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Category Archives: Lovecraft’s contemporaries

All right, now that we’ve firmly established that I can’t watch scary movies to save my life, there are lots and LOTS of good horror books for children, and that Lovecraftian elements abound even when we’re least expecting them…I feel as though I should return to the main theme of this blog, to wit: y’know, H.P. Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction.

I dedicated a week or more of this blog to slogging through August Derleth (STILL have not finished The Cthulhu Mythos, damn it all…seriously, the water/air/fire elementals are like nails on a chalkboard to me), but I’ve only mentioned Clark Ashton Smith in passing.  Which is completely unjust, because I LOVE his stories.  Love them to pieces.

I didn’t know very much about Smith at all, beyond the fact that he was good friends with Lovecraft.  Beyond their friendship, I knew that the “E” in T.E.D. Klein (who wrote “Black Man with a Horn”, one of my favorite Lovecraftian works of all time) stood for “Eibon”, the name of one of Smith’s evil wizards.  Anyone who Klein respects that much was surely worth a look from me, so I got a collection of his works.

As I have said before, I’m faaaaairly certain that horror writers of the 1930s were the isolated, anti-social neckbeards of their time, and letter-writing was their 4chan.  Or something like it.  I’ve written plenty about H.P. Lovecraft’s sad life, but it seems like Smith might have been even worse off.  He spent his entirely life in almost complete isolation (although, to his credit, he did get married at age 61, and remained married until his death seven years later).  He got no education after grammar school, and learned to write by studying the dictionary.

The book I got contains poems, “prose poetry”, and short stories.  Apparently, Smith considered himself a poet primarily, and wrote stories for the pulps just to make ends meet.  But I think his short stories are the best of the bunch (although this probably speaks a lot more to my un-literary nature than to the quality of his poems).

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Most of the stories that I read were shamelessly fantastic in nature: endless lists of strange debauched princes and their concubines, gardens of evil wizards filled to the brim with venomous flowers and cunning traps, necromancers by the boatload, sorcerers and sorceresses, and ancient temples laden with squatting, malign idols.  But the worlds he describes are tremendously compelling, and they’re tinged with the same sense of unease that permeates Lovecraftian work.

According to his website (worth checking out–I definitely plan to read through this in the future), two of his most famous works are “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” and “The City of the Singing Flame”.  The former is a science fiction story, a tale of the exploration of an abandoned city of Mars.  Their Martian guides are curiously reluctant to explore it, but offer no explanation.  (I feel that the “native guides refusing to enter the abandoned city/temple/cave/area” trope is the “girl has sex on prom night” of 1930’s-40’s horror fiction.)  And then…well, it pretty much ends as you’d expect with that beginning, and even though I saw the ending coming, it did definitely creep me out, which is a pretty significant feat anymore.

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“The City of the Singing Flame” is the story of two American artists who discover a portal in the desert to another world, which is the site of a temple which is the site of a strange alien pilgrimage.   It’s interesting, but didn’t strike me quite as profoundly.  Probably my favorite of his exploration stories is the tale of a sailor who gets stranded on a strange island.  The island isn’t deserted–it’s full of people, but no one interacts with him.  He quickly realizes that they’re all preoccupied with something.  Everyone, even the women and children, are anxiously scanning the sky and studying astrological charts.  Day in, day out, they never do anything else.  It’s a profoundly lonely and disquieting tale–being lost and helpless in the middle of a crowd.

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  Unlike Lovecraft, Smith’s stories tend to be more emotional.  The first of his works that I read was the story of a powerful necromancer whose demonic familiar hints that there might be a limit to his power.  Ignoring his familiar’s warnings, he calls up the image of his lost paramour–a girl he fell completely and utterly in love with as a youth.  His spell is perfect, she stands before him–but something is very wrong.  She’s not what he remembered, she’s less bewitching, less enticing.  He dismisses her shade in a huff, and asks his familiar if he went awry.  The familiar explains that his spell was perfect, but his memory was far better than the reality.  By summoning the reality, he’s forever tainted his memory, and now he has no choice but to live without the pleasure of that remembered love.

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I’ve definitely enjoyed all of Smith’s works that I’ve read so far, and I’m looking forward to reading new ones.  If you’re in the market for the dreamlike mood of Lovecraft’s fantastical stories–Randolph Carter, the Gates of the Silver Key, The Doom that Came to Sarnath, the Cats of Ulthar–Clark Ashton Smith is an excellent addition to your library.

The Cultist

I have a somewhat informal and ill-defined mental system for ranking my preferred characteristics of horror fiction.  I like it when the unexpected happens, but I love it even more when the unexpected keeps happening and never, ever lets up.  (See “Alice Through the Plastic Sheet”, by Robert Shearman, one of my favorite horror stories of all time, or The Holy Mountain, which I have seen twice, understand not at all, and love with all of my heart.)

I like twists, but if you’ve read enough horror and are familiar enough with the genre, a good twist is hard to find, thanks to Chekhov’s gun and the internal rules (such that they are) of Lovecraft’s horror stories.  I prefer stories about lesser-known Lovecraftian deities over sucker-and-tentacle freak fests.  I don’t like regular books about war and politics, but I adore stories about war and politics superimposed over a Lovecraftian reality.  (“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear is a great example.)

But one of the rarest pleasures is a short story that unnerves without any explicit fright or departure from reality.  Everything seems as though it could happen, and the parts that seem less likely are still easily explained away.  Nevertheless, the world created by the author just seems off.  A bit torqued, slightly wrong, however you’d like to call it.  And all events–from the mundane to the horrific–seem inexorably tainted by this ill-defined offness.

I don’t quite know what to call it.  The corruption of the mundane?  Horrific realism?  It’s difficult to pin down, but I know it whenever I come across it, and it seems like one of the most difficult feats in horror writing to pull off.  Two examples in particular jump out at me–no spoiler cuts, because there’s nothing to spoil.

The Night Ocean”, by R.H. Barlow: I was trying to figure out why the name Barlow was familiar to me, and then I realized–he’s the fellow to whom Lovecraft dedicated his sketch of Cthulhu!I have no idea who he is, but I think this officially makes Barlow a BFD.

“The Night Ocean” is featured in The Horror in the Museum, a collection of stories that Lovecraft either ghost-wrote or edited heavily, so it’s not clear to me how much of the final product was Barlow’s and how much was Lovecraft’s.  It is a story about a man who rents a cottage on the ocean during the off-season.  That’s literally it.  No tentacles, no menacing inbred fish-faced people, no sense of danger, no ill-concealed threat.  But.  I’ve never had thalassophobia, but the shifting nature of the ocean–its moods, its secrets–is captured in such a vivid way that I’ve never quite looked at the sea in the same way.

There were drownings at the beach that year; and while I heard of these only casually (such is our indifference to a death which does not concern us, and to which we are not witness), I know that their details were unsavory.  The people who died–some of them swimmers of a skill beyond the average–were sometimes not found until many days had elapsed, and the hideous vengeance of the deep had scourged their rotten bodies.  It was as if the sea had dragged them into a chasm-lair, and had mulled them about in the darkness until, satisfied that they were no longer of any use, she had floated them ashore in a ghastly state.”

“Rotterdam”, by Nicholas Royle: There’s more plot to this story than “The Night Ocean”, but not by much.  A man is scouting Rotterdam for potential shooting locations for a film adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s stories.  He runs into the writer of the script, a man he views with both vague disdain and apprehension.  But what’s truly striking is not the palpable decrepitude of some of the areas he sees–that’s why the scout is there, after all–but the strange statues that pop up all over the city, a pop-up installation by the odd London artist Antony Gormley.  He creates cast-iron molds of himself, which appear seemingly at random throughout major metropolitan areas.

On the Westzeedijk, a boulevard heading east away from the city center, Joe came upon the Kunsthal: a glass-and-steel construction, the art gallery had a protruding metal deck on which were scattered more Gormley figures in different positions.  Lying flat, sitting down, bent double.  Inside the gallery, visible through the sheet-glass walls, were more figures striking a variety of poses.  Two faced each other through the plate glass, identical in all respects except height.

gormley

It would appear Antony Gormley is a real person. 

I did not know that.

Google searches inspired by horror stories are literally the only reason I have any semblance of culture whatsoever.

Anyway!  No one really comments on the figures–they’re accepted as a part of life–but they cast a weird shadow on everything.  When something terrible happens, when someone may or may not have given in to an uncharacteristic act of violence, there are no clear answers, but plenty of suspicions.  There’s reason at all why Lovecraft’s stories would be related to the bizarre, omnipresent figures–and there’s definitely no reason why the two of them together should have precipitated a bloody murder.  But as the story fades to a close with no real resolution, it’s hard not to try to draw the strings together.  Whether or not that’s a valid interpretation is entirely up to the reader.

The Cultist

First and foremost, a shameless plug for a talk I’m giving September 30th.  It should be crazy good fun…I promise lots of pictures and humorous anecdotes.  Also, I don’t actually drink, and I’m given free alcohol coupons by way of reimbursement…so I might just be able to spot you a beer if you show up!

Anyway.  I’ve been thinking a lot about evil in Lovecraftian horror stories because I’ve started reading Clark Ashton Smith.  (No, I haven’t yet finished The Cthulhu Mythos, yes, it was getting too painful, yes, I will finish it at some point…I swear.)  Smith writes a lot about evil–evil sorcerers, corruption in the church, necromancy, the worship of demons.  And yet I haven’t encountered anyone complaining about his incorporation of evil into the mythos the way that EVERYONE seems to hate on Derleth (myself included).

I almost double-majored in Contemporary Literature, but one introductory class made me floor it out of there.  (As it turns out, I am much better at enjoying books than I am at reading enough into the subtext to generate papers on the topic.)  I seldom regret this decision, but I can’t help but think that if I had stuck with my original plan, I’d be much more adept at explaining why the evil of Smith is so much more effective in the Lovecraftian cannon than the evil of Derleth.  But I’ll give it a shot anyway.

First of all, I categorically reject the notion that incorporating themes of evil into the Lovecraft cannon goes against Lovecraft’s original intentions.  My guess, however, would be that evil was a fundamentally human invention: there may be savage cults and witches and warlocks and those with intent to do harm or seek vengeance, but the cosmic entities they worship and struggle (in a usually futile attempt) to control exist outside our knowledge to the point where assigning them values of “good” or “evil” is almost humorous.  They are a means to an evil, human end.  I feel that this theme is very well represented in Lovecraft’s stories, and Clark Ashton Smith makes great use of it.

Second, and perhaps more divisively, I tend to believe that it’s not necessarily a grave violation for Lovecraftian characters (and, by extension, Lovecraftian readers) to interpret cosmic horrific entities as evil.  We’re as limited as the characters in the sense that our ability to interpret the universe is bound up in the same heuristics we use to make sense of everyday life.  And, in the context of Lovecraftian horror, those heuristics are absurdly limited.  This is why we react to Lovecraftian character’s abrupt descent into insanity with bemusement rather than horror.  For instance, how are we meant to interpret the end of At the Mountains of Madness*?

He has on rare occasions whispered disjointed and irresponsible things about “The black pit,” “the carven rim,” “the protoShoggoths,” “the windowless solids with five dimensions,” “the nameless cylinder,” “the elder Pharos,” “Yog-Sothoth,” “the primal white jelly,” “the color out of space,” “the wings,” “the eyes in darkness,” “the moon-ladder,” “the original, the eternal, the undying,” and other bizarre conceptions…

I’m not sure we’re meant to read this and be overcome with horror.  I think we’re supposed to read this and think, “…?”  My guess is that the disjointed phrases are supposed to emphasize how little we know and create a sense of general unease rather than abject terror.  Who knows.  Regardless, I think it’s an acceptable tendency for protagonists to assume that the monstrous, faceless entities that cause destruction and insanity wherever they shamble must be evil; it’s much easier to accept that such cosmic entities are deliberately malicious rather than completely indifferent.

So–wherein lies the difference between the evil of Smith and the evil of Derleth?

http://www.eldritchdark.com/galleries/by-cas/

For starters, the evil beings of Smith look creepy as shit.

Derleth’s evil cosmic entities have a tremendously human backstory.  The Great Old Ones are constantly entwined and embattled with each other: Tsathoggua hates Nyarlathotep, who happens to be Cthulhu’s half-brother.  They all got thrown out of paradise one day by the benevolent Elder Gods, and now they’re scattered across the universe in various cosmic prisons, each of them struggling to regain ascendance.

Struggling, I think, is the key word in that paragraph.  Derleth’s evil is not omnipotent.  It’s weak, it’s sneaking and striving for a chance to get a foothold.  To be fair, evil sneaking in the back door is very much an accepted, valid horror trope (see The Exorcist, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby).  But this rings extraordinarily false in the context of Lovecraft’s work: Great Cthulhu waits dead and dreaming, not gritting his teeth and wringing his tentacles and plotting revenge.  Cthulhu is worshiped, but one doesn’t get the sense that he’s infinitely grateful to his cultists for helping ease him back into power.  One gets the sense that he is hungry.

Compare that to Smith’s incarnations of evil.  In one of his short stories, Smith hypothesizes that there’s an element of pure evil in the universe–we as humans can only see it filtered through humanity, in petty instances of crime, hatefulness, and murder.  A devotee of evil–a traditional Lovecraftian cultist–decides to create a device in order to experience pure cosmic evil, and it goes about as well for him as it would for any cultist.  The sense of evil here is creepy (as is the devotion of someone who’s dedicated their life to worshiping evil), but I don’t think it’s the source of the horror.  The horror comes from the invocation of cosmic forces, which we are powerless to control.  Evil, in this case, didn’t come knocking on the back door looking for an entry: it was deliberately sought out, and the consequences of this incautious act were inevitable.

There’s a fantastic element to Smith that I quite enjoy–you don’t see it as much in modern mythos fiction.  There are evil emperors and sorcerers in control of fantastic, malign gardens and hideous labyrinths, all described in loving detail.   But beneath the poisonous flowers and contorted statures and acid baths, there’s the same sense of powerlessness: people try to fight the evil, to be sure, but evil always wins.  It’s not even really in question, despite the best and most sincere efforts of humanity.  Not a single one of the evil entities ever seem threatened by the angry do-gooders who confront them.

Evil can (and often does) fit seamlessly into Lovecraftian fiction, as long as it can co-exist with a sense of indifference and the ultimate powerlessness of humanity.  On Friday, I’ll talk about a handful of my favorite mythos stories that unabashedly incorporate themes of good versus evil.

The Cultist

*Beating a dead horse, I know.  I swear there’s a purpose to this, though!

 

 

Feel free to listen to listen to the following while reading this post:

Yep, it’s yet another installment of “Things that irritate the Cultist about modern mythos fiction”, except for I can’t fully place the blame on post-Lovecraft writers. Lovecraft himself started this particular trend*, and by god, I just don’t like it.  Not one bit.

The trend I refer to is the depressing tendency for a huge number of Lovecraftian stories to invoke one of the following tropes:

  1. At the end of the story, the narrator reveals that he is in fact in an insane asylum, and can’t get anyone to believe a word of his story, despite the odd, potentially supernatural, clearly unusual nature of his infraction.
  2. Alternatively, the story begins with the narrator fretting about how he will surely be locked up in an insane asylum once he puts this story to paper, so unbelievable is the tale he is about to tell you.
  3. The narrator is fine, but he isn’t at the center of the story he just told you–the brunt of the horrible, terrible, unthinkable experience fell upon his close friend or relative, who now wastes away in an insane asylum.
  4. A whole bunch of things happened that were creepy and amazing and impressive and delightful to read about, and then at the very last minute, literally in the last two or three paragraphs, something happened that drove someone absolutely insane (and they are now in an insane asylum).  No one is quite sure what that something is, because the insane fellow can’t manage to string a coherent sentence together.  (I’m looking at you, At the Mountains of Madness.)

I’m not trying to insinuate that the loss of sanity isn’t an important component of a lot of mythos fiction–the bleak, impossibly vast nature of the cosmic entities (along with a sense of humanity’s complete powerlessness) combine to make madness inviting, far more preferable to the alternative**.  But…I have weird suspension of disbelief issues.  Which is not to say that I have trouble suspending disbelief, but rather that tiny details succeed in kicking me out of the warm glow of fantasy/sci-fi/horror.

Which is to say: If you act normal, behave normally, can put together a coherent/logical/convincing (if bizarre) story, command respect, and are a member of the academic elite (as so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists are), I find it very, VERY hard to believe that EVERYONE will immediately shun you the moment you step forward with your weird, unbelievable tale, let alone make a discrete call to the doctor who will trundle in the white coats and sippy cups at a moment’s notice.  (Seriously, is this how psychiatry worked in the early 20th century?)

Which is also to say: Even if someone is acting weird and/or criminal (for instance, if he just randomly shot his best friend) BUT there’s also something extremely strange about the case (let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that the putrefying corpse of his best friend’s wife has randomly shown up on the presumed-insane individual’s doorstop, with no sign of human intervention), I find it extremely hard to believe that literally no one would think about the case beyond, “Whelp, that was weird!  A truly strange coincidence that happens to align with your bewildering story perfectly!  Hope the food in the asylum isn’t too bad!”

Which is very seriously to say: There is literally NOTHING more disappointing than ending a story with “And then someone saw something SO BAD that it immediately drove him insane, but we have no idea what it was.  Whelp.  The end!”

(I’m not joking, not even a little bit.  Come up with a worse ending than that.  I challenge you.)

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I’m also not trying to say that incorporating the need for (or inevitability of) insanity is simple.  It’s very hard to tell a first-person narrative of insanity that straddles the line between coherency/disbelief and incoherence/verisimilitude.  I think it’s well worth the effort, though–when the balance is perfect, the uneasy feeling it creates is second-to-none.  Furthermore, I don’t necessarily think that a sight or experience that results in insanity necessarily mandates a clear, easy-to-visualize description.  It just absolutely shouldn’t be the last-minute twist to a story.  (Do I seem a little hung up on At the Mountains of Madness?  Maybe a bit.  I read it when I was 15 or 16, and I STILL remember that moment of letdown at the end.)

While “The Repairer of Reputations” definitely stands out as featuring a superb unreliable narrator, I think that insanity in general has been handled much more masterfully by modern writers.  The stories I’ll talk about on Friday showcase some of the most impressive improvements on the original source.

The Cultist

* I think he started it?  Maybe?  I’ve got an anthology of Lovecraft’s favorite horror writers I’ve been meaning to read, so when I’m finished with that I may be able to make a more educated case, but right now the only Lovecraft predecessor I can think of who pulled out the “I’m so utterly INSANE!” stops was Robert W. Chambers, who noted in the afterward to “The Repairer of Reputations” that the narrator died in an insane asylum.  I’m reasonable okay with this.

**To quote Captain Ahab:

Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmy; sanely woeful to me. In no paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?

***Wellllll…I heard a rumor that not only was Guillermo del Toro was going to make the story into a movie, but that Cthulhu would show up. Everything happening + Cthulhu randomly showing up at the end and driving the one guy who saw him insane=Possibly a more disappointing ending. Possibly.

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.

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.

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 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