with shapes that could only be imagined by the opium eater”. He becomes horrified as he learns of the doom that will soon claim all of Earth.

And then he learns of Great Cthulhu.

You know about Cthulhu, right? No, you don’t.

Oh really? Well did you know that Great Cthulhu currently rules Saturn, after enslaving the beautiful men and women of Venus, forcing the brilliant scientists of Mercury to create technological atrocities, and forcing the armies of Mars into battle on his behalf?

marvin martian

You have defied the Great Cthulhu.  This makes me very angry, very angry indeed.

But you know what he looks like, surely. A winged squid? A many tentacled and taloned beast? What the hell are you smoking?

Cthulhu has many shapes but usually assumes that of a gigantic toad, with hypnotic eyes, poisoned claws, and an intelligence which defies earthly mind to understand.

Wait…wait…

hypnotoad

But if his mere appearance isn’t terrifying enough, Cthulhu will attack with “spaceships, mechanical armies, poisons and obscene weapons”. You know, as he does. But—what if we’re somehow able to route his technological horrors? Don’t think Cthulhu’s tricks end there, dear reader:

If all these fail, he will, in the end, transform himself into a beautiful woman, and, thru [sic] her seductive beauty enslave and torture their souls.

Yep.

Darn tootin’.

But! Earth is doomed. Perhaps not quite in the manner that Lovecraft envisioned, but doomed nonetheless. But do these heroic men give up? Do they curl into the fetal position and wail and whimper at the infinite blackness lying just outside their consciousness. Or, more realistically, does everyone shrug and ignore the one poor Cassandra who knows the truth, going about their daily business until suddenly they’re swept into the cold, warty clutches of the OverToad?

No! They do not! Everyone listens to this man with the skin-book, and within hours, the world is at work! The UN erects an experimental laboratory! Astronomers scan the skies for spaceships! Biologists prepare anti-serums against potential biological threats, which, coming from Saturn, surely is close enough to the threats we face on earth that we could prepare for it. (And you thought the Independence Day OS issue was bad enough.) So…we prepare, and wait. And Cthulhu does not disappoint.

“I will destroy their cities!” Cthulhu boasted to the lesser Gods. “I will make their earth a waste place. Finally, in their despair they will lose the power to resist and will seek only death, not realizing that I will take their souls and torture them in many obscene ways thru [sic] an eternity of years.”

Cthulhu, it appears, is a bit of a dick.

And this is no idle brag—he has prepared a space ship, and is sparing no expense.

At the appointed time, he went to the tube which housed the ship and for the last time went over every detail of its construction. Once again he correctly charted its course so that it would land in the rich corn belts of the United States.

Shit. It’s heading right for us! To the Midwest! I’m impressed that he’s so detail-oriented, honestly…I hadn’t really known Cthulhu to do anything more than sleep, destroy minds with his incomprehensibility, and inspire deadly cults intent on honoring him. He’s a very Type A Lovecraftian abomination.

But fear not, dear reader. We are prepared. Many die in the atrocious, very-much-like-War-of-the-Worlds war that followed, but we prevail! But Cthulhu does not give up easily. Do you know what he does next, to enslave our minds and torment man? If you’ve read any Lovecraft mythology whatsoever, I bet you do. As per pretty much every Cthulhu mythos story in existence, he lands on earth, splits into a male and a female, impregnates himself, and gives birth to a beautiful woman.

Duh.

What on earth will we do? How will we survive the onslaught of this very beautiful woman? Fear not, I say again. The scholar knew that this was coming, and he devised a plan. A cunning counter-strategy, an inescapable trap. As the woman makes her way from the desert in which she landed, she is confronted with a strange sight:

Suddenly the Woman saw a gigantic hand rearing out of the sandy desert. It was a very masculine hand with short, stubby, powerful fingers. The back was covered with hair; the palm was soft.

“What a beautiful hand!” exclaimed the Woman. “I could rest in that hand while the fingertips caress my lovely body”. She crawled into the hand and cuddled on the soft palm.

“Love me, you wonderful, masculine hand,” she commanded.

The fingers and thumb closed on her, slowly crushing her to death.

The end.

SONY DSC

My hero

If this was written with an ounce of irony, a trace of mockery, I think I would have thought much less about this work. BUT IT’S NOT. The author is so clearly sincere and genuine that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I haven’t been able to get it out of my skull for two weeks now. It’s still bothering me. I don’t know that it’ll ever stop.

…so actually, maybe this is the best Lovecraftian piece ever written.

I’ll end this post with a challenge: Has anyone encountered a piece of Lovecraftian fiction—whether that be video game, short story, novel, or movie—worse than this? Comment away, I’m a glutton for punishment.

The Cultist

 

*A textbook of magic, pronounced “grim-war”. Not trying to be a jerk, I didn’t know that word either before I started writing this post.

 

A week or two ago, I shared a link to one of my favorite Lovecraft mythos songs, “Banned from Arkham”*. It’s pretty great—Terrance Chua’s parodies are always spot-on, and I love how it pays homage not only to Lovecraft but also a number of his contemporaries/protégés. And so, of course, I had to listen to it again. But this time, I noticed a detail that had escaped my attention previously—“A tentacle snagged August, but we didn’t really mind.” I knew that this had to be a reference to August Derleth, but I didn’t understand the casual hostility at all.

I knew Derleth about as well as I currently know Clark Ashton Smith or Frank Belknap Long, which is to say, not well at all. I know that Long did the Hounds of Tindaloos, and for some reason Lovecraft liked to refer to Clark Ashton Smith as “Klarkash-Ton”, which is kind of adorable in a probably-not-meant-to-be-adorable way, but that was about it. Some initial probing indicated that Lovecraft seemed to like Derleth quite a bit, writing him into his works as “l’Comte d’Erlette”, the shadowy author responsible for the infamous Cultes des Goules**.   But even this reference was re-worked in future stories to deride the man—a 1976 reference by Eddy C. Bertin described the mysterious tome as “”rather disappointing because its author had possessed more fantasy than knowledge about the hideous things he was writing about.” Damn.

On the surface, I feel as though I ought to defend Derleth against the raging hordes, as we have a lot in common: both fervent appreciators of Lovecraft, both interested in expanding and refining the mythos, both students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (to my delight, I discovered that he was born and buried in Sauk City—not the sort of person you imagine arising from a good old Midwestern farming town). But as I read more about his contributions to the mythos, the source of the lingering irritation becomes immediately apparent.

In what way? Well, when I wrote my potentially heretical post regarding the potentially undeserved popularity of Cthulhu, I might as well have been addressing Derleth personally. He was responsible for the promotion of “the Cthulhu mythos” as an entity. (As well as the term “Cthulhu mythos” itself–Lovecraft himself referred to the cycle of gods/powers/deities as Yog-Sotherthery, after the FAR more powerful and interesting cosmic entity who sees all, knows all, is the gate, is the key, etc.****) But, more importantly to many Lovecraft scholars and fans alike, Derleth introduced an element of morality into Lovecraft’s universe that was previously absent. A devout Christian, he clearly felt uncomfortable with the indifference of Lovecraft’s abominations toward humanity—so he recast them as the embodiment of evil. As such, he pushed a stark, bleak, and inventive body of work back onto well-trodden ground.

But apparently, the introduction of morality isn’t the full extent of his posthumous revisions. While I’m definitely more of a Werner Herzog than a C.S. Lewis, I’ve read some excellent horror stories that blatantly embrace the struggle of good versus evil. (Clive Barker has some absolutely prime examples of this: check out “Hell’s Event”, in which humans literally try to outrun the agents of Satan, or “In the Flesh”, which explores why evil constantly returns to the world.) Derleth—whether goaded on by his faith or his personal view of humanity—could not conceive of a world where the forces of evil ultimately triumphed. In a fair number of his stories, his human protagonists are not victims or mute, horrified witnesses: they are heroes who pull off triumphant escapes.

Because many Lovecraft scholars and anthology editors share this opinion, my exposure to Derleth has been tremendously limited. I went through The Horror in the Museum, an anthology composed in large part by stories written by his contemporaries that Lovecraft read/edited. I was certain that at least a handful of his pieces were included, but I was wrong: A brief essay by Derleth formed the introduction, but that was all.

I’m not willing to write off Derleth completely, for a number of reasons. The first is purely historical. Everyone who enjoys Lovecraft owes August Derleth a tremendous debt of gratitude. It’s largely (if not entirely) thanks to the efforts of Derleth and Donald Wandrei (another writer of weird fiction) that Lovecraft is the most-studied horror writer in existence and not just a pulp punchline extinguished in 1937. Derleth and Wandrei gathered up Lovecraft’s unpublished stories and snippets after he died; after failing to stir up the interest of publishers, they established Arkham House in 1939, their own publishing house. They publicized his work, helping to ensure its immortality.

The second is the fact that perhaps not all of Derleth’s horror fiction should be so easily dismissed. There are, it seems, a large number of mythos stories in which the protagonist is doomed, cosmic balance of good and evil be damned. The writer[s] at Too Much Horror Fiction seem to share this view, highlighting a number of his stories that achieve a subtle horror that we must acknowledge that some of Lovecraft’s writing lacks. (They note that, furthermore, Derleth’s prose itself is more accessible, with “nary an ‘eldritch’ or ‘noisome’ or ‘star-flung’ to be found”*****)

The third is simply the fact that I haven’t read any of Derleth’s Cthulhu fiction; Derleth played an enormous role in making Lovecraft the iconic legend of weird horror that he is today. If I really want to explore the elements that make Lovecraft Lovecraft and drive the popularity of Lovecraftian fiction, it seems like I’ll be doing myself a real disservice by simply ignoring his contributions, no matter how much the purists might scoff. In fact, on some level I think I’m better off reading them as soon as possible, while I remain in relative ignorance and (generally) free from the biases that have shaped our modern interpretation of his work.

So, that being said—anyone ever read Derleth? Where should I start?

The Cultist

 

*Yes, one of my favorites. I have lots of them. I’ll probably write a post solely devoted to the music of Lovecraft in the near future. Shut up.

**Holy shit, don’t you think that would be the best tribute ever? Could you imagine Lovecraft immortalizing you as the author of, like, the Cthäat Aquadingen or something***?

***Yes, I know the Cthäat Aquadingen entered the mythos 20 or 30-odd years after Lovecraft’s death, but you know what I mean.

****Arguable, I suppose, but this is MY house.

*****http://toomuchhorrorfiction.blogspot.com/2010/03/dead-dreaming-is-free-august-derleths.html

When I was 9 or 10 years old, I read both The Andromeda Strain (purchased, if I recall correctly, at a book fair) and The Hot Zone (brought to a family reunion and abandoned by a unknown relative). Now, don’t get me wrong: I was not a brilliant child. HUGE swathes of both books completely evaded me—I think I just unconsciously skipped over everything I didn’t understand. But, to this day, I can’t quite pry either book out of my brain:

The Andromeda Strain: A perturbed 10-year-old’s summary

  1. All your blood will clot instantly.
  2. Everyone in the small town where it originates either dies in seconds or kills themselves in bizarrely elaborate ways.
  3. They cut into one guy’s heart and chunks of spongy blood fell out.
  4. I don’t see why this couldn’t happen in real life.

 

The Hot Zone: An increasingly terrified and despondent 10-year-old’s summary

  1. It’s real. This really happened
  2. The guy on the plane threw up what looked like coffee grounds and then his intestinal lining sloughs off.
  3. Sometimes your testicles swell up and get rotten.
  4. We are all going to die of Ebola.

(Yes, during the Great U.S. Ebola Panic of 2014-15, my parents did congratulate me for being ahead of my time.)

So, this exposure (har!) had three major consequences:

  • It turned me into a life-long hypochondriac
  • It kick-started my interest in medicine and health (although try working that seamlessly that into a graduate or medical school essay)
  • It sowed the seeds that would become my full-blown love of body horror*

 

I would define body horror rather loosely (“Anything that really squicks you out”), although I’m sure there are much better and much more formal definitions**. And, for reasons that may be at least somewhat obvious, I particularly like the horror of contagion. (If you want a fantastic example of this, check out The Best Horror of the Year Vol 2, edited by Ellen Datlow. It’s an amazing anthology, and one of the first stories—and neither Google nor Amazon is particularly helping me out here with title or author—is a very modern take on the Masque of the Red Death in the most satisfying possible way.)

Initially, when I started to write this post, I didn’t think that it would be possible to find good examples of body horror in Lovecraft’s work. I could only think of the gray and brittle wasting of the farmer in “The Colour out of Space”. But there are indeed some good examples if you broaden your definition beyond illness, and I may touch on these in a future post:

  • The devolution of man to pale, maggot-like humanoids of “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls”.
  • The metamorphosis of Innsmouth residents in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”
  • The monstrous appearance of the Whateley twins in “The Dunwich Horror”

But on the whole, I’d say that these examples take a backseat to the cosmic, indifferent horror that plagued and intrigued Lovecraft to no end. But never fear, lovers of body horror—mythos writers have taken up the torch, and taken it up handily since the 1930’s. Here are a couple of prime examples:

  • “The Hour of the Tortoise”, Molly Tanzer: Excellent depiction of unwilling metamorphosis, plus the only Lovecraft fiction I can think of that makes liberal use of Victorian smut. (Think Fanny Hill.) The smut alone would probably make it worth reading, but it’s an excellent story in its own right.
  • “I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee”, Christopher Reynaga: An excellent re-telling of Moby Dick: much shorter than the original, and guess how Ahab lost his leg!

But in terms of contagion/disease horror, I can only think of a handful of mythos stories:

Even if you’re not as disease-oriented as I am, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this story, both for its detective-like story arc, as well as the sheer joy the enthusiastic narrator takes in the unusual biology of the Tibetan plains.

“[We arrived]…in the midst of the Summer Grass Festival, which celebrates the harvest of Cordyceps sinenis, the prized caterpillar fungus…Phupten led me several blocks to the café—and what a walk it was! Sidewalks covered with cordyceps!   Thousands of them laid out to dry on tarps and blankets, the withered little hyphae-riddled worms with their dark fungal stalks outthrust like black mono-antennae, capped with tiny spores…never have I seen so many mushrooms in one place, let alone the rare cordyceps; never have I visited a culture where mushrooms were of such great ethnic and economic importance.”

cordyceps100% not made up, for the record: You can find tons of references to cordyceps on alternative health websites.  You eat them.  For your kidneys, apparently.

Let me know if you know of other examples of fear of disease in Lovecraftian works—I desperately want to read more!

The Cultist

 

*Although, for completion’s sake, I’d throw in the original “Violet Beauregarde turns into a gigantic blueberry” from the original Gene-Wilder-as-Willy-Wonka movie. To this day, I’m still faintly amazed they show that to children.

**“Horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. Such works may deal with disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation, or mutation. Other types of body horror include unnatural movements, or the anatomically incorrect placement of limbs to create ‘monsters’ out of human body parts.” Thank you, Wikipedia!

1) H.P. Lovecraft HATED “Herbert West: Reanimator”.  He claimed he wrote it only because it paid $5 per installment.  S.T. Joshi indicates that it is universally taken to be his worst piece of writing, ever.

2) I’ve tried watching Reanimator (the 1985 movie) twice, but I’ve gotten only halfway through it.  Not because it’s a bad movie (and it is, it’s terrible), but because I have a tragically strong startle reflex that makes me petrified of the possibility of jump scares.

3) Despite both #1 and #2, I find the theme song/title sequence absurdly catchy and delightful.  Enjoy!

The Cultist