Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Yog-Sothoth

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.