Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 3

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 original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthology (revised later by Jim Turner) proved a hard act to follow for Arkham House, with their first attempt at a followup – New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by Ramsey Campbell – being a bit of a mixed bag.

Jim Turner made no secret in his introduction to his revised version of Tales that he had a bit of an axe to grind in terms of the Mythos as a literary subgenre, but under his auspices New Tales never, so far as I can make out, got a reprint (and hasn’t had one to this day). Instead, a new anthology was devised which would take the best of the New Tales, drop the rest, and replace them with fresher meat…

Cthulhu 2000

This 1995 release was one of Jim Turner’s last projects with Arkham House, before creative differences between him and April Derleth (daughter of August Derleth and co-owner of Arkham House) led to his departure. As with his revision of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, it has Turner banging the drum against unimaginative pastiche and pushing his very personal aesthetic take on the Mythos. In his introduction he asserts, as he did in his introduction to Tales, that the overall trajectory of Lovecraft’s writing was more SFnal than horror-based. This time around he gives a slightly more convincing argument by more directly discussing Lovecraft’s cosmicism, though I disagree with his assertion that horror intrinsically requires a malevolent universe – the implications of an indifferent universe are horrifying in and of themselves to anyone who appreciates how small, insignificant, and precarious our place in it is.

This anthology has been more extensively reprinted in recent years than New Tales, and it feels like it’s intended as a replacement for it. For one thing, it reprints the absolutely essential stories from there – Black Man With a Horn, Shaft Number 247, and The Faces At Pine Dunes. For another, whilst Turner’s revised take on Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos covered stories ranging from Lovecraft’s time to the 1970s, aside from a single Joanna Russ story from 1964 Cthulhu 2000’s stories all saw first publication in the time span from 1980 to 1993, so it does feel Turner’s attempt to present the hottest stuff that came out after the cut-off from his revised take on Tales.

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Drugs, Hallucinations, and the Quest For Dick

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.

Philip K. Dick followed up an absurdly productive 1963 with an equally absurdly productive 1964, providing all the substantiation anyone could desire for his claim that he used amphetamines as a writing aid. His marriage to Anne was on the wane, with some shockingly abusive incidents in 1963 more or less killing any hope of piecing it back together, and the process of divorce had begun with Dick initiating it, having moved out.

Whereas such incredible disruptions to one’s personal life might put some off their writing, Dick seems to have kept up the pace. We know that he was acutely aware of the precariousness of his finances, and perhaps he feared that the divorce would make his fiscal situation even worse, so churning out more novels must have seemed like the pragmatic thing to do. However, at the same time as we will see Dick was also gripped by powerful and strange fears at this time, with one novel in particular being built around a spiritual experience entirely out of line with ordinary reality.

Three novels here unambiguously originated in this year, the manuscripts having arrived at his literary agency during this time. I am also including here two Dick novels for which, for reasons which will be outlined in their respective reviews, the dating is a bit harder to call. Lies, Inc. I would say properly belongs to 1964’s crop because although a substantial expansion took place in 1965, the expansion material mostly seems to riff on the basic ideas laid down in the original 1964 novella. Deus Irae belongs here because most of the direct-from-Dick material in this collaboration was penned in 1964, though Roger Zelazny’s contributions and Dick’s coda were penned substantially later.

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A Jack of Two Halves

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.

I get the impression that at various times in his career Roger Zelazny got awfully lazy; it’s testament to the quality of his best work that he’s considered a top-rate SF author, despite abortions like the second five Amber books and other disasters blighting his back catalogue. Frequent readers of Ferretbrain may remember my intense dislike of To Die In Italbar, and how I accused Zelazny of essentially handing in his first draft without bothering to tidy it up at all.

I get the same impression from Jack of Shadows, although mercifully this time we’re treated to a half-decent first draft. Nonetheless, a little more work could have tightened this one up, fixed the pacing, and generally made it a superior work.

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Redeeming Frank Sandow

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.

If you remember my review of To Die In Italbar, you’ll remember that one of the things I complained about in that shoddy piece of work is the random inclusion of Francis Sandow, the protagonist from Isle of the Dead. I’ve gotten around to reading Isle of the Dead now, and I’ve got to admit that I’ve come to like Sandow – although if anything, his misuse in To Die In Italbar is even more grating.

Frank is a one-man interstellar superpower, one of the hundred richest men in the galaxy, and the only man born in the 20th Century who’s still alive in the 32nd. He’s gained his wealth through various business ventures, the most impressive being his planet-building enterprise: he learned the secret art of channelling the alien gods of a Santeria-like religion from the extraterrestrial Pei’ans, and uses this power to create worlds. The Pei’ans are ancient, wise, and benign… except for their deep-seated cultural tradition of vengeance, and a renegade Pei’an has occupied one of Sandow’s worlds, subverted it, and populated it with dead friends and enemies of his in order to lure him there.

This sets us up for a hybrid of SF and fantasy, with copious amounts of hardboiled detective work and shamanic vision-questing in the mix. Zelazny’s always been good at anthropology and myths – Lord of Light, Eye of Cat, the Amber series and myriad short stories testify to that – and he doesn’t fail here. The alien Pei’an culture is described briefly and evocatively, and – typically for Zelazny – the action is tightly-paced and well-written, without a trace of padding or filler. Characterisation is light on the ground, with the exception of Sandow, because really the story isn’t about anyone else; through encounters with Sandow’s adversaries and his dead acquaintances we learn about his past and his present, and the first-person narration lets us follow his thought-processes and philosophies, from his Big Tree model of the galactic economy to his powerful fear of death.

Incidentally, aside from Sandow himself, the Pei’ans, and the Pei’an religion, there’s absolutely no sign that this is in the same timeline as To Die In Italbar: the warring superpowers of that book are conspicuously absent. It makes me suspect that Italbar was cobbled together from several different, abandoned books in order to make a quick buck.There’s no middle ground with Zelazny: his substandard books, like To Die In Italbar, tend to be awful, and his good books tend to be absolutely excellent. Isle of the Dead is one of his best, and should be sought out avidly.

Two Plagues

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.

Recently, though sheer coincidence, I’ve ended up reading two SF novels consecutively which deal with disease and plagues. There is nothing like a good plague to isolate people: when you don’t know who’s infected and who isn’t, when you don’t know whether you are infected and infecting everyone you come into contact with, that builds a wall between you and everyone else. Both books deal with that theme, to varying degrees of success.

The vampire plague in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend spans horror and science fiction, as well as providing a model for Night of the Living Dead and every zombie apocalypse movie from thereon in. Robert Neville, the protagonist, barricades himself inside his home using garlic and the sign of the Cross to prevent the undead hordes from getting in, trying to ignore their fumbling attempts to coax him out. By day he roams the wasteland that used to be his city, killing the vampires wherever they lurk.

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