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Tag Archives: The Cthulhu Mythos

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!

 

 

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 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