Saturday, 28 September 2013

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos

August Derleth (editor) Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969)

It could be argued that Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos served to reinvent a specific genre of horror just as Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker revised earlier Gothic narratives to account for the changing nineteenth century view of humanity's place in the great scheme of things; although it's probably worth noting that I'm guessing here, horror fiction never really having been my thing. To varying degrees, both Frankenstein and Dracula addressed the emergent possibility that, contrary to Christian teaching, there might not be an afterlife to which the human soul migrates after death. Lovecraft's weird tales similarly revise earlier demons and spirits as creatures from realms beyond the Earth, and whose existence is defined in relation to scientific understanding specifically through being beyond the scope of quantification by its twentieth century expression. Horror defined in relation to something understood and at least partially accepted at the time - science as opposed to pure superstition - perhaps held greater emotional resonance than when grounded in ideas which no longer worked quite so well as they may once have done. That said, Lovecraft still chose an astonishingly limited genre, essentially one barely requiring narrative content, which is why much of his tales can be reduced to I hope that isn't a monster followed by well, I guess it really is a monster; although as with Frank Carson, it was all in the way he told 'em.

This much becomes painfully obvious when others have a crack at playing with Lovecraft's slimey and tentacular train set. Of the eleven authors gathered here by August Derleth, just four manage to tell 'em with anything like the conviction of the tales from which the mythos is drawn. The rest, although far from terrible, tend to suffer from trying to do a Lovecraft and simply not doing it particularly well, dropping one generic clanger after another and in one instance even trying to pass off the idea that the terrified narrator scribbled his final second by second commentary even as the nameless monstrosity from beyond the dawn of time was oozing through the keyhole.

I can hear it coming now even as I record these, my last words - it's scratching at the door - oh God! That face! Aaaaaaaaa-

Sure. That's really going to happen. The guy who delved into that which man was not intended to know is going to conclude his testimony with the word Aaaaagh written in his notebook just as the ancient bumfaced nightmare draws near.

You might hope August Derleth would himself put in a decent showing given that he was Lovecraft's friend, biggest fan, tireless promoter, and a capable writer, but still you get the impression he hadn't quite got the hang of Cthulhu and all his squelchy pals, instead writing something that relates to Lovecraft in the same way that the version of Dracula which fought Spiderman on a few occasions relates to Stoker's novel.

On the other hand, Clark Ashton Smith succeeds simply because he was a wonderful writer, and Robert Bloch manages an original spin on the basic Lovecraftian template; whilst more recent authors Ramsey Campbell and Colin Wilson provide what might be the most convincing selections by virtue of bringing new elements to the basic recipe, and I still like to think that Wilson's The Return of the Lloigor bridges a gap between Lovecraft and Grant Morrison's Zenith.

There's some great stuff here, a fair bit that's simply middling, and apropos of nothing - a shitload of material to keep fans of self-referential fiction happy, with just about everyone writing old H.P. into their own stories as an author of weird tales who somehow stumbled upon the truth; but as both collection and tribute to the big guy with the chin, it is mainly of historical interest.


  1. The biggest issue with Derleth was that he was a committed Christian and refuted the very basis of HPL's cosmology, i.e. its total amorality. So you get all that dividing the entities from beforradawnatime into Good and Evil, which spoils things to a large extent.

  2. Ah.... I've a feeling you may have told me that before but it slipped down the back of the mental sofa, so to speak. It does explain a lot. I have a couple of full length Derleths lined up to read at some point (Masks and Trail IIRC), which should be interesting.