RETROSPECTIVE: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales by H. P. Lovecraft

Monday , 25, May 2015 6 Comments

SPOILER WARNING: Before we start this one, let me say that if you have not read Lovecraft’s Mythos stories, you need to stop reading me and start reading him. I was irked at first by the fact that this particular volume did not put the tales in the order in which they were published. However reading to the end it is clear that the compilers set them up the way that they did in order to consciously give the reader a particular kind of payoff. It worked for me and I enjoyed it immensely. I can’t tell you if this is the best introduction to Lovecraft’s work or not, but I can say that I got a great deal of enjoyment from it. The copy I got hold of was on the shelves at Barnes & Nobel for a reasonable price.

Lovecraft’s contribution to science fiction and fantasy is positively ubiquitous. It’s not just comics and movies like Hellboy, either. There are also a wide range of games that showcase his creations: Klaus Westerhoff’s brilliant “The Stars Are Right”, the sprawling “Arkham Horror” board game, Steve Jackson’s whimsical “Cthulhu Dice”, and of course Chaosium’s seminal “Call of Cthulhu” role-playing game. Even before I’d read any of Lovecraft’s work, I knew quite well from sessions of Dungeons & Dragons that if you ever came across some kind of unsettling bas relief, you probably needed to leave whatever ruins you had found them in with every bit of haste you could muster.

The basic premise that tends to come across with these homages, derivations, and elaborations is that evil cultists are at work around the globe. If they aren’t stopped, bizarre extra-dimensional beings will be summoned to our plane where they will change the earth into some kind of terrible hell world. A rag-tag group of private investigators, academics, occultists, socialites, and explorers must collect clues however they can, but also be ready to get hold of Tommy Guns and dynamite to finish off whatever monstrous servants of indescribable evil they finally track down.

It is great fun. It is a genre of table top game that can stand toe to toe with many enduring properties: Traveller and Gamma World not being the least among them. Even a generic game like GURPS can trace its “fright check” rules directly back to Lovecraft’s oeuvre, so it can be difficult to get away from him. It’s only a very few guys like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard that can be said to have had a bigger impact on fantasy, science fiction, and gaming. But if there’s a problem with Lovecraft’s legacy and influence, it’s that on the whole these popularizations really all that much like Lovecraft’s actual work.

Oh, there is a crazy cult leader type in there such as this one from “The Horror in the Museum”:

“See here, Jones– if I let you go will you let me go? It must be taken care of by Its high-priest. Orabona will be enough to keep It alive– and when he is finished I will make his fragments immortal in wax for the world to see. It could have been you, but you have rejected the honour. I won’t bother you again. Let me go, and I will share with you the power that It will bring me. Iä! Iä! Great Rhan-Tegoth! Let me go! Let me go! It is starving down there beyond that door, and if It dies the Old Ones can never come back. Hei! Hei! Let me go!” (page 460)

It’s amusing to see him impersonate a monster just like a bad guy from Scooby Doo. Of course… when he says that his costume was made from the hide of a “dimensional shambler” you actually believe him. And he really does have a monster in the basement worthy of triggering this epitome of failed fright checks:

With intense effort Jones is today able to recall a sudden bursting of his fear-paralysis into the liberation of frenzied automatic flight. What he evidently did must have paralleled curiously the wild, plunging flights of maddest nightmares; for he seems to have leaped across the disordered crypt at almost a single bound, yanked open the outside door, which closed and locked itself after him with a clatter, sprung up the worn steps three at a time, and raced frantically and aimlessly out of that dank cobblestoned court through the squalid streets of Southwark. (page 463)

And while there are all kinds of cultists all over the world, in Lovecraft’s stories there is a lot more to them than just some scheme bring about the end times. Oh sure, there are more few children going missing right around May Eve and Hallow Mass. But these cultists types are up to all kinds of stuff. Some of them are a glorified hospitality network for strange visitors from other worlds and other times. Some of them are heirs to knowledge and traditions that predate human civilizations. Some of them are simply privy to what’s going on and are acting accordingly, even if it raises eyebrows among the academic set.

And yes, the standard movie trope of world wrecking entities from other dimensions does in fact show up here, too:

There is no need of going deep into the primal lore behind this business, but I may as well tell you that according to the old legends this is the so-called ‘Year of the Black Goat’– when certain horrors from the fathomless Outside are supposed to visit the earth and do infinite harm. We don’t know how they’ll be manifest, but there’s reason to think that strange mirages and hallucinations will be mixed up in the matter. (page 516)

But the truth is, the bulk of these tales do not anticipate the basic plot of, say, Ghostbusters. For instance, Lovecraft’s story “Out of the Aeons” summarizes the basic theme of Lovecraft’s Mythos like this: There are things about the world and universe which it is better for the majority not to know…. That is immediately recognizable from first edition GURPS Horror as being the tagline of an entire class of monsters for that game. They were indescribably horrific and usually unbeatable. (There’s a picture of a giant, tentacled “blob” monster overwhelming some seaside  town that I always thought was meant to evoke this strain of nemesis.) This left the players battling the vile minions of these things, usually striving to prevent them from being summoned in the first place. No, you couldn’t do anything about cross-dimensional horrors, but you could beat up on a range of their servants. But again, this style of interpretation is not the key to Lovecraft’s horror stories. That sort of thing is not at all what he meant when he wrote that sentence.

A much clearer summation of the overall thrust of Lovecraft’s Mythos stories can be found in “The Thing on the Doorstep”: There are horrors beyond life’s edge that we do not suspect, and once in a while man’s evil prying calls them just within our range. You see… most people attempting to do something in the spirit of Lovecraft’s work tend to make the error of allowing the protagonists to be “big damn heroes” by preventing cultists and monsters from upsetting the status quo. But the point Lovecraft was making across all of these stories was that these people were terrified because they managed to uncover the fact that the status quo is itself so messed up. And being aware of that can only make you crazy. There’s not much that can be done about it except not to meddle with this stuff– but even that tends to go wrong for a lot of Lovecraft’s protagonists.

Now… I try to explain that… and I’m thinking that there might be some people that have read this far without having read the stories yet. And I can imagine them wondering how this can really work. Because what I just wrote sounds like there’s not much in the way of story here at all. And that’s right, “real” Lovecraft is different. The tales do not follow the standard phases of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. They do not at all align with the conventions of blockbuster movies. And they are about as far from an Edgar Rice Burroughs style pulp novel as you can get. (But if you do want a Lovecraft story in that style, check out A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage. It’s awesome!)

No, there are no heroes here. Usually the protagonist is some kind of professor that starts off with an unnatural desire to know about something that he should leave well enough alone. For the bulk of the work he is in denial about the incredible things he comes across. Soon the cognitive dissonance gets positively undeniable, but he keeps talking himself out of what it has to mean. Before long he’s in too deep and things begin to get exponentially more frightening. But there’s always a kicker of some kind– something that drops at the end that not only makes sense of what might have seemed to be extraneous details earlier on but that also increases the horror levels by yet another order of magnitude.

And the thing that makes it so scary is how real it all seems. For this, the unimpressive scholar figure turns out to be perfect in the leading role. He states every detail with unmatched precision because he knows he will be read by a skeptical audience. It’s almost like he is delivering evidence for a court case. The level of resolution here is astounding, too. It’s almost like an actual scientist is describing his experiences and encounters. It not only takes you to another time… it not only causes your imagination to flesh out every hint… but it also takes you inside the mind of these characters so that you can experience their fear right along with them.

These protagonists are not the first people in history to encounter this stuff. Not by a long shot. Again, the monsters are already here. They are the status quo. This would of course be far more well known if those professors at Miskatonic University quit suppressing their findings. But you can cut them some slack, though, because the people that know too much either die, go insane, or else are murdered by cultists. But the occult is real. It’s been documented for centuries. And there are great many books besides the famous Necronomicon that delve into this topic:

It is true that a few scholars, unusually versed in the literature of occultism and magic, found vague resemblances between some of the hieroglyphics and certain primal symbols described or cited in two or three very ancient, obscure, and esoteric texts such as the Book of Eibon, reputed to descend from forgotten Hyperborea; the Pnakotic fragments, alleged to be pre-human; and the monstrous and forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. None of these resemblances, however, was beyond dispute; and because of the prevailing low estimation of occult studies, no effort was made to circulate copies of the hieroglyphs among mystical specialists. Had such circulation occurred at this early date, the later history of the case might have been very different; indeed, a glance at the hieroglyphs by any reader of von Junzt’s horrible Nameless Cults would have established a linkage of unmistakable significance. At this period, however, the readers of that monstrous blasphemy were exceedingly few; copies having been incredibly scarce in the interval between the suppression of the original Düsseldorf edition (1839) and of the Bridewell translation (1845) and the publication of the expurgated reprint by Golden Goblin Press in 1909. (pages 492-493)

It’s exactly this sort of attention to detail that makes these tales seem so real. I can imagine what each of these books must look like and how they differ from one another. And there’s not just one origin story for the beasties. There’s all kinds of ways they could have gotten here. But no matter the premise, the implications of each of them are the same: we are a temporary accident in the cosmic scheme of things, we are hopelessly outclassed by a raft of malevolent entities that can chill our blood without a thought, and there is no place to hide and nothing we can do to change this.

Primal myth and modern delusion joined in their assumption that mankind is only one– perhaps the least– of the highly evolved and dominant races of this planet’s long and largely unknown career. Things of inconceivable shape, they implied, had reared towers to the sky and delved into every secret of Nature before the first amphibian forbear of man had crawled out of the hot sea three hundred million years ago. Some had come down from the stars; a few were as old as the cosmos itself; others had arisen swiftly from terrene germs as far behind the first germs of our life-cycle as those germs are behind ourselves. Spans of millions of years, and linkages with other galaxies and universes, were freely spoken of. Indeed, there was no such thing as time in its humanly accepted sense. (page 533)

As a result of this, there is trouble to be found pretty much everywhere. There are massive alien cities at the south pole. There are innumerable crypts that are better left undisturbed. If anything is dredged up from the ocean floor, something terrible is sure to happen. Poking around an old Indian mound can lead you to an immense underworld that rivals Pellucidar. There are still places on earth that are peopled by decadent and godlike beings. And yet, these terrible creatures are themselves terrified of other more sinister forces and beings. We are not just beset by horrors… the horrors are as well!

And did I mention that many of these beings are basically inscrutable space aliens? The idea that science fiction and fantasy were too distinct genres does not at all line up with Lovecraft’s impulses:

There was a mind from the planet we know as Venus, which would live incalculable epochs to come, and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six million years in the past. Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, half-vegetable race of paleogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of fabled Valusia; three from the furry pre-human Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the arachnid denizens of earth’s last age; five from the hardy coleopterous species immediately following mankind, to which the Great Race was some day to transfer its keenest minds en masse in the face of horrible peril; and several from different branches of humanity. (pages 540-541)

Lovecraft’s Mythos not only spans across all of the planets and on into other galaxies even… it not only includes creatures that are “Outside” the limits of our notions of space and time… it also reaches far back into our most cherished myths. One time travelling character in this book encounters Crom-Ya, a Cimmerian chieftain from the year 15,000 B.C. Yes, the sum of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are a genuine element of Lovecraft’s sprawling history and world building. And yet the reader is not overwhelmed with this incredible amount of information. Indeed, Lovecraft uses this to make everything both more comprehensible and more portentous, as this passage from “The Haunter of the Dark” demonstrates:

Of the Shining Trapezohedron he speaks often, calling it a window on all time and space, and tracing its history from the days it was fashioned on dark Yuggoth, before ever the Old Ones brought it to earth. It was treasured and placed in its curious box by the crinoid things of Antarctica, salvaged from their ruins by the serpent-men of Valusia, and peered at aeons later in Lemuria by the first human beings. It crossed strange lands and stranger seas, and sank with Atlantis before a Minoan fisher meshed it in his net and sold it to swarthy merchants from nighted Khem. The Pharaoh Nephren-Ka built around it a temple with a windowless crypt, and did that which caused his name to be stricken from all monuments and records. Then it slept in the ruins of that evil fane which the priests and the new Pharaoh destroyed, till the delver’s spade once more brought it forth to curse mankind. (pages 584-585)

This brief breakdown might seem overwhelming, but these kinds of details are divulged incrementally over the course of a great many stories. And they are often firmly grounded in people and places of rural New England. In addition, the descriptions of individual monsters are so detailed, they are conveyed as if Lovecraft actually had specimens on hand to work from– that’s something that rarely comes across in the more cartoonish depictions of his creations. The depth and breadth of his vision are such so convincing, disbelief is not merely suspended; one actually comes away with the feeling that our reality is one with Lovecraft’s. It’s too bad that many of the works that are derivative of these stories seem to have missed their point entirely. But that was perhaps inevitable. After all, we can’t handle the truth.

  • Cirsova says:

    Y’know, I’ve been reading a fascinating doctoral thesis this guy wrote on Lovecraft that explores Lovecraft’s writing within context of the Modernist movement, looking at the themes of isolation and alienation within his writing comparable to Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf. Like other modernist writers, Lovecraft’s stories are almost always about someone who experiences alienation from society and humanity through some sort paradigm crisis; usually -and uniquely at the time- Lovecraft’s characters’ experiences of isolation were tied to scientific discovery in an age in which science had introduced concepts of a cosmic uncertainty (through things like Relativity and Uncertainty principles), wherein greater discovery only added to the unknown and unknowable. And how much worse should our knowledge of the universe be when subjected to fallible and unreliable scientific documentation when in the best case are created by academicians who know less than they think they know and in the worst case are created those intent on deceiving the public?

    • Jeffro says:

      I can’t substantiate this, but my feeling is… Lovecraft is going to be frightening primarily to people that can be disappointed by the fact that Hilbert’s 23 problems had some particularly thorny complications. The products of C. S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man? I can’t see anything in the work that would scare them except for the guy that wrote it. He’s a real bogeyman!

  • […] RETROSPECTIVE: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales by H. P. Lovecraft […]

  • Cirsova says:

    What if the Mi-Go are the ones behind climategate?

  • […] All of this myth and history and lore sits side by side with a bit of H. P. Lovecraft: […]

  • […] excellent The Stars Are Right. It’s a top flight game, no doubt, and excellent fun… but this sort of premise is nothing like Lovecraft’s original stories. The designers are absolutely correct that “such classifications tend to diminish the alien […]

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