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.

Continue reading “Plundering the Lovecraft Estate”

Disciplined Anthologies

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 heaped masses of Cthulhu Mythos-themed short story anthologies that have been published over the years, The Disciples of Cthulhu from 1976 (originally published by DAW books, reprinted in the 1990s by Chaosium) occupies a special place. It might not quite be the first such anthology to come out independently of Arkham House (in the sense of not either being published directly by Arkham House or being a reprint of an Arkham House release); Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy line had released The Spawn of Cthulhu in 1971, edited by the line’s mastermind Lin Carter. That said, Carter was not exactly a stranger to Arkham House, and Spawn entirely consisted of reprints, the majority of which were decades-old tales from Lovecraft’s peers and influences.

However, there’s every reason to believe the claim of Edward P. Berglund, editor of The Disciples of Cthulhu, that it was the first professional collection of all-original Mythos stories. Moreover, I would add something to that: it’s one of the first major expressions of the post-Derlethian Cthulhu Mythos. Coming out as it did five years after Derleth died, it’s a collection produced by someone who consequently had absolutely no need to keep Derleth happy, and features a set of authors that Derleth was in no position to veto the involvement of (what with him being dead and all). Whereas Derleth had previously acted as a gatekeeper for the Mythos playground, Disciples found a range of new voices invading it and making it their own.

Let me get the Boy’s Club assessment out of the way first: every single one of those voices was male, and that’s annoying. It’s especially annoying when in 2003 Chaosium had Berglund do a sequel volume and he almost-but-not-quite turned in another woman-free collection (I’ll dig into that point a bit deeper later). Taking a certain level of sexism as read, does Berglund at least show taste in the stories he picks? Let’s have a see.

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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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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 6

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: Arkham House puts out a string of major state-of-the Mythos anthologies – Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and Cthulhu 2000 – and come the 1990s Robert M. Price delivers a response in the form of the two-part set of Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos and The New Lovecraft Circle, put out originally through Mythos upstart small press Fedogan & Bremer.

As it turns out, Price wasn’t done yet…

Acolytes of Cthulhu

Ranging from the pulp era to contemporary works, Acolytes of Cthulhu doesn’t bill itself as a followup to Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos or The New Lovecraft Circle, but it was prepared for the same publishers originally (Fedogan & Bremer) and has a sufficiently similar approach that I’m willing to consider it a sequel to that set. In his introduction, Price talks up Lovecraft fandom as a substitute for religiosity, and if that weren’t bizarre enough proceeds to push a geek supremacist argument framing Lovecraft fans as having discovered Lovecraft during adolescence and identifying with his solitary preferences, an elite of people who “get it” set apart from the drone-like zombies of the mundane masses. This is where I say “speak for yourself, Price”; what he proposes here is exactly the sort of closed clubhouse approach that makes fandoms toxic.

He then slams cosplayers at conventions, suggesting that they render the whole thing frivolous and mundane, and also criticises attempts to win mainstream respectability for Lovecraft. (This was before the Library of America put out a Lovecraft volume.) Because it’s not enough for us to be Lovecraft fans, apparently – we have to be fans within the set bounds of Price’s sensibilities, keeping things just respectable enough for quasi-academic blowhards like Price to feel like scholarly gentlemen but not respectable enough to get the attention of experts who’d recognise Price’s Lovecraft scholarship as the slipshod amateur work it is.

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Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 5

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: Arkham House’s major multi-author state-of-the Mythos anthologies – Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and Cthulhu 2000 – held a special position in Cthulhu Mythos fandom, but come the 1990s this was challenged by other sources.

One of those was Robert M. Price’s two-part alternate take on the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, the first half of which – Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos – dredged up some diamonds but was also hampered by some utter dross, included more out of historical interest than out of any actual quality involved.

The New Lovecraft Circle

The second half of Price’s attempted riposte to Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos follows the lead of the second half of that tome, focusing on authors who had not been in correspondence with Lovecraft in his lifetime. The title is a nod to Lin Carter, a friend of Price whose work Price has tried to keep in the public eye even when the results aren’t actually that flattering to Carter and who had identified a set of new authors such as Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley as constituting a sort of “New Lovecraft Circle”, though I am not sure there is sufficient social glue between these writers (beyond that which naturally exists between writers working in the same genre for the same general audience, feeding from the same trough as it were) to really compare to the circle of friends around Lovecraft.

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Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 4

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: August Derleth’s put out the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthology through his Arkham House publishing imprint, and after he died the original Tales was revised by Jim Turner. Arkham House attempted to follow it up first with New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by Ramsey Campbell, which was a bit hit-and-miss, and the rather more successful Jim Turner-edited Cthulhu 2000.

However, Arkham House’s star was well and truly fading by the 1990s, despite these Mythos-related efforts and others (such as the issuing of new editions of Lovecraft’s works with the texts corrected by S.T. Joshi). With the death of August Derleth and the copyright on Lovecraft’s work coming closer to lapsing worldwide, the fandom was less inclined to look to the publisher as being the be-all and end-all of the Mythos; the backlash against Derleth’s heavy-handed pronouncements of canon gathered pace, and new sources of Lovecraftian writing and criticism appeared here and there. In addition, Jim Turner’s personal take on the Mythos and his lauding of high literary value and science fiction-oriented works over pastiche earned its own backlash.

Against this background, a new publisher arose – Fedogan & Bremer. This small press aimed to produce books more oriented towards the old style of Arkham House, before Turner’s custodianship took the publisher on a different path from the one it had taken under August Derleth. (This was not an overly adversarial situation, though – they saw their books distributed via Arkham House, for one thing.) Like Arkham House, some of their material has disappeared into the aether whilst others have been reprinted as trade paperbacks by other publishers – with a few even making it into Ballantine’s line of Lovecraftian releases, putting them on the same level as their issues of Arkham House material.

Among the more prominent Fedogan & Bremer releases are a number of anthologies edited by Robert M. Price, who at this point had established himself as a loud voice in Cthulhu fandom. Up to this point, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos had tended to represent an unattainable high point in the ranks of Mythos anthologies; Price tilted directly at this windmill..

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Lovecraft’s Last Apprentices

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.

Among H.P. Lovecraft’s more laudable qualities was his eagerness to encourage other writers in their work, a trait that would develop early in his amateur press association writings and would continue right up to his death.

Two of his later proteges were Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner, two pals who were both fans of his work. (Kuttner, in fact, would only correspond with Lovecraft in the last year of Lovecraft’s life). Though their early work involved a lot of Lovecraftian pastiches, they would each grow to be distinctive authors in their own right. Bloch is mostly famous today as the author of Psycho, whilst Kuttner would become extremely well-regarded in the science fiction, both in his own right and his creative team-up with fellow Lovecraft correspondent C.L. Moore, who he met and later married as a result of their mutual inclusion in the network of authors around Lovecraft.

Lin Carter, once again demonstrating that despite his deficiencies as an author he was certainly a discerning editor, hit on the idea of publishing collections of the Cthulhu Mythos stories of both authors. In his lifetime he did manage to put out the first edition of Mysteries of the Worm, the Bloch collection, named in honour of the Mythos tome that Bloch invented and added to the canon; unfortunately, he never got around to producing the intended Kuttner-focused equivalent, The Book of Iod.

When Carter’s friend Robert M. Price ended up overseeing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu fiction line, he naturally made reprinting an expanded version of Mysteries of the Worm and bringing The Book of Iod to fruition an early priority. As a result, it’s now pretty easy to get a good look at this early work by both authors, with both collections putting the stories in chronological order of publication and, as a result, offering a cross-section of their early development as authors.

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It Looks Xothic, But Is Really So Thin…

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.

Roleplaying game publishers getting into fiction publishing is nothing new, and often doesn’t earn high praise. A major exception over the years has been Chaosium’s fiction line, which has generally been rather special. Although its pace of publications has waxed and waned over the years as a result of Chaosium’s various business troubles, it’s usually been of a bit more interest than your typical fantasy RPG tie-in fiction range.

A large part of this comes from the fact that Chaosium’s major lines have involved very distinctive settings. Their first games, including RuneQuest, introduced the world to the idiosyncratic world of Glorantha, and though they haven’t put out an enormous amount of Glorantha-based fiction those pieces they have, such as King of Sartar, is generally well-loved by fans of the setting. The cult classic RPG Pendragon, a game of playing not just single knights but entire family dynasties set against the pseudohistorical backdrop of the rise and fall of King Arthur, gave them all the prompting they needed to seek out and release some high-quality Arthurian fiction.

Chaosium’s most high-profile and widely-loved game, however, is the Call of Cthulhu RPG. On release in 1981 it became the first majorly successful horror-themed roleplaying game, and even though Chaosium themselves have had their fortunes wax and wane and wax again over the years Call of Cthulhu has retained a major following, with extensive support from fan writers and third-party publishers bolstering Chaosium’s offerings and extremely healthy fan communities thriving across the world. I could write an entire article about the secret of its success, but in summary I’d say it’s the combination of a fairly intuitive game system with a cerebral, investigative style of RPG play that instantly creates a contrast with more action-oriented games, along with the distinctive flavour offered by being set in the world of the Cthulhu Mythos.

It’s no surprise then, that out of all of Chaosium’s games, Call of Cthulhu has the most extensive fiction line associated with it – especially when you consider the simple advantage that even before the game came out there were numerous stories written in the Lovecraftian vein by a wide range of authors. As a result, whilst Chaosium have put out original collections of new Mythos fiction too, a good swathe of their Call of Cthulhu fiction range consists of reprints of classic Mythos stories, as well as tales that influenced the early Mythos writers (such as the supernatural tales of Robert Chambers). Some of the more interesting reprint collections offered by Chaosium have been the author-specific ones, which allow for a complete overview (or at least an informative cross-section) of an author’s Mythos-relevant writing to be collected between two covers.

Continue reading “It Looks Xothic, But Is Really So Thin…”

Dermore I See Of Him, Derleth I Like

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.

Derleth: Cyclopean Fish In a Small Pond

August Derleth, it’s fair to say, has at best a mixed reputation today. Over a long writing career he delved both into the worlds of pulpy genre fiction and more literary fare; the most important of the latter was the regional Sac Prairie Saga, which was praised by many for the regional flavour of Derleth’s local Wisconsin stamping grounds it offered up. Beyond writing, Derleth was also an anthologist, editor, and publisher, and in this capacity played an extremely important role in preserving the work of H.P. Lovecraft after Lovecraft’s death.

Whether this was an essential role, or whether someone else could have done a better job, is a subject where there is room for debate. R.H. Barlow, a young apprentice of Lovecraft’s and one of his closest friends in his later years, had actually been picked out by Lovecraft to take charge of his notes and manuscripts and handle his literary affairs after his death; Lovecraft was very clear on this in naming Barlow as his literary executor in his Instructions In Case of Decease. Derleth, however, had latched onto a passing reference in one of Lovecraft’s letters to him in which Lovecraft said that he might name Derleth his executor, and soon muscled Barlow aside. As a result of these shenanigans, coupled with issues with the renewal of copyright in the material, Derleth’s claim to control the copyright of Lovecraft’s works was tenuous at best.

Moreover, Derleth’s handling of Lovecraft’s works was actually rather shipshod. Whilst some respect is due for his efforts to keep Lovecraft in print, the actual Arkham House editions of Lovecraft’s work were actually rather overpriced for the market and tended to sell poorly – paperback versions licenced out to other publishers tended to do better, which raises the question of whether someone more business-minded could have made Arkham House into more of a success. Numerous errors crept into the texts at Derleth’s hands, which were only corrected thanks to the assiduous work of S.T. Joshi, and in places Derleth outright tampered with the texts; a complete version of The Mound wasn’t released until after his death, for instance, and whilst his more coy take on the plot twist at the end of Medusa’s Coil avoids the use of the term “negress”, it utterly fails to make the implications any less racist. Towards the end of his life, Derleth would have an increasingly fractious attitude towards the Lovecraft fandom, especially those who differed in their interpretation of Lovecraft’s writings.

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