Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos by Robert M. Price
Cover art by John Jude Palencar
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Although during his own lifetime H P Lovecraft's writings were little regarded beyond a small circle of fans, appearing mostly in obscure fanzines, and he died with health broken by his years of financial struggles, within a few decades he would be regarded as the dean of American weird fiction. He is most notable for having moved horror beyond its traditional roots in the folklore of vampires, ghosts and the like, instead suggesting that the greatest horrors lay in the monstrous indifference of the universe toward humanity's existence.
In his efforts to create a sense of verisimilitude in his tales, a sense of the realness of his monstrous eldritch entities to the point that readers would be left casting uneasy glances over their shoulders, Lovecraft encouraged a number of contemporary writers of weird fiction to include references to those weird, well-nigh unpronounceable names -- Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, etc. in their own original fiction. Thus a reader perusing, say, one of Robert E. Howard's tales of Conan the Barbarian and coming across a reference to a vile god Ktoo-loo worshipped by a cult in a decadent city or by savage tribesmen would recognize it as a mangled version of the name of the same terrible entity who lay sleeping in sunken R'lyeh in Lovecraft's own "The Call of Cthulhu."
This volume contains many of the stories written by that inner circle of Lovecraft's friends, and of his early imitators. Some of these stories explicitly continue concepts and storylines from Lovecraft's own stories, while others simply seek to recreate the feel of his style of weird.
In the Preface, Robert Bloch (author of the novel that became the basis of Alfred Hitchcock's famous Psycho) tells of his own experience with Lovecraft's fiction, and how it inspired his own and others' works.
In the Introduction, editor Robert M. Price lays out some of the process by which he selected and arranged the stories in this anthology. In particular, it is intended as a follow-on to an earlier anthology, August Derleth's Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. He then expounds upon his reasons for not including any of Lovecraft's own work, as well as some of the well-known works in the Lovecraft tradition by other authors which he omitted from this volume.
The anthology proper begins with Robert E. Howard's "The Thing on the Roof," which a naive reader might associate with Lovecraft's own "The Thing on the Doorstep." However, this story has nothing to do with attempts to reanimate the dead, instead dealing with a mysterious Mesoamerican cult known as the Temple of the Toad, and the horror which the archeologist Tussmann discovers within it.
In "The Fire of Asshurbanipal" Robert E. Howard takes us to the Middle East, where adventurer Steve Clarney seeks forbidden knowledge -- specifically, a lost city mentioned in the Necronomicon, and the giant ruby once held by one of its long-dead kings. Of course we know no good is going to come of this, but Clarney refuses to be dissuaded by any number of locals, and forges his way through. The ending of this one is somewhat more ambiguous, and could be read by a naive reader as the protagonist attaining victory, but I have a bad feeling that the seeming escape of the protagonist from a nasty fate is at best a temporary stay of execution, and he's not going to get home with his prize.
While Robert E. Howard's stories took place in the modern era and even the ancient cultures his protagonists investigate are recognizable (if treated in an Orientalizing manner now considered inappropriate and offensive by most critics) Clark Ashton Smith's "The Seven Geases" takes us to a time and place beyond the bounds of the known, to the Lord Ralibar Vooz who apparently lives in a forgotten time before the dawn of known history, given the reference to extinct species from earlier ages of the Earth. Yet he considers himself a thoroughly modern man within his culture, suspicious of the superstitions of the common folk -- until he finds himself under the compulsion of seven geases laid upon him, which force him to undertake a quest into a mysterious underworld filled with a multitude of wildly divergent creatures and spirits.
The Black Pharaoh Nephren-Ka, who abandoned the wholesome solar religion of Amun-Ra in favor of the worship of various dark deities, was originally a creation of Lovecraft himself, although little more than a dire reference tossed off in order to add a little local color to a story. In "Fane of the Black Pharaoh" Robert Bloch fleshes him out a little through the eyes of the Egyptologist Cartaret, who determinedly infiltrates the surviving elements of his cult in order to discover his secrets. However, it turns out that the wondrous prophetic paintings that the Black Pharaoh worked on his temple-tomb have been covered by heavy draperies by his successors, with their contents revealed only as they happen. As the day's prophecy is revealed, he sees himself being led to his doom and realized that by his own actions he's brought about the events that were prophesied, leaving a curious tension between free will and determinism that is at the heart of any good time-travel story, even if it is just about information traveling backward through time (which is what a prophecy is, in effect).
Henry Kuttner's "The Invaders" deals with yet another of Lovecraft's favorite themes, the book of forbidden lore that is discovered by some scoffing modern who thinks he can use it with impunity, only to learn that such tomes are forbidden for good reason. Hayward is a writer of weird stories, and he invites the narrator and another friend, Mason, to a seaside cottage to reveal the secrets of his success. In a book known as De Vermis Mysteriis he found a formula for a drug that enables his consciousness to transcend the boundaries of time and space and relive his previous lives as adventurers who meddled with the uncanny and eldritch. However, in hopes of gaining more vivid impressions, he neglected to take certain precautions, and something has forced its way in.
In "Bells of Horror" Kuttner gives us the story of a set of bells that were originally made for a Spanish mission in what is now southern California, but were secretly dedicated by the priests of a local cult to a god of darkness. The bells were subsequently buried and the cave has become a locus of superstitious dread by the area's Mexican population. However, some Anglos have determined to recover and restore the bells in spite of all advice to the contrary, certain that all this fear is nonsense. And then the horrific mutilations begin, and the whispers in the darkness.
August Derleth's "The Thing that Walked on the Wind" is a twist on the story of the Wendigo, which appears to have begun as a folkloric reinforcement of the cannibalism taboo among the various Algonquian peoples, a warning that there were indeed fates worse than death by starvation. However, Ithaqua as he appears in this story has substantial differences from the traditional representation of the Wendigo, most importantly his association with winds and cold more than hunger, and his position as one of the Great Old Ones, the sinister eldritch entities who were often worshipped as gods by many ancient peoples but in fact seem to have been more on the order of highly advanced aliens.
In this story, three people suddenly fall from a windstorm to land in a snowbank. The woman is clearly dead, but the men cling to life. Their rescuers recognize them as individuals who vanished a year earlier from a town that worshipped a mysterious air elemental and made human sacrifices to it. The two men are confused and babble about strange entities and distant lands, and when the doctors try to warm them, they instead die. The story ends with a hint of strange and ancient entities that may have taken these two men, and who may have transformed them in such a way that they could no longer re-adapt to normal human life.
"Ithaqua," August Derleth's second contribution, also deals with this mysterious entity of cold and wind, this time in connection with a town known as Cold Harbor, where the indigenous peoples are believed to worship Ithaqua at an ancient altar. A constable who attempts to investigate is instead watched by a mysterious and hostile presence, and at the end it appears that his investigations did not end well for him.
August Derleth teams up with Mark Schorer to write "The Lair of the Star-Spawn," the story of Eric Marsh's expedition to Burma (modern Myanmar) to investigate the mysterious Tcho-Tcho people. They are said to be a small folk, oddly misshapen like various Wee Folk in the legends of various cultures, and live in a city on an island in the middle of the Lake of Dread. The protagonist's relations with Fo Lan and the other people of the Plateau of Sung are very characteristic of the era in which it was written, which may be considered offensively Orientalizing and exoticizing by the more politically correct modern reader, but the final revelation has a chillingness that will leave one feeling quite ravished, if one can read it as a period piece and avoid imposing modern sensibilities upon it.
"The Lord of Illusion" is E Hoffmann Price's original draft of what would become a collaboration with Lovecraft himself, "Through the Gates of the Silver Key." This is a story of Randolph Carter, the protagonist of Lovecraft's Dreamlands stories, and extends the story beyond his disappearance from the mortal world to tell how he entered the Land of Illusion. However, he leaves behind a parchment which becomes a key by which is discovered a link with an ancestor, one Geoffrey Carter, who lived 550 years earlier and who remembers events yet to be of his descendant's encounter with the mysterious IT who has neither identity nor self, but promises to open the mysteries of the universe to him.
Richard F. Searight's "The Warder of Knowledge" deals with another theme we find frequently in the works of Lovecraft, namely, the precocious youth who becomes involved in occult studies. Gordon Witney may not be a monstrous hybrid like Wilbur Whateley, but his fascination with the mysterious Eltdown Shards leads him to delve into various forbidden tomes such as the Necronomicon and the Book of Eibon. The shards are, as the name suggests, irregular pieces of iron-hard gray clay upon which are inscribed witting in an unknown script. Their shapes suggest that they are parts of a now-lost larger whole, perhaps several tablets similar to those used by the Mesopotamians, but far more ancient. Although the figures given for the age of the geological stratum in which they were found would put them at the time when early hominids were becoming recognizable early humans, it's suggested that the script may have been ancestral to such languages as Arabic or Amharic. This assertion can be taken in several ways, either as an unflattering Orientalization, or as a suggestion of the interferences of eldritch entities in human history.
However, of more interest to the reader is what happens when Whitney deciphers a text which he believes to be an invocation of the titular Warder of Knowledge. Yes, he does succeed in opening the gate as he'd hoped -- but some things are stronger and more dangerous than he'd previously suspected, and thus he gets a nasty lesson in the old adage that you should be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it. Or in the case of eldritch entities, do not summon what you cannot dispel.
In "The Scourge of B'Moth" Bertram Russell (not to be confused with the English philosopher Bertrand Russell) tells the story of a psychiatrist who is researching several accounts of a mysterious psychosis gripping people in vastly disparate parts of the world. Most peculiarly, it bears a grotesque resemblance to some traditions of demonic possession, which is disturbing to a man of a time when psychiatry is working hard to throw off the superstitious beliefs of the past and become a branch of modern medical science. But the further he goes, the more evidence he gathers that a monstrous entity, the Master who is sometimes called B'Moth or Behemoth, is about to send a horde of fierce wild animals to crush civilization and blot it out. Although it ends with humanity saved from the immediate threat, there is an intense feeling of "all victories are temporary, and only our defeats are permanent."
Mearle Prout's "The House of the Worm" is the story of a visit to a hunting ground known as Sacrament Wood. But as our protagonists approach, they are warned off by an old man who claims everybody is dead. Not to be deterred, they forge on, but as they spend the night, they notice an increasing sense of wrongness about their surroundings. Their overnight stay turns nightmarish, and the next day they hurry home without doing any hunting, only to find a news item telling of the death of the very man who'd warned them off -- and that his body was in such a state of putrefaction that he must have been dead for weeks.
A lot of horror stories would end there, with the revelation of the unnatural rupture of the boundaries between life and death. However, Prout takes the story onward, to our protagonists' efforts to battle the mysterious living death that has gripped the once-beautiful valley, a horror that defies the simple, materialistic explanations imposed upon it by physicians and other men of science. And thus our heroes force their way in to the place where one of those nameless cults had held their unspeakable rites -- and in the end we are left uncertain whether belief or unbelief is the more important force in the breaking of the menace.
In "Spawn of the Green Abyss" C. Hall Thompson gives us a story reminiscent of Lovecraft's "The Shadow of Innsmouth," with its background of unnatural relations with eldritch entities from the sea. Except there is one difference here -- we have not an entire town, but a single family, an old sailor and his daughter, living on a barrier island in a decaying old house with a library full of most peculiar books. The narrator tells us at the beginning that he is writing his account to explain why he murdered his wife and unborn child, and thus we see the horrible unfolding of the events that led to that act, as he discovered the terrible secret concerning his beloved's origins in a terrible becalmed sea reminiscent of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. But like the folk of Innsmouth, she is also transforming into something Other and terrible, but worse, for she may well be a gateway by which something ancient and terrible seeks entry into the world.
Henry Hasse gives us "The Guardian of the Book," another variant on Lovecraft's theme of the book of forbidden lore. Except in this volume, all of Lovecraft's favorite Tomes of Terrible Knowledge are rattled off by the old man as if they were quite ordinary obscure and dry works, nothing compared to the one he's trying to interest the protagonist in. Namely, The Most Damnable Book In the Universe, a fat volume like a ledger which contains a strange script that dances before the reader's eyes and then shifts into readable form. There the protagonist reads the story of events on a world known as Vhoorl, where one Tlaviir records the efforts of his friend Kathulhn to go beyond the bounds of the known and learn of Them. A reader familiar with the Lovecraft mythos will recognize Vhoorl as the birthplace of Cthulhu, and thus recognize Kathulhn as yet another form of that dread name -- which makes the lines between record and actor thin dangerously, particularly when the book begins to show evidence of mysterious powers of self-preservation. The ending is notably ambiguous, which makes the air of menace even more intense.
In "The Abyss" Robert W. Londes gives us yet another story of men meddling in lore best left alone, in this case the mysterious Song of Yste, a name that suggests "east," a direction often associated with mysterious wisdom, hence the whole "lure of the Orient" thing. And in this case, it deals with a mysterious race of aliens known as the adumbrate, who can delude humans into impossible situations that bring about their own destruction.
Duane W. Rimel's "Music of the Stars" is another story that begins as so many weird stories do with a confession of murder by a narrator who insists that he had good reason to kill his friend, although the world may think him mad and condemn him before the law. In this case we have a friend whose musical talents have led him to research into the story of Erich Zann, the mad musician about whom Lovecraft wrote. For years these two friends wandered the world seeking copies of books of forbidden lore in hopes of finding out some of those secrets about what lies beyond the fields we know. When something answers their call, forcing its way in from some other dimension, our human heroes have no choice but to kill -- and quite probably to face charges of murder, for who would ever believe their stories of strange forces from Beyond taking over a man's body for nefarious purposes, in this rational day and age?
Many critics have commented upon the near-complete absence of female characters from Lovecraft's own work. In "The Aquarium" Carl Jacobi gives us a story that centers around two young women who rent a house in London. It seems nice enough, except for the grotesquely ornate aquarium in the library. It seems the previous occupant was a conchologist who had collected a number of truly peculiar specimens -- and some of them are still alive, and hungry.
One of the most disturbing parts of it for me was when the one kitten disappeared. But then I'm fond of cats, so I really felt for the poor mother cat, and for the two women who had apparently become fond of the felines as well. And it does set up quite well for the revelation of the final horror.
Although most of the stories in this volume have been serious takes on the Lovecraft mythos, Donald A. Wollheim's "The Horror out of Lovecraft" is a parody, with the final Horrible Revelation proving so absurd it's difficult not to laugh rather than shudder. But even Lovecraft himself was capable of self-parody, as witness his short story "The Unnamable," which appears in the collection Waking Up Screaming.
The final story, "To Arkham and the Stars" by Fritz Leiber, is a fond tribute to two of the best-known imaginary places of Lovecraft Country -- Arkham, Massachusetts and Miskatonic University. The story is set sometime in the late 1950's, shortly after the International Geophysical Year, and features a number of Lovecraft's protagonists gathering on campus to reminisce about the old days.
Overall, it's a very interesting look at how other hands have continued Lovecraft's literary tradition in a variety of ways, some handling the material directly and others giving only dark hints of terrible evils peeking over the walls of our cozy garden.
Table of Contents
- Preface by Robert Bloch
- Introductin by Robert M. Price
- "The Thing on the Roof" by Robert E. Howard
- "The Fire of Asshurbanipal" by Robert E. Howard
- "The Seven Geases" by Clark Ashton Smith
- "Fane of the Black Pharaoh" by Robert Bloch
- "The Invaders" by Henry Kuttner
- "Bells of Horror" by Henry Kuttner
- "The Thing that Walked on the Wind" by August Derleth
- "Ithaqua" by August Derleth
- "The Lair of the Star-Spawn" by August Derleth and Mark Schorer
- "The Lord of Illusion" by E. Hoffmann Price
- "The Warder of Knowledge" by Richard F. Searight
- "The Scourge of B'Moth" by Bertram Russell
- "The House of the Worm" by Mearle Prout
- "Spawn of the Green Abyss" by C. Hall Thompson
- "The Guardian of the Book" by Henry Hasse
- "The Abyss" by Robert W. Lowndes
- "Music of the Stars" by Duane W. Rimel
- "The Aquarium" by Carl Jacobi
- "The Horror out of Lovecraft" by Donald A Wollheim
- "To Arkham and the Stars" by Fritz Leiber
Review posted February 1, 2013.
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