Beyond the Mythos: 2021 edition (part two)

Hey everybody,
I quite enjoyed my November mythos dive last year, reading some of the weird fiction of Lovecraft’s circle and broadening my horizons accordingly! So much so, I thought I’d do it again! This is part two of a two-part series covering some of the wider mythos tales out there, you can read part one here. Much like last time, I’m once again going to cover one of Lovecraft’s collaborations to mix things up a bit, but first, let’s head to Lovecraft’s disciple, August Derleth. The man who, along with Donald Wandrei, almost single-handedly ensured the survival of Lovecraft’s work and name as an American author by collecting and publishing a volume of his work, founding a publishing house along the way specifically to do so, he is nevertheless divisive among Lovecraft scholars for his later development of the Cthulhu mythos into something that many see as far-removed from Lovecraft’s own vision.

So let’s take a look at The Dweller in Darkness. It’s one that I’ve read before, and one that I find really quite nicely evocative of the great white north. We have legends of Rick’s Lake, where people have gone missing in curious circumstances for a while – the reappearance of a frozen missionary, said to have disappeared 300 years ago but whose remains are determined to have only been dead five years, intrigues a local academic, who heads up there and promptly goes missing, too. His graduate students from the university follow his trail, and set up a Dictaphone to record the eerie nocturnal sounds. The story has got a lot to like about it, there is a lot of atmosphere here and a lot of local colour. Derleth was well-known for this aspect of his writing, of course, and it’s something that I recall from having previously read his tales. Where it falls down, for me, is how Derleth seems fond of using Lovecraft and his writings as a factual source, and not fiction. Here, the missing academic had asked for his students to send him a copy of The Outsider & Others, the first volume of Lovecraft published by Arkham House. It always wrenches me out of the story, but it seems to be a hallmark of his style – Lovecraft himself appeared as a character in The Return of Hastur that I read last year. The story also has a fairly substantial discussion of Derleth’s ideas for the Cthulhu mythos pantheon, where the Great Old Ones are set in opposition to each other as elemental deities. To some extent, it feels like name-dropping rather than anything more. The story ends with the students calling down Cthugha, the fire god, to destroy the area around Rick’s Lake, which it transpires is the earthly haven for Nyarlathotep – after having been advised to do so by the desperate voice of their professor on the Dictaphone. As I said, there is a lot to enjoy here, it somehow just falls a bit short because of the use of Lovecraft himself, as I said.

From Derleth to the man himself now, and one of Lovecraft’s collaborations. The Electric Executioner is one of those titles that has intrigued me since I came across is years ago. A collaboration with Adolphe de Castro, it tells the story of a mining investigator tasked with finding a missing mine worker, who has absconded to Mexico with a lot of the company paperwork. Hardly the most auspicious start to the tale, but on the narrator’s train ride in to Mexico City, things take a sinister turn when he is suddenly joined in his otherwise deserted compartment by a man with a large suitcase. The man overpowers him, and tells him that he has been selected as the first human test subject for his electrocution device, a device that has been shunned by the state of New York as a method of execution. The man is more than a little deranged, and seems to be trying to bring about the return of Quetzalcoatl to the world, determined to kill everybody before the feathered god returns. The narrator manages to stall enough before launching into some faux-Aztec patois, which causes the man to inadvertently kill himself with the device. But that’s not all – the man disappears from the carriage, and when the narrator is told that the mining thief has been found dead in the mountains. It turns out the mine thief is none other than the chap from the train, so how did his body get from the carriage floor to that cave system? It’s okay – a little creepy, but nothing really as exciting as I was perhaps hoping. The mine thief chap does make some ritual mumblings which sound like Aztec-inflected versions of the usual Lovecraftian cult chants, including a “Cthulhutl” and “Yog-Sototl” which made me smile. Ultimately, it does feel a little bit silly, the way the narrator is able to convince the madman to model his execution device.

Interestingly, though, this story is one where we can see the original, as it had been published previously by de Castro as The Automatic Executioner. It is quite an interesting read, to see what Lovecraft added to the original. Mainly, it seems to be the atmosphere and tension, although it also seems to be the case that the narrator is watered down a bit to emphasize the difference between himself and his would-be attacker. The odd cultist reference is just peppered in for effect, and the final act with the discovery of the body is increased for further horrific effect.

To Clark Ashton Smith next, and a couple of stories that have that curious early fantasy feel to them. Ubbo-Sathla is a short story that tells of a man who finds a strange, pulsating crystal in a curio shop in London, takes it home, and gazes into its depths. He is aware of the pre-human civilisations of Hyperborea, and has read of such times in the Book of Eibon, and so gradually finds himself being subsumed by the stone until he loses all sense of self, travelling back in time to the very birth of the world, when the god Ubbo-Sathla exists in yeasty splendour. Fairly interesting stuff, if a little bit gross when describing the big god guy. Notable for being a bit of a crossover with Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, the story starts in the best tradition of weird tales, but quickly turns into that kind of dark fantasy that is common with CAS.

And speaking of dark fantasy, The Dark Eidolon is a short story from Smith’s Zothique series, which are a kind of future-fantasy that imagines a continent emerging somewhere in the Indian ocean, taking in parts of India, Arabia and Australia/Indonesia. While it is couched as a future (“Dying Earth” is the term that I’ve seen on Wikipedia, a setting at the end of the Earth’s lifespan) there is that element of Arabian Nights-style fantasy that seems to be prevalent in the fantasy of this time. The story details the revenge of the sorcerer Namirrha, who was almost trampled to death by the horse of the Prince Zotulla. Namirrha throws in his lot with the archfiend Thasaidon and builds a palace right next to Zotulla, from whence he sends ghostly horses each night to terrorise his foe. Thasaidon refuses to outright destroy Zotulla however, as destruction of Zotulla and his realm will deprive the fiend of many subjects. Namirrha then sells his soul to Thamagorgos, Lord of the Abyss, and invites Zotulla to his palace for a feast. There, Namirrha is attended by all manner of zombies and half-rotten ghouls, before forcing Zotulla to drink a poisoned draught that places the emperor’s spirit in a statue of Thasaidon, while Namirrha himself takes over Zotulla’s body. Thasaidon, furious at this turn of events, gives Zotulla the power to kill his body, driving Namirrha back into his own skin with no memory of these events. Namirrha proceeds to attack himself in madness, while the demon horses of Thamagorgos destroy the entire land. The story is quite grisly, to say the least, and definitely tends towards the bombastic at the end! Borne out of a need for revenge, the lengths Namirrha goes to are quite extraordinary, if I’m honest – especially the morbid feast and the destruction of the entire land. It’s interesting, I suppose, because it’s probably the most pulp-y story that I’ve read so far! I tend not to think of Lovecraft’s stories as being the kind of adventure-serial pulp stories printed like Zorro and Flash Gordon back in the day, but they do all belong to this kind of genre!

Let’s talk about the older generation for the moment. Ambrose Bierce isn’t particularly remembered today, but he did come up with the names Carcosa, Hastur, Hyades and others that so captured the imagination of Lovecraft and later mythos writers. An Inhabitant of Carcosa is one of those stories that is often quoted as the inspiration of the name but doesn’t really develop any ideas in the way they were later used. The unnamed narrator finds himself in an unfamiliar wilderness and is worried about how he came to be there – as his last memory was of falling asleep with a fever. Further exploration shows an area with old tombstones, and while resting beneath a tree, notices a stone with his own name, date of birth and date of death. He realises that he must be amid the ruins of ancient Carcosa, and has clearly died from the fever. I liked this story quite a lot – it was interesting for seeing so many references to stuff like Carcosa and Hali, which were taken up in later works such as The King in Yellow and yet have been altered from their original setting here.

Haïta the Shepherd is a strange tale, notable for the introduction of Hastur, who is here a benevolent shepherd god. Haïta, who has hitherto been a pious worshipper at the shrine of Hastur, threatens to stop his devotions unless Hastur helps to save his flock from drowning. Haïta is visited by a mysterious maiden who disappears as soon as she questions him, but a hermit he cares for identifies her has happiness. There’s a classical feeling to this story, and it reminds me a little of some of Lovecraft’s more pastoral works. It is a bit curious, I think because of the name of Hastur looming in the background there – having all of the baggage of the Cthulhu mythos that has come along since, and seeing what that has made of the name, it lends an atmosphere to an otherwise fairly placid tale. I suppose it goes to show the imagination of some of the mythos writers, who could turn out so much from so little.

I’ll finish with Robert Bloch. Bloch was another of Lovecraft’s proteges, and of course later went on to have a successful career as a screenwriter, after gaining notoriety from his novel Psycho. Lovecraft used a fictionalised version of Bloch in The Haunter of the Dark, Robert Blake, after Bloch himself had used a fictionalised version of Lovecraft in The Shambler from the Stars. The story almost appears autobiographical, as the narrator is a young student who is also struggling to make it as a writer of weird fiction, despite several rejections. He determines to gain occult knowledge in order to perfect his craft, and obtains a copy of De Vermis Mysteriis, an occult tome introduced here by Bloch and analogous to the Necronomicon. Reaching out to a “mystic dreamer” from New England, the two meet and pore over the work, but unfortunately, said mystic dreamer reads a passage aloud and accidentally summons a vampiric daemon creature, which devours him. The narrator, in panic, burns the man’s house down and flees. The story has that element of Bloch’s sense of humour in how the horror comes through an accidental daemon summoning, and I feel there is something akin to Clark Ashton Smith’s humour there. The star vampire is of course familiar to any Arkham Files gamer as one of the stable of monsters. Lovecraft enthusiastically approved the idea of killing off this fictionalised version of himself, and his sequel The Haunter of the Dark was written shortly after this tale was published, almost as a direct sequel. Bloch then wrote a sequel to Haunter, closing out the trilogy with The Shadow from the Steeple. But I think I’ll save that one for another time…

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