May 2004

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

Lovecraft Mythos

As I mentioned last month, I'm going to talk about some of the better post-Lovecraft Mythos books that have been published (not counting Move Under Ground, already reviewed last month).

First, a little background on the Mythos themselves. Although Lovecraft had common threads running throughout his books, he never really codified his works into one comprehensive set of myths. It was only after his death, when other authors started playing in his sandbox, that folks attempted to put together something resembling a "mythology." There were no ground rules after Lovecraft died, and the folks who have chosen to write Mythos books have produced works that have ranged from respectful tributes to Lovecraft to innovative works that barely touched the same themes. More than a few of the "Mythos" books that have been written since then play off the writings of his predecessors, like William Hope Hodgson and Robert Chambers, something exacerbated by the fact that the Chasoium The Call of Cthulhu RPG -- which has helped increase the popularity of Lovecraft -- merges works from many Weird Fiction writers into one universe.

So what am I defining as a Mythos book? Pretty much anything that plays with the concepts, no matter what the tone. There have been hundreds of books, stories, and anthologies that have played with Lovecraft's concepts and characters. And many of them have been unreadable drek. But I don't have enough space in this column to tell you what to avoid (hint: Start by not touching anything written by August Derleth, whose good deeds in promoting Lovecraft did not translate into an ability to write well, alas). The goal of this column is to point to towards the good stuff. And there's plenty of it.

For years, most of what was published was relatively traditional, as many of the best and brightest in the horror field were not only influenced by Lovecraft's writings, but by corresponding with the man himself. One such writer is Fritz Leiber.

Leiber, best known for his classic Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser fantasy novels and stories, was also a prolific horror author, and it's hard to go wrong with any of his stories. Most folks generally think of his "The Terror From the Depths" (from the groundbreaking The Disciples of Cthulhu anthology) as his most notable Lovecraftian work (and it's certainly worth a read, a good tale of a man who finds himself dreaming and writing about Mythos creatures he has never encountered). But his masterpiece, in my opinion, is his 1977 novel, Our Lady of Darkness. One of the first great horror novels to really successfully use postmodern concepts, it tells the story of "Franz Westin," a thinly disguised Leiber, who gets sucked into a mystery involving a curse placed on Clark Ashton Smith (himself one of Lovecraft's most successful followers). It's not only a superb horror novel and tribute to weird fiction in general, it also clearly sets the groundwork for such authors as Tim Powers and James Blaylock, who took some of the themes here and ran with them in their own novels.

Again, you can't go wrong with much of Leiber (or Smith, or Robert Bloch, all at the vanguard of early Mythos writing). But as the horror genre progressed, writers realized that they could tell much more complex stories involving Lovecraft’s concepts.

No one has done a finer job of that than William Browning Spencer. His Resume With Monsters is a wonderful satire, essentially Office Space (although this was written well before the movie) with a Lovecraftian twist. The star of the novel is Philip Kenan, who, like so many folks, slips from temp job to temp job. However, he sees great Lovecraftian monsters and gods running behind the scenes at all of the corporations, and his mad attempts to convince the rest of the world of the great evil behind the scenes nicely toes the line between tragic and comic. Spencer manages to work Lovecraft’s gods into a contemporary office satire flawlessly, with both concepts meshing together into a truly fun story.

Lovecraft-themed anthologies seem to hit the bookstores three or four times a year, and a few great ones have been released in recent years. Cthulhu 2000, edited by Jim Turner, isn’t a tribute anthology, as a few of the horror stories are generic non-Mythos tales, but it’s still a great read. Aside from Kim Newman’s “The Big Fish” and Gahan Wilson’s “H.P.L.,” the anthology also reprints Roger Zelazny’s “24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai,” possibly the best short story of the ‘80s (even if it’s not a very Lovecraftian one).

Stephen Jones gave us Shadows over Innsmouth, an anthology devoted to tales inspired by Lovecraft’s classic story of a creepy New England town. Michael Marshall Smith’s “To See the Sea,” a nice British take on the plot, is the best story in here, although Neil Gaiman’s “Only the End of the World Again,” and the aforementioned “The Big Fish” by Newman, are both enjoyable.

I’d had hopes of actually creating a more in-depth catalog of the best Lovecraft-inspired works, but as I wrote this column, I realized that, even after eliminating the chaff, there are too many good Mythos books out there (certainly more than I had anticipated last month). Still, I hope this is a good start for those of you who want to see what else has been done with Lovecraft’s concepts.