Troubled By Shadows

Written in 1978, slipping out in hardcover in 1980, and then getting a paperback reprint in the mid-1980s through Granada, The Dark Gods by Anthony Roberts and Geoff Gilbertson presents one of the most bizarre Grand Unified Conspiracy Theories Of Everything ever, predating the omniparanoid worldviews of William Bramley, Bill Cooper, or David Icke by quite some way. Rather than being a full collaboration, the book is largely divided into different sections handled by the different authors, with the two only collaborating on a one-page epilogue.

In The Cosmic Connection, Anthony Roberts lays out the basic premise: that malign spiritual entities, the so-called Dark Gods of the book’s title, have exerted a hideous influence over the world since time immemorial, and that they are connected to the UFO phenomenon. In the spirit of the omnidirectional credulity embraced by Roberts and Gilbertson, Roberts here seems to argues strongly in favour of John Keel’s “ultraterrestrial” hypothesis – which states that much of the UFO phenomenon can be attributed to the actions of otherdimensional entities opting to fuck with us, but he also tries to argue that a chunk of UFOs really are nuts and bolts spacecraft from other worlds.

Furthermore, Roberts seems to have very developed ideas on the way the spiritual world works, but seems reluctant at this stage to outline where his particular spiritual agenda comes from; he is quick to condemn others for committing what he regards as spiritual heresy – either being too atheistic or endorsing the wrong sort of spirituality – and he clearly believes that there is a set order of things in the cosmos and talks a lot about the Godhead, but doesn’t specifically what he considers to be the true path to be here.

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In Essential Solitude, a Vital Friendship

It’s understandable that Arkham House would have wanted to produce the Selected Letters series – a five-volume collection of correspondence cherrypicked from the massive amounts of letters Lovecraft produced in his lifetime. After all, he was far more prolific a letter-writer than he was a short story author, poet, or essayist, so when those other wells has been tapped, tapping the letters was a good way to get more Lovecraft after there.

Furthermore, August Derleth himself was one of Lovecraft’s regular correspondents, and putting out these collections gave Derleth a chance to show the world a side of Lovecraft which he’d seen but nobody outside of Lovecraft’s circle of contacts would have. The fact that these were specifically Selected Letters, however, allowed Derleth to remain a certain amount of leverage over the fandom.

As I’ve outlined previously, Derleth used the infamous “black magic quote” to push his particular interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos as the “canonical” one, despite the fact that if we accept it as true, it makes Lovecraft look like an incompetent writer who couldn’t adequately communicate his ideas in his actual stories, and the “black magic quote” seems to fit Derleth’s stories (written before and after Lovecraft’s death, some of them misattributed to Lovecraft) far better.

That quote supposedly came from one of Lovecraft’s letters, but as best can be determined Lovecraft never wrote it – or at least, if it exists in any of his letters, none can be found that reproduce it, and the overall philosophical thrust of Lovecraft’s writing would seem to be against it. Precisely because Derleth was sat on top of the pile of surviving letters and choosing which got out to the public, though, it was always possible for Derleth to brush off objections by saying “Well, it’s got to be somewhere here, I just can’t find it right now.”

It’s even possible that Derleth knew that he didn’t have any original for the quote, just a rough second-hand paraphrase (which turns out to be of a passage which says exactly the opposite), but frankly I don’t credit Derleth with that level of intellectual honesty: after all, this is the guy who passed off a bunch of stories as lost Lovecraft tales or “posthumous collaborations” when they were nothing of the sort.

Hippocampus Press have, over the past few years, tried to step into the gap here, producing a Collected Letters series edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi which compile as many of Lovecraft’s surviving correspondence as they can (rights issues causing complications in a few cases). These gather together Lovecraft’s missives by correspondent, by and large, with the first part of the series being Essential Solitude, a two-volume collection of the letters of Lovecraft and Derleth.

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The Necronomicon Wars

Even in his own lifetime, H.P. Lovecraft got the occasional bit of fan mail from occultists either asking if his mythology of the Great Old Ones was real – or insisting that it was real. Over time, it seemed like the Necronomicon became the particular focus of this sort of inquiry – perhaps because of Lovecraft’s technique of listing it and other invented Mythos tomes alongside real books when using it in his stories.

Lovecraft gently let down all such inquirers. He’d also disappoint fans who knew it was fictional but thought it’d be wicked awesome if he’d write an actual Necronomicon, by pointing out that he’d already established in his stories that the damn thing was hundreds of pages long – and whilst he might be tempted to cook up some scraps, he really didn’t want to spend that long cranking out a tome of that length. Nonetheless, an appetite for the book remained.

After Lovecraft died, pranksters would slip references to it into library catalogues and the like, but the efforts of Arkham House to exert control over Lovecraft’s intellectual property (despite August Derleth’s rather weak claim to be Lovecraft’s literary executor, a role it’s now generally agreed that R.H. Barlow had a better claim to) may have dampened any efforts to turn the artifact into reality. Derleth’s death in 1971, however, made such fakery significantly more tempting.

The early 1970s also saw Kenneth Grant put out The Magical Revival, the first volume in his epic Typhonian Trilogies – a sprawling account of his further development of Aleister Crowley’s occult system of Thelema. This included an astonishing claim – that Lovecraft’s fiction wasn’t fiction, but was on some level communicating psychic truths that were not only compatible with Thelema but were actually important components of it in their own right.

This created the impetus for a bizarre new feature of the occult scene – a spate of purported Necronomicons, at least one of which would inspire readers to actually try out the magic described therein, and a raging conflict in the wider scene over whether these books a) were what they purported to be and b) had any legitimacy as grimoires. In short, the stage was set for a conflict in which shots are still fired to this day – the controversy I like to call the Necronomicon Wars.

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Stanley Unearthed On Farmland Outside Arkham

Richard Stanley’s career as a director is as full of odd turns as one of his films. Gaining some attention with his early short films, he left South Africa to carve out an early niche for himself in London directing music videos, with an output ranging from memorable Fields of the Nephilim releases to a 50 minute video for the Marillion concept album Brave.

His music video work earned him enough contacts to get luminaries ranging from the Nephilim’s Carl McCoy to Iggy Pop to Lemmy to appear in his debut feature-length release, Hardware, which admittedly ripped off the plot of a 2000 AD story but on the other hand combined a distinctive cyberpunk-postapocalyptic aesthetic with a bleakly cynical plot, a great soundtrack, and a supporting character who really upset Harvey Weinstein because, for some reason, he thought that the slobbering, manipulative, repulsive sexual abuser was somehow meant to be a parody of him. His followup, Dust Devil, though less widely-praised was still an interesting achievement, including being one of the first movies to be shot in the newly-independent state of Namibia.

Then The Island of Doctor Moreau happened, and some of you reading this probably just slapped your foreheads and gone “Oh, that Richard Stanley”. As portrayed in the excellent documentary Lost Soul, Richard Stanley’s vision for Moreau was highly distinctive and original – but between studio executive meddling, casting drama, Val Kilmer being shitty to everyone, Marlon Brando behaving erratically (to be fair, his daughter had just committed suicide and he was beside himself in grief), and Stanley himself being shunted out of the director role early in filming and being replaced with John Frankenheimer, the end product became an utter mess, with Marlon Brando turning in a truly Razzie-worthy performance.

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Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Pastiches

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.

So, now that we’ve taken a look at The Starry Wisdom and its Alan Moore-flavoured inclusion, the short prose story The Courtyard, we can now put Moore’s latter-day forays into Mythos fiction under the microscope. These have largely taken place with the aid and encouragement of Avatar Press; first there was the limited series Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures, collected into a trade paperback of the same name, which covered a mixture of archival Mythos and non-Mythos works by Moore, as well as some work not by Moore at all thrown in for the sake of the ride; then there was a comic book adaptation of The Courtyard, then a graphic novel sequel (Neonomicon), until finally and most recently Moore has treated us to a three-act graphic novel sequence collected in three trade paperbacks, entitled Providence. Over the course of these he develops a range of ideas about the Mythos – but does he really manage to grow beyond the kernel of a concept offered in The Courtyard’s original appearance? Well… let’s see.

Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures

The title of this implies far more conceptual unity than it actually possesses. Yuggoth Cultures and Other Growths was originally conceived by Moore as a full collection of Cthulhu Mythos works, but Moore lost most of the manuscript in a London taxi. The most substantial of the surviving pieces was The Courtyard, originally intended for being adapted here until it was spun out into its own adaptation, whilst the other scraps – Zaman’s Hill and Recognition – were brief poems.

What you get here, then, is not Yuggoth Cultures as originally envisioned by Moore, not least because he never envisioned it as a comic in the first place. Instead, it’s a mixture of long-lost odds and ends from Moore’s back catalogue, a range of interviews, essays, and supporting pieces, adaptations by Antony Johnston of non-comic works by Moore (including the two non-Courtyard bits of Yuggoth Cultures that survive and a couple of songs), and Yuggoth Creatures, a big fat slab of Antony Johnston’s own comics-format Mythos pastiches.

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Starry Wisdom, Vapid Songs

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.

So, a while back it was suggested that I should cover Alan Moore’s various Cthulhu Mythos works, Moore having gotten deep into the Lovecraft tribute business right about the time I was doing my epic Lovecraft review and its various followups. To tell that story, though, I have to go back a little and tell the story of The Starry Wisdom, a curious little volume issued by Creation Books in 1994. Creation Books, back in the day, was a publisher that was vaguely associated with Creation Records and specialising in cult and underground books; edited by D.M. Mitchell, The Starry Wisdom has gained a reputation as perhaps the weirdest and most out-there Cthulhu Mythos anthology you can find, incorporating as it does texts from other authors (such as William Burroughs or J.G. Ballard) who, whilst not writing directly in the Lovecraft tradition, seem to conceptually butt up against it here and there, as well as contributions from the world of comics (both in terms of comics authors turning their hands to prose and some of the stories being presented in graphic novel format) and industrial music (Michael Gira of Swans has got a rant in here, for instance).

What it does, in short, is mash up extreme stories by traditional Mythos authors, Mythos-adjacent stories from extreme authors, and generally go broad as broad as you can in terms of what can constitute a Cthulhu Mythos story without losing sight of Lovecraftian cosmic horror altogether, and by and large it’s a great little ride. Heck, they’re even able to get a half-decent story out of Robert M. Price: his contribution, A Thousand Young, is an intensely sexualised story about a Shub-Niggurath cult posing as a society of modern-day Sadean libertines. The cod-Lovecraftian prose that Price seems to like to write in, when applied to this subject matter, actually seems weirdly apt for its confessional format. Here, supernatural horror is largely incidental to the horror of what narrator does in pursuit of his purported spiritual goals – Price once again scraping his way to a good story by engaging with his theological and philosophical interests in an imaginative manner.

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Shadows Over the Anthology

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.

Stephen Jones’ Shadows Over Innsmouth series of anthologies takes an approach to compiling themed Mythos anthologies which represents a similar but different approach to Price’s ”Cycle” books – whereas Price’s Cycles take in stories which influenced or dealt with particular entities or concepts in Lovecraft’s fiction, Shadows Over Innsmouth compiles stories written in response to one specific Lovecraft story – namely, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. This is a concept which unfortunately gets tired out before the first anthology, Shadows Over Innsmouth, is even done – let alone when you get to the followup anthologies.

Jones starts the first collection out with the obvious-yet-redundant choice of Lovecraft’s own The Shadow Over Innsmouth – it’s obvious because it’s the story that inspired the collection, but redundant because there’s no fucking way anyone who went out of their way to buy this thing doesn’t already own it. Our first dose of original material is Basil Copper’s Beyond the Reef, which sets the tone for the rest of the book by being an amateurish pastiche. Copper makes a token attempt at a Lovecraftian prose style, but it’s inconsistently applied and rather poor and wooden. Mere imitation cannot reproduce the long effort Lovecraft put into finding his voice, and slipping into and out of that voice over the course of the story just exposes Copper’s poor grip on it. In addition, he commits the basic error of having a framing story which establishes the main narrative as being a particular character’s witness statement, but has them talking about themselves in the third person and recounting conversations in detail despite the fact that they weren’t actually present. I couldn’t finish it.

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Hastur Be Seen To Be Believed

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.

In the 1990s Chaosium decided to put out a series of Cthulhu Mythos short story anthologies as an adjunct to the Call of Cthulhu RPG. To oversee the line they engaged the services of Robert M. Price, who at the time was prominent in Lovecraft fandom as the editor of Crypt of Cthulhu. The Price-edited entries in the series tended to fall into one of two categories; compilations of works by a particular prominent Mythos author (such as the Lin Carter, Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner collections I’ve covered previously), and “Cycle” books.

These latter tomes were based around the idea of choosing a particular Mythos entity or subject and collecting together the major stories that dealt with the concept in question, as well as stories which seemed to influence the original conception of the idea in question. In principle, this is actually a pretty good idea, because it would allow you to place Lovecraft’s stories in the context of the broader tradition they were a part of. The concept stumbled when Price took the approach of building these cycles around individual creatures and entities, rather than around broader themes.

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Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 1

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.

Despite the fact that even during Lovecraft’s own lifetime the Cthulhu Mythos was well-established as a multi-author shared world type of affair, and despite the fact that the various contributions to it tended to be in the short story format, it took a surprisingly long time for a fully Mythos-themed short story anthology to appear. In the first few decades of Mythos fandom, when August Derleth exerted a lot of influence over the field and Arkham House as close to being the de facto “official” publisher of such material as anyone could claim to be, Arkham didn’t really put out any all-Mythos multi-author anthologies, unless you count books put out under H.P. Lovecraft’s byline that included falsified collaborations by August Derleth or essays by Lovecraft Circle members. Instead, Mythos stories were sprinkled among other material in Arkham House’s genre anthologies.

That changed in 1969 with Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos; this inspired a trickle of other all-Mythos multi-author anthologies, like the Lin Carter-edited Ballantine Adult Fantasy series entry The Spawn of Cthulhu from 1971 (an anthology now largely redundant due to the material mostly being reprinted in other, more easily-available sources), or the DAW Books release The Disciples of Cthulhu from 1976, to Arkham House’s own New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos from 1980. In the 1990s, the pace of such publications picked up, in part because of figures from fandom like Robert M. Price gaining prominence as anthologists and in part because of Chaosium starting up their own fiction line as a tie-in with the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

The anthologies I am going to review in this article series will cover Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and subsequent Arkham House releases that can be seen as sequels to it, as well as two series of anthologies that can be seen as attempts by prominent Lovecraft critics to craft their own take on Tales – one anthology grouping is by Robert M. Price, whilst the other is by S.T. Joshi.

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The Films of Charles Dexter Ward

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.

Out of the whole Lovecraft canon, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward on the face of it looks like a good candidate for cinematic adaptation. You have a strong mystery driving the narrative, a powerful plot twist, and most of the monstrosities actually encountered “on stage” during the story are human-scale things – the mutilated results of Joseph Curwen’s necromantic experiments. Even better, it’s written in a pseudo-documentary style which assembles the facts in the case but doesn’t give a scene-by-scene breakdown of the story, which on the one hand poses a challenge for anyone attempting to adapt it but on the other hand also means you have a lot of leeway to adapt it whilst still remaining fairly true to the original.

It’s no surprise, then, that it was the first of Lovecraft’s stories to be adapted for the big screen – but both that original adaptation and a second attempt in the 1990s have some pretty severe issues. Let’s raise them up from their essential salts and check ’em out, eh?

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