Tuesday, May 12, 2015


I'm not sure what the first story I read by Clifford Simak was, but the first I remember is "Desertion." It's part of the book he's probably most famous for, City. The novel is a mournful farewell to humanity and Earth and stars robot butlers and talking dogs.

"Desertion" is about a scientist and his dog on Jupiter investigating missing explorers. They were transmogrified into lopers, a lifeform native to the planet's surface. None so far have returned to the station.

There's a tremendous sense of wonder in the tale as the nature of what's going on is revealed. I think of it as the story that showed me the true potential of sci-fi as something way more than rockets and rayguns (not that there's a single thing wrong with them).

Sadly, Clifford Simak seems to have slipped into the ranks of the unjustly forgotten sci-fi writers of the past. Growing up, he was just part of the general fabric of sci-fi and most fellow sci-fi fans I knew had read at least something by him.

Doing a search on Waystation the other day, I discovered a 2009 review in the UK Guardian. The author admitted he had never even heard of Simak until he started exploring past Hugo winners. Only twenty-three years after his death, a man who was the third Science Fiction Grand Master (after only Robert Heinlein and Jack Williamson), winner of three Hugos and a Nebula, was unknown by the science fiction reviewer of a major paper.

I can't blame the critic. As of 2009, most of his books were no longer in print. Happily, that seems to be changing a little, though, at least in the UK. Gollancz has published City and Waystation, and Gateway/Orion is releasing e-books of what looks to be all of his novels.

It's been a long time since I've read anything by Simak. John O'Neill's post about The Goblin Reservation and the comments reminded me how much I loved his work. There's a warmth and comfortableness to his stories that I love.

Here are the novels of his I have in storage. I just dug out Enchanted Pilgrimage, his first effort at writing a fantasy quest novel. He came back to it two more times in The Fellowship of the Talisman and Where the Evil Dwells.

All three send a party of adventures into enchanted lands to make some discovery or thwart some rising evil. I don't remember them being particularly original but nice reads nonetheless.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Wonderful Nonsense and Unearthed America

There are probably all sorts of fascinating reasons that there was a market for UFOs and cryptozoology when I was growing up back in the seventies. I don't really care now and I definitely didn't care when I was eleven. What mattered was that there were lots of books of glorious nonsense for me to read.

The Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film in 1967 and Eric von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods? in 1968. Vincent Gaddis created the idea of the Bermuda Triangle in 1964 and Charles Berlitz popularized it his 1974 book of the same name.

This stuff, especially UFO and Bermuda Triangle themese, worked its way into popular culture. There's a 1975 tv movie called The UFO Incident starring James Earl Jones about the Barney and Betty Hill "abduction" and a tv show called The Fantastic Journey let Roddy McDowall get lost in the Triangle.

Cryptozoology was my favorite of all the bullshit subjects. It was the only one that actually had any sort of track record of
success and therefore the lowest bullshit quotient. Sure, scientists were more likely to uncover something like the coelacanth or a giant peccary and not a sea serpent but even as a kid that was cool enough for me. And I suspected aliens didn't own the Andes and there wasn't a mysterious vortex in the Caribbean.

I loved this stuff (and still do) because I'm a sci-fi/fantasy fan. Secret monsters, aliens, strange disappearances? Those things are at the heart of much of what I was was reading. 

It also seemed to rip the boring mask of reality away and expose all sorts of bizarre things going on in the background. It's cool to know secrets, even if those secrets were available to anybody who bought Chariots of the Gods? from the spinner rack in A&P.  

When I got older my taste for this stuff faded. After you've read one Bermuda Triangle book you've pretty much read them all. Same for Bigfoot and Loch Ness monster.

But I did get hooked on conspiracy and other crazy theories. That's for a whole other post some day. Suffice it to say, I don't believe them (OK, maybe the Business Plot because Smedley Butler's one of my heroes), from JFK's assassination to Nazis in the Antarctic. They are, though, a heck of a lot of fun to read about.

All of this leads me to America Unearthed. It's a History Channel 2 show about supposed lost and hidden pieces of American history. It's without a doubt some of the most magnificent bullshit I have watched in the last year or two.

Scott Wolter, the host, is a forensic geologist, a fine purveyor of grand theories about alternate histories of the settlement of America. In the earliest episodes, he argues for the presence of Mayans, Vikings, and Phoenecians, in the lower forty-eight.

I put the show on out of boredom and quickly was enjoying the silliness for what it is. Wolter brought out the Kensington Stone as proof of real Vikings in Minnesota and claimed Mystery Hill dated back to ancient times. I laughed at how angry he got when the park rangers at Chattahoochee wouldn't let him wander around protected sites or the guide at Roanoke dismised his ideas out of hand. He had heartfelt phone calls with his wife that ended with her telling him about a sudden, recent discovery that could prove his latest wild theory. It was all good, clean fun until he started talking about the Templars and the Holy Grail. 

It's one of the grandest and most debunked conspiracy theories out there. You can look up the details yourself. It's a mishmash of conspiracy theories, new age beliefs, and gnosticism, spawned by one of the most elaborate hoaxes every carried out. Dan Brown rode the hoax to fame and fortune, all the while claiming it was real and that he had discovered it. I don't want to ruin your own discoveries about them. Just start with the Priory of Sion and see where that takes you. 

Four episodes of America Unearthed's first season (the only one I've seen so far) focus on Wolter's theories about the Templars and how some escaped to the New World following their order's destruction in the 14th century. It's a wonderfully nutty web of unbelievable bits strung together with cords of ludicrous theories wrapped in sheets of nonsense. 

Later I found out Wolter has a two-hour show just on the Templars, the Holy Grail and the Kensington Stone. I need to find and watch that next. Then I have to see the second season where he spends at least one episode looking for the Menehune, the little people of Hawaii. 

I look at all of these shows and books as story telling. Maybe the tellers really believe in what they're saying, maybe not. But it doesn't matter. What they are doing is creating tales out of the myths and mysteries that litter our real world and finding patterns in them from which they can make new stories, and I can appreciate and enjoy them for that.

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