Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 2

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The story so far: in 1969 August Derleth’s Arkham House publishing company put out Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos; though in subsequent years it would be revised by Jim Turner, this was mostly am embellishment on the original outline of the anthology set up by Derleth.

A few years later, August Derleth died. Whilst no one individual would replace him as self-appointed Pope of the Cthulhu Mythos fandom, Arkham House continued as a company under the auspices of his heirs and continued to make Mythos material a significant component of their catalogue. And that meant that sooner or later, an attempt at a sequel anthology was made…

New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos

Coming nearly a decade after Derleth’s death, Arkham House decided to put out in 1980 this anthology of all-original Mythos stories with an intent of representing where the state of the art stood, much as the original stories in Tales represented the state of the art in 1969. The anthology was edited by Ramsey Campbell, who even at this early stage of his career could justifiably be seen as perhaps the biggest new talent in horror out of the crop of new writers showcased in Tales.

In his introduction, Campbell broke from the old Derlethian party line by noting that there is no settled “canon” for the Mythos, and that it’s better to emulate Lovecraft’s command of atmosphere, originality, and masterful command of story structure than it is to blindly follow his prose style or rehash his plots. These days, all of that is well-known and well-understood, but it was decidedly worth saying at the time, especially in an Arkham House release – and the fact that Arkham House were willing to put out such an introduction says something about how they had emerged from Derleth’s shadow in the intervening years.

Unfortunately, I have to question some of Campbell’s judgement calls when it comes to his choice of stories to include here – assuming he had a free hand in his editorial decisions, that is – since some of the stories in here are kind of alarmingly racist; if I am assuming best intentions and giving a lot of benefit of the doubt, I can sort of imagine that the writers in question were attempting to engage with Lovecraft’s racism rather than sweeping it under the carpet, but even so I question whether simply presenting that racism without unambiguously condemning it achieves much beyond lending it a bit more oxygen to breathe.

The most extreme example of this is Than Curse the Darkness by David Drake, in which a party of extreme racists try to penetrate the depths of the Congo Free State to take out a Nyarlathotep cult. The story largely seems to be an attempt to set some sort of record for most uses of the N-word in a Mythos story; it tries to make the case that colonialism drives people to extremes in order to resist it, but is simultaneously very, very keen to dwell on the sort of “cannibal savage” stereotypes that drove colonialism in the first place.

The other story which I felt went too far here was The Star Pools by A.A. Attanasio – yes, the same one that wrote Radix. This is the tale of a drug deal with a Haitian connection which goes awry when a link in the chain falls under Mythos influence. I’m sorry, but “big, wild, mongrel blacks” is not an acceptable way to describe two human beings. There’s lots of stereotyping, lots of demonising of folk religion, the end of the story descends into incoherent violence, and it’s as absurdly overwritten as anything Attanasio turns out at his pretentious worst.

In other cases I thought Campbell had mis-stepped not in terms of content but quality. I could do without, for instance The Black Tome of Alsophocus, which is billed as being a collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft himself and Martin S. Warnes. It is, at least, not a Derlethian faked collaboration, in the sense that there’s a reasonable amount of actual text originating from Lovecraft’s hand in there: it’s a completion of The Book, a fragmentary piece left unfinished by Lovecraft, but feels like a rather pointless exercise. There’s some strong ideas in there, undermined by Warnes attempting to slavishly mimic Lovecraftian prose, so its inclusion feels like Campbell botching his own mission statement, and it doesn’t do anything to convince me that Lovecraft didn’t make the right call when he left this one on the cutting room floor.

Another dud is Dark Awakening by Frank Belknap Long, which squanders an evocative beginning about a strange discovery on a beach by falling completely to pieces at the end with a clumsy, heavy-handed plot dump. It stands mostly as an example of how badly dated Long’s style had become by this point. The sad irony of its inclusion here is that possibly the best story in the collection was inspired by Long himself.

That story is T.E.D. Klein’s Black Man With a Horn. An unnamed former friend of Lovecraft’s, now elderly – based heavily on Long but not identical to him – finds himself on the periphery of a dire mystery. Appropriately enough given the Long connection, the titular black man with a horn is not a man, and the horn isn’t a horn – rather, that’s what Chaugnar Faugn (or one of his cloned spawn) looks like in silhouette. Klein very capably redeems Faugn from the rather silly Horror From the Hills, and crafts a masterpiece of allusion worthy of Machen. There is no direct confrontation between the narrator and the horror here, but you can still more or less piece together what the overall timeline of the atrocities is and what is going to happen after the story ends. The narrator’s rueful acknowledgement that his career has been entirely overshadowed​ by his connection to Lovecraft is an especially poignant touch.

The use of the Tcho-Tcho people as a plot element is as problematic as it usually is, though it is true to The Horror From the Hills, (if you assume that the Miri Nigri of that tale are the same as the Tcho-Tchos, which is not entirely a stretch). Moreover, it seems to be part of a treatment of Lovecraftian racism which is a bit more insightful and critical than Drake or Attanasio’s efforts here, with mild racism on the part of the narrator being clearly hypocritical enough that you can comfortably say it isn’t authorially endorsed.

The rest of the stories in the collection are all fun but are a bit of a mixed bag. Crouch End by Stephen King depicts American visitors slipping into an otherdimensional equivalent of the titular London suburb, in which they are victimised by the resident horrors. Between the mutilations and mutations, and the way the other dimension seems to actively mock those who fall victim to it, it’s got a distinctive King voice to it – John Carpenter probably had this one in mind for the mashup of Lovecraft and King ideas he wheeled out in In the Mouth of Madness – but it doesn’t feel especially substantial; like a fairground ghost train ride, it’s fun to take this journey once but it doesn’t stand up to repeated trips.

Basil Copper’s Shaft Number 247 is another candidate for “best in collection”; it makes no direct mention of standard Mythos places, books, people or things, but it’s got cosmic horror written into its DNA. A shift overseer in an underground city with mildly dystopian overtones begins to wonder, for the first time in ages, whether there’s things the authorities aren’t telling him; from there the horror mostly exists in the slow drip of information about the nature of the city and what has happened outside it provided to the reader, just as the protagonist is making their own discoveries.

Aside from Long, the two writers returning from Derleth’s original Tales are Brian Lumley and Campbell himself. Lumley’s The Second Wish is a story I like, but like Crouch End I don’t consider it much of a keeper. Campbell’s own The Faces At Pine Dunes is another classic, but at the same time if you’re at all interested in cosmic horror with a Lovecraftian flavour you should probably already own his Cold Print anthology, which includes that one.

Arkham House didn’t reprint New Tales very much after it first came out – it got a UK edition from Grafton Books, complete with the deliciously garish cover art that they liked to put on their Arkham House reprints, but otherwise it’s been rather supplanted by Cthulhu 2000; I will get into why when I review that anthology in the next article in this series. The actual anthology is rather inessential; the best stories have been widely reprinted (not least in Cthulhu 2000 itself), the worst you can happily live without.

You know who’s got reason to celebrate New Tales, though? The Boy’s Club. Check out this Boy’s Club-o-meter measurement:

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 10
Number of said authors who are male: 10
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 100%

5 thoughts on “Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 3 – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 4 – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  3. Pingback: Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 5 – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  4. Pingback: Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 6 – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  5. Pingback: Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 7 – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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