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Tag Archives: The Call of Cthulhu

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

There’s a devotion to Lovecraft that strikes me as improbable and amazing. There have been so many amazing horror writers in the last century but, so far as I can tell, none of them boasts the strange communal legacy that Lovecraft has developed. A lot of it, I’m sure, was derived from Lovecraft’s tendency to correspond with and encourage his fellow struggling writers as they all banged out oft-rejected horror for the pulp magazines. Some of it relates to the rather prosaic fact that the gods and creatures Lovecraft developed lend themselves to experimentation more effectively than the characters created by other horror writers: it’s hard to, say, write “Return to the House of Usher” when by the end of the original two of the principle characters are dead, the third has fled and is probably going to go mad really soon, and said house itself has been subsumed into the living earth, or whatever.

But I feel like there’s more to it than that. And I don’t have a great handle on Lovecraft yet, but (obviously) it’s a subject I love to think about. Lovecraft has undoubtedly influenced modern horror tremendously, so what was it about Lovecraft’s horror that proved to be so fertile? He died in 1937, for Christ’s sake. How many other 1930’s writers inspire so much popular thought in 2015? And, within his twisted pantheon, what leads to popular success? I’ve read maybe one mythos story about Azathoth*, but…

…I’ve been beating around the bush for two paragraphs now, so I might as well just come out and get to the topic of today’s post:

I have NO IDEA why everyone is so impressed by Cthulhu.

On my ever-growing shelf of Lovecraft horror, I see (and these are just for starters): On the Black Wings of Cthulhu I through III. Acolytes of Cthulhu. The New Cthulhu. The Book of Cthulhu I and II. But:

  1. Squids are not particularly scary.
  2. Adding bat wings and legs to a squid does not make it scarier.
  3. There’s exactly one Lovecraft story in which Cthulhu features.
  4. He gets wiped out by a dude who drives a boat through his head.
  5. He’s not even a particularly powerful god. (See #4)

I’m not saying “The Call of Cthulhu” is a bad story. On the contrary! You’ve undoubtedly heard the opening sentence thousands of time, plastered at the start of every other mythos story in existence, but in my opinion, the entire paragraph is startling in its bleak assessment of humanity’s path:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

We’re ignorant, yes, cozy in our false sense of isolation and certain of a security built on an imaginary foundation. But if that were the sole source of the horror in Lovecraft, we’d surely have moved on by now. In a few (surprisingly clear, uncluttered sentences), Lovecraft mercilessly pinpoints the source of our doom: our insatiable curiosity. As much as we crave coziness and safety, we keep digging. Despite everything, we keep digging. The only outcome possible is our destruction, and (and! Not but, but and) we keep digging.

The inevitable self-destruction, the curiosity that overcomes our innate, tragically weak sense of self-preservation is one of the most powerful currents in Lovecraft’s work. It continues to inspire horror writers today.

And as we read further, we’re introduced to another key Lovecraft trope: the manipulation of humanity’s shared consciousness. We may live on a placid island of ignorance, but we’re shockingly weak against outside forces that wish to make their presence known. They will be known, regardless of whether we’re the lowest cult worshipper or a foppish, rather delicate young artist. They poison our dreams. They are inescapable.

Part II, I would say, is excellent as well. The Tale of Inspector Legrasse introduces the reader to the worshippers of the Great Old Ones, the backwater practitioners of unspeakable rites performed to please their dead and dreaming masters.

And then…and then…we come to Part III. (Trigger warning: apostasy ahead!)

To a group of sailors that come to a mystical isle, and, after encountering a multitude of slimy rocks and grotesque obelisks, encounter a most dreadful beast. It emerges from its lair, “visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings” (all right). It grabs the poor sailors with its “flabby claws” (huh). It slides into the water, this dreadful “pursuing jelly” (I…okay) , but our brave Norwegian protagonist (whose yellow hair was whitened by this encounter) still has the presence of mind to drive his boat into the “awful squid-head with writhing feelers”, which results in a collision typified by the “bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler could not put on paper” (ewwww). And then Cthulhu is dead, but he was dead all along so maybe he’s not dead (but, I mean, he is dead, maybe just temporarily stymied and dead, not dead-dead).

It’s not a bad ending, by any means. I just don’t think it’s worthy of the two parts that preceded it. And I certainly don’t understand why Cthulhu remains the most recognizable (and, arguably) beloved of the Lovecraftian pantheon. He’s certainly recognizable. (Although, it must be pointed out, the hideous tentacled behemoths are perhaps a far cry from what Lovecraft himself had envisioned, as you can see from his sketches.)Lovecraft's cthulhu

And it can’t be denied that while I might be somewhat unimpressed by the visuals, a lot of Lovecraft’s characters suffer from similar or worse impediments. A friend of mine pointed out that Cthulhu is the only mythos character that isn’t actively, you know, stupid-looking. (Fighting words, for sure, but when the horrible civilization-ending Shoggoths are compared to both subway trains and luminous bubbles in the same breath, you can’t ignore the fact that the argument holds water, at least slightly.)

While my perception of Lovecraft’s fiction is constantly in flux, I would say that the real horror of Lovecraft’s work isn’t derived from its villains itself. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite: the lonely and horrible realization that the villains aren’t really villains, per se, because a villain takes an active interest in its prey. Lovecraft’s most immortal monsters are as indifferent as they are powerful. And the identification and creation of a mascot with a tentacle-y head and little flappy wings diminishes the impact of this conclusion.

The Cultist

*”The Sect of the Idiot”, Thomas Ligotti