Is the Well Running Dry?

by S. T. Joshi

ROSS E. LOCKHART, ed. Cthulhu Fhtagn! Weird Tales Inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. Petaluma, CA: Word Horde, 2015. 315 pp. $19.95 tpb.

The spate of neo-Lovecraftian anthologies (and other works, now extending to novels and even plays) shows no signs of abating, and there may reason to wonder whether the market for this kind of material may be flooded. Despite the controversies surrounding some of Lovecraft’s personal views, interest in his work has never seemed to be greater—but can we count on that interest (like the housing market) to continue on an ever-upward trajectory, or will there be a crash someday?

On the basis of the present anthology, that crash may be coming—and perhaps should come.

If there is any overarching theme or agenda in Cthulhu Fhtagn!, it is that the entirety of Lovecraft’s work—not just his so-called “tales of the Cthulhu Mythos”—is now fair game for the pastichist. In some senses this is a welcome development, since the number of elaborations upon “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (a story that has seen at least three volumes of imitations, as assembled by British editor Stephen Jones) would seem to be limited. Nowadays, virtually any story from Lovecraft’s pen can serve as a springboard for imaginative rumination. The question remains, indeed, whether sufficient imagination be brought to the task.

Ross E. Lockhart does not get the book off to a good start, writing a windy and contentless introduction in which he bizarrely asserts that houses are somehow central to Lovecraft’s vision (but isn’t cosmicism—the depiction of the boundless gulfs of space and time—Lovecraft’s signature contribution to weird fiction?). He compounds his difficulties by offering a lineup of largely unknown writers—and then by failing to provide biographical notes on these figures, some of whom have actually done more creditable work than the few “name” writers he has managed to include.

One of the interesting phenomena we see in these stories is the degree to which Lovecraft himself—or, at least, the not entirely accurate image of Lovecraft as the gaunt, lantern-jawed figure stalking the streets of Providence, R.I., at night—has become a fitting subject for fictional treatment. The book’s first contribution, Walter Greatshell’s “The Lighting Splitter,” is a mad story of what happens to a family that takes up residence in an 1861 house in Providence where Lovecraft had reportedly been a frequent visitor. I am not certain the story has any true coherence or plausibility, but its transition from a routine haunted house narrative to something much more bizarre and cosmic is effectively handled.

Quite a bit less successful is Nathan Carson’s “The Lurker in the Shadows,” in which we are asked to believe that Lovecraft continued living into the 1970s and came into correspondence with the young Stephen King. This alternate-reality tale, in which Alfred Hitchcock produced a film version of Cool Air and Lovecraft met Lord Dunsany in Ireland, is all very amusing; but its flippancy—and its unconvincing attempts to imitate Lovecraft’s epistolary prose—condemn it to the status of an in-joke.

Lovecraft’s “dreamland” stories—stories written early in his career, largely inspired by Lord Dunsany—have not served as the basis of many imitations, perhaps because they are imitations themselves. But Gord Sellar, in “The Return of Sarnath,” has written a striking elaboration of “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” in which a band of fighters led by Terea, a warrior princess, and her slave Ajal (an unfortunate name, as it is too close to Atal, a character who figures in several early Lovecraft tales) are confronted by the rebuilding of Sarnath by unknown hands, centuries after its destruction by the reptilian inhabitants of Ib. While somewhat long-winded and meandering, the tale becomes strangely compelling as Ajal exercises his powers of dream to cast his mind back into the past, in the course of which he sees Cthulhu emerging from his underwater city of R’lyeh.

W. H. Pugmire, one of the leading voices of modern Lovecraftdom, delivers a reliably evocative tale in “Into Ye Smoke-Wreath’d World of Dream”—a tissue of Lovecraftian allusions, where “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Terrible Old Man,” and “The Haunter of the Dark” are all summoned. And the tale’s cosmic and prose-poetic ending can only be quoted:

I rose, like some monster of myth, with a stained glass city of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths behind me. I wept, because I would no longer taste the mad dreams of the acolyte in my embrace. I groaned, because I could not flex my heavy wings and rise out of the water that was not my cosmic element. And I raged, because I could not see the stars through which I had filtered in antediluvian aeons, those stars that I would terrify so that they crawled through the chaos to the baying of Nyarlathotep, those shuddering stars that would align so as to spell my appalling name.

In sad contrast, Michael Griffin’s “Delirium Sings at the Maelstrom Window” is a pretentious and incoherent riff on “The Music of Erich Zann,” while Orrin Grey’s “The Insectivore” is a lackluster tale based on the idea broached in “The Shadow out of Time” that beetles will be the dominant species on the planet after the demise of humanity. Michael J. Martinez’s “On a Kansas Plain” trots out the hoary idea that the Cthulhu cult—and the entity it worships—are real after all.

The longest story in the book is also close to the worst. G. D. Falksen’s “The Curious Death of Sir Arthur Turnbridge” is a corny and verbose melding of the old-time detective story (with its hackneyed use of a know-it-all Belgian detective, Hieronymus Nos, an obvious stand-in for Hercule Poirot) with various Lovecraftian motifs thrown in at random, ranging from “The Rats in the Walls” (Captain Norrys figures as a character) to “The Hound” (there is talk of ghouls, a jade amulet, and so on).

Not much better is “The Curse of the Old Ones,” by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington. This is an attempt at Lovecraftian humor—a very dangerous mode to venture upon, for it is fatally easy to end up sounding like an idiot. Here we are asked to believe that a British film called The Call [or Curse] of the Old Ones starring Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and so on was once in production—but if the film is ever completed, then mankind is doomed! Let it pass that the authors do not know how to spell the central character of “The Dunwich Horror” (whom they habitually render as Wilbur Whatley, rather than Whateley). This is the least of the story’s problems. A fictitious entry in a reference book about the film unwittingly provides a perfect synopsis for the story itself: “Incomprehensible mishmash of several stories by H. P. Lovecraft.”

The difficulty with a number of other stories in the book is that they may or may not be competent weird tales, but their connection to Lovecraft is highly problematical. For example, Richard Lee Byers’s “The Body Shop” is a grim and grisly post-apocalyptic story about aliens having taken over the earth—but the aliens don’t seem to be specifically Lovecraftian in any meaningful sense. Anya Martin’s “The Price of Lyghes” is a tale of “extreme horror” that comes uncomfortably close to sadism, as we are forced to witness what appears to be the author’s unholy glee at the dispatching of a cheating and abusive husband at the hands of some nameless entities he has apparently secured (by mail!) from the South Pacific; but I derive no Lovecraftian ambiance here at all.

T. E. Grau’s “Return of the Prodigy,” written in a tiresome hipster prose that relentlessly makes fun of its unsympathetic protagonists, depicts an elderly couple that takes a belated honeymoon to an island in the South Pacific called Walakea (veteran readers of Lovecraft will immediately identify this name as that of a character in “The Shadow over Innsmouth”). There is plenty of disgusting horror on display in this story, but once again I do not sense any vital relation to Lovecraft.

The worst offender in this regard is Laird Barron, whose “Don’t Make Me Assume My Ultimate Form” concludes the book. This is one more reprise of what has become something of a shtick in Barron’s output—the commingling of the superhero topos with that of espionage, with a certain amount of physical gruesomeness along the way. Here Barron seeks to provide some variation by having his superheroes be a group of strong women (or, as he calls them, a “cabal of kick-ass bitches”—a term I presume is meant in praise). One of these individuals heads up to Alaska, encounters a talking marionette in the shape of Edgar Allan Poe, and does battle with two tough broads who also have a talking marionette in tow, named Bob (also called “The Eater of Dolls”). There are some fisticuffs along the way that leave all parties rather the worse for wear.

I am not joking. This really is the plot—if it can be called that—of the story. Aside from the fact that there is not the slightest Lovecraftian content in it, the tale embodies what might be called authorial preening: Barron is so keen on showing you that he is a clever and innovative fellow (he has, after all, used second-person narration—even though such a device does not in fact work very effectively here) that the fundamental absurdity of the story escapes him. Perhaps we can charitably assume that the tale is a parody of some kind.

The problem of true relevance to Lovecraft’s work even dogs what is unquestionably the best story in the book, Cody Goodfellow’s “Green Revolution.” This incredibly compelling tale of an ecoterrorist in Honduras manages to invest a clutching horror into plant life—especially in its unforgettable image of a tree that has engrafted human beings onto itself:

And everywhere in its branches, she saw people.

They lived in the tree, and they were the tree. Some ran up and down the trunk like squirrels, or brachiated from branch to branch like spider monkeys. Others were tethered to vines that joined seamlessly with their spines, playing out like extension cords as they snatched flying prey from the air, only to snap taut and retreat back into the green.

Others were little more than tumors on the trunk and branches. Their green skins were scaly and infested with fibrous growths, their bodies bloated to translucence, converting sap and nutrients by some weird internal alchemy into nectar for endless lines of thirsty workers.

But again, one has to ask: Is this Lovecraftian? In such a fine story the question perhaps becomes an impertinence.

It would be unfair to focus on the distressingly many tales in Cthulhu Fhtagn! that are either aesthetic failures or insufficiently Lovecraftian or both. The volume is redeemed by such things as Ann K. Schwader’s “Dead Canyons,” a heady science fiction tale about artificial intelligence that features many links with At the Mountains of Madness; Christine Morgan’s “Aerkheim’s Horror,” a striking narrative in which Vikings battle with Deep Ones in Vinland; Cameron Pierce’s “Love Will Save You,” an unsettling story of some kind of plague that turns people into glowing spheres; Scott R. Jones’s “Assemblage Point,” a hypnotic (if at at times alternately coarse and pretentious) tale that melds Lovecraft and Carlos Castaneda; and Wendy N. Wagner’s “The Long Dark,” a powerful science fiction/horror hybrid in which the last remnants of humanity are trapped on a remote planet and are battling a cosmic “world eater.”

But there are so many clunkers in this anthology that we must regard it as a very, very mixed bag. I am in no way prepared to admit that the Lovecraftian well is running dry, but I do believe that editors of all such volumes (including myself) need to exercise considerably greater aesthetic judgment in determining what we embalm between the covers of a book.

I am once again forced to note the dispiriting absence of anything approaching competent copyediting in this volume—a perennial problem with the small press. We are here faced with such stylistic and grammatical blunders as split infinitives, the misuse of “like” for “as” or “as if” (“He wasn’t getting over it like she’d hoped”), the superfluous “of” after “all” (one writes “all the time,” not “all of the time”), the hideous barbarism “alright” (which immediately places a dunce cap on one’s head), and all manner of other derelictions. The fact that many readers, writers, editors, and publishers are not even aware that the above are errors is a sad commentary on the present state of English usage. And there are some specifically Lovecraftian errors, as when W. H. Pugmire (of all people) writes the standard cry “Iä! Iä!” but leaves off the diaeresis (umlaut) over the a.

The demise of the English language is far more horrifying than anything depicted in Lovecraft’s stories, or in the stories of any of his imitators.