Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Mask of Cthulhu

August Derleth The Mask of Cthulhu (1958)
I seem to recall finding The Lurker at the Threshold something of a slog, this being the same Lurker at the Threshold which began life as a piece of paper upon which H.P. Lovecraft had written the word and, posthumously expanded to novel length by his friend and publisher, August Derleth. It wasn't terrible, but it really didn't need to be more than thirty pages, a length beyond which the story suffered for having a plot which wouldn't have been quite so annoying were it all over and done with a bit quicker, and for having specifically the same plot as most other tales of the Cthulhu mythos.

Well, here I am having inherited a big spooky house from an uncle whom no-one liked to talk about, the one everyone said had started worshipping a dark God called Cthulhu, even though they really didn't like to discuss it. This Cthulhu chap, as I gather from these books belonging to my uncle which are obviously undiluted mumbo-jumbo and definitely not descriptive of anything real, appears to be some sort of scary space octopus much like the one about which I've been dreaming ever since I moved in.

I wonder what that noise was?

It was therefore difficult to approach this, a collection of Derleth's own tales expanding on Lovecraft's mythos, with much enthusiasm; but happily, against expectations, it's not bad at all.

Every single story is more or less the same, following the template summarised in the passage above, but then this narrative conservatism was as much Lovecraft's vice as that of any who endeavoured to continue his legacy; and with this sort of story, as with the jokes of Frank Carson, it's they way you tell them. Derleth told them fairly well, and if he lacked the ornate flourishes of his mentor, he compensated with a breezy pace which, at least here, was never quite so pulpy as everyone seems to claim; and crucially he keeps it short and snappy, quickly building the atmosphere to a head before it has time to collapse beneath the weight of its own absurdity.

A major, and entirely legitimate criticism of Derleth's take on Lovecraft was his reduction of the mythos to your archetypal conflict between good and evil of the kind favoured by C.S. Lewis. The dark Gods of Lovecraft are amoral symbols of an uncaring universe in the wake of the supposed death of God in the late nineteenth century, innit? They embody our fear of the unknown. Derleth adds a group of nameless nice guys to the pantheon and rewrites Howard's bunch as Satanic forces.

The Elder Gods could so easily have become the Christian Trinity; the Ancient Ones could for most believers have been altered into Sathanus and Beelzebub, Mephistofeles and Azarael. Except that they were co-existent, which disturbed me, though I knew that systems of belief constantly overlapped in the history of mankind.

For the sake of argument, this doesn't actually work because whilst systems of belief may indeed overlap throughout the history of mankind, they don't always overlap in quite the same way, and the roughly Abrahamic moral duality Derleth imposes upon his friend's creation is entirely absent in a good few of the pantheistic religions he cites as examples, notably those of the Precolombian Americas; but then Derleth was a writer rather than a religious anthropologist, and I would guess he kept this in mind at least whilst writing the stories collected here. He takes liberties with the mythos, but liberties that serve as narrative garnish and can generally be taken to reflect the beliefs of the main character without conflicting too greatly with anything written by he whomst did first pen this world; and, if nothing else, it does at least show Derleth attempting to move things along, to keep things interesting in an otherwise claustrophobically limited genre.

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