Beyond the Mythos: 2021 edition (part one)

Hey everybody,
Welcome to the first of a two-part blog series charting my wider reading within the Cthulhu mythos this year! After my first exposure to writers within the mythos last year – authors from Lovecraft’s circle such as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard and August Derleth – I thought it would be nice to do the same thing again this year, branching yet further, and have spent a couple of weeks almost immersed in these weird, weird tales! I’ve read so many that it would probably be too unwieldy to confine to a single blog post.

Without further ago, let’s dive in!

The Horror from the Hills is the novella by Frank Belknap Long that introduces Chaugnar Faugn to the mythos – the weird elephantine deity from the Far East. What is thought to be a statue or idol of the deity is brought to a museum in New York, under a cloud of some brutal killings. When the museum curator, Algernon Harris, notices the trunk has changed position after one such murder, we go into academic overdrive as he tries to dig deeper into the whole affair. Visiting the psychic Roger Little, he and the museum’s director learn of dark beasts in the Spanish Pyrenees, which seem to be linked with Chaugnar Faugn’s legend. All hell breaks loose when Harris receives a call to say the idol has disappeared; Little, learning of a killing spree around the city, unveils his ‘entropy machine’, a device that can send things back through time. The three chase Chaugnar Faugn down the eastern seaboard, attacking it with a green light that is eventually able to break down the god’s corporeal self to send it back through time to a point where it hadn’t existed, though Little fears that it is not the last that the Earth has seen of Chaugnar Faugn.

Somewhere in this story there is a really good mythos tale. I think part of me was put off by the fact that it runs a bit too long, unnecessary for some parts, and another part of me feels distinctly turned off by the sort of casual racism that’s even more rampant than in Lovecraft. It’s always interesting to read tales that have had a major impact on the mythos that are not by Lovecraft, of course, and I am glad to have read it to see what it’s all about. But I do feel as though some fat could have been trimmed – the story is almost famous for including verbatim a dream that Lovecraft told to Long, and while it’s interesting to have that in facsimile copy, I feel a bit like it was unnecessary. You almost end up reading this for the meta reason of reading the dream, and not because the story is actually good. That sounds a bit harsh, actually. Like I say, there is a good tale in there somewhere – I think I’d have preferred it to have been a bit leaner in the telling.

I’ve also read The Hounds of Tindalos, also by Long, which has the distinction of being the first mythos tale to be published by someone other than Lovecraft. It’s a bit barmy, if I’m honest, and deals with Halpin Chalmers and his efforts to time travel through the use of an exotic drug from the East. Chalmers goes back, but is spotted by some supernatural beasts, the Hounds, who can attack people by entering our dimension through angles (as opposed to the curves of time that, apparently, Einstein propounded). As such, Chalmers softens all of the angles of his room with plaster of Paris, but he delves too deep and the plaster crumbles, and the Hounds get him.

While being slightly bonkers, not least for all the scientific theory put forward in the story, it’s nevertheless kinda fascinating to read. I know of the Hounds from their many, many appearances in the Arkham Files series of games, and indeed they’re later mentioned by Lovecraft himself in The Whisperer in Darkness. The story is told alongside some newspaper snippets, giving it a sort of documentary feel, which I really enjoyed. However, I’m not a big fan of Long’s style here – not many people simply “say” things; instead, we have far too many “murmurs” and the like, which gives the impression that the protagonists are all muttering to each other. I’m all for literary variety, but why can’t people just have their speech reported, and be done with?

There are common elements between both Long stories that tie themselves strongly to the Cthulhu mythos, such as the weird science and the horror of creatures from other times and dimensions. That Long and Lovecraft were friends probably accounts a lot for this (it was apparently Long who persuaded Lovecraft’s aunts to take him back in after his marriage ended). I wouldn’t say that Long simply reproduces Lovecraft, though – I think there is a definite sense that this is a different author, if only because Long can’t seem to sustain the baroque, florid language that is so often Lovecraft’s hallmark.

Henry Kuttner is a new discovery for me this mythos season. Another of Lovecraft’s circle, Kuttner wrote quite a few short stories for the mythos. The Secret of Kralitz is a story somewhat in the mould of Lovecraft’s genealogy-type stories, where a family secret is passed down the generations. It’s short, and has some tangential links to the mythos as the protagonist learns of his family’s unholy alliance with Cthulhu etc. It was Kuttner’s first story that has links to the mythos, though he had been selling stories and poems to pulp magazines for years by this point. The Salem Horror is by far my favourite of his stories that I’ve read so far. It’s got strong overtones of The Dreams in the Witch House, though being set in Salem gives it a lot of atmosphere with very little work. The author Carson is renting the so-called Witch House in which he hopes to finish his current novel – though it proves difficult because of the noisy street outside. Following a rat into the cellar, he finds an underground room that is promptly dubbed The Witch Room, having stone mosaics in the floor, and also a curious metal disk. The Room attracts several mystics, including Michael Leigh, who takes a particular interest. When the grave of Abigail Prinn, the former occupant of the house, is robbed and her body disappears, Carson is overcome with a nervous exhaustion and retreats to the solitude of the Room, only to witness the mummified cadaver of Prinn attempting to bring forth the gelatinous mass of Nyogtha – to be thwarted by the timely return of Leigh.

While perhaps a little derivative of Dreams in the Witch-House, I still found this to be a really enjoyable tale, and very atmospheric. There are letters from Lovecraft to Kuttner where the former gives him notes, including geographical, and helps with the tone. We’re basically reading pulp stories from their 1930s heyday, so we can’t really expect high art! It was good, I thought, and I’m definitely intrigued to read more of his work.

Let’s mix it up a bit next, and move to Lovecraft himself!

Out of the Aeons is one of Lovecraft’s collaborations with Hazel Heald, which bears something of a familiar sense to the earlier Horror in the Museum, both stories being concerned with mummies as museum exhibits. The story was published in 1935, and is quite notable for its long central discussion of the Nameless Cults of Von Junzt, which details the prehistoric cult of Ghatanothoa, a Medusa-like ancient one whose gaze turns a person’s body to stone, yet preserves their mind intact. Creepy! It’s all brought about when a mummy is discovered on a heretofore undiscovered Pacific island in the 1870s. The mummy is installed at a small museum in Boston, and is largely unnoticed until the 1920s sees a sensational account of it published in the newspapers. A swarm of visitors ensues, many of which are described in Lovecraft’s less-than-charming manner, and it seems like these cultists (for want of a better term) are trying to revive the mummy. See, Von Junzt relates the story of an ancient civilisation of Mu, dating roughly 200,000 years prior, that worshipped Ghatanothoa. A priest of Shub-Niggurath attempts to destroy Ghatanothoa’s power over the people with a magical warding scroll, which is replaced by the High Priests shortly before he goes off to confront the deity. The popular press naturally speculates that the mummy is this priest, and that the so-called true scroll still exists, and will bring him back to life. A series of disturbing events takes place in the museum, culminating in the death of two intruders, one of whom seems to have been petrified when the mummy’s eyes suddenly open. See, the mummy is indeed the priest, and upon his retinas can be faintly seen the outline of Ghatanothoa, caught in that moment before his own mummification. As the mummy is examined in the museum laboratory, it is discovered to have a perfectly-preserved brain, after all these millennia.

What a wild ride! This story is replete with references to the mythos, including the Mi-Go of Yuggoth, who of course remove the brains of their test subjects. Coincidence? I get the impression, at times, that Lovecraft is almost more free and easy with his references when revising other peoples’ works than when writing his own. Nameless Cults is the creation of Robert E Howard, so it’s nice to see it explored in this one a bit more fully.

Speaking of Robert E Howard, I’ve been reading more of his weird tales – and man, they are weird! The Children of the Night is one of these early mentions of the Nameless Cults tome, although mentioned in passing as a vehicle for a story that is much more racially motivated than even Lovecraft often wrote! The story begins with a circle of scientist-philosopher types discussing the possibility of surviving ancient cults in the world, with the narrator paying particular attention to the physical attributes to one of these chaps in the circle. When they start passing round a flint axe head, the narrator is attacked and seems to hallucinate a past life, where he was a warrior tribesman who tried to purge the forest of a sub-human culture referred to as the Children of the Night. Coming to, he struggles with the present reality and attempts to kill the guy who hit him. It’s all overlain with racial commentary that was quite prevalent at the time, though as we look back through the lens of where such talk took us, it can make for some very uncomfortable reading.

The Black Stone, also by Howard, is the second of these early mentions of the Nameless Cults. More of a Lovecraftian story than others I’ve read by Howard, it deals with the narrator’s trip into a small village in Hungary to study a fabled black stone, mentioned in several accounts with teasing, tantalising references to archaic rituals and subsequent madnesses. On hearing some of the history of the village and the surrounding valley, the narrator spends the night in front of the stone and witnesses an obscene ritual that culminates with the sacrifice of a baby and a young girl to a horrific toad-like monstrosity. Thinking it just a dream, further investigation shows that, in actual fact, such rituals were a regular occurrence before the Turks invaded. While the narrator himself manages to cling to his sanity, it otherwise has many of the hallmarks of the classic weird tale, and has much in common with the work of Lovecraft.

The third Howard story that I’ve read this time around is The Thing on the Roof. It’s a short tale of two scholars, one of whom (Tussmann) goes searching for a temple in Honduras after reading about it in the Nameless Cults. Within the temple is the mummy of the last high priest, around whose neck is a carved toad amulet which is talked of as “the key”. The reports of hidden treasure are, it seems, exaggerated, but he has brought something back home with him – a hideous commotion sounds from the roof, and Tussmann’s body is found with the head caved in, and the jewel stolen. The room is wrecked, and a strange gelatinous secretion is found around the window. Very atmospheric. Very nice! I did quite enjoy this one, there are a lot of classic mythos bits and pieces in here. It also ties in with the Black Stone, and the toad-like god. Very nice, indeed!