Beyond Lovecraft

Hey everybody,
Christmas is coming, and inevitably I’m getting into the mood for some mythos tales as I play more of the Arkham Files games and get into that side of things, but I thought it might be interesting to see beyond Lovecraft and investigate some of the authors that have contributed to the mythos, specifically of course, the games!

Let’s start with Robert E Howard, the man who is credited with single-handedly creating the Sword & Sorcery genre. Conan the Barbarian was perhaps his greatest creation, although Howard also wrote weird tales, and weird West stories, and created Solomon Kane and Kull. 

The Haunter of the Ring is an interesting little story that deals with something more akin to black magic than actual cosmic horror. A Hungarian occultist calls forth the dark powers of the haunter to exact his revenge upon the man who stole the woman he loved, by using her as his instrument of vengeance. He gives her a ring that temporarily allows the haunter to take over her body, whereupon she tries to kill her husband. Very weird, some nice mythos elements from aspects such as the magical dabbling, but I think overall it lacks that sort of thrill from the stories that deal with the ancient ones.

The Horror from the Mound is one of Howard’s weird west stories, and concerns the down-on-his-luck cowboy Steve Brill, who notices how his Mexican neighbour skirts a mound and questions him about it. With dire warnings not to investigate it ringing in his ears, Steve impetuously digs up the mound, though is initially dismayed to find it seemingly empty. However, following a shadowy shape to his neighbour’s house, he witnesses the old Mexican being murdered. Returning to his house with the written notes from the Mexican’s hut, Steve learns the mound was constructed to contain the body of a vampire, at which point he looks up and sees said vampire looking through his window! It’s a fantastic pulp story, and is full of suspense and horror. Definitely recommended!!

Next up, we have the almost controversial figure of August Derleth. The man who is responsible for preserving and publishing much of Lovecraft’s work after his death. Derleth had attempted to bind Lovecraft’s mythological creations into a cohesive narrative, the Hastur mythos, though in life Lovecraft rejected the idea. In the years following Lovecraft’s death in 1937, however, Derleth wrote stories that worked towards a single coherent pantheon of Great Old Ones and Elder Gods. Many have since denounced this move, of course, leading to a somewhat chequered reputation for him. 

The Return of Hastur is an odd duck. It has a poor reputation among Lovecraft devotees for being the story that first attempted to classify the mythos by elemental means. An elderly scholar dies, and asks that certain books be destroyed, along with his house. However, his nephew contests this action but subsequently grows to rue that decision, as he learns that his uncle had made a pact to provide a haven for the return of the ancient one, Hastur. For a good chunk of the tale, it actually reads very much like a Lovecraft story, but there are several unfortunate parts that really try too hard to force themselves into the mythos, that it reads like bad fan fiction. I think it was also a very poor decision to include an actual reference to The Call of Cthulhu as a weird tale itself, as it just rang too false for me. I’m not sure that the story deserves quite the amount of hate that has been directed towards it, but I’m equally disappointed that the story is effectively worse for trying too hard.

The Dweller in Darkness bears a very strong resemblance to Derleth’s earlier The Thing that Walked on the Wind, having the setting of a cabin in the woods in the author’s native Wisconsin. The narrator is on the trail of a disappeared academic, and goes up to a cabin on the shunned Rick’s Lake with a fellow graduate student, in an effort to pick up his trail. The trail leads them through several Lovecraftian tropes, we get a link between Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep, and the new Great Old One, Cthugha, a fireball which is depicted in opposition to the other two in Derleth’s pantheon. There are definite shadows from Lovecraft, particularly The Whisperer in the Darkness (recording the otherworldly voices via dictaphone, for example, and the conclusion describing the footprints). I did think it was a good story, and better than the other one, as this definitely tried more to be its own thing. I suppose I just feel disappointed when Lovecraft’s stories are brought into the story as support for the eldritch horror that lurks.

Finally, we come to Clark Ashton Smith, another of Lovecraft’s correspondents, whose reputation rests as much on his poetry as his weird fiction. Prolific as a writer, Smith created the prehistoric world of Hyperborea, as well as the “Dying Earth” continent of Zothique, writing many tales in these and other settings.

I read The Seven Geases specifically because I wanted to read the first mention of Atlach-Nacha, the “dream weaver” that looms large in the mythos. I had no real idea what to expect, if I’m honest, and the tale is definitely one to be filed under W for weird! It forms part of Smith’s Hyperborea story cycle, the legendary continent once situated in the present Arctic before the Ice Age. The land is lush jungle, populated by dinosaurs and the ape-like Voormi, before human settlers arrived from elsewhere on Earth. One such settler, Lord Ralibar Vooz, is leading a hunting expedition onto Mount Voormithadreth when he interrupts the sorcerer Exdagor, who places upon him a “geas” or curse, to present himself to the subterranean god Tsathoggua as a sacrifice. It turns out, however, that Tsathoggua is quite full from a recent sacrifice, so sends Vooz under a second geas to the spider-god Atlach-Nacha, who is far too busy spinning his webs to deal with Vooz’ arrival, so sends him to the “antehuman” sorcerer Haon-Dar, whose minions imprisoned within the walls and floor of his palace would not be properly sated by eating Vooz, so he sends him to the Serpent People, who are advanced scientists and already have a human specimen, but don’t have any use for him, and on it goes. 

The story is meant as a comedy, with a fairly silly and blunt ending that made me wonder just what on earth I’d been reading! But when I understood that it’s meant to be a sort of darkly comic parody, I could actually appreciate it as quite enjoyable. It’s particularly noteworthy as being the first mention of both Atlach-Nacha and Abhoth (who places upon Vooz the seventh geas) in the mythos, Ancient Ones who loom large within the wider Cthulhu mythos. While other writers have more fully fleshed-out Atlach-Nacha into the “dream-spinner” we all know and fear, Abhoth is pretty much here what he/she has always been since.

The Hunters from Beyond is much more ‘classic’ mythos, dealing with strange, extra-dimensional beings who have been serving as models for an artist, although recently they have been acting with a bit more independence. It sounds familiar because it is modelled after Pickman’s Model, of course, but I thought it worked quite well with a certain element of suspense brought about, not because the end was in any real doubt, but more because of the expectation of it, if that makes sense. It’s also worth noting the narrator is one Philip Hastane, who has cropped up as an ally in a few Arkham Files games to date!

I’ve definitely enjoyed delving beyond my favourite, HP Lovecraft, though I will certainly be taking the time this Christmas to once more delve into the mythos and read some more weird fiction!

Mythos delvings

Hey everyone!
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!

The Dreams in the Witch House
The Ithaqua Cycle
The Thing on the Doorstep (features Quest of Iranon)