Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Chaosium Mythos Fiction: Mysteries of the Worm (2nd ed.) by Robert Bloch

Baby Bob Bloch
After weeks of delay brought about by travel, cataracts, other obligations, and, above all, laziness, I finally finished Mysteries of the Worm by Robert Bloch. It's name is the English version of Bloch's contribution to the Mythos' library of evil volumes: De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludwig Priin. As edited by Lin Carter, it originally appeared in 1981 from Zebra Books. Both later editions had a few stories added by our hero, Robert Price, and were published by Chaosium. I've read the 2nd edition, depriving myself of four more bits of Mythos writing.

He wrote most of the stories in the collection before he was twenty-two. Some barely rise to the level of story, really being nothing more than a nifty idea but lacking much in the way of plot. Only a few are great, the rest being the work of a novice writer. And I don't care.

There's more atmosphere, more thought, and more originality in almost every one of Bloch's stories than any of those I struggled with in Lin Carter's Xothic Legend anthology. Bloch was still a teenager and there's an intimation that he will be a better storyteller someday. With Carter's stories, it's evident that he had reached his limits.

Pt. I

Robert Bloch (1917-1994) is still, sadly, really only known to the wider public (if at all) as the author of Psycho. Even that laurel is faded as it's Hitchcock's movie that people know best. Apparently he only merits a mention in the recent film, Hitchcock, about the creation of the movie.

What most people don't know is that he started his writing career as a sixteen year old member of the Lovecraft Circle. He had written to HPL in hopes of securing copies of older stories that were no longer available. HPL not only sent him copies, he also encouraged the young Bloch to start writing.

Later, Bloch started writing suspense and horror fiction that was more psychological and less supernatural. That path led to Psycho which ultimaltely seems to have led to Hollywood. There he wrote tons of TV scripts as well as several films. Several of Amicus Productions dynamite horror anthologies were written by Bloch. Asylum remains a favorite of mine. And he never stopped writing original fiction. His last novels, Psycho House and The Jekyll Legacy (co-written with Andre Norton), were published in 1990.

Pt. II
In his introduction, Robert Price makes a defense of the authors who dedicated themselves to systematizing the Lovecraft Mythos, especially Derleth, Carter, and Lumley. The post-Derleth reformers insisted:

the cataloguers have misunderstood what a "mythos" is. They maintain that certain stories by Lovecraft or others may draw on this body of myth, but the Mythos refers to the pseudo-information, not to the stories that draw on it

But there are no real tomes of mystery or actual myths and legends to the Lovecraft Mythos notes Price. The stories we are reading by Carter, Bloch, and others are what really compose the Mythos.

As such, while Bloch's creation, De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludwig Priin doesn't actually exist, Price believes Carter's decision to title the collection after it is perfect, stating "The stories of the Mythos are the Mythos!" It's a line of reasoning I like.

Other than that, there's not much further exploration of the theory Price put forward in The Hastur Cycle, that the "true" Mythos is something that preceded and extended past HPL's own stories. All Carter wanted to do when he created Mysteries of the Worm was to get a bunch of stories he loved by a member of the Lovecraft Circle together in one place.

In his "unauthorized" autobiography, Once Around the Bloch, Bloch wrote that as he had few ideas and no style of his own, when he started he tried to emulate his idol, HPL. And that's what you get in much of Mysteries of the Worm.

These are pulp stories, most written for Weird Tales. You can practically smell the ink and cheap paper as you read them. There's an audio clip of Bloch explaining how he would start with a finale for a story and then work out how he got there. It's easy to imagine him doing that in many of these stories.

In one story, a man kills himself  but the knife he uses is revealed to have the fingerprints of a gigantic ape. In another, a man learns his friend has been strangled by the little monster living on his back. In "Notebook Found in a Deserted House", my favorite in the book, you get exactly what the title describes. All cool ideas that Bloch must have had fun working back to the beginning.

So what to make of the actual stories? For all the rough edges and unsurprising surprises, the earliest stories still have a nice zip to them. While he was trying to emulate his mentor, there's still a leanness to Bloch's prose that's similar to what he would develop as a mature writer.

It's also easy to see that maturity starting to emerge over the course of the book. While Bloch mimicked HPL in the first story, "The Secret in the Tomb", by "The Secret of Sebek" from two and a half years later the narrator is self-aware enough to notice when he find himself talking old-timey all of a sudden. It's not that he's dismissive of HPL's more florid style, but that he's finding his own prosaic one. You can see the taut, more naturalistic prose that's the hallmark of his later thrillers and horror stories coming into being.

Several of the stories are linked, not as direct sequels, but by an Egyptian theme. It first appears in "The Faceless God." Bloch plays with Nyarlathothep as a deity worshipped in ancient Egypt under the priesthood of the dark pharaoh, Nephren-Ka. The latter, as Prices points out, is presented as an evil doppelganger of the monotheist ruler, Akhenaten. Like him, Nephren-Ka was struck from all the histories and monuments, but for vile sins and depravities, not simple heresy.

In the Egyptian stories, Bloch does desert adventure in "The Faceless God", dark secrets in the wild English countryside in "The Brood of Bubastis", and a riff on Poe in "The Secret of Sebek." As in all of Bloch's Mythos stories, the emphasis is on the pulp aspects of the whole enterprise. Bloch admits that his knowledge of historical Egypt was pretty lousy, but really, if there are enough animal-headed mummies and secret tombs, who cares?

Much as some critics go on about the depth of meaning to HPL's stories, what brings most people in I would argue, are the monsters and madmen. Sometimes, readers need to be reminded of this cobbled-together thing's roots.

For all the brooding existential dread that permeates the Mythos, there's also a great sense of play present as well. There's a whole lot of meta-storytelling going on from the very beginning. HPL gave himself and his correspondents nicknames. Lovecraft put some of his friends into the stories and allowed himself to be used by them in turn. In "The Shambler from the Stars" Bloch portrayed HPL as a "mystic dreamer" from New England and killed him off.

Lovecraft got his own back, killing off the Bloch stand in, Robert Blake, in "The Haunter of the Dark." Bloch later wrote "The Shadow from the Steeple," a direct sequel to "Haunter." Both of Bloch's are pretty decent.

It's a kick to witness the literary results of Bloch's and Lovecraft's interaction. They were hoping to write good spook stories, but they were in constant conversation with each other. What Bloch and Lovecraft did, killing each other off, is a lot more enjoyable than Derleth and Carter simply listing all the books from each other's haunted library shelves. 

As good, and as much fun, as Bloch's early endeavors are, it's two of the later stories that are the best in Mysteries. The first of these, and easily my favorite non-HPL Mythos tale, is "Notebook Found in a Deserted House." I first read it in theTales of the Cthulhu  Mythos Vol. 2 with the creepy John Holmes cover. I was probably fourteen when I first read it and was glad to find it held up when I reread it last week.

A boy goes to live with his aunt and uncle in the deep woods. Deep woods where awful things apparently lurk, hiding and waiting for dark and awful purposes. It's not a perfect story, with the juvenile narrator writing in his notebook right up until something smashes down a door (I hope you don't think I'm giving anything away by writing that. This is a Mythos story and you do know how they pretty much all end, right?). But there's a great, creeping feeling of dread and rising fear in the story that's terrific.

The final story, "Terror in Cut-Throat Cove," bridges the gap between Bloch's more traditional Mythos stories and his noir-tinged non-supernatural tales. An American expatriate living on a Caribbean island is approached by an American couple to help out on a dive for a Spanish wreck. Things don't go well.


These are not the finest crafted Mythos stories. The earliest ones suffer from clunky writing and derivative plots. But they breathe, there's life in them that many other Mythos writers never found. Bloch's skills developed quickly, and within a few years he was crafting well-written and clever stories that supply a nice jolt.

Bloch never abandoned his love for HPL's creation. In 1978 he wrote Strange Eons. It's a goofy book that tells of the final rising of dread Cthulhu by weaving together incidents from HPL's own tales. It's not scary or disturbing, but it is a lot of fun. It was published by Whisper Press, an arm of the great and mighty Whispers magazine.

Bloch at the Other End of Life
If you have any interest in Robert Bloch or Mythos fiction, buy yourself a copy of Mysteries of the Worm. I'll probably upgrade my copy to the newest edition in the future. The Hastur Cycle is a collection with a more serious purpose (to prove Price's theory regarding the nature of the Mythos as a body of stories), and several stories that aim for loftier artistic goals than Bloch's, but that leaves that volume a little drier and almost academic compared to this one. This book is just much more fun, and, really, that's why I read these stories.

Next TimeCthulhu's Heirs: Tales of the Mythos for the New Millennium, edited by Thomas M. K. Stratman

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Terry Pratchett, RIP

Terry Pratchett died today. I thank him for nearly for literally dozens of very good, often great, books. If you haven't read him, or only a book or two, you should fix that problem. And it is a problem.

Despite the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's Disease Pratchett was still writing until very recently. Except for the last few books, there are no clunkers in the Discworld series. Some I like better than others, but all have moments that will make you laugh out loud. Even in the volumes I like the least he could still whip up characters and scenes that were moving. This from a man who wrote two or three books a year at one point.

Thank you, again, and RIP, Sir Terry.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Don't Avoid the Voidal - The Long Reach of Night by Adrian Cole

My review of the second volume of Adrian Cole's Voidal trilogy went live at Black Gate last week. It's a wonderfully psychedelic trip across the Omniverse by the Voidal and his batrachian sidekick, Elfloq.  I can't believe how snide I was about these stories when I first dipped into them only a few years ago.

When I started writing about swords & sorcery, I wasn't as ready to just appreciate stories just for fun. I was reading some of the new, "serious" fantasy. I read R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy. I heard tell of George RRRR Martin's Game of Thrones and how it was revolutionizing fantasy by making it more realistic. They and other writers were getting away from simplistic ideas of black and white morality. They saw the world in shades of gray. Grim, bloody gray, but still gray. Together, fantasy was being made more realistic and more relevant.

Now, none of those things are bad. Fantasy, as it has become a more widely read and accepted genre, has changed. Lots of genre writing, whichever one it is, stinks, and it always has. Fantasy had gotten pretty stale in the eighties. If Terry Brooks' Shannara books were knock offs of JRRT, then there were lots of books that weren't more than xeroxes of Brooks.

Writing for a genre tends to follow certain rules. A mystery has to have a mystery. Fantasy has to be, well, fantastic. It's the nature of things. What it's meant over the years is that a lot of stories just tick off boxes to qualify for inclusion in a certain genre.

Also, when there's evidence that something sells, people are going to replicate it. Hence, the endless series of series with secret heirs, dark lords, orc stand ins, and all manner of same old same old.

So efforts by certain authors to revive fantasy came as good news to me. Why shouldn't the genre be more realistic or relevant?

So I dove into some of this new fantasy and found lots of it good. I also found that lots of it took itself way too seriously. In their effort to be better, a lot of these books were less than fun.

There's a lot I like about the Prince of Nothing series; the worldbuilding, the history, the even some of the characters. But what it isn't is fun. It's a bleak slog at times, filled with torture, cynicism of the darkest sort. If there's any lightness of tone let alone any humor in it I sure as heck don't recall it.

When I first started reading books like Bakker's, I was pretty excited. This was surely the future of fantasy. It was what needed to be done to make the genre "better." A sad side effect was that I became a little too dismissive of any fantasy that I deemed too frivolous or pulpy.

That's where my early review of the first couple of Adrian Cole's Voidal stories came from. It just wasn't serious enough. Fortunately, I got out of that phase quickly.

I came to the conclusion that I read fantasy for fun. REH may have wanted to make some sort of point about barbarism and civilization, but what makes his stories work are the killer action, the heroes, and worlds filled with demon-haunted jungles, and cyclopean ruins.

Michael Moorcock might have been taking the piss out of S&S in his Elric books but the reason they're great is because of Stormbringer and crazy-ass monsters. Giant, golden, pyramidal battle barges are much cooler and more memorable than any sort of Freudian mumbo-jumbo supposedly underlying the stories.

And it's the same thing with the Voidal stories. There's a magnificently crazy degree of inventiveness in all dozen or so stories I've read. I've included a lot of excerpts in my two reviews over at Black Gate to give you a taste of what you're in for if you open the covers of these books.

And you should open them. Once I dropped my internal barriers (composed of 100% self-important-bullshitium, I should note), I was able to let Cole's mad creation wash over me. It's a rewarding trip any S&S fan should treat himself or herself to. Trust me, your reward will be great.

Don't get me wrong. There's a place for deeper element in heroic fantasy. But Imaro isn't great just because it brings up issues of race, but because Charles Saunders can write one helluva an adventure and knows how to craft horrifying villains and monsters.

I remember reading about some panel discussion in the UK decades ago about why the participants read HPL. Karl Edward Wagner gave a long, artistic reason. Then an artist, three sheets to the wind, roused himself, and said he loved HPL "for the effing monsters." Now I haven't been able to find where I read that, and if forced to testify I'll admit I might have all the facts wrong. Still, it's how I feel about S&S. I read it for fun, and that tends to involve swordplay, rousing adventure, scary monsters, and exciting characters.

NOTE: I haven't abandoned the Chaosium Project, just delayed it. A few folks have mentioned how difficult it is to read the small print in the books. Well, they're right and my cataracts have only made it worse.

I'm getting my first eye operated on tomorrow and that should make finishing Mysteries of the Worm much easier. With luck I'll polish it off next week.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

New Find: John Connolly

A few years ago I caught the Kevin Costner horror flick The New Daughter on Netflix. It's a creepy and disturbing movie that's much better than most of the found-footage movies that deliver scares only by flinging monsters at the viewer from off camera or the torture porn films that seem to exist only to let people satisfy the same urge they have when they stop to rubberneck at an accident in hopes of seeing mangled remains.

I won't say much about it except that it's a very Machenesque story. A divorcee and his two children, a teenage daughter and a younger son, move to a secluded country house that stands next to a strange large mound. I've read enough spooky stories to know you never move into that particular house. Sadly, Kevin's character didn't and he and his family pay the price for his lack of genre knowledge and poor real estate choice.

Reading about the movie, I discovered it was based on a story by one John Connolly. The story "The New Daughter" was available but I quickly forgot about it.

Over the holidays Connolly came up in conversation with my friend, Evan Dorkin (creator/writer of the supernatural investigator comic Beasts of Burden). I mentioned the movie and he immediately brought up the collection, Nocturnes (2004), that features the short story. Evan's a big radio guy and told me that many of the stories in the book were essentially transcripts of radio plays. His recommendation was enough for me to push the One-Click button at Amazon.

I haven't finished Nocturnes yet but so far it's really good. I started with "The New Daughter." As good as the movie is, the story is much better. The film focuses on monsters creeping out from inside the mound. The story, a modern telling of the changeling legend, is about the struggle between a father and the beings who would steal his children away.

The motif of the supernaturally abducted child arises again in "The Erlking." A grown man reflects on the scary stories his father told him and the consequences of not being told a certain one.

In "The Cancer Cowboy Rides," a malignant Typhoid Mary-like villain works his way across the US, one tumor at a time. Connolly shows a great talent for presenting minor characters in great detail with brief, sure strokes. Good, bloody stuff.

The high point of the collection so far is "The Reflecting Eye," featuring Connolly's series character, detective Charlie Parker. From the little I had read about the novels featuring the character (ex-NYPD detective searching for the vicious killer of his wife and young daughter) it didn't make me hopeful. Welp, I was way off.

First, the story's great. Spooky doings at the house of a child killer in Maine draw private eye Parker into a very dark place. I liked it enough to try out the first novel, Every Dead Thing (1999). I'm already on the fourth book, The White Road (2002).

The Parker books are an often gut-wrenching blend of noir and pulp. Parker's a tough man driven by the evil that invaded and destroyed his life to uncover and destroy it. And boy, oh, boy, is there evil in Parker's world. I mean opera-level, bug-eyed, serpent-dripping-venom, crazy evil.

In the first book, Every Dead Thing, a child killer is only the minor villain in the light of the Traveling Man. The latter tortures, disfigures, and poses his victims to make some larger insane point.

In Dark Hollow (2000), a boogeyman reappears out of the past from deep within the woods of Maine. In The Killing Kind (2001), the discovery of a mass grave leads to a lost religious commune and a series of murders done with spiders.

Oh, and then there's the supernatural shenanigans. There are no non-human monsters (so far!) in any of the books, but the world of the Parker stories is one where the dead travel just behind the living. There are times they touch Parker, calling out to him for justice. And other things happen that hint at the greater, transcendent world that surrounds Parker's mundane one. Connolly walks his characters right up to the window on the supernatural world but they never cross into it.

Aided by a duo of gay criminals, burglar Angel and hitman Louis, and an overriding need to deliver justice and retribution, Parker immediately made me think of Andrew Vachss' Burke series. I read several of them, including some of the supposedly great ones, Flood and Strega, but I was never satisfied with them.

Vachss is a sharp, gritty writer but try as I might, I never could buy into the series. Despite reading, as one friend of mine used to put, like Doc Savage stories (Burke has a super car, a hideout, and a gang of talented associates always ready to help him), they also focus on terrible crimes against children. The relationship between Burke and his comic book world and the realistic and horrible things that happen to kids in these books never worked for me on an artistic level.

Connolly's books have worked for me because they never take themselves to seriously. That's not really right. They just never tell and show you how evil the world is towards children, then practically wallow in that depravity to make sure you understand it, and then send in a dark avenging angel to clean it up.

Connolly embraces the gloriousness of pure pulp lunacy and has run with it. The villains are terrible human monsters given to carrying out plans decades in the making. The body count is often in the dozens. There are super guns and evil books. This is lurid, technicolor writing of the first order.

As much as the pulp elements hold sway over the plots, Connolly writer his hero with as much eloquence and insight as James Lee Burke does for his detective hero, Dave Robicheaux (someone every noir fan should have read already). Sure, there are some real Ian Fleming-style paragraphs dedicated to clothes, cars, and fancy products that I could do without. Overall, though, Connolly's prose and storytelling is very good. There are moments of real beauty and real darkness in each novel that will stick with me.

So there you go. John Connolly, everybody. Definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Choasium Mythos Fiction: I Surrender: The Xothic Legend by Lin Carter

I set the folder aside as weariness overcame me.
                             from "Out of the Ages"

That line from one of Lin Carter's own Mythos stories describes exactly how I've come to feel about this book. Try as I might, even though bolstered by editor Robert Price's encouraging introduction to the book and each story, I was unable to work up any real enthusiasm for this book. I've read lots of atrocious Mythos stories over the decades but Lin Carter's are possibly the worst.

Instead of trying to mimic Lovecraft's storytelling style, or even August Derleth's, Lin Carter appears to have reached the conclusion that Cthulhu Mythos stories work best when they consist of long lists of difficult to pronounce names or the titles of fictional compendiums of forbidden lore.

Whether in the Dunsany-flavored "The Red Offering" set in primeval Mu, or the tales set in 1930's California, his approach is the same: throw some names at the reader and then show how every bit of Lovecraft minutiae is connected to every other bit. It's not a winning situation for the reader.

If you're a regular reader of this site or my Black Gate reviews, you know I've been on a bit of a Lin Carter tear of late. I would never argue that he's a lamentably overlooked author, but I was starting to hope he was a better one than I remembered from early encounters with his stories, as well as the general reading public.

While my recent reading of his first two Thongor (his tribute to REH's Conan and ERB's John Carter rolled up in one) was painful, I can tell you the Thongor short stories are great fun. Kellory the Warlock and the first Zanthodon novel were also entertaining. In that light I figured how bad could it be. The answer is, really, really, really bad.

The book's title derives from Xoth, the star from which Cthulhu, his wife, Idh-yaa. Okay, maybe she's only his common-law spouse, but they do have three kids together: Ghatonothoa, Ythogtha, and Zoth-Ommog. In the past they were worshipped by the citizens of Mu, now they are imprisoned. Their interaction with humanity comes through dreams and various servitors, like the wormlike Yuggs. Between them they've got lots and lots of tentacles.

The first batch of stories are tied together in what could have been an interesting way. In "The Red Offering" Carter introduces the Muvian sorcerer, Zanthu. In "The Dweller in the Tomb", an archaeologist goes searching for Zanthu's tomb. The following stories describe the fates of those who come into contact with or followup on the knowledge gleaned from the ancient grave site. Not very original, but interesting. Well, potentially.

That said, I'm throwing in the towel on The Xothic Cycle. I can't handle finishing this book. Even with the prospect of two Robert Price stories towards the end, I just can't do it. 

Instead of telling you why I'll just show you.

From "The Horror in the Gallery"

"Yes," Dr. Armitage nodded. "We have here at the library perhaps the greatest collection of books and documents regarding the Cthulhu mythology that exists in the entire world - probably the finest and most comprehensive collection ever compiled. Beside old Alhazred, we have Prinn and von Juntzt, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Norman French version of the Book of Eibon, the Celaeno Fragments, Cultes des Goules, both the R'lyeh Text and the Dhol Chants, the Hsan, the Cabala of Saboth and the Egyptian Black Rites, Porta, Remigius, a manuscript copy of Winters-Hall's translation of The Sussex Manuscript, a few pages of the Invocation to Dagon, and other works as well."

That same sort of list occurs time and time again throughout the half of the book I managed to read. Even "Perchance to Dream", a fun story starring Carter's simulacrum of Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin, Anton Zarnak, is marred by lists of names and books:

Zarnak consulted the books in the library. First he looked into a slim, cheaply produced pamphlet which bore the title The Zanthu Tablets and read of Great Ythogtha, the Abomination in the Abyss, imprisoned by the Elder Gods in Yhe. Then he consulted von Juntz, and found the following passage of interest:
Of the Spawn of Cthulhu, only Ythogtha lies prisoned in regions contiguous to sunken R'lyeh, for Yhe was once a province of Mu, and R'lyeh, is not far off the submerged shores of that riven, drowned continent; and Yhe and R'lyeh are close nigh unto each other, along dimensions not numbered among the three we know.

Carter seems constitutionally unable to refrain from explaining everything. There's no room for mystery in these stories. Since he hewed as closely to the story templates created by HPL (ex. find secret lore/object and go mad or discover unknown family connection to Mythos), the conclusions to every story are pretty much clear from the first paragraph. To make this sort of story successful, by which I mean fun to read, you've got to mix it up in the middle. 

That means there needs to be atmosphere or action or creepiness to make your time investment worthwhile. Leave some room for mystery to allow the reader's brain to fill in the gaps with it's own dread fantasies. That doesn't happen. 

So, despite all my best intentions and efforts, I'm walking away from this one. But it's okay. I started Robert Bloch's Mysteries of the Worm and it's already better. Eighteen year old Robert Bloch was a better writer than adult Lin Carter. It's exhilarating to go from one to the other and I'm already feeling better for it.

I'm also going to read the rest of the series in order as Price produced it. He had clear goals and plans in mind about when he edited the books. Several of his introductions in The Xothic Legend make references to stories and ideas in earlier collections. Read out of sequence I don't think I'd get the full effect and defense of his theories that Price intended.

For what it's worth, I read the following stories from The Xothic Legend.

The Red Offering - Crypt of Cthulhu #7 - 1982
The Dweller in the Tomb - Dark Things - 1971
The Thing in the Pit - Lost Worlds - 1980
Out of the Ages - Nameless Places - 1975
The Horror in the Gallery - The Disciples of Cthulhu (as "The Terror Out of Time" - 1976
The Winfield Heritance - Weird Tales #3 - 1981
Perchance to Dream - Crypt of Cthulhu #56 - 1988
Strange Manuscript Found in Vermont Woods - Crypt of Cthulhu #54 - 1988
Something in the Moonlight - Weird Tales #2 - 1981

I did not read the poems "Dreams from R'lyeh"

Next Time: Mysteries of the Worm: Early Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos by Robert Bloch

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Merry Christmas and All That

It's Christmas time here in stately Vredenburgh Manor and my reading time has been limited. I was hoping to finish off The Xothic Legend collection tonight and that just didn't happen. Also, if you didn't catch me saying it on the facebook, it's very, very dull. Try as I might to let Robert Price's introductions whip up some modicum of enthusiasm in me for Carter's stories, it just ain't happening. To get the taste out of my mouth, I'm going to try to read one of the books Carter republished in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, The Last Unicorn.

On the other hand, I am gearing up to see Gov't Mule Tuesday night, so I got that going for me. Actually, I'm very excited. The thing about the Mule is anybody can just show up and play with them. They also do all sorts of cool covers in addition to their own bluesy power trio originals. I don't see much live music these days other than the luminous Mrs. V's various bands so this is a big deal.

So that's all I got to say for now. I hope everybody has had a great Christmas ans has a Happy New Year's Eve.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Chaosium Mythos Fiction: Have You Seen the Yellow Sign? : The Hastur Cycle, edited by Robert M. Price


Starting with The Hastur Cycle in 1993, Chaosium Games started printing a series of  Lovecraftian fiction anthologies. Robert M. Price seems to have been in overall charge of the project, with others editing from time to time. Most of the volumes focus on a single aspect of the Mythos, be it a location, like Innsmouth, or a deity, like Cthulhu. Several collect the Mythos fiction of notable authors such as Clark Ashton Smith or Lin Carter. There are several general anthologies in the series, including a reprint of Edward Berglund's seminal Disciples of Cthulhu. You can read the previous entry here.

I'm hoping to reread and review as many of them as possible before I lose too many SAN points. I hope you'll drop by with each new post.

Pt. 1

I love Lovecraft. I love the betentacled, squamous, squelching monsters. I love the brooding atmosphere and cosmic horror. I love the strings of adjectives. I love I share my birthday, August 20th, with him. 

The understandable debate around the appropriateness of using the Gahan Wilson bust of HPL for the World Fantasy Award doesn't change the centrality of his work to weird fiction. He wasn't alone in introducing cosmic weirdness or non-supernatural evil into horror fiction, but I'd argue he's the most important person to have done so. If vampires and werewolves were proving less frightening in an age of growing secularism and scientific progress, he he shows you how the universe is still a harrowing, psyche shredding place. In his best, scariest stories, man is a speck 

I started reading Lovecraft when I was almost eleven years. The very first story I read was "The Festival." It was the night of the 1977 NYC Blackout and I read it out loud to my friend, Jesse B. who was sleeping over while his parents were out of town. It didn't really scare us but it was creepy enough to make me read the rest of the book, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror published by Scholastic Books( !). 

As an introduction to HPL's work, it was a pretty alright place to star. While it includes weaker stories like "The Transition of Juan Romero" and "Imprisoned With the Pharaohs", it also has the monumental "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." That book made me a fan for life. 

Pt. II

The Hastur Cycle, edited by Robert M. Price, is a good book with some dull stories in it.  That isn't as contradictory as it sounds. For each gem there's a snoozer only worth reading for its place in the development of the Lovecraft Mythos. Price, one of the major contemporary Lovecraftian, scholars lays a marker down in his forward about what he hoped to accomplish in this volume and I believe he makes a pretty good case for himself.

Price makes the claim that Lovecraft's mythos is part of a larger body of work that includes stories that predate his own. The HPL tentpole story in the book is "The Whisperer in Darkness." There are works that inspired Lovecraft by Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers, and Arthur Machen. Then there are stories that followed in HPL's wake by the likes of Karl Edward Wagner, August Derleth, and James Blish,

August Derleth wrote to Lovecraft that he should call the emerging shared world of stories The Hastur Mythos. While Price thinks Derleth just wanted to use the name of the god that was starting to loom large in his own stories, it evinces a brief moment of insight on the young author's part. The shared world of tales shouldn't be named after HPL's own creation but one that indicated the Mythos extended before HPL and would continue to beyond him into the future. 

The first two stories, "Haïta the Shepherd" (1891) and "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" (1886) by Ambrose Bierce, introduce some of the names that will become part of the central invented lore concerning the figure of Hastur. In the first, Hastur is a the god worshipped by the titular character. The second is a presented as the transcription of a spirit speaking through a medium. This is where the ruined city of Carcosa is mentioned and Hastur's eventual home, the star Aldebaran, first appears.

I don't have anything to say about the two (very short) tales. Their importance lies in helping inspire the next two stories, Robert W. Chambers' nutzoid "The Repairer of Reputations" (1895) and "The Yellow Sign (1895)." Chambers took character and place names from Bierce and added The King In Yellow, a fictional, decadent play apt to drive its readers mad. Mixing these elements together, there's a hint of reality that only heightens the more disturbing parts of his stories.

"Repairer" is a story told by a man manipulating his way to ruling an alternate 1895 America, replete with state sponsored suicide chambers along Washington Square Park and a German invasion of New Jersey. Or it's mad man with head trauma spinning his delusions into a web of paranoia and murder. 

Whichever it is, that dangerous book, The King in Yellow that sits at the heart of the narrator's tale. This startled the heck out of me when I first read it twenty years ago and it still does today.

"The King in Yellow" is a more straigh forward frightener. A louche artist (and reader of The King in Yellow) living near Washington Square Park, sees a strange man working at a nearby church. Soon his dreams are invaded and things start to go terribly wrong. His relationship with his virginal model starts to go wrong and soon all sorts of unpleasantness occurs.

Chamber's invented book clearly points in the direction of Lovecraft's own tome, the Necronomicon and all the various invented volumes evil lore that followed. Only the barest hints of the contents of the The King in Yellow are given which of course lets the reader's imagination run wild. Just where is Lake Hali and what is the Pallid Mask? What is the Yellow Sign that the narrator is asked if he's fouind? This is a magniicent story that still disturbs more than a century after it was written.

Stealing a line from "Over at the Frankenstein Place" from Rocky Horror, "The River of Night's Dreaming" (first published in Whispers III, 1981), by Karl Edward Wagner, is an excursion into madness, again triggered by The King in Yellow. An escapee from a psychiatric hospital finds herself involved in dark, decadent doings in a old mansion in an abandoned and decaying town. Again, is it real or madness?  I'm a big fan of Wagner's but I never particularly cared for this story. Rereading it in the context Price has created I liked it much more. The descent into despair or madness the protagonist suffers is well portrayed and quite unnerving.

While primairly a science-fiction writer (Cities in Flight, A Case of Conscience) and critic, James Blish, like so many others, was a youthful correspondent with the Old Gent from Providence on matters of horror. Part of a real letter he wrote to Lovecraft, asking if he ever intended to write a complete version of the Necronomicon, forms part of Blish story "More Light (first in Alchemy and Academe, 1970)." It posits that Chambers actually sat down and wrote out The King in Yellow and Lovecraft came into possession of it. A writer named William Atheling (Blish's own real-world pen name) has come into possession of it and he wants his friend to read it.

The contemporary portion of the story is good enough, but, sadly, by attempting what Chambers and Lovecraft never did, in creating large chunks of text for The King in Yellow, the story falls flat. It's neither chilling or disturbing. But I don't think that matters. I don't think it's possible for anyone, even a writer as talented as Blish, to create a play that's able to generate madness.

Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal" (1895) seems to have introduced the idea of a race of semi-human beings who live under the earth and are the truth behind stories of the little people and changelings. Machen drew on Margaret Murray's silly theories of pastoral, goddess-worshipping humans who retreated into the the wild spaces of England. Price believes that Machen's story informed Lovecraft's own stories of strange creatures living and lurking behind the legends.

The story is a part of Machen's novel of interwoven tales, The Three Impostors. A young woman, destitute and on the verge of giving up, encounters an eminent scientist. He hires her as his children's governess thereby saving her from despair but also bringing her in to contact with the primal terrors lurking under England's green and pleasant hills. I love this one and it's borne up well after multiple rereadings.

Finally we come to Lovecraft's own "The Whisperer in Darkness (first in Weird Tales, 1931)." It's linked to Bierce's stories by the use of Hastur, though clearly he's no longer a shepherd's god. There are also mentions of the Yellow Sign, the Lake of Hali, and Dunsany's Bethmoora for good measure.

For those who haven't read it, well, you should. It's one of Lovecraft's big ones. While less subtle than I remembered, it still does a great job at creating a feeling of impending isolation and doom as the mysterious being hiding in the Vermont hills take action to prevent their discovery. The ending might seem cliched at this point but the first time I read it I was suitably creeped out.

A professor from Miskatonic University is caught up in a debate over whether strange bodies found in the wake of the Great Flood of 1927 are simply bloated animals or strange beings said to live on isolated hilltops. He is skeptical of any claims of boogie men hiding in the woods. Soon after his argument graces the pages of the newspapers he begins he is receiving letters, and later phonograph records, from a retired academic in Vermont that begin to make him change his mind.

Price makes a strong case, based on the general theme of a hidden race, as well as numerous little tips of the hat to Machen, that Lovecraft's story is "essentially a rewriting, a new version of Machen's."

Reading them back to back, I can see his point. Instead of human throwbacks hiding behinds stories of goblins, it's aether-riding aliens (winged, fungus-crab things from beyond our solar system if you must know) obscured by stories of the Yeti and strange figures moving above the Vermont treetops by night. This (and Robert Bloch's "Notebook Found in a Deserted House") made me more than a little uneasy during my first drive through the Vermont woods decades ago.

Robert Lupoff's "Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley" (first in F&SF, 1982) is a sequel to Lovecraft's "Whisperer." It takes claims made by the antagonists in the earlier story seriously and spins out what might have happened next. It's an interesting spin on things but I found it dull. Dull to the point I had to keep forcing myself to pick the book back up and finish the story. Ultimately, it's pretty much a body-swap love-story mashup that I could've done without.

"The Mine on Yuggoth" is one of Ramsey Campbell's earliest stories, first seeing print in The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants (1964) which was published when he was still a teenager. It's not great, but it's not terrible either. There's a verve that I've rarely found in stories by those other pasticheurs, August Derleth and Lin Carter. More of a science-fantasy story than horror, there are still a few very good bits that make it more than worth the fifteen minutes or so it takes to read.

James Wade's "Planetfall on Yuggoth" (HPL, 1972) is about a space mission to Pluto. Lovecraft's fiction exists in the story but it soon becomes clear it was more than just storytelling. Then we discover Ramsey Campbell's stories are more than fiction as well. It's slight, a bit of a goof, and perfectly enjoyable.

Then we get smacked in the face by August Derleth's terrible "The Return of Hastur (Weird Tales, 1939)." It's one of his early Mythos stories and I can't say anything about it except it's awful. Price's introduction includes a letter from Clark Ashton Smith to Derleth advising him how to fix the story. Every bit of advice was rejected and the story suffers for it.

Aside from the whole elemental take on the Mythos he would become infamous stinking up the story, Derleth's characters are never believable. There's barely a moment of suspicion or incredulity about the spooky goings on. Within a few pages people are glibly talking about strange fish-men from Innsmouth and gods and demons. And none of it's scary, or fun, or even very interesting.

It feels like Derleth wanted to fit the disparate bits and pieces of Lovecraft's stories and make it all make sense. Price states that Lovecraft explicitly didn't want everything to make sense: "Lovecraft always explained to correspondents that he did not achieve perfect consistency in his various stories, say, in what each said about Cthulhu or the Necronomicon, for the very good reason that he wanted his shuddery allusions to these eldritch items to reflect the inconsistencies, duplications, and redundancies of actual ancient myth cycles, where, e.g., we find two of three origin tales for the same goddess or shrine."

Things pick up considerably with "The Feaster from Afar" by Joseph Payne Brennan. It was first published in the original Disciples of Cthulhu (1976) but rights issues meant it didn't make Chaosium's reprint. Price was able to snag it for the 2nd edition of The Hastur Cycle.

Again it's set in the "real" world, where Lovecraft exists and is a writer strange stories that turn out to be real. I don't love that conceit, never finding it to work very well. How did HPL write what he did without getting killed right away? Nobody except the narrator or some inbred yokel knows he was telling the truth? Nope, it just doesn't work for me.

On the other hand, the story itself is pretty alright. A successful writer of mid-list historical fiction makes the mistake of going to Lovecraft country to find some peace and quiet so he can work on his next novel. Try to guess what happens to him. Despite it's lack of an original plot, Brennan does a good job with it and the feeling of swiftly encroaching doom is well done.

The Hastur Cycle concludes with a series of poems by Lin Carter. Inspired by Bierce, Chambers, and James Blish's work in "More Light." They're a mess and Price says so as well. Carter was driven by the need to make all the pieces fit together and make sense even more than Derleth. As much as I'm looking forward to reading The Xothic Cycle, Carter's collected Mythos stories, these poems made me dread it a little bit as well.


There are better books in this series than The Hastur Cycle but not many that make Price's case as well as this one. Each step of the way you can see how each story sort of moves on to the next one: Lovecraft builds on Machen and on Chambers who built on Bierce. Wagner looks back to Chambers and Wade looks to Lovecraft and Campbell. The book makes as good a case as possible that the Cthlhu Mythos is something greater and more inclusive than just the stories of HPL.

From the forward:

"In the same way, it seems to me highly misleading to take Lovecraft's stories and myth-concepts as the definitive version and to view Chambers and the others as leading up to it, Derleth and the others as representing a declension from it. Each has its own integrity, its own priority. Lovecraft has his moment upon the stage, but then he is replaced by a new teller of a new version."

When this volume first came out, many of these stories were not familiar to me at all. "Repairer of Reputations" blew me away and still does. It's the same for "The Novel of the Black Seal." I don't totally agree with Price's thesis, but I know he comes back to it again in later volumes. As much as Lovecraft drew on earlier authors I think he was doing something entirely different than them. I also see too many of the later authors as too more concerned with mimicking HPL instead of trying to contribute to a larger, inclusive Mythos. Still, after finishing The Hastur Cycle I admit I'm looking forward to see if I can be swayed to Price's side.

The later, post-HPL stories are a decidedly mixed bag of tentacles and pincers. Several are very early examples of Mythos fiction. Sadly, Derleth's is a perfect example of the bad path taken by many other writers. Explain everything, don't bother to build any sort of atmosphere, then explain everything a second time. It's not good.

Still, if you want to see how this great blobby mass that is the Cthlhu Mythos was influenced and grew, this is a good place to start. The less well known stories were hard to come by in 1993. By pulling them together with several important (and great) ones Price did a great service for Mythos readers. Price's essays are major bits of Mythos scholarship, well worth reading. Definitely get the 2nd edition with "The Feaster from Afar" in it.

Next Time: The Xothic Cycle, The Complete Mythos Fiction of Lin Carter, edited by Robert M. Price.