Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Trail of Cthulhu

August Derleth The Trail of Cthulhu (1962)
Yes, I know. My to-be-read pile is organised and tackled in a specific order so as to keep pace where I have two or more titles by the same author, or of a fairly specific type. This is done so as to avoid my coming to the end of the pile and finding I've obliged myself to read, for example, seven A.E. van Vogt novels in a row. Therefore having come to the Lovecraftian segment of the established sequence, it was a toss-up between this or the third Grafton paperback collection of shorts by the man himself. I ended up going for Derleth, experiencing a vague sensation of having reached H.P. sauce saturation point in recent months, what with Grant Morrison and Alan Moore borrowing bits of the mythology, that horrible shite I read by Colin Wilson, and whatever that last fucking awful anthology was; in addition to which, I coincidentally dip my toe into a certain internet forum, and there's the one particular complete knob and self-declared Lovecraft expert holding forth as usual, and apparently holding forth in a belief of anyone caring what he thinks about anything, penning his missives as ever in the tone of a nineteenth century librarian whilst revealing the emotional development of a fifteen-year old. This month, having given the matter some consideration, our boy has come to the view that the quintessential distillate of Lovecraft's genius is to be found not in any of the space octopus tales, but in one of the others of which I can't remember the name - something scary happens, I think some bloke inherits a house and there's a ghost or something like that...

The thing that irritates the living shit out of me is that whilst Howie undoubtedly had a vivid turn of phrase - providing you ignore the stinkers - we're not talking fucking Schopenhauer here. We're not actually talking anything you could term even moderately philosophical without looking a bit of a berk. We're talking about a man who wrote scary stories about creepy uncles with books of magic spells, and who wrote these scary stories on paper and published them in magazines because Scooby Doo hadn't yet been invented so his traipsing along to Hanna-Barbera with a proposal would have been a complete waste of time. Of course, none of this is specifically Lovecraft's fault, and as always the worst element of any cultural success story will usually be its stupid fucking fans.

To return to the point, August Derleth, so I reasoned, was a capable writer, albeit one perhaps lacking the poetry of Lovecraft, from whom he otherwise took much inspiration. For all his failings, Derleth was unambiguously in the business of keeping his readers happy and therefore might, by some terms, be seen as attempting to save the Cthulhu mythos from its creator, at least in so much as that he occasionally managed to write a story not involving some guileless tosspot inheriting a book of magic spells from a creepy uncle whom no-one liked to talk about.

So, The Trail of Cthulhu it was...

The Trail of Cthulhu is five individual short stories sharing sufficient characters and themes as to work as a novel when read in the order given here, more or less. This distinguishes it from Lovecraft's writing in so much as H.P. never wrote anything of this length. The problem is that although The Trail of Cthulhu works as a novel, it isn't necessarily a good novel. Its narrative comprises the somewhat predictable accounts of five individuals who just had to write it all down, all of whom meet up in the final tale as a sort of Cthulhubusters task force. The pattern of events is already familiar: there's this scary thing and it's probably just my imagination, but - fuck me - it wasn't just my imagination after all, and wow, that really is pretty damn scary, over and over with the traditional cock-obvious clues screaming at the reader left, right, and centre.

You are alive, and yet I definitely saw you die. How unusual!

The customary list of forbidden books are checked in and out of the library at Miskatonic University with such frequency as to call into question just how forbidden they could really be, and we get the familiar itinerary of unpronounceables repeated over and over, seasoned with some new faces which Derleth added so as to emphasise his good squelchy guys versus bad squelchy guys interpretation of the Lovecraftian playset. This wouldn't be so bad for someone reading these stories in isolation, but welded together as a single novel, the repetition becomes tiresome. On the other hand, one major criticism of Derleth's version of Lovecraft has been, as I understand it, with regard to his efforts to superimpose a variant of the traditional Christian morality tale; although in his favour, that particular drum is beaten fairly softly here, and the comparison of Cthulhu's imprisonment to Satan's expulsion from heaven works quite well, I thought.

The only elements to which I had any strong objection - as opposed to just wondering whether or not I should skip a page or two - were Derleth's attempts to ground the mythos in legitimate archaeological and anthropological references, essentially doing a von Däniken, something of which H.P. was equally guilty. Here we get frequent name-checks for the cultures of Easter Island, the Marquesas group, the Tlingit, and Mesoamerican and Inca civilisations. Such references work fine if you don't really know anything about the cultures involved and tend to think well it's all the bleedin' same innit, bleedin' octopus gods and dancing around in the nuddy, all the bleedin' same innit, but strikes me as very lazy.

Tlaloc the Mexican Rain God, for one example, may indeed appear to have a face full of tentacles and certain aquatic associations, except those are stylised snakes rather than tentacles, and part of a pictogram signifying rain. So his image is actually a written representation more akin to an elaborate Chinese character than necessarily a depiction of anything physical; but such cultures are poorly understood and hence fair game for interpretation and appropriation, which is why no post-Lovecraftian tale ever added Lloyd George to the pantheon of elder Gods or tried to suggest that Mansfield Park was a forbidden text describing nameless horrors, at least not so far as I am aware.

The Trail of Cthulhu is readable but a bit stupid in places. On the other hand I've read much worse, and significantly I've read much worse by H.P. Lovecraft himself.

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