Mythos delvings

It’s been good to get back to the mythos! It’s been a couple of years since my last blog post that chronicled my Lovecraft reading by the light of the Christmas tree, and with this season’s glorious return, I’ve got quite a few good ones lined up!

To start with, I re-read The Shadow Over Innsmouth. This is the one that kinda started it all for me, reading weird fiction over the festive season. It also somewhat coincides with my recently discovered surge in interest for the Arkham Horror LCG, which of course is currently in an Innsmouth cycle. The story concerns an unnamed narrator as he is doing a spot of sightseeing and genealogical research along the New England coastline, and decides to visit the coastal town of Innsmouth, almost against the advice he is given. The atmosphere of the story is really wonderful, and I’d forgotten a lot of what makes this a great story. Sure, some of the foreshadowing is a little heavy-handed at times – the big reveal that the townsfolk are basically communing with the fishes can be guessed from very early on – but the attention to detail in the descriptions of the dilapidated town is very striking. Innsmouth certainly looms large in the mythos, and I feel as though this tale is one of the cornerstones of Lovecraft’s writing, much like The Dunwich Horror and The Call of Cthulhu, and needs to be read by everybody with any sort of interest in this genre.

2020 has been a weird time, of course, so what better time to read some truly weird stuff? This year, I finally made it to another of the juggernauts of weird fiction: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath! Man, this story is weird. I’ve read that it was never published or revised by HP in his lifetime, so who knows whether he would have made any changes or alterations had he decided to do so. At times, it is quite difficult to follow, as well – something I think he himself was quite concerned about. The premise is fairly simple, if a bit fantastical: Randolph Carter (a recurring character in HP’s writings, although I’m not sure he is fully intended to be) wishes to find the location of a beautiful sunset city that he has visited in his dreams, and so he decides to petition the Great Ones who live in Kadath to allow him to enter the city in his dreams. The whole story is told as Carter is dreaming it, and we go on quite the ride through the Dreamlands! Carter visits the forest of the Zoogs, who direct him to the city of Ulthar, the cats who live there being old friends of his. Finding the clue of a carving on a mountainside, Carter is abducted while trying to travel there, and is taken to the moon by the moon-beasts, servants of Nyarlathotep. The cats rescue him, and he travels to the mountain carving where he recognises the features as similar to the merchants of Celephaïs. However, he is abducted again by the night-gaunts, who take him to the Underworld where he is rescued by the ghouls, including one who was formerly Richard Pickman. The ghouls lead Carter through the city of the Gugs and back to the forest of the Zoogs, who are plotting an attack on Ulthar. Carter warns the cats, who in gratitude help him find Celephaïs, where the trail leads north to Inganok. There, Carter is again abducted and taken to a monastery in the Plateau of Leng, and barely manages to escape from the dreaded High Priest Not To Be Described. In his escape, he rescues the three ghouls who helped him through the city of the Gugs, and after a lengthy battle between the ghouls and the moon-beasts, Carter enlists the support of the ghouls and the night-gaunts in flying to Kadath, where he finds a pharaoh-like being who identifies Carter’s dream-vision as his own native Boston. The being reveals himself as Nyarlathotep, who tricks him into flying not to the sunset city but instead to the court of Azathoth at the centre of the universe – and then Carter remembers this is all a dream and wakes up.

Quite the ride! I don’t normally go into full synopsis mode for these mythos blogs, but I felt that it was almost a requirement here, for the depth of story involved! The Dream-Quest is told in one long narrative of around 100 pages, and like I said at the start, it is weird. I read it in sections over a couple of evenings, which is entirely possible as, while there are no chapter subdivisions, there are plenty of paragraphs which begin “The next day…” and so forth. There are so many allusions to other parts of the wider mythos, and names and locations that loom large for me as a fan of the board and card games based on Lovecraft’s work, that I found it quite exciting to be reading something that has been such an integral part of this world for so long.

It also helped that I found myself playing the Dreamlands expansion for Eldritch Horror around the same time, which is something else that has been put off for far too long now!

The story is quite interesting, to me, as it represents the sort of fantasy stories that were prevalent pre-Tolkien, with a lot of influence from The Arabian Nights. Rather than having fantasy equals orcs and goblins, and that sort of medieval feel to it, instead we have exotic locations and truly fantastical creatures. It’s a recurring theme of many of the stories in the Dream Cycle, and I suppose it interests me because it represents what is actually possible within the wider genre of fantasy. I feel as though I’ve been conditioned, almost, into thinking of fantasy in those realms of medieval Europe, so it is really nice to see beyond that, I must say!

Keeping with the Dream Cycle, I also read Celephaïs, a short tale of a man who pursues his dream of the imagined city of Celephaïs, to the point where his own life wastes away and his body washes up on the shores of Innsmouth. The man’s name is not given, though in dreams he calls himself Kuranes, and is a figure who also features in the Dream-Quest. With being fairly short, it wasn’t as weird as the novella!

Shorter still, What the Moon Brings is based off a dream Lovecraft had, and describes something of a surreal landscape, which looks different and “hideous” compared with the light of day. This theme of the transformation of the familiar into the horrible continues, as the landscape becomes more and more twisted. The ending is quite abrupt, making you wonder if the narrator has died.

The Crawling Chaos was a little disappointing, at first, but I think I’d misled myself with this one! The story is one of HP Lovecraft’s many collaborations, although this one appears to be mostly the work of Lovecraft, based on an outline described to him by Winifred V Jackson. The story is only a short one, and describes something of an out-of-body experience following an accidental overdose of opium on the part of the narrator. It reminded me a little of the scenes in Beetlejuice, where they step out of the house and the sand-snake-creatures are running amok. Considering the title of the story is most often associated with Nyarlathotep, I think I was expecting an appearance, but never mind! For completion’s sake, I also read The Green Meadow, the second collaboration between the two. Based on a dream related by Jackson, the story is said to have been recovered from a curious notebook of some otherworldly material, discovered in a meteorite but written in classical Greek. The narrator floats on a slowly disintegrating island towards a green meadow, discovering the dream city of Stethelos before the text disintegrates into illegibility. Not what I would call my favourite of Lovecraft’s stories, though it does have that dream-like quality that shares something with What the Moon Brings.

To finish, this year I also re-read The Whisperer in Darkness. One of the towering greats of Lovecraft’s work, it leans more towards science fiction than the classic horror, although of course there are a number of elements of suspense as the story grows. It is also significant within the wider mythos for containing a great deal of references to ancient gods and creatures, and the like. It concerns the narrator, Albert Wilmarth, and his investigations into some strange sightings following the Vermont floods of 1927. He begins to correspond with a native of the area, Henry Akeley, who has witnessed the curious and horrible creatures that inhabit the wild hills of Vermont, and chronicles his ongoing battle with them as the creatures become aware of him. About halfway through, the tone of Akeley’s correspondence changes, and he invites Wilmarth to visit him. Naively, Wilmarth agrees and is quite shocked to find Akeley in poor health, though his host is able to whisper of the things he has learnt since he has called a truce with the aliens. Wilmarth is horrified to discover that the aliens plan to take Akeley back with them to their planet of Yuggoth (identified with the newly-discovered Pluto) and invite him to join them, also. In classic Lovecraft style, Wilmarth escapes in terror before the aliens get him, barely managing to keep hold of his sanity. Of course, we never really get definite descriptions of these things, but the story features a catalogue of names such as Hastur, Shub-Niggurath, Yuggoth, the Mi-Go, Hali, Carcosa, etc. There are suggestions that the Mi-Go are the alien, fungoid worshippers of Nyarlathotep, although everything is quite vague and it’s almost impossible to pin anything down for definite. It’s all for texture, with Lovecraft, and it works so well to promote that weirdness that we love him for. There is also a wealth of local colour thanks to Lovecraft’s visit to the state in the late 1920s. It really suffuses the latter part of the story, as Wilmarth travels to Vermont. This tale is rightly one of Lovecraft’s finest, even if Wilmarth is a bit of a gullible one!

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