Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 1

Another retro review, from December 9, 2005.

When it appeared on Amazon, weird fiction author Wilum Pugmire rightly chastised me for making a mistake about J. Vernon Shea not being an acquaintance of Lovecraft. He, in fact, corresponded with him. I’ve corrected that mistake here.

Review: Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 1, August Derleth, 1971.Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos

All the authors in this book were personal friends or correspondents of H. P. Lovecraft. Several are distinguished authors in their own right. One, Clark Ashton Smith, could arguably be said to have made some fine contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos. But, apart from Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos“, none of this collection’s stories are worth reading on their own merits.

It was Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” which gave the Mythos its name. While not Lovecraft’s personal best, it is certainly one of the central Mythos stories. It has held up well after more than 60 years. That can not be said for many of his imitators. As this collection shows, there’s some alchemy at work in Lovecraft’s prose beyond the characteristic plot structures and adjectives, the props of gods/ETs and forbidden books, a power based in a carefully constructed paranoia with a decided scientific air about it — and not reworked mythology.

The worse offender here is the editor, personal friend, and arguable savior of Lovecraft’s reputation: August Derleth. But Derleth’s introduction shows he misunderstood Lovecraft. Instead of extraterresterial gods who care as little for human concerns as we do for sidewalk bugs, Derleth recast Lovecraft’s work of cosmic callousness and amorality in to a Christian tale of Good and Evil. Where others of Lovecraft circle saw elaborate in-jokes via shared allusions of fearful tomes and alien races, Derleth chose to establish a systematic mythology of elementals. He imposed specificity on what had been disturbing, but vague. Derleth’s two tales here, “The Dweller in Darkness” and “Beyond the Threshold” use Lovecraft plot devices and blasphemous books and allusions to Lovecraftian locales and are told in a Lovecraft prose style, but they are pallid imitations whose main point of interest is that Derleth chose his own native locale, Wisconsin, for the stories just as Lovecraft used his native New England. Derleth’s air elemental, Ithaqua, is mildly interesting.

Smith made his own ornate additions to the Mythos, but the best aren’t here. His “The Return of the Sorcerer” is sometimes cited by Smith fans as his worst story. It’s not bad as a biter-bitten tale, but it shows none of the ornate brilliance of his other work. Indeed, there’s nothing except the byline to show it is a Smith story. “Ubbo-Sathla” is better and about the author of one of those legendary books Lovecraftian stories are full of. Still, it’s not very memorable. Smith frequently did much better.

Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, shows up here with “The Black Stone“. It’s notable only for featuring Howard’s addition to the library of suppressed books: Unausssprechlichen Kulten.

Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos” succeeds by following in the thematic footsteps of Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” and his collaboration with E. Hoffman Price, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”. The ideas of Einstein and John Dee become “strange bedfellows” in a linking of extradimensions, and the entities that haunt their strange angles, with magic. Long’s “The Space-Eaters” features brain eating aliens, and it’s main attraction is the character of Howard, a horror writer who stands in for Long’s friend Howard Lovecraft. (The narrator is Frank.) One wonders if Howard’s thoughts on his predecessors in horror fiction, sharper than those on the same writers in Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, were taken directly from Long’s conversations with Lovecraft.

J. Vernon Shea’s “The Haunter of the Graveyard” brings Lovecraft up to date by having his unfortunate protagonist be the tv host for shlocky horror movies. Theatrically living near a cemetary, he runs afoul of the spirit of a deceased sorceror. The best bit here is that the host’s favorite authors are Thomas Peacock and Jane Austen and not H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen — though he finds time to read them in the graveyard.

There’s nothing wrong with Henry Kuttner’s “The Salem Horror‘, a reworking of “The Dreams in the Witch-House”. But there’s nothing exceptional either. Certainly nothing even approaching his work with C. L. Moore.

But that’s the case with most of these stories. You won’t be angry or upset you read them — but most won’t linger in your mind either or surprise you.


More reviews of general fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Lovecraft page.

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