Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 19: Even Death May Die

One topic that I feel must be at least touched upon at some point, meaning now, in this series is the existence, as a thing that people do, of the continuing "Cthulhu* Mythos" stories, inspired by and in some ways just short of copied from the works of H. P. Lovecraft. The other day, in my post about two short stories inspired directly by classic horror films, a commenter named John said that one of the stories sounded like fan fiction. For whatever reason, I hadn't made this connection myself, possibly because, while I didn't care for the story in question, it was well-written and professionally published. Even so, John had a point, and I wonder why the Cthulhu stories, the modern stories written decades after Lovecraft himself was consumed by the Great Old Ones, are not similarly regarded.

It can't help my thinking on this subject that I have, to date, read only one story, maybe two, that qualify. Although I guess that depends on what you consider the appropriate qualifications for a story to be part of the post-Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos ("mythos" is one of my least favorite words, by the way). Thomas Ligotti is blatantly inspired by Lovecraft, but to date I have not read a single story by him that actually referenced Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth or the Necronomicon or Abdul Al-Azred -- in short, nothing created by Lovecraft. What about Michael Chabon's two horror stories, which go so far as to include names that sound like they could have been created by Lovecraft? I don't know, but I feel like what counts is writing a story with Cthulhu in it (or what/whoever). By that standard, I haven't read much, and none of what I have read was written by August Derleth. If you're going to approach this subject, you should probably approach it through the door Derleth is holding open for you, and from the doorway of which he is signaling you wildly. But I just have never read the man. It's my impression that no one reads Derleth for pleasure anymore, and that the man, despite having a name that sounds like it should belong to an evil wizard, lives on as an enthusiastic promoter of Lovecraft and the kindly and endlessly helpful publisher and encourager of any number of young horror writers. Not because of his fiction, though. Yet it's Derleth, as much as, if not more than Lovecraft himself, who is the reason stuff like, say, Night Shade Press's The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart, even exists.

And why Brian Lumley exists, at least in the incarnation he currently enjoys. Lumley has written a lot of stuff, and is best known for his Necroscope series of novels about an occult investigator named Harry Keogh. He has also written a great deal of Cthulhu fiction, and is the author of the one unabashedly fannish story of that kind I've read (the other one, the one I'm not sure about, is Lawrence Santoro's "God Screamed and Screamed, Then I Ate Him", and I'm not sure simply because I can't remember if Cthulhu or any of the other Old Ones are specifically named, though I do remember the references could not have been clearer). That story is called "The Fairground Horror", and it is a disappointment. I've given much thought about why it is such a disappointment, and there are an unfortunate host of reasons. To begin with, as a fan of circus/carnival/fair-based horror stories, I was personally disappointed that the setting of Lumley's story was basically an afterthought. It gave him an excuse for his two main characters, brothers who ran a freakshow (about which we learn nothing) that eventually gets transformed into an attraction called "Tomb of the Great Old Ones", having been transformed by Hamilton Tharpe's global plundering of sites of great and ancient evil. Somewhat to his brother Anderson's chagrin, Hamilton supplants the old exhibits with these bizarre new artifacts, and also goes about attracting experts in the field of, I suppose, ancient evil, to come see them. Anderson can't help but notice that these experts -- who are basically their only customers by now -- follow Hamilton into the tent, but never leave.

One day, he witnesses the explanation:

[Anderson] could still listen...and now Hamilton's voice came strange and vibrant, though still controlled in volume -- in a chant or invocation of terrible cadence and rhythmic disorder. These were not words the younger Tharpe uttered bunt unintelligible sounds, a morbidly insane agglutination of verbal improbabilities which ought never to have issued from a human throat at all! And as the invocation ceased, to an incredulous gasping from the doomed explorer, Anderson had to draw back from his hole lest he become visible in the glow of a green radiance springing up abruptly in the centre of Hamilton's encircling relics.

So Hamilton lures these men back to be consumed in the green light of Cthulhu, because he, Hamilton, is a priest of the cult. Up to this point, Anderson thought his younger brother was involved merely in a murder-for-cash scheme.

As a story, "The Fairground Horror" has a couple of big problems. The first is that it's told mainly from the point of view of Anderson, and in flashback as he watches a new scholar enter the carnival tent. We learn very early that Anderson had to kill Hamilton, and it's very clear that the person doing the luring in the very beginning is Anderson. So we know that he has usurped his dead brother, and for most of the rest of the pretty long story, Lumley just tells us that yup, that's the deal, all right. Anderson's inability to believe that the madness his brother has revealed to him, and the terrifying dreams of Cthulhu he, Anderson, now experiences, are actually real, do nothing for us as readers. We know already. Lumley wastes a lot of time acting as though H. P. Lovecraft fans need to be convinced of any of this stuff.

It's not that well written, either, and this becomes key in ways beyond the obvious. Lumley, I've gathered, is a very happy guy, and very thrilled to be doing something he loves for a living. He writes Lovecraft stories because he loves Lovecraft. He just seems like a nice person. However, this is a weird trait to have as one of H. P. Lovecraft's torchbearers. Lovecraft himself was a miserable human being, an unhappy bigot who funnelled his disturbed imagination into these classic stories. And he, too, had several faults as a writer. But read this, a passage, ostensibly from the Necronomicon, written by Lovecraft for his classic "The Dunwich Horror":

As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.

And now this, from "The Fairground Horror":

"You have been warned, AND YET YOU MEDDLE! While the Great Rising draws ever closer and Cthulhu's shadow looms, still you choose to search out His secrets for your own use! This night there will be a sign; ignore it at your peril, lest Cthulhu bestir Himself up to visit you personally in dreams, as He has aforetime visited others!"

Now which of those two passages better evokes a feeling of ancient terror and evil? It's not the one with all the exclamation marks, I'll tell you that. The best writing in "The Fairground Horror" are quotes from Lovecraft, including this post's title, which comes from the Necronomicon as "quoted" in Lovecraft's "The Nameless City": "That is not dead which can eternal lie/And with strange aeons even death may die." I don't really want to suggest that having a disturbed mind, as Lovecraft did (and as Poe did, and as Ligotti does), is essential to writing great horror fiction. Many great writers seem pretty well-adjusted, as far as I can tell -- M. R. James, Reggie Oliver, Mark Samuels, and so on. But Cthulhu and the rest of the Great Old Ones came specifically from the troubled mind of Lovecraft. To wander in, all happy-go-lucky and in possession of a perfectly healthy brain, and start trying to recreate what an unhealthy, but sincere, brain already made, must result in something that is pale and thin in comparison -- you weren't born with the problems that led to its creation in the first place. Ligotti has said that he believes the next great horror writer will come from the diseased fringes, the place where Lovecraft and Poe came from. I think that's hogwash. But I do believe the next great horror writer (after Ligotti and Samuels and Oliver, I mean) will create his own work. I don't say that to imply Lumley is stealing. He's not. He's created plenty of his own, and he bows to Lovecraft and Derleth. But this, stories like "The Fairground Horror"'s only enthusiasm.

*By the way, according to L. Sprague de Camp, "Cthulhu" should be pronounced something like "T'luh-luh." This I learned from his Lovecraft biography. It reminds me of when I learned that Robert Louis Stevenson intended "Jekyll" to be pronounced "JEEK-il". My response to that was, yeah, good luck sellin' that one, gramps!


John said...

I wonder why the Cthulhu stories, the modern stories written decades after Lovecraft himself was consumed by the Great Old Ones, are not similarly regarded.

Good question. I think the major distinction is that the Cthuhlhu stories, in my experience, at their core only share the vague, overarching concept of malign "gods" and a kind of cosmic nihilism specific to Lovecraft's work, and tend to go in different directions with it (but probably ending up at the same or similar places a lot of the time).

Fan fiction, on the other hand, completely appropriates somebody else's creation, from characters to setting to every detail of the story, and continues it, to the satisfaction of obsessive fans everywhere who would love to see their favorite stories continue forever and ever and have all their questions about it answered and all their fantasies relating to the material fulfilled.

You made a sharp observation in your review of the Watts story, as to how nowadays ambiguity in fiction is an enemy to be overcome. I would add that fan-fiction represents the very frontline of that ridiculous conflict--fans themselves all over the internet imposing their narrow, restricted hopes and visions on the unanswered (or, at least, not blatantly or in a spelled-out way) questions left by their favorite artists' works.

bill r. said...

Yes, what you say about fan fiction and ambiguity is true, although in the case of, say, an ongoing TV show that's still on the air, those fan fiction writers are doing something else.

I suppose what I need to do is read more Cthulhu stories and see how more of them play out. I have another book of Cthulhu stories by Lumley, and in the introductory notes for one he says that he avoided any similarities with Lovecraft's style, even though the other elements of a Cthulhu story are present. That might be interesting.

the night watchman said...

I second John, but add this: The difference between "Mythos" fiction and fan fic is the matter of, what might be called, rules. For instance, if you were to publish a piece of fan fic set in the Star Trek universe in which Klingon's are presented as nine-foot tall angelic beings who go riding around the galaxy in the Millennium Falcon with their pet tribbles, you'd soon find it necessary to bar your doors against angry Trekkies wielding pitchforks and torches. In other words, in fan fic, characters must behave appropriately and events must conform to canon. A "Mythos" story, on the other hand, is more "free-range." All it really needs is the flavor and themes of Lovecraft's work. (Even Lovecraft himself was inconsistent about the details of his Mythos from story to story.) You don't even need to name-drop or reference other stories. In fact, a story can go so far as to explicitly present Lovecraft's stories as fiction, yet containing a nugget of truth. (Michael Shea does this.) What really matters in Mythos fiction is not necessarily adhering to details but, rather, achieving the sense of cosmic horror. For a good sample of the breadth and variety of Mythos fiction, I'd point you toward stories like "Shaft Number 247" by Basil Cooper, "Black Man with a Horn" by T.E.D. Klein, "The Face at Pine Dunes" by Ramsey Campbell, "Sticks" by Karl Edward Wagner, "Watch the Whiskers Sprout" by DF Lewis, "The Return of the Lloigor" by Colin Wilson, "Discovery of the Ghooric Zone" by Richard A. Lupoff, "The Perseids" by Robert Charles Wilson, and "Fat Face" by Michael Shea.

bill r. said...

Thanks very much for the suggestions, but I've read "Sticks" and "Black Man with a Horn" and ir never would have occurred to me to to place them in the Mythos stories. I don't understand this definition. You might as well say that any horror story where a Lovecraft influence is noticeable counts as part of the Mythos. That's way too broad, and if that really is how people define it then I think the whole idea is basically meaningless.

John said...

That's probably one of the most appealing things about the Lovecraft "Mythos" thing: there isn't a strict definition for it. It's more a matter of personal taste than adherence to rules or, as the night watchman pointed out, some silly "canon" (another high-falutin'-sounding term apparently used by the fans to provide them and their hobbies a facade of erudition). For me, that kind of broadness of scope and blurriness of boundaries is part of what makes the whole idea interesting and worth exploring.

Bryce Wilson said...

I'd definitely at least take the time to read Gaiman's two stories on the subject, "A Study In Emerald", which is awesome easily one of my favorite Gaiman stories and "Suggoth's Old Peculiar" which is slight but funny and has a plot point that is suspiciously similar to Chabon's Lovecraft pastiche "The Old Mill" not sure who wrote which story first.

Neil Sarver said...

*By the way, according to L. Sprague de Camp...

This is ordinarily the beginning of a sentence I won't bother to finish. I must've been skimming to one extent or another.

"Cthulhu" should be pronounced something like "T'luh-luh." This I learned from his Lovecraft biography.

I think this is one of those things that... well, don't let me interrupt.

It reminds me of when I learned that Robert Louis Stevenson intended "Jekyll" to be pronounced "JEEK-il". My response to that was, yeah, good luck sellin' that one, gramps!

It's not really quite like that.

Well, I'm making a leap here, but I assume from this that Stevenson expected that the reader would read the name as "JEEK-il".

On the other hand, I think Lovecraft intended "Cthulhu" to make readers go "That's a fucked up name. How on earth would I possibly pronounce that weird-ass set of letters?"

Or some much classier uptight New Englandy way of saying that.

There are letters where he attempts to give pronunciations, although I'm given to understand they don't themselves all match. The key, however, it always that the name as given is an attempt to transcribe an unpronounceable alien name and the first syllable is deep and guttural.

From there, I can only say, I don't say it that way, but even without knowing he wrote that, I suspect my instinct if I were making a movie and having someone attempting to say it "correctly", I would've gone with those two notions.