Friday, March 9, 2012

Derleth and the Mythos

So, one of the books I've been reading recently is DISSECTING CTHULHU: ESSAYS ON THE CTHULHU MYTHOS, ed. S. T. Joshi (2011, Miskatonic River Press). A loan from friend Jeff G. (thanks, Jeff), this is the first scholarly work from a relatively new publisher of some quality 'old school' CALL OF CTHULHU rpg adventure anthologies (NEW TALES OF THE MISKATONIC VALLEY [2008] and MORE ADVENTURES IN ARKHAM COUNTRY [2010]), which I used to run a C.o.C. campaign off and on for about a year and a half.* Now they're branching out into both Mythos fiction and, more significantly, scholarship.

This present collection is devoted not just to denouncing August Derleth, who certainly deserves it, but to attempting to debunk the idea that there ever was a Cthluhu Mythos anywhere outside Derleth's imagination. There's a lot of baby with the bathwater here; the anti-Derlethians are right that (a) Derleth's ideas were markedly unlike Lovecraft's on key points (e.g., the Xian gloss he applied -- ludicrously so, given that Lovecraft was a stark atheist) and (b) Derleth indulged himself in a good deal of fraud to pass off his ideas as Lovecraft's own.** But in trying to expunge these accretions some go so far as to deny Lovecraft's own contributions: contrary to their claims, most of 'the Cthulhu Mythos' as we know it today derives directly from H.P.L.'s writings, extrapolated from works like "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Dunwich Horror" and THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH. And the evolved form it now has owes less to Derleth (whose take on the Mythos now seems distinctly quaint) than to Sandy Petersen and his peers, and the form they gave it (which in turn builds directly on Lovecraft's own practice in his treatment of material from earlier writers like Chambers and Dunsany). Today most people first encounter Lovecraft's work not through Derleth's essays and introductions dating back to forty-plus years ago but through the CALL OF CTHULHU roleplaying game.

Stripped of their smugness and absolute self-certainty (reading the first half of this book is like skimming through a year's worth of issues of THE SKEPTICAL INQUIRER all in one sitting), the essays here range from claims that the Mythos can be restricted to as few as three stories to more general approaches that it might include as much as a dozen or so. Generally, as the volume's editor notes, attempts to define the Mythos center in on three or four elements:

(1) eldritch tomes, like THE NECRONOMICON. If every story by Lovecraft and others in his circle that mentions one of these tomes is a 'Mythos story' (as most of us implicitly accept), then the Mythos is pervasive throughout much of HPL's fiction AND poetry (e.g. the sonnet sequence THE FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH) AND a considerable portion of his correspondence as well. Several of the critics included here consider this just window dressing and so don't take it into account, but I'm wary of arguments that can only make their point by excluding great blocks of evidence.

(2) the gods. Lovecraft may not have come up with the term 'The Great Old Ones", but like Tolkien's "A Mythology for England" it's useful & distinctive shorthand for another of the most characteristic features of his work. Is it only a Cthulhu Mythos story if it directly involves Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep or Yog-Sothoth as a character who actually appears, in person, in the narrative? That line of thought wd lead to the conclusion that v. few stories indeed qualify. Or is mentioning one of the Other Gods enough?-- wh. vastly expands the field. How about the Elder Ones (wh. seems to have been Lovecraft's name for the Titans), like Nodens? Or the Greek gods (whom he called "the Great Ones"), who figure in passing in THE DREAM-QUEST?

(3) Arkham Country. Lovecraft set some stories in Providence or other real New England towns, but many take place in imaginary towns like Arkham, Dunwich, and Innsmouth, or along the Miskatonic River, or feature some doomed professor from Miskatonic University. This is one of the most distinctive features of Lovecraft's work: it's often been observed that landscape almost approaches the status of a character in his tales. But is this subcreated world part of the Mythos, or independent of it?

(4) Joshi, the volume's editor, stresses a philosophical element: does the story center on 'cosmicism', Lovecraft's own personal brand of nihilism? Certainly there's a sense of threat from vast cosmic forces in the best of his tales, but for me there's v. much a sense of an author's reach exceeding his grasp: Great Cthulhu, whose advent is supposed to spell doom for the entire world, is defeated by being rammed by a yacht. The half-god prophet Wilbur Whateley's apocalyptic schemes end when he's eaten by a watchdog. His brother, an unstoppable massive engine of destruction, spends most of his time flattening barns and eating cows. The gap between conception and execution cd hardly be more ludicrously large. More to the point, the gods of the Mythos are supposed to evoke terror in us by representing our exposure to vast, inconceivable forces who are utterly indifferent to us, yet when they show up in the tales they act that ordinary boogiemen who delight in stalking and devouring the mere mortals whose existence they're supposed to be supremely unaware of. The core point of Lovecraft's credo -- that we wd be driven mad and instantly destroyed were we to become aware of the vastness of the cosmos and our insignificance within it -- is conveyed better by Douglas Adams' Total Perspective Vortex than by anything in any of Lovecraft's tales; the closest Lovecraft comes to dealing with the theme directly is in the story "From Beyond" -- far from his best, but the only real 'Mythos story' he ever wrote by that standard.

Taken altogether, the presence of at least one of these elements marks most of Lovecraft's work. So, if you consider each an element of the Mythos, it follows that 'Lovecraftian' and 'Cthulhu Mythos' are effectively synonyms. That's the conclusion Chaosium reached, meaning that any story by Lovecraft cd be considered authoritative and drawn on for a Mythos adventure. Personally, I find Chaosium releases like THE MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP, SHADOWS OF YOG-SOTHOTH, and DAY OF THE BEAST truer to the pulp stories Lovecraft actually wrote than anything that anything that might correspond to an idealized image of Lovecraft as conveyed by the strictures set down in this collection.

Two small take aways that made me glad I read this book: the short essay by Will Murray on Nug & Yeb, two v. minor Great Old Ones who never play any significant role in any story. Murray shows that they're referred to with surprising frequency in HPL's letters, and collects those references to show that Lovecraft had some well-thought out ideas regard even v. minor Mythos beings. I remember Dr. Humphrey Havard telling me much the same re. Tolkien: that he only had about 10% of what he knew about any given character in his legendarium written down, and cd expound at length about any of them.

Even better is another piece by Murray about the town of Foxfield. I'd been rather annoyed when the Miskatonic River Press adventure collections each included a scenario set in a 'Lovecraft Country' town they'd made up themselves: the little village of Foxfield, Mass. Well, it turns out this is a creation of Lovecraft himself; Murray's piece tells how S. T. Joshi, back in 1994, found a hand-drawn map HPL had created of the town, which he obviously planned to use as the setting of a story. We don't have the story, nor any indication of what it might have been, and so can extrapolate only from the details of what sites Lovecraft chose to include and label on the map (rather like scholars trying to work out the conclusion of EDWIN DROOD from the illustrations Dickens commissioned for the unwritten chapters). This is a great little piece of research; highly recommended.

--John R.

current reading: A MOUSE & HIS CHILD by Hoban; ORTHODOXY by GKC
current audiobook: OVER SEA, UNDER STONE by Cooper.


*which unfortunately now seem to have run its course.

**On a personal level, which they don't go into here, Derleth's behavior is much more reprehensible, both in his persecution of HPL's chosen executor, Barlow, whom Derleth slandered and drove from fandom and publishing circles, and in his pretense that he represented 'the Lovecraft estate', a self-appointed role which he exploited to collect royalties he had no legal right to and to veto projects he shd have had no say over. Not to mention, of course, his occasional forgeries. Of course, on the positive side, Derleth does deserve credit for rescuing the 'Weird Tales' school of pulp horror writers from oblivion. The argument has been made, rather unconvincingly, that Derleth ghettoized Lovecraft and held him back from mass popularity and literary acceptance; even if we grant this dubious claim, there's no doubt that Derleth promoted Clark Ashton Smith, the greatest writer in that group by far, bringing new volumes into print over the decades even though Smith's books sold poorly. And he was responsible for one of Dunsany's late books having an American edition, for which he made sure to pay Dunsany a royalty, so that's to his credit as well. --JDR

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