Plundering the Lovecraft Estate

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.

Though Robert M. Price was line editor for Chaosium’s Cthulhu Mythos fiction line for most of its early years, he wasn’t the only anthologist allowed to put out work through that avenue. Thomas M.K Stratman’s Cthulhu’s Heirs, from 1994, was one of the first collections in the series. Though it does include a few reprints, most of the material it contains is original to it, the intention of the anthology being to present a new cohort of Lovecraftian writers for a new millennium.

That said, it has certain issues – enough that it’s not wholly surprising that Stratman hasn’t produced any further anthologies since. For one thing, in his introduction he shows a startling ignorance of his subject matter; he cites Zealia Bishop as a Lovecraftian writer, but shows no apparent awareness that whilst that statement is technically true, it’s also asinine. Yes, Lovecraftian stories did appear credited to Bishop – The Curse of Yig and The Mound. They’re Lovecraftian because they were entirely written by Lovecraft himself; Zealia Bishop was a revision client of his and so far as can be made out, Bishop actually contributed nothing to the stories in question beyond, at most, a vivid central image around which she asked Lovecraft to construct a story.

Stratman’s introduction goes from being just a bit clueless to being outright astonishing when he openly admits admits that contributors to the anthology were subjected to numerous delays and paid only minimum rates. Maybe this was his way of protesting against the circumstances he was working under, but it honestly doesn’t read like that. I’m not sure how it was supposed to read, but in context it feels like Stratman is trying to thank his writers for being patient with him; however, openly declaring “I run late and I don’t pay well” is a terrible idea for an editor. It’s tantamount to an overt declaration that he’s a shitty editor to work for and you’d be better of submitting your stories to anyone else with more credibility and standing than him, because if you give him your story you won’t get so much money for it and it might take ages for it to actually get published.

I feel defensive of Stratman’s writers because, for all his faults as an editor, he’s actually brought together a decent crew here. You know you’re in for something a bit different from the sort of sub-Derlethian dross that had been foisted on the Mythos reading public prior to this when the anthology leads off with Watch the Whiskers Sprout by DF Lewis, a delirious fever dream and quite well done by the standards of such things. 1968 RPI by Joe Murphy is genuinely imaginative and succeeds better at mashing up the Summer of Love with the Mythos than James Wade’s 1960s-themed stories ever managed. Those of the Air by Darrell Schweitzer and Jason Van Hollander is a genuinely touching story about a couple of modern-day Whateley brothers who have a much more caring relationship than Wilbur and his twin. Overall, it’s a very neat inversion of The Dunwich Horror, in that the horror involved is the mundane cruelty of this world, and Old Ones offer escape to somewhere the bestial brother can belong better than here.

Perhaps the most interesting experiment here in terms of format is SCENE: A Room by Craig Anthony. At first it looks like a play script, but it’s actually a disguised story of someone who through contact with the King In Yellow script (and possibly something extra) finds his reality warped as a result, with the script-like sections of the story denoting how the King and his agents are affecting things. It nicely engages with a hint in Chambers’ original The Repairer of Reputations (in which the imperial crown of America is perceived by some as a real crown and some as a theatrical prop) that the cursed play itself turns reality into a play.

Of course, when you go experimental there’s always the risk that the experiment just fails. KADATH/The Vision and the Journey by t. Winter-Damon is an attempt to turn the narrative of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath into a poem. As well as the fact that the poem needs to be really quite long in order to hit all the notes it needs to in order to incorporate the entire narrative, it’s wrecked by Winter-Damon’s excessive use of cheesy italics and sloppy grasp of metre. Are you going for a specific poetic format, blank verse, or free verse? Decide before attempting poetry, otherwise you get messes like this. Another failed experiment is The Herald by Daniel M. Burrello; it’s interesting philosophically as a story where the actual text itself is a character, but still comes off as a trite gimmick.

A few pieces are reprints. The Death Watch by Hugh B. Cave hails from 1939 and is a droll little riff on The Monkey’s Paw. Its worst aspect is its patronising treatment of a Seminole character; its best aspectis how radio waves are used as the schtick that allows the magic to happen. There’s some passing Lovecraft references in it, but they feel rather unnecessary and tacked-on. The Return of the White Ship: The Quest For Cathuria by Arthur William Lloyd Breach from 1989 is a a quite nicely done imitation of the style of the original White Ship, offering an allegorical riposte to the pessimistic point made by Lovecraft the first time around. Yes, it’s pastiche, but it’s at least of a distinctly different flavour from most standard sub-Derlethian pastiche.

Perhaps the best reprinted material here is The Franklyn Paragraphs by Ramsey Campbell, one of his 1970s pieces, but that’s been extensively reprinted enough that it’s hardly a rarity. It might be present here specifically to set up Behold, I Stand At the Door and Knock by Robert M. Price, since that story reads like a clumsy attempt at Ramsey Campbell pastiche, right down to borrowing a character name from The Franklyn Paragraphs and the Brichester setting. The major horrific vision of the story is a crudely crass display which lurches over the line from disturbing phantasmagoria into ridiculous, laughable nonsense, the sort of thing 11 year old boys in a transgressive mood might cook up to make each other laugh. The conclusion of the story is signposted as Campbell might have signposted it, but seems too clumsy for Campbell. Where Campbell is able to work in bits of meaningful social commentary in his stories, here the same notes read like empty misery tourism, possibly because Price doesn’t have the knack for convincingly depicting England that Campbell has. On the whole, I’m not sure Price’s story would have been admitted to the anthology were he not the series editor of the Chaosium Mythos fiction line.

Other stories do the social commentary thing much better. Just Say No by Gregory Nicoll is, on the face of it, a simple “bunch of teenage Lovecraft fans visit his grave for a seance, get more than they expected” story, but ends up as a rumination on how Lovecraft is appreciated by individuals who he’d probably have had disdain for in life. Mr. Skin by Victor Milán presents a deftly realised 1970s LA setting as the backdrop for the story of a coroner’s unsanctioned investigation of a Symbionese Liberation Army-esque group that hides a Shub-Niggurath cult within. It’s got a decent number of PoC characters – including the protagonist – and it turns the stock misogynistic sacrifice sequence of pulp tradition on its head when it’s revealed that the nude girl on the altar is totally into this. The ending is shocking but very appropriate to the downward spiral of protagonist. Pickman’s Legacy by Gordon Linzner draws on the culture of the art world, pondering how a wealthy art dealer would fare with a genuine Pickman in his portfolio.

Other stories are more inward-looking. The Scourge by Charles M. Saplak is a clever application of idea of forbidden eldritch texts to the idea of the thirty-six dramatic situations by asking “what if there is a thirty-seventh?” Of Dark Things and Midnight Planes by David Niall Wisdom expands on Lovecraft’s The Strange High House In the Mist and works largely because it thematically builds on that story’s musings about the creative process. Shadows of Her Dreams by Cary G. Osborne mashes up a horror story about the demands and origins of creativity with a sly dig at those who try to dissuade female authors in fandom.

The anthology’s also notable for stories embracing themes which had been largely either kept to subtext or outright ignored in Lovecraftian fiction to date (remember, this came out the same year as The Starry Wisdom). The Likeness by Dan Perez is a brief slice of delicious nastiness about what happens when you tattoo illustrations from the Necronomicon on someone, and the thread running through it in which eroticism is blended with and turns into bloodlust is something you’d not usually see in most sub-Derlethian pastiche. In An Early Frost by Scott David Aniolowski a gay couple, one of whom has AIDS, comes to an idyllic holistic centre to try and seek healing – but end up making contact with something else entirely. The story both steps outside the heteronormative and prudish norms of much Lovecraftian pastiche and also offers more social commentary than is typical. Aniolowski sets his sights on the extremely deserving target of the various fringe therapies that sprouted up to exploit (and to a certain extent still exploit) the HIV crisis – remember, back in the early-to-mid 1990s the outlook for people with HIV was nowhere as hopeful as it is today.

A few more traditional pieces crop up here and there. The Seven Cities of Gold by Crispin Burnham is a drab pastiche, its attempts at pulpy action sequences or evocative mythology smothered by its flat, dull prose that altogether fails to stir the emotions. Too often it feels like Burnham is summarising rather than narrating – like he really wanted to make a full novel out of this material, but didn’t feel capable. Typo by Michael D. Winkle is a jokey story about what happens if the library at Miskatonic switches to a computerised catalogue system. It’s the only significant instance of Derlethianism here, though I can stomach it better in a spoof. Star Bright, Star Byte by Marella Sands has Nyarlathotep hacking a VR bulletin board; the end result is an interesting Lovecraftian cyberpunk number (written at a time when BBSes were still a thing so has dated oddly), though the execution a bit flat.

Before concluding, of course, I should give this the once-over with the Boy’s Club-o-meter:

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 22
Number of said authors who are male: 20
Boy’s Club-o-meter rating: 90.9%

Hm, not great. And the anthology is riddled with typos, even in recent reprints. I guess Chaosium trusted Stratman to do his own proofreading and he shat the bed on it or something, but even so this is something that should really have been caught and corrected after the first edition. With new hands in charge of their fiction department they might get around to addressing it the next time they reissue it.

It’s really a shame, because if you can get past the near-total ignoring of women contributing and the typos, the anthology is actually pretty strong – stronger than I’d have actually expected from Stratman’s rather clueless and self-incriminating introduction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s