I’ve mentioned Lovecraft quite a few times on this blog since it began, most often it seems in relation to a board game or other. However, I’m also a big fan of his writing for its own sake, and not just the inspiration for some awesome games! For a number of years now, it’s been something of a tradition for me to read a couple of the weird tales over the festive period, stemming back to the time I read The Shadow over Innsmouth by the light of the tree. Fantastic times, I must say! So I thought I’d ramble on a bit today about those tales I’ve been enjoying this festive break!
To start with, I read The Dreams in the Witch House. There are some aspects of the Arkham Horror board game that I’ve been intrigued by, as I hadn’t come across them in my survey of Lovecraft, and the Witch House is one of them. In this short story, we see less of the cosmic monster-gods, and more of the almost mundane-by-comparison witchcraft. Though this is still Lovecraft of course, so it’s got that wonderfully gothic twist. We also get to see a lot of Arkham, as the story follows Walter Gilman’s traumatic experiences lodging in the witch house. It’s a pretty good story, anyway, and while it deals with an ancient witch rather than Cthulhu or Shub-Niggurath, it’s still unmistakably Lovecraft. Critics have judged it harshly – one putting it on a par with The Thing on the Doorstep as one of his worst, but then I really liked that story, too!
The arrival of Mountains of Madness this Christmas had prompted me to look more into the origins of Ithaqua, one of those stalwarts of the mythos pantheon as far as the games are concerned. I’ve therefore spent more time this year reading non-Lovecraft mythos fiction than ever before, starting with August Derleth’s The Thing that Walked on the Wind. Derleth was a correspondent of Lovecraft’s, and has come under much fire for his treatment of Lovecraft’s work after the latter’s death in 1937, principally for his meddling with Lovecraft’s Ancient Ones into an almost religious pantheon. For all the criticisms, however, we owe Derleth an debt of gratitude for preserving Lovecraft’s work from the obscurity that may well have befallen them.
Derleth created the deity Ithaqua as a sort of ice/wind elemental spirit, thereafter trying to shoe-horn Lovecraft’s gods into similar positions (Cthulhu as a water spirit, for example). The Thing that Walked on the Wind is quite a chilling tale (pun intended) that deals with the bizarre goings-on in the far north. Derleth later reworked the story as The Snow Thing, which is, as you might therefore expect, basically the same story, though with a little more detail this time. However, there is an overriding feel to this version akin to the Bayou investigation that forms (if I remember correctly) the second section of Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu. An investigation into disappearances reveals a primitive cult of an ancient godlike entity, this time among the snow rather than the swamps. That shouldn’t detract, of course, and they’re actually interesting stories in their own right.
Derleth was inspired by the Algernon Blackwood tale The Wendigo, which is the first tale in the Ithaqua cycle omnibus. A short story that deals with a hunting party in Canada, there is a classic suspense feel throughout this one, and it’s tempting to suggest it is superior to Derleth’s efforts on this basis. However, Derleth has the pulp charm working for him. Blackwood’s story is based on the Native American legend of the snow-beast, and while the majority of this story uses suspense, we do have a pretty horrible sequence just before the final denouement. It’s a classic tale, and definitely worth digging out if you can!
Tales like the Wendigo show that stories of suspense can be more effective than the classic style of horror story, full of monsters and dismemberment. However, we’re back to Lovecraft now for another subgenre, the dream-fantasy. I read four of what are termed Lovecraft’s “Dunsany tales”, named after the Irish Lord Dunsany, the fantasy author of the Pegāna stories. There is a distinctive sort of charm to early, pre-Tolkien fantasy – Robert E Howard’s Conan stories also fall under this bracket, of course. While I’ve not yet read anything by Dunsany himself, I get the impression that his stories have the dream-fantasy quality, where the tinge of horror comes from the fact that a presumed sane individual is experiencing things that are, by all accepted laws, impossible.
To start with, I read The Nameless City, which is one of these short Lovecraft stories that has so many references that come in his later work, it’s shocking to think it’s not more widely-known. Notably, we have the introduction of Abdul Alhazred, later to be attributed as the author of the fabled Necronomicon, though here as the writer only of the famous couplet:
That is not dead can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die
The story is very strongly reminiscent of the central episode of At the Mountains of Madness, with a trip through ancient ruins and bas-reliefs depicting the history of a vanished race. Reference is also made to Lovecraft’s earlier tale, The Doom that came to Sarnath. A story about a once-great city and its downfall, I felt a strong impression of parallels to ancient Rome here, though the Biblical history of Babylon appears as a strong reference. Again, this tale abounds in references to later works, notably The Quest of Iranon, which I found by turns to be fairly shocking! It has that formulaic pattern to the narrative that evokes the oral poetry tradition of ancient times, which definitely adds to the feel of the tale. The final story in this quartet is Polaris, which is very short, but important for being the introduction of another of Lovecraft’s ancient tomes, the Pnakotic Manuscripts. I found Polaris to be almost too-fantastical, if I’m honest, which made it hard to follow at times.
All of these tales are commonly part of the Dream Cycle, an almost-infamous term in the mythos that is more strongly applied to the later works, starting with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I have yet to read the Dream Cycle, so that’ll likely be one for next year!